The Night I Taught My Daughter About Rape

black and white reading
Image Courtesy of Pixabay

Rape is in the news. It’s in your Facebook/Twitter feed. People are talking about rape. And last night, I had to teach my 9 year old daughter what rape is. I didn’t plan on it, so I wasn’t terribly prepared, and I have a history of screwing up these kinds of talks. But when life hands you a story about a rape, you have to sit down and talk about it with your kids.

We were cuddled up in the chair together, each of us reading our own thing, when she caught sight of a pie chart on my screen detailing all the possible causes of rape. The chart is one color highlighting that fact that actually the only cause of rape is the rapist.

The only cause of rape is a rapist
Causes of Rape graph-

Nell asked, “What’s rape?”

I didn’t have time to Google it, look at a parenting blog, or check out a book from the library so we could read together on the subject. My gut told me that she is old enough to learn about it, so I took a deep breath and explained, “Rape is when a person has sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex.” Are there better definitions? Heck, yes. Does she need to know more than that? Yup. But in the moment, I wanted to answer her question as simply as possible using words she already knew. Sometimes we think rape is complicated, but it’s not.

It’s a crime, an act of violence, perpetrated by someone against someone else, and I wanted Nell to be clear on this point from the very first time it entered her lexicon.

In my head, I instantly anticipated that she would respond with emotion- fear, anger, confusion, rage- and with questions- What?! Who? Where? Why?!!  After all, this has been my own reaction to the Stanford rape story. I honestly didn’t know how I was going to help her make sense of rape when everything about it is so horrible and sad and infuriating.

Instead, she merely looked puzzled. “So the chart says that only a rapist causes rape?” she considered.

“Yeah… uh… kind of like only a thief causes a theft,” I floundered, casting about for the right words.

“Someone who’s speeding causes speeding,” she chuckled a little.  

“You got it. Some people like to think there are other things that cause a rape. Like maybe what the girl was wearing. Or what she was doing. But the truth is, only a rapist causes a rape. Not the victim. Sometimes a man can be raped, but often it’s a woman. There’s nothing that a person can do to cause a rape. The rapist is a criminal. The rapist is committing a crime and should be punished.”

“Does that make sense?”

Nell nodded and probably would have gone right back to reading Harry Potter, but I wasn’t quite done yet. I pulled down my copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves.  “You know we’ve been reading those books together about your body and maybe it’s time we order the next one. In the meanwhile, there’s a book on our shelf you can look at whenever you like, and we can talk about it. Your grandmother had this book in college, and bought me a copy to read when I was a teenager. It’s written for older girls, but you’re allowed to read it when you have questions about anything related to becoming a woman. Including about rape. Ok?”

And that was that. It was enough for her, but I find myself still struggling with the news. I think about friends I know who have been assaulted, and I want to reach out to them again. I text my sister-in-law, sharing my anger. I scroll through Facebook updates, my throat tightening at the images. And finally, I read the powerful words the survivor wrote to her attacker. Later that day, I find a pine needle on the floor of the girls’ bedroom.

And as I hold that pine needle in my hand, I wonder if someday I might have to pull pine needles out of my own sweet baby’s hair after an assault.

Pine Needle
Image courtesy of Pixabay


Talking to Your Kids About Sexual Assault

6 Ways to Talk to Your Kids About Consent

This Is How You Teach Kids About Consent

It’s Never Too Early To Teach Children About Consent and Boundaries

Hope Works– Rape Crisis Center

Pride Center of Vermont

Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence 


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Mary Beth McNulty
Mary Beth is a Southern transplant to Vermont by way of California, where she taught middle school. These days, you can find Mary Beth still working in education with a local college and as a playwright with the Burlington-based, Complications Company. She likes to write about things that make her laugh, like how her eldest sometimes channels a 50-year-old British man when she speaks; everyday tragedies, like being the only person in the house who seems to know how to change a toilet paper roll; and things that keep her up late at night, like climate change, school shootings, pandemics, and if she remembered to pay her car registration or not. She is a co-founder of Complications Company.



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