This past year has seen an incredible transformation in our awareness and understanding of the extent of sexual harassment and assault in our society. The #metoo campaign and the brave women throughout the country who have come out and told us their stories have truly made a difference.
For years, I, and many other pediatricians like me, have counseled teenage girls on how to stay safe as they prepare to enter college and universities. So many times, I have mentioned the shocking statistics on rape and sexual assault in college. I have cautioned these young women on how to stay safe, to stay close to their girlfriends, to not accept drinks from other people, and if drinking, not to drink so much that they don’t know what is going on around them … and so on and so forth with many dos and don’ts.
But here is something I only recently noticed: In the last 18 years of practice, my counsel to the boys was limited to how to stay safe, protect themselves against sexually transmitted infections, and how to avoid pregnancy. It did not cross my mind to counsel the teenage boys on their respective dos and don’ts, especially when it comes to their behavior with women. For example, stern advice on how to respect women, that only yes means yes, and frankly how to make sure they don’t become sexual harassers or worse.
I have questioned myself since then, wondering if I was alone with this oversight. I asked several other pediatricians as well to see if they had spoken about sexual harassment and assault in this context with their teenage male patients. The vast majority had the same experience as I did. They had all counseled the girls on how to protect themselves from becoming victims, but somehow not the boys (or girls for that matter) on how to help them not become the aggressors.
It has occurred to me that our focus as physicians has largely been limited to what the victims can do to not become victims. Primary care providers were never really trained, or reminded, to talk to the potential aggressors before they would or could act.
As pediatricians, we counsel parents on how to keep their children safe, and how to protect them. It is our obligation to help, to guide, and to teach parents. We teach parents about discipline, limit setting, sleeping, feeding, and so many other things. We need to teach them how to talk to their boys and girls about appropriate behavior with whomever they may be interested in, about sexual harassment, and assault, and how not to become part of the problem.
It is our turn to do more, and we need to start right now. We must help our boys and girls understand that not only does no mean no, but only yes means yes, that nothing should happen without verbal consent, that if you cannot get verbal consent then the answer is no, that sex under the influence is not okay, and so much more. These are important conversations to have. Pediatricians should be trained how to best have such conversations, and it should become part of standard of care. We must develop best practices that would include talking to the young men (or women) in our exam rooms with information and advice that would prevent them from crossing the lines in the first place.
It is our obligation as pediatricians to teach the children we see growing up in front of us how to behave in an adult, sexual world. We can make a bigger difference than we might think. As physicians, we promised to do no harm when we took our oath. It is now our turn also to take proactive steps to stop the harm caused by others.
Dr. Rimawi is a pediatrician in private practice in Atherton, Calif. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org .