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“Jax, do I have permission to wash your penis?” 

He’s 6 now, but when my son was a toddler, I’d ask him this question during bath time. Waiting patiently until he answered, “yes” then I would proceed. Answer “no?” I’d give him ownership of the washcloth. You see, even at the age of 2, I wanted to teach him that no one, not even mommy, can touch his body without permission. 

I have been working in the field of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child maltreatment since 20011. Currently, I am a child abuse victim advocate at a children’s hospital in Washington, DC. You would be surprised how many children I encounter who don’t even use the correct terminology when referring to their body parts. “Tata, peanut, pee pee, wee wee, cookie, pocketbook,” are some of the terms children use when disclosing sexual or physical abuse. The significance of children knowing and being comfortable using the correct terms for their private parts is vital. If an arm is arm, and a leg is a leg, why is a vagina a pocketbook? When perpetrators seek out their victims, one of the things they look for are children who are vulnerable and being uncomfortable referring to their private parts as a penis, vagina, breasts is a vulnerability. These children are less likely to disclose because they think they are the ones that did something wrong. If mommy and daddy are uncomfortable saying and using these terms, then something must be wrong with them.

So yes, when I ask my sons permission to wash his private parts, I say penis because that’s what it is. As he got older, I started to replace the word “permission” with “verbal consent.” My brown boy will be a brown man one day and I want him to understand for anyone to touch his body or for him to touch anyone else’s there must be verbal consent. You must hear the yes to move forward. If you hear a no, stop whatever it is you are doing immediately. I want that to be second nature to him. Now that his little brother is here, I have begun the same process with him.

“Can I wash your penis Jett?”

We practice verbal consent the same way we practice hand washing. It has to become second nature. Wrestling with daddy? Did daddy say stop jumping on him? Yes? Then stop immediately.” May I have a hug baby?” Yes? I begin squeezing him. “Too tight mommy!” I stop immediately. “Can I have kisses?” “Yes mommy!” I cup that beautiful face in my hands and lay a big one on his right dimple. 

I will raise sons who understand, and respect verbal consent and I will do everything in my power to protect them from predators. It wasn’t until the baby was old enough to take baths with his brother that I knew he fully understood these concepts.

I put them in the bath together. Throw in the bubbles, the toys. Jax picks up the washcloth and lathers it. He turns to his baby brother. “Jett, do I have permission to wash your penis?” 

Tears fill my eyes.

All these years. 

He gets it.

Verbal Consent.

Siobhan Copeland | Wayfinder Fellow

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