Amy Carpenter is a youth advocate, psychotherapist, relationship coach and bestselling author. She has over twenty-five years of experience teaching young people about sexual assault awareness and prevention through personal empowerment, healthy relationships, and sexual ethics. Her work has been featured on CBS, NBC, MARKET WATCH, and hundreds of nationally syndicated newspaper and magazine outlets. She is the founder of the Be Strong, Be Wise Sexual Assault Awareness and Safety program, and the author of two books in the bestselling Be Strong, Be Wise series. Her work equips young people with important internal tools that increase confidence and support healthy relationships on all levels.
IN THIS EPISODE, YOU’LL HEAR ABOUT THINGS LIKE:
- Amy’s wisdom is gained from her own life as a parent and survivor.
- The red flags Amy teaches teens to recognize with new people or starting a new relationship.
- The emotional intelligence skills teens can use when someone is making them uncomfortable, trying to manipulate them or trying to control them.
- How Amy teaches young people to listen to their “inner warrior.”
SOME QUESTIONS IRENE ASKS AMY:
- What were the wounds that inspired you to pursue sexual ethics and assault prevention as your life’s focus?
- How do you help to educate and empower young people, building confidence within them instead of fear?
- How are sexual pestering and sexual bullying different?
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Amy Carpenter: Our Wounds Are What Make Us Strong, Empathetic And Aware, And Make Us Champions For Others
I hope this finds each of you very well. I’m truly delighted to have this opportunity to interview the youth advocate, psychotherapist, relationship coach, and bestselling author, Amy Carpenter, who will be speaking to us from Rockport, Maine, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Amy has many years of experience teaching young people about sexual assault, awareness, and prevention through personal empowerment, healthy relationships, and sexual ethics.
Her work has been featured on CBS, NBC, MarketWatch, and hundreds of nationally syndicated newspaper and magazine outlets. She is the Founder of Be Strong, Be Wise, a sexual assault awareness and safety program, and the author of two books in the bestselling Be Strong, Be Wise series. Amy’s Wisdom is gained from her own life as a parent and a survivor. Her work equips young people with important internal tools that increase confidence and support healthy relationships on all levels.
She also offers educational programs to help parents have important conversations about sexual violence and sexual safety with their teens. Plus, she also offers training programs for teachers, counselors, youth workers, and other caring adults on how to educate young people about sexual ethics and personal safety in a way that is empowering to them.
I’ll be asking Amy about her own work as a parent and survivor, her important work in educating and empowering young people, her educational and training programs, and more for what is going to be a very informative and powerful interview, especially for those of you in our audience who have children and grandchildren. Amy, a warm welcome to the show.
I’m very honored to be here.
Thank you. It’s such a pleasure. You come from Maine, one of my favorite states. Let’s start by getting everybody to know about Amy Carpenter. Please tell us about your many years of experience as a psychotherapist and trauma expert before you began to focus on creating a sexual safety education program.
I never anticipated that I would end up where I now am. I was always focused on my clinical work. I always ended up working with people who had experienced trauma. It wasn’t something that I sought out necessarily, but it did happen over my years doing individual therapy. I worked with individuals, families, and couples. I was working with a lot of assault survivors. I studied trauma in graduate school. It was always an interest of mine, but I never claimed it as a focal point in my career. It was around the time of the Kavanaugh hearing and all this information is in my book. At the round of the time of the Kavanaugh hearing, the survivors whom I was working with at the time were having a real difficult emotional time.
I was trying to process it with them. Because I’m a writer, I was working on an article about the effects of trauma on the developing brain because most assaults happen in young adulthood before the brain is fully developed, which doesn’t happen until age 24 or 25. There’s a significant imprint that happens on the brain when there is trauma. Studies are coming out more and more of late and science is supporting some of the observations of trauma clinicians over the years. I have been observing this in my practice. I was trying to write about it in this article.
In the midst of writing the article, unfortunately, my daughter, who was seventeen at the time, was assaulted while volunteering at a church soup kitchen. That was when my world imploded. It turned the tables on everything that I had been doing. I never expected the emotional reaction that I had. It undid me for a little bit. I had to get my bearings and process my grief and my emotionality around it, then I had to look at, “What am I doing with my career and my work with trauma? Is there a place for prevention?” I’ve been doing an assault response for effectively many years. It became very clear, and that’s how the whole thing started.
Of all things, anybody would be upset, but for you also to be especially upset and this happened with your daughter, wow.
To her credit, I would never talk about her story without her permission. She’s given me permission. Her story is in both books. In the first book, she has a pseudonym. In the second book, I talked about that. Being somebody who’s heard a lot of horrible stories throughout my career, I have to say that my daughter was the first to say this herself. It was not a severe assault. She was touched inappropriately by an attendee at a soup kitchen, and she was kissed on the mouth. This person was in his 60s when she was 17. It was very uncomfortable and gross at the time, but she did all the right things. She told her friends, the friends told the teachers and the teachers called the police and me. All the right things happened.
The man was arrested. You can’t prepare for that as a mother. What I realized, one of the very difficult things that I ended up writing about is that here I was, a trauma clinician, and my daughter had that happen. I needed to look at my own blind spots and my parenting around, “What did I not tell her? What did I not inform her about?” Why I decided to write these books is that it is a struggle for all of us to talk about hard things with our teenage children, yet we have to. It is a story of despair that became hopeful. My daughter’s gone through the course. She’s advocated for it. She was able to bring it to her high school. She’s been a change agent as well throughout the process, but it was very tough at the beginning.
It sounds like a difficult entree into your sole purpose to bring this out to the world, to tell you the truth, because you’re helping many people, it seems like to be. I love it when you say that our wounds are what make us strong, empathetic, and aware, making us champions for others. Are there any other wounds you’d like to talk about that inspire you to pursue sexual ethics and assault prevention as your life’s focus? Do you want to address that?
It will be hard to do it in a short answer, but I’ll say a few things. I am an assault survivor. I was assaulted when I was a child. I was eight years old. This story is also in the book. It could have been far worse. I was assaulted by a group of boys who came onto our property when my parents weren’t home, attacked me, and took my clothes off. I was screaming on the ground.
What’s interesting about the story, and this is relevant to your question, is that I never told anybody. It’s one of the things that I work a lot with when I talk with young women in my classes because we all have an internal good girl. Girls are very conditioned to be good, which often means, “Don’t share your feelings. Don’t speak out. Don’t disagree with people.” We’re coming a long way. The #MeToo Movement did a lot in our favor in this regard, but it’s still a very big cultural imprint for girls. I had that as well. When I was a child, I did not know how to put together what happened to me with my understanding of myself. I never told anybody.
You never told your mother, who would be the most natural person in the world for you to tell.
I never told anyone. It was embarrassing. I had all the things that most survivors have.
Who rescued you? Did anybody come to your aid?
No. Eventually, what happened is the group of boys went on for several minutes. I was screaming. Finally, one of them said, “It’s not worth it.” They let me go. Nothing worse happened. It was an assault, but I was not raped. They let me go. I ran inside the house and never told a soul. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties. I got into some therapy for myself. I was studying to be a therapist, and I did some personal work. That’s when my therapist said, “This is a pretty significant story. You might want to start thinking about this.” I’ve done a lot of healing work since then. What’s interesting to your question is that when my daughter was assaulted in 2019, there was a facet of that story that I never had consciousness of.
For my whole life, whenever anybody grabs my wrist, I have a huge fight or flight reaction. My animal brain goes on high alert and I’m terrified. I will fight back viciously if anybody grabs hold of my wrist. You would think I would’ve put that together with the assault at age eight. It wasn’t until my daughter got hurt that I realized this final piece of my own story and was able to do the healing work to complete it in a way it’s continuing. The work I’m doing with teens is a part of that process. It’s interesting to me how we can have these blind spots around our own lives and the stories that we’ve lived through. Sometimes, it takes somebody else’s story to reflect our own story back to us.
It triggered it. The thing is, you’re effective in what you do because you did experience this yourself. You’re not just talking. You’ve also done your own healing work, which is important. While you’re teaching them, you’re also a role model. In what ways do your Be Strong, Be Wise sexual assault awareness and safety program and the Be Strong, Be Wise book series help to educate and empower these young people, building confidence within them instead of fear? What do you teach and how do you make them aware? What was that blind spot that you would’ve told your daughter?
This is something that we bring into our work in our training sessions with caring adults like teachers, counselors, and parents. Every teenager should know what grooming is. I would think every ten-year-old needs to know what grooming is, what to look for, and how to communicate right away.
Do you want to define that in our audience?
Grooming is effectively manipulation on the part of an individual who comes across as being very friendly, nice, and comfortable but has an ulterior sexual motive. That’s what this man did at a soup kitchen with my daughter. He came across as very friendly, nice, and non-invasive and asked her about school. He began to get increasingly creepy the more that she was spending time with him. There’s a whole lot to the story that is equally important to empowering, for example, in this case, my daughter, an individual, or groups of teens to look out for each other because, in that instance, she was surrounded by fellow students, teaching staff, other attendees, church personnel, and nobody came to her rescue.
Nobody was educated enough to say, “This doesn’t look right.”
He even took hold of her hand at one point, which immediately should have been a sign. There was a lot that went wrong that day. I won’t get into further detail. Aside from teaching young people about grooming, helping young people understand the strength of their peer group and how they can keep each other safe, for example, on a Saturday night when they’re out doing what young people do, there’s a way to have fun and still stay safe.
One of the earmarks of the program is that we recognize that shaming young people or effectively trying to tell them to, “Be careful. Don’t drink too much. Stay at home. Have a DD on board,” all of that stuff doesn’t speak to the reality of being young and being out at a frat party, for example, when you have 99% of the attendance intoxicated. You’ve got to be able to understand what to do in those circumstances because not going to the party is not an option. Young people want to be with other young people. That’s normal. That’s how they individuate. That’s how they become who they are. How can we help them do what they want to do and still stay safe?
I love this because you think about it more for girls, but it’s also for boys. I have grandsons. There’s no doubt in my mind I’m going to say to my son and daughter, “You got to read this interview.” The boys are going to be coming up.
I don’t know how old your grandchildren are, but at the middle school level, studies are showing that assault rates are pretty similar for boys as for girls.
It would be about seventh grade.
It would be about 6th or 7th grade. Younger ages are going on pornography. Another thing we address in our program is the effects of pornography. Ten years old are going on pornography sites. We have our work cut out for us in starting in middle school with this type of education or something similar so that young people have the tools that they can then take into their high school and college careers.
I’m sorry you went through what you did, but look at what’s come out of it and how many people you’re helping.
It’s a privilege to work with young people. They’re wonderful people. I learn from them every time I teach them.
What are the red flags you teach a teen to recognize with new people or start a new relationship? Can those red flags also apply to us adults?
Red flags apply to any human because we all have an autonomic nervous system. Red flags are another way of talking about the fight, flight, or freeze mechanism or another way of talking about our intuition and gut instinct. Gut instinct is 1 of the 5 safety tools that we talk about in the program. It’s our most important one because if you know how to listen to your intuition when something’s a little bit dangerous, somebody’s crossing a boundary, and when you need to communicate what is required at that moment in order to keep you safe. Your gut instinct is important. What’s interesting in our classes working with teens is, most often, we always have a questionnaire that we give at the beginning and the end, and we get our data points because schools love evidence-based learning.
We have our data to support our program, but ironically, students will most often say that gut instinct is the tool they are least skilled at, which makes sense because they don’t have a frontal lobe yet, which the frontal lobe is responsible for our executive functioning and our discretionary thinking. It is important, when it comes to sexual safety, to have discretionary thinking. We begin the classes with a foundational understanding of the definition of sexual assault, which most young people don’t know. They think it’s rape. It’s not rape. It’s much broader than that.
We begin to look at three operative words, which is unwanted sexual touch, and how that gets defined for each teenager because every teenager has different boundaries, has different communication styles, and has different approaches to touch. Being able to help them identify and define, “What is unwanted sexual touch for me,” begins to create a language for what that looks like and what to do about it when it crops up. That’s when you start to get into the red flag because if somebody is approaching you and crossing a boundary and you understand what your definition is, your gut instinct is going to give you a signal.
The other thing I would think it’s right for them to be in touch with that is because they’re mindful at that age about whatever is popular, what everybody else thinks. They haven’t individuated to pay attention to, “Maybe it’s more important what I’m feeling and thinking.”
That’s where we talk a lot about peer support. I call it group power or herd consciousness because that’s an important thing to acknowledge before you get into the more specific individual teaching. We do the peer work in class three. We have five classes in our program. It’s on a continuum. We narrow the scope with every class. We start with a broad definition then we focus on gender and culture. We look at what it’s like to be a young man, young woman, and non-binary person in our culture. Young people have their work cut out for them in our culture currently.
Nowadays, it’s not easy.
They are learning most from their phones. What we do is begin to look at some of the influences of culture and help to understand what’s true from what’s not true. We do bring a lot of research because teens are pretty fact-hungry. If you’re going to teach a teenager, you better have your facts straight. We present some facts along the way, but we acknowledge the importance of friendship. In class three, we look at substances how you go out and have a good time but still stay safe, and how you work with your peer group. In the next class, we begin to look at the individual. We try and acknowledge both.
Are there specific emotional intelligence skills you teach teens to use and you’re talking it’s mostly about their gut or when someone is trying to make them uncomfortable, manipulate them, or try to control them?
I’ve talked about the first three classes. In the fourth class, we get into our safety tools. There are five of them. I have five classes and tools. It’s easy to remember. The five tools are gut instinct, people perception, communication, affect manipulation, which I’ll describe in a second, and common sense. All of those are important pieces to emotional intelligence as well as world intelligence. Affect manipulation is looking tough even when you feel scared, which is important in a lot of situations that young people find themselves in. Also, a skill that most teenagers feel very ill-equipped with. We do a little role play and some practicing.
Is that fitting under the fake it until you make it?
That’s a very good way of looking at it. It is faking being a lot tougher and more powerful than you may feel at the moment.
That’s great advice for them. How are sexual pestering and sexual bullying different? The other part of my question is how you teach young people to listen to their inner warrior, which is you’re talking about their gut instinct, which enables them to assert themselves, and then you talk about affirmative consent. It’s fascinating to me too. I’m learning as I interview you.
Sexual pestering, like the name implies, is when you pester somebody to have sex with you. I won’t say this is only young men. Young women do it too. It’s most often heard with young men. This is a result of a lot of the effects of the media and pornography, which I won’t get into, but you can imagine. It’s pushing somebody to have sex with you after they’ve already said they’re not interested. That sexual pestering. Sexual bullying would be slut-shaming, which is common, saying a derogative slur to a woman as she’s walking by, and cat-calling on the street. What I’m hearing from teens again is that in their high school days, it’s almost normal to hear derogatory sexual remarks throughout the school day.
It’s becoming a normal part of a young person’s existence to have to field all of the sexualized derogatory statements. Because it’s almost normal, it’s not seen as a big deal. We’re trying to educate people on building their inner warrior, as you said, which stands up to that kind of thing. When I have a young woman, for example, tell me that somebody called her a slut in the hallway, and she swore at him in response, I say, “Well done.”
It doesn’t matter what methodology is used. We don’t want to encourage swearing all the time, but for a young woman to stick up for herself in that moment is a great thing. We want to support that more. I also want to say this for our young men because it would be a shame to remotely demonize young men. Young men are having the same kinds of challenges. I’m hearing more stories about older women coming onto teenage boys sexually pestering and grooming them. Young men are saying, “I don’t know how to stick up for myself because I don’t want to be rude.” We work cut out for us in offsetting the cultural imprint around being good for all sexes, not just girls, and being able to create a language for effectively not being nice when there’s no room for being nice.
You’re giving them permission to take care of themselves.
Do what you have to do. That is not the time to be nice. They’ve been raised to be good little girls and boys and not do that thing. We have to do a lot of conversation around it.
I would assume that affirmative consent is when two people agree or are in sync with each other.
It’s slowly making its way forward. Affirmative consent is understanding that at every stage of the sex experience, consent needs to be given, “Can I touch you? Can I touch your hair? Can I kiss you? Can I hold you?” It’s asking your partner, male or female, what’s okay for them. Fifty percent of young people’s studies have shown don’t even understand what consent is, let alone affirmative consent.
We’re giving wildly mixed messages. Again, 88% of pornography videos contain violence against women. In the videos, the women look like they like it. We’re trying to offset the media’s education of our young people because this is where they’re learning. What I say in my book and when I tell young people, even though they squirm, I don’t care because we have to talk frankly about this stuff, is that affirmative action can be sexy.
If you are with somebody that you find attractive of either sex and you begin to say, “I love how your skin feels. You’re beautiful. It feels good for me to touch you. Can I,” and then you fill in the blank, that’s an invitation. That is an intimate exchange, rather than, “Let’s do this because this is what I see on my screen. This is what my friends tell me to do. This must be what sex is.” I do this in every interview, forgive me, but I have to say this. Any readers who want to get their hands on an incredible piece of research, pick up Peggy Orenstein’s books, Boys & Sex and Girls & Sex. They’re mind-blowing.
They’re not comfortable. I almost cried five times when I read Boys & Sex because what young men are having to deal with these days is tragic. She interviews young men in these books. They’re talking to her very honestly and vulnerably. What they’re saying is that, “I grew up on porn and realized when I got to college that I couldn’t have sex with my girlfriend because I was never stimulated enough. It was always more and more.”
That’s not what sex is. It’s not what it’s supposed to be, but that’s what young people are learning through their daily activities and their screen time. Talking very frankly with young men about what studies are showing is important because it begins to hopefully catch the process early on and say, “I don’t want to be that guy in college who can’t maintain an erection. Maybe I should do something about this now.”
What you’re doing is important. Could you share an inspiring story of healing and rebirth with us from the tons of people who you’ve helped? I’m sure you’ve got a good story.
I will share a story that’s in the book, and this person has given permission. She’s a total warrior. We do talk about creating the inner warrior for young women and creating the inner champion for young men. This woman had a series of assaults when she was a young person and never told anybody. It was the good girl phenomenon at work as well as a lot of victim blaming, which is a tragic outcome for survivors is the level of victim blaming that they have to navigate, starting with the police force. She took, like me, years to talk about her story much longer than I did. It wasn’t until she was in her 30s.
She talked about it in therapy, and we worked together. A long story short is that she began to realize how to take care of her inner teenager. This is where it’s beautiful because I get to bring my psychotherapy work. I do something called transactional analysis, which is a long way of saying healing your inner child. We all have an inner child.
Assault survivors most often have an inner teenager who was wounded, disbelieved, silenced, and shunned. She did the work of embracing her inner teenager and loving her and, slowly, magical things began to happen in her life. She ended up becoming an advocate in her community and speaking out for herself with her partner and her family. She reclaimed her life in a beautiful way. That was a beautiful story. We’re still communicating regularly.
Tell us about your educational programs for parents because everybody wants to sign up for your programs. Please tell us about both your educational program for parents and your training programs for teachers, counselors, youth workers, and other caring adults. Are they all available online in these days of COVID?
They are available online. All the descriptions and definitions are on our website, BeStrongBeWise.com. There’s a description of our youth program and trainer program, which is our training for educators and counselors. We have a parent workshop where we do the same curriculum, but it’s a little bit more casual and it occurs over a day-long workshop. That’s what we do with parents. That information is also on the website and both books are on the website.
I would imagine if I were a parent of a burgeoning teenager, that I would want to take that course to be prepared for what might be coming down the pike.
One of the reasons why this felt like important work and something that I wanted to continue to focus on is that I have a lot of friends and parents who are similar ages and have teenagers of their own. It’s hard to talk about this stuff with your teenager. One of the goals of our work with parents and counselors is to create more comfort with the uncomfortable and to provide a roadmap for discussing sexual ethics in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming.
I love that expression to create more comfort with the uncomfortable. That’s great. What are the best ways for the audience to connect with you? I’m sure they can find your Be Strong, Be Wise series on Amazon and any other places.
Everything is on our website, BeStrongBeWise.com. There is a link to both books on the book tab. There is a link to all three programs in the program tab. They can find me at Amy@BeStrongBeWise.com. You can find that on the website as well. I would think that that’s the best place to go. I’m happy to answer any questions. I love talking about this stuff. If someone wants to email me, they’re welcome to.
Why and how should people heal their wounds and issues?
To have an effective, solid, loving, compassionate relationship with yourself is the number one reason because people who have been wounded, whether it’s from sexual trauma, physical abuse, or even a harmful word, can often close doors of self-awareness and self-love rather than opening those doors. How we end up having the best relationships is when we can, first of all, love ourselves.
Even though it’s hard work and I do think having a skilled healer to help you is important, finding a path of self-love, beginning with the moments that bring you joy, recognizing those moments, being able to claim them, and bring more of them, I call them your mirrors, the people, places, and things that remind you of who you are are the mirrors. We all have them in our life. Sometimes we overlook or dismiss them. Those are the things that remind us of our truth and goodness. Going toward those things is a helpful way of cultivating that self.
When you have these wounds and you don’t heal them, you’re bogged down.
What I see in my practice is it keeps people from having what they want, which is often a loving partner or a good job because the wounds are what’s driving their life rather than the self-love driving their life. It can become much more of a handicap than we realize or talk about in our culture because we’re always busy going. It’s an important piece. Healing our wounds is essential.
What is Amy Carpenter’s tip for finding joy in life?
It is finding your mirrors, the people, places, and things that remind you of who you are. My mirrors, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m in Maine and probably I will never leave, is I love trees. For some reason, when I go, walk, and hike in the woods, I feel comfort. That’s a mirror for me. I know that when I take a hike in the woods, I’m effectively healing whatever stress is going on for me at the moment, in addition to whatever other tools I have. For people to go toward their mirrors, that’s where you find your joy.
I’m going to remember that because I happen to live in a place where I’m surrounded by trees and it’s one of my favorite things. Amy, your very important life’s mission is to explore sexual ethics through the lens of personal empowerment. Thank you for helping our young people, who are our future, to avoid toxic relationships and build healthy relationships in their lives.
I have absolutely no doubt that many in our audiences, especially those with children and grandchildren, are now eager to check out your Be Strong, Be Wise sexual assault, awareness and safety program, as well as the books in your bestselling Be Strong, Be Wise series. Thank you from my heart for this incredibly informative and compelling interview. Here’s a reminder to make sure to follow and like us on social at @IreneSWeinberg on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. As I like to say, to be continued, many blessings, and bye for now.
- Amy Carpenter’s Website
- Peggy Orenstein’s Boys & Sex and Girls & Sex referenced in this episode