Tamara Stevens, 48, works as an organizer for “No Safe Seats” at her Roswell home. After traveling to Washington, D.C., with a group of women from metro Atlanta, Stevens returned home to have a tough conversation with her sons about sexual assault. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Chelsea Prince/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Chelsea Prince/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Kavanaugh hearings reinforce need for parent-child dialogue on consent

More than 20 million people watched the testimony of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and California professor Christine Blasey Ford. Ford accused the judge of a sexual assault that allegedly occurred more than 30 years ago. Kavanaugh has unequivocally denied the allegations, but the proceedings resulted in an FBI investigation.

Marla Cureton, 48, of Roswell watched the events unfold on television. At one point, her 12-year-old daughter joined her and they watched together.

“Is Kavanaugh going to jail?” her daughter asked.

“No, he is going to be on the Supreme Court,” Cureton said.

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“I was so taken aback hearing those words coming out of my mouth and hearing what it sounded like,” Cureton said. Her daughter was quiet. It went against everything Cureton had ever taught her about body autonomy and her right to say no. “This is a topic I have always been very clear with her on,” Cureton said.

» Related: What Kavanaugh drama says about due process and the Central Park 5

As more details of the alleged assault surfaced during the investigation, moms like Cureton are doubling-down on conversations with their daughters and sons about body autonomy and sexual assault. The Kavanaugh hearings have reminded them how important it is to keep those conversations going while also listening to their children.

Among her group of friends, Cureton said they share strategies on how to speak to their children about such complex issues. She has been particularly heartened by the mothers of boys who have shared how they are talking with their sons.

Tamara Stevens, 48, was one of several Atlanta-area moms who flew to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26 to protest during the Kavanaugh hearings. The Roswell mom of an adult daughter and two sons, ages 13 and 16, shared her story with Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who last week said his vote is contingent on the FBI investigation. The atmosphere in his office was emotional.

» Related: Metro Atlanta teacher interviewed by FBI in Kavanaugh probe

“When I was 17, I was sexually assaulted and did not tell anyone about it,” Stevens said. “I also didn’t have the words for it because I had been drinking and was drinking to the point where I had passed out.” That night Stevens had gone to a football game at the University of Georgia. Her last memory was an acquaintance at a bar asking her if she was OK. She woke up on the floor of a fraternity house realizing she had been sexually violated.

Stevens was too afraid to tell her parents, who are devout Catholics, but especially her father, a police officer. “If I had told my father, he would have burned that fraternity house down,” she said. Weeks later, Stevens learned she was pregnant. The Tuesday after Thanksgiving that year, a friend’s mom took her to have an abortion. The next Friday, Stevens attempted suicide. That’s when her parents learned about the pregnancy, but she still did not tell them she had been assaulted. Decades later, she would share some of the details with her mom, but she has never talked to her father about what happened.

Stevens did share her story with her daughter and her daughter’s friends when they were in high school. She wanted them to know they had an adult who would support them no matter what happened to them. Last week, when she returned home from Washington, she and her husband sat down to share the story with their sons.

“I thought, this is a conversation that we need to have with our sons,” said Stevens, who wanted to both protect them and empower them to do something if they saw a male or female friend in trouble. “We said, if you see one of your buddies or your best friend and he has a girl who is passed out drunk, say, ‘Hey, Billy, I see you have your hands full, let me help you,’ and get them to a safe place,” Stevens said.

One out of 6 American women has been a victim of a completed or attempted rape in her lifetime, according to statistics from RAINN, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the country. But 2 out of 3 sexual assaults are never reported to police. In the days after the Kavanaugh hearings, RAINN saw a 338 percent increase in traffic to its hotline, an indication that many victims were reaching out for the first time, according to the organization.

In an ideal world, kids and young adults would be able to talk to their parents and see their parents as a source of support and information about what is going on in the news or in real life, said Amy Bryant, an Atlanta-based mom and licensed professional counselor. “It starts really early teaching kids about body autonomy. Teaching them that this is your body and who can and can’t touch it,” Bryant said.

Part of that conversation should also include empowering children to say no to hugs, touches, giggles or high-fives no matter who is offering them while also letting kids know that they, too, should seek permission to touch others.

Parents must listen and suspend their own feelings of panic if children come to them with questions or concerns. “When we really listen instead of cutting them off, they feel validated,” Bryant said. She encourages parents to believe whatever their child is telling them from the very beginning, even if the child is still processing information or events.

As children get older, ages 9-11, and become more curious about sexuality, parents can steer the conversation to talk more about consent and what respectful relationships should look like. News headlines like the Kavanaugh hearings can become a useful tool for providing statistics and information to guide the discussion. “These are hard conversations that we are having with our kids right now, but they are important,” Bryant said.

Like many parents, when Jennifer Frick, 44, of Dunwoody and her husband began talking to their daughters, now 15 and 17, they emphasized the importance of communication. “We say you can come to me no matter what bad decision was made at the time, no matter what embarrassment you may feel and no matter if someone is telling you what you can’t do,” Frick said.

While they did not watch the Kavanaugh testimony together, three generations of their family participated in a group text sharing their input and thoughts as the story evolved. Frick said her 17-year-old daughter is very politically active and is old enough to be outraged while also having an awareness of the need for balance. “They have both been very aware of the strength that it took for Ford to come forward now, but they also were aware of not wanting their guy friends to be in a situation they couldn’t refute,” Frick said.

As the mother of two adult daughters and two adult sons, Felicia Murrell, 46, of Decatur knows all about balance. “We have some very meaningful conversations,” she said. They have discussed that the word no, shouted or whispered, means no. They have talked about what, when, who and how much to tell about any sexual experience. And they have explored how to make sure you are not dehumanizing another person.

“I don’t think seeing things in the media helps you move toward a place that will stop sexual assault,” Murrell said. “It is altering the narrative in early childhood, giving children their voice and talking about power at an early age, both for boys and girls.”

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