P̶r̶o̶t̶e̶c̶t̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶r̶ ̶d̶a̶u̶g̶h̶t̶e̶r̶ Educate your son
What exactly are we teaching boys about sexual violence?
This meme popped up in my Twitter feed recently:
It pops up when talking about violence against women, in the most recent context about Brittney Higgins, a former political advisor working in Australia’s Department of Defense who has recently come forward alleging an older male colleague took her back to Parliament House after an evening of after-work drinks, where then he raped her.
The case has been grossly mishandled by Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who at first remained glaringly silent and only made a statement once his wife asked him to imagine how he would feel if the incident had happened to his own daughters. The incident was further escalated when another parliament member tweeted, “if you don’t want this to happen to you, then don’t go out for drinks with colleagues”. As though harassment, abuse, rape and murder are the logical consequences for being human.
The meme “P̶r̶o̶t̶e̶c̶t̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶r̶ ̶d̶a̶u̶g̶h̶t̶e̶r̶ Educate your son” itself elegantly and efficiently reframes the responsibility for sexual aggression and violence where it rightly belongs: on the perpetrator, rather than the victim, and sums up in two short phrases that the answer to resolving sexual violence is not to restrict the freedom of movement and expression for one party, e.g., to hide girls and women away, but to teach boys to be better men.
I’ve seen it many times before, heard it many times before, and even said it many times before myself. Until I really thought about it.
Shouldn’t our focus be on educating boys not to hurt women?
I know, I know: memes are memes and are not really meant for deep analysis. I get that. But I’ve been confronted with this same saying so often when I’m talking about self defense that it’s forced me to really wonder why the reframing doesn’t exactly work, why it feels like only the beginning of an idea that is too vague, and that is often misguided in its aim.
When I talk about the need for learning self defense to women and girls, I usually cite the same statistics everyone else does: 1 in 3 women will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes. I can also cite there is no country on Earth where women are 100% safe from gender-based violence, to bolster that reality. But 1 in 3 women falls flat. Who are these anonymous 1 in 3 women? Any woman you know? Would she even tell you if she was the 1? And although gender-based violence happens everywhere, in some places it’s not that bad, is the general response to these statistics.
And so I’m often asked, usually by women more often than men: shouldn’t our focus be on educating boys not to hurt women?
Yes, of course it should. But, I usually reply, violence against girls and women is happening now. Sexual violence is an IMMEDIATE reality for literally all women and girls. How many girls and women will be harassed, abused, raped, killed in the time it takes a single boy to grow up to be a better man? Empower your daughter, I say, to protect her self.
I still believe this response is valid, and I still use it. But the part that’s been missing for me is about the boys. The question goes unanswered: educate boys how? What are we educating them for?
Girls have the same right to simply be.
The obvious answer, of course, is: don’t hurt girls. Don’t hit, don’t harass, don’t rape, don’t kill. But this is a list of impersonal don’ts that gets filed in the same categories about things as “don’t steal cars” and “don’t embezzle money” … and get caught.
Because part of that toxic masculinity boys and men are socially conditioned for says well, actually…. you can do those things, if you can get away with it. The punishment is not so much consequence, as it is embarrassment. And the embarrassment is not really about any moral failings, but rather about being seen as being a sucker: you got caught. So much of toxic masculinity that cultural norms feed boys is about saving face, about never appearing weak or vulnerable, and equating both with lesser intelligence.
(One of the reasons American culture is a public shame culture, is because individual moral shame is not fostered as a useful directional tool in cultures that encourage “Type A” personalities. But I digress.)
A more considered education for boys is to teach them that girls and women are equally human to them, with the same rights, and the same rights to be. To explain what rape is, to help them understand consent.
This is inarguably a step in a more profound direction than simply telling boys not to do something, but again: boys and girls are both subject to a culture that still value women’s contributions as wives and mothers — both roles that can only be defined by the presence of another person (partner, child) — over any other type of participation or role women may play. And I would argue, they exist in a general, global society that tends to measure the stability of a person by the type of relationships they have; and holding marriage, ideally with children, as the highest standard — regardless of how people behave within that marriage.
(While America had no problem electing a man who’s been divorced 3 times and admitted to various extramarital affairs, and the UK had no problem electing a man who’s been divorced twice and has 6 children that he knows of, can you imagine a bachelor ever occupying 10 Downing Street, or the White House as President (or even Vice President)? Only monarchs get to be bachelors or bachelorettes, and even then not for very long, if only to ensure the legacy of their monarchy to the next generation. But again, I digress.)
There’s a reason private security is a male dominated industry.
I have heard first-hand “woke” young men — Millenials and Gen Z alike — telling me that of course women should be respected, because they “give life”. I have experienced, first-hand, how women who do not “give life” — choose not to become a mother— are often dismissed as not being fully realized adults until they do (whether adoptive, biological or stepmother). Even being someone’s wife is not quite enough — can you imagine the same intense interest and celebration of actress Helen Mirren’s sexuality even into her 70s, if she was a mother to someone? Do you remember when Angelina Jolie was celebrated in the same way… until she had children?
So, from my perspective, even this line of education for boys (and girls!) doesn’t go far enough, when the boys themselves cannot be protected from cultural cues and influences that embed these definitions of women’s value into our societal subconscious.
The belief that women should be respected, because they “give life” carries with it the unsaid, implied message that women should be protected because they give life. And this brings us right back to the beginning: protect girls, educate boys. Herein lies the heart of the problem: the idea of protection, of provider, and the role boys and men as protector/provider are subtly encouraged to play in partner relationships, familial relationships, and communities and societies at large.
Everyone needs to feel necessary. It’s our most human trait, the only solution to existential angst. Our lives don’t all have to be lived writ large and have profound meaning, we don’t all have to change or save or even affect the world. But we do need to feel like we are each a necessary component to the lives of our immediate communities, whether that is a community of only two, or a community of two million.
There is a reason there are more male police officers than female police officers; that the private security field is a male dominated industry, as is martial arts and self defense; that women are still not fully accepted in militaries even though women have been successfully participating in combat for thousands of years, and have even commanded armies of their own.
Taking these aspects of toxic masculinity, of idealizing marriage and the parent role, and boys’ relationship to those roles as well as girls’, I feel what’s actually needed, when we talk about educating boys, is a redefining of value, not of girls’ value as human beings, but of boys’ and men’s value within partner relationships, in familial relationships, and to communities and societies at large.
Teach boys that their value is not in protecting or being guardians; teach them instead that their value lies in their ability to create meaningful connection, to compassionately communicate, to build inclusive community, to contribute. Teach boys their necessity lies in creating life, too.
Thank you for reading! If this article resonates with you, please give it a clap so others can find it too.