Columnist

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q.What is sexual assault? I know about sex, but I don’t understand what this means. I watch the news on my tablet. I read about it there.

10-year-old

Mary Jo’s response: What a great question! I’m glad you asked it!

Before I answer, may I ask you a question? Do you have a trusted adult in your life? A trusted adult is a grownup with whom you feel safe. When I was growing up, my trusted adult was my father. I called him Papa. If I was afraid or confused, I talked with my Papa. Every young person needs a trusted adult.

I’m happy to answer your question, but I don’t spend time with you every day. Will you look for a trusted adult in your life – maybe a parent, a grandparent, a coach or a teacher? Having more than one trusted adult is OK and can be wise. When you find a trusted adult, please share this column. Ask your trusted adult if you can talk about things together. Thanks!

Your question is about a difficult topic. It sounds as if you’re learning about complicated things on your tablet. Sharing what you’re watching on your tablet with your trusted adult is one way to decide how you feel about the things you see. Sometimes the news is full of adult situations and adult problems. It’s nice to share your feelings with your trusted adult.

Sexual assault means someone did something sexual to another person without consent. Consent means saying yes. Consent means agreeing to do something. Consent is important. I believe nothing sexual should happen without consent.

I’m writing the eighth book in my Nonnie Series now, and it’s called “Nonnie Talks about Consent.” A nonnie is a grandma. In the book, the two main characters, Tamika and Alex, are playing with Alex’s little sister Alisha. Alex is tickling her. Alisha is laughing and having fun, and then she yells, “Stop, stop!” The Nonnie character (that’s me), tells Alex to stop tickling his sister. Alex is confused. He tells Nonnie, “She was laughing.” Nonnie responds by explaining, yes, Alisha was laughing, but then she said “Stop.” Consent means listening and paying attention to what people say and mean. No one should be forced to do something when they say “Stop” or act like they’re uncomfortable. Even though Alex wasn’t sexual when he was tickling Alisha, he stopped when she said no. I believe children need to learn about consent when they’re small.

You shared you know about sex, but I wonder if you truly understand. Sexual assault can mean sex, but it also means unwanted touching in a sexual way (involving body parts that are sexual or feelings that are sexual). Sexual touch may involve parts of your body people call private. Sexual touch can also involve other body parts, like a mouth. Kissing can be sexual. Kissing from a grandma to a child, on the child’s forehead (that’s where my Nonnie always kissed me when we said goodbye) or kissing between friends on the face isn’t sexual, but kissing on the mouth or in a way that makes a person feel sexy needs to have consent. I don’t force my grandchildren to kiss me – even though my kisses are never sexual. It’s up to them if they give me a kiss of if I give them one.

Your body is amazing and wonderful. Your body belongs to you. You decide who can touch it and how you want to be touched. The parts of you that are called private are yours. Sometimes a doctor will ask you to take off your clothes to make sure you are well and your body is growing as it should, but people, even trusted adults, should not remove your clothes and touch you in a way that makes you feel weird or uncomfortable. If something like that happens, please tell a trusted adult right away. It’s not your fault if something like this happens.

People sometimes get confused by the words sexual assault. They forget how many kinds of touches can be sexual. Some people think only having sex is sexual assault, but they’re wrong. A word often used to describe sexual assault is rape. The word rape can include more than one kind of sexual act, and sexual assault can include more than rape, like touching and kissing and anything sexual without consent.

One more important thing about sexual assault. It is never the fault of the person who is hurt. Never. It can be very difficult for a person to tell others about sexual assault. Many young people share this very challenging life experience with me. I always believe them. I always remind them it was not their fault. I always get help. Counseling can help a person heal after sexual assault and is important.

Empathy means connecting with others and trying to understand their feelings. It is important to have empathy for someone who is hurt. Sexual assault is wrong. Supporting survivors of sexual assault is the right thing to do.

Thanks again for your question about a difficult topic. Remember to find a trusted adult. You are a person of worth, and your questions matter.

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email at podmj@healthyteens.com.

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