The sleepover - do you let her go? Do you blanket refuse? Or warn her?
Your teen comes home super excited. She’s been invited to a sleepover party. All her friends are going. As the parent you’re not super keen. You don’t know the friend who’s party it is. You don’t know the parents. Will the parents even be there? You’re not comfortable with her going. What do you tell her?
Rewind to many years ago, when your child was a toddler. Did you tell her about the danger of roads? And particularly the cars that drive on them? And when she started climbing trees and cliffs, did you warn her about falling?
More recently, have you talked about the danger of alcohol and drugs? Or has that been discussed at school? And what about the risk of grooming or sexual assault? This last one can often feel too confronting to talk about, but is extremely important.
I’ll tell you a true story. Warning, for some people this could trigger intense memories or feelings. If you need to, take a break from reading and seek support from friends or professionals. This is a story about a 16 year old, I will call her Jane to protect her identity.
Jane volunteered for a community organisation and had been invited to a sleepover training weekend in the Blue Mountains. She was looking forward to it. Most of the members were older than her, but she had made some good friends there. As she left, her mum said “be careful”. Be careful of what she thought, but she said “I will”. No-one had talked to Jane about sexual assault, or sex, apart from a school teacher giving a brief definition of rape. She’d put that together with the warnings of “it’s not safe for girls to walk alone at night” and concluded that rape was when strange men jumped out of bushes at night and did horrible things to women. There didn’t seem to be any danger of that. She was going away for a weekend with friends.
At the end of the first morning of work the volunteers went for a walk and found a beautiful mountain pool. One of the more senior members, we’ll call him Mitch, suggested skinny dipping. Most of the members joined in. Jane found it exciting and fun. It all seemed innocent enough. Later when they got back to the accommodation, Mitch invited a small group to massages after a long day. That too seemed pretty harmless, massages after a hard day’s work were quite common in this organisation. The next day there was another massage session, but this time Mitch had massage oil, so everyone took their tops off. Jane felt a little uncomfortable at that point, but other older women seemed happy to go along with it, so she followed suit.
Then it came time to go. Jane planned to go back with her close friends at lunch time. Mitch said “you’re not going home already are you – there’s a group of us staying back”. Jane said she planned to go with her friends. But Mitch said it would be so squashy fitting 5 adults in that car, everyone else had to go back for work, if Jane joined them, she’d make everyone uncomfortable, besides, the afternoon activities would be fun. Jane had a horrible feeling. It was like her body was screaming “RUN! Get in that car! Get out of here!” But she rationalised, what was she scared of? Mitch was 30 with a wife and kids. He had a fairly high position in a volunteer organisation. It’s broad daylight. None of this fit with her picture of rape. Jane’s body continued to scream at her to leave, while she rationalised away her fears. After her friends had left, everyone who Jane thought was staying left too. Jane was alone with Mitch in the Blue Mountains, with no alternative way of getting home.
After Jane arrived home, she knew, based on the definition of rape she had been given, that that was what had happened to her. That didn’t save her from years of traumatic memories and intense self-blame, but it gave her the courage to speak to her closest friends about what had happened. Jane was surprised at how many of her close friends, even at 16 and 17, had also been sexually assaulted or raped. The statistics support Jane's experience. In Australia, 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted in their life time, and most of these women are assaulted between the ages of 10 and 24 years old.
Re-writing Jane's Story with a Party Safe Workshop
Jane did the best she could, given the knowledge and skills she had at the time. That’s why I have created Party-Safe workshops, so teens like Jane can have the knowledge and skills they need to spot these situations at sleepovers and parties before it is too late. Now I’d like to rewrite Jane’s story, with what I wish had happened.
Jane had been to a Party-Safe workshop. She was excited to go on the training weekend. When her mum said “be careful”, she was reminded of all she had learned at the workshop and said “I will”.
Jane still went skinny dipping – it was fun and exciting – and all her friends were there, she felt safe. However, she also remembered from the workshop that normalising nakedness and touch, were grooming tactics some men used. That was a red flag, so she was alert to who instigated the skinny dipping, and roving eyes. She noticed that it was Mitch who offered her a towel after the swim.
Later, when Mitch suggested a massage session, alarm bells went off. Mitch instigated the skinny dipping, and now he was suggesting massages. This was the sort of grooming behaviour she was warned about. Jane said no thanks, she’d go and see what her other friends were doing. Mitch tried to convince Jane, which made the alarm bells even louder, so she left immediately to find her friends.
When it came time to go Mitch said you’re not going home already are you – there’s a group of us staying back. Jane said she planned to go with her friends. Mitch said it would be so squashy fitting 5 adults in that car, everyone else had to go back for work, if Jane joined them, she’d make everyone uncomfortable, besides, the afternoon activities would be fun. Jane had a horrible feeling. It was like her body was screaming “RUN! Get in that car! Get out of here!”. She’d learned about that feeling in the workshop. Intuition. She knew she needed to listen to it. Instead of trying to rationalise it away she asked herself – what cues might I have picked up on to cause this feeling? This led her to think of the skinny dipping, the towel offer, and the massages. Also, why did it matter so much to Mitch whether she left or not? Or whether her friends would be squished or not? Why should he feel the need to mention that others were staying back too? Why was he trying to coerce her into staying?
Jane said with certainty, “I’m going home”. She left immediately to find her friends and tell them she was leaving with them. One of Jane’s friends had been to the workshop too, so when Jane used their secret signal, her friend knew that Jane was feeling unsafe, so she needed to stay with her, and back her up in her decisions. When Mitch made one last try to convince Jane to stay, both Jane and her friend said firmly that they were going home now.
Jane left with her friends. Jane's horrible feeling evaporated as soon as she got in the car, and she enjoyed the ride home. Thankfully, she never did know what would have happened if she had stayed.
Party-Safe Workshops. Prepare your teen for sleepovers.
Through Party-Safe workshops I hope to rewrite teens’ and young adults stories before they happen. You can find the next Party-Safe workshop coming up here. These workshops are essential pre-requisites for teenage sleepovers, parties, and clubbing.
Please feel free to contact me if you are interested in you or your daughter attending a Party-Safe workshop.
If you have a story like Jane’s that you feel ready to share and would like to see re-written to help warn others, please email me to let me know that you have a story and are ready to share. I’ll reply and we’ll go from there. Please only do this if you feel ready to disclose, and feel that it will be helpful for you.
Kids Helpline (5-25yr olds) 1800 650 890
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