CNN Parenting

The 'Show Dogs' controversy and the problem of teaching children consent

Natasha Lyonne and Will Arnett star in "Show Dogs."

Story highlights

  • Parents became outraged by scenes in the new movie
  • After defending the film, Global Road Entertainment said it will be removing genital exam scenes

(CNN)"Show Dogs" is a new a children's film in which the main character, a Rottweiler police dog, is pressured into having his genitals examined by a dog show judge. Should this have come out before #MeToo turned our communal attention to the ubiquity of sexual abuse and harassment, the inclusion of this plot line would have been regrettable. The fact that it happened afterward is mind-boggling.

Such an oversight shows that, despite all the waking up we've done in the past year, there's still a lot more to do. This is particularly the case when it comes to addressing sexual abuse of children, who've largely been shielded from the recent headlines by parents who aren't ready to expose them to the worst of humankind.
But the fact that sexual abuse was ever-so-casually played for laughs in a new children's movie is evidence that this is something we need to directly address with our children -- now.

    The controversy

    "Show Dogs" is a live-action film in which Max, a talking police dog, infiltrates a dog show in order to rescue a kidnapped baby panda. As part of this assignment, Max must endure a genital examination, which is routine for contestants. When Max makes it clear that he is uncomfortable with this, he is advised to endure it by going to a "Zen place." Later, he is rewarded for putting up with this unwanted touching by advancing to the final round.
    As pointed out by Terina Maldonado -- publisher of East Mesa Macaroni Kid, a site about the Arizona town outside Phoenix, and author of a post on the film that first drew attention to the issue -- these scenes give children the idea that it's OK for strangers to touch their genitals. And what if they don't like it? No problem, just think of something nice and calm. It's a message that will "groom children to be open to having people touch their privates, even though they don't want it," she wrote.
    In a statement, Dawn Hawkins, executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, pointed out that child abusers often use similar tactics, "telling them to pretend they are somewhere else, and that they will get a reward for withstanding their discomfort."
    After initially defending the film, Global Road Entertainment announced that it will be removing the genital exam scenes. "Show Dogs" was pulled from theaters less than a week after opening, and according to Deadline, a new cut will be in theaters this weekend.

    How to talk to kids about sexual abuse

    Maldonado, a survivor of child abuse, said she knew that film message's was inappropriate while watching it but hesitated to discuss it with her children immediately afterward.
    "Because of my experience, I knew I can experience things through a lens different than others," she told CNN. "But then my husband brought it up, and I thought, 'it's not just me.'
    "I don't think I have ever seen a children's movie where [sexual abuse] was this boldly in plain sight."
    Though upset that her children were exposed to these messages, she decided to turn this exposure into a lesson. After learning that her children found the genital examination scenes extremely funny, she began to ask questions: " 'Is it OK for people to touch you? Isn't that what they did to Max?' And we let the conversation go from there."
    Though Maldonado has already addressed the subject with their children before -- they use anatomical, rather than cutesy, terms for genitalia and never force the kids into hugging or tickling -- this was a reminder that one can never "check having the conversation off the list. It's an ongoing conversation that needs to happen."
    My son's first exposure to the concept of private parts came from his pediatrician at his two-year checkup and not from me, as I would have preferred. While examining his penis, she told him that only his parents, his doctor and he should touch this part of his body. If anyone else tries to, it is not OK, and he should tell us.
    I was a bit surprised, wondering whether this was the kind of thing she should have gotten approved by me before explaining to him, and I worried about how he would interpret this information. I was also a little ashamed for not having yet addressed the matter myself.
    Lessons learned? With my second son, I plan on bringing it up earlier, and on my own. I will also make sure it comes up while he is on the examination table.
    Dr. Steven Joffe, chief of the Division of Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, said that although educating kids about sexual abuse is not a routine part of pediatric medicine, it can be a good place to model appropriate behavior.
    "If I am going to do a physical exam, I am going to explain to them, if they are old enough, why I am doing it. They need to know that there is a reason for doing it and it is related to their well-being," he said, explaining that this helps illustrate to kids the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching. "There's no secrecy or shame."

    What about when children play 'doctor'?

    The big message about how and when adults should touch a child's genitalia is fairly black-and-white, explained Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and the author of "The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius." Nobody should touch them besides a parent or trusted caretaker helping them wash at bath time or deal with a health issue, or the doctor for a reason they understand. But when it comes to how and when children should touch one another, "there is a lot of gray."
    Saltz said it is normal for children to exhibit curiosity about their own and others' genitalia. Still, parents should make it clear that it is not OK for them to do something to someone else's private parts. Also, parents of children who have expressed interest in the subject should be careful about limiting group exploration.
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    "Unsupervised time pretty quickly moves into something they might call 'doctor.' Interest is intense, and a quick view of mine and yours is unlikely," she said. "Sexual play for little kids is stimulating, and that can be anxiety-inducing. One child might press another child to do more" than they are comfortable with, she said, which can lead to an association between libido and aggression.
    Parents should make it clear that this is not OK, but do it in a neutral, non-punitive manner so their children don't associate intimacy with being a bad person, she explained. This can lay the groundwork for understanding the concept of consent, feeling able to say no and giving thought to what they want in intimate settings.
    Help children understand all this when they are young, and they will be in better shape to navigate the vastly grayer teenager years, when they begin to experience sexual intimacy on their own.
    "This is a conversation that has to start long before it is going to be an issue," Saltz said.