Desmond Tutu: It's time to talk to our children about rape

The social justice icon argues that stopping rape also means talking about it at the dinner table

Published April 26, 2013 1:08PM (EDT)

     (Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)

In an editorial for the Guardian on Friday, social justice icon and Cape Town Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu called on parents to talk to their children about rape, the same way they would discuss bullying, guns and drugs.

Horrific sexual assaults in the United States, India, South Africa and elsewhere have brought global violence against women into stark relief, and Tutu, joined by education nonprofit head Jacob Lief and author, activist and rape survivor Sohaila Abdulali, views stopping it as more than just the work of governments and law enforcement. Ending rape culture, they say, is also "family work," a conversation that must be had around the dinner table if its message is ever going to take hold:

The fact is, rape is utterly commonplace in all our cultures. It is part of the fabric of everyday life, yet we all act as if it’s something shocking and extraordinary whenever it hits the headlines. We remain silent, and so we condone it. The three of us deal with this issue in different ways every day of our lives, yet we too are guilty of protesting articulately outside but leaving it on the other side of the door when we sit down to dinner with our families. Until rape, and the structures – sexism, inequality, tradition – that make it possible, are part of our dinner-table conversation with the next generation, it will continue. Is it polite and comfortable to talk about it? No. Must we anyway? Yes...

Yes, governments must step up. But so should we all. Why shouldn’t rape be dinner-table conversation? We talk about war, we talk about death, we discuss values with our children. But on the subject of sexual assault, we remain silent and squeamish. We leave them ill-prepared, with whispers of untold horrors and no guidance for our sons on how they should behave if one day they should find themselves in a group of boys with a girl in their power.

Rape does not exist in a vacuum, and we cannot talk about it as if it is removed from the rest of our lives. Let’s teach our children that they don’t need to live in little boxes defined by their gender or culture. Let’s teach them that they are all of equal worth. Let’s not favour our boys over our girls. Let’s not tolerate bullying or stereotyping. Let’s reject utterly the notion that boys will be boys and girls must work around this assumption or pay the price.

Will these conversations be uncomfortable? Yes, Tutu concedes. Does that make them any less vital? Of course not: "It is our opportunity to start to create true change... We owe it to our children."

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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Desmond Tutut Rape Sexual Assault