Every time I read the words “rape culture,” I feel the distinct weight of being a mother to two young boys. I feel the responsibility of evolving beyond or around the scourge of sexual violence that people perpetrate upon others. I think, “This problem is my problem; it is my husband’s problem; it is my sons’ problem,” and I feel heavy with its implications and complexities.
I’m not sure it’s enough to say, “Teach boys to be good people, and they will know not to rape.” We must be deliberate in rejecting the casual violence and rampant dehumanization that permeate our cultural norms.
It seems exceptional, the hypersexualization and hyper-violence of modern-day American culture. But it isn’t. Raping and pillaging is a waaaaay-back thing. Like, the thing with which power has historically been taken, the thing upon which empires have been built.
I make a tacit promise to my sons that their empires will be built on saying please and thank you, on focus and follow-through, on remaining calm, on the belief that there will usually be enough, and if there isn’t, there will be a reasonable way to work things out.
But, between you and me, I’m not certain.
We use sex to sell triple cheeseburgers and sports cars. We stock checkout stands with magazines full of “beautiful,” “perfect,” “sexy” bodies and faces, all staring empty-eyed at our littles idling in their grocery-cart seats. Objectification starts here.
And then we overlay objectification with sexualization so casually, it just comes home via pop radio with your preschoolers: a few years ago, my then four- and five-year-old boys bounced around the house after school singing LMFAO’s line, “I’m sexy and I know it.”
I tried to be light as I cautioned, “Children are never sexy,” which obligated me to talk about sexiness. My boys, cringing, decided they could just as well be socks-y.
A while back, a local high school girl wrote an editorial in the newspaper rightly chastising her school’s administration for a student handbook that discriminates against females: the dress code for female students outlines strict guidelines on how long skirts should be, what parts of the body should be covered, what undergarments can or cannot be exposed. Boys are advised simply to look “neat and tidy.” This writer ends her essay by saying we should teach all students that an exposed leg is just a leg.
And, whether from prudishness or my own lack of body confidence or my fear of being a mother-of-sons, I flashed to, “But what about an ass cheek? Or full cleavage? Or midriff bared from rib cage to hip bone? Why wear clothes at all?”
In the neighboring high school where I am a teacher, we, too, debate the boundaries around appropriate student dress codes. A fifty-something female colleague, steeped in the revolutionary feminism of the ’60s and ’70s, mutters to me after a staff meeting, “Let the girls wear whatever the hell they want. Teach the boys not to look.”
I swallow hard, no courage to say, “I’m not sure yet how to teach that.”
It is the middle of August and we drive by a teen girl in Daisy Dukes. My then-six-year-old son asks, “Mom, why do some people like to wear shorts so short they look like underpants?”
I realize this is the moment when we will evolve.
I say first, “Well, it’s hot. And that kind of shorts is popular fashion.”
We don’t talk about sexiness or hotness or sluttiness. And we don’t do this because these are the social constructs and judgments that justify predation.
We talk instead about how teenagers are at the beginning of the reproductive phase of life, that hormones may have them wanting to attract a mate. I tell my sons there can be pride and a sense of being beautiful and powerful when you dress in certain ways.
This should be part of how my sons understand women from the get-go: that often their clothes have nothing to do with men.
Society frowns on shorts as short as underpants, but society also sells shorts as short as underpants. My sons and I talk about how complicated that is, for your biology to conflict so strongly with the judgment of your double-talking culture.
While modern American sexuality is confounding, violence is a kind of cultural dope.
And this is just the surface, speaking nothing of the vast virtual world, where anything—no matter how exploitative or inhumane—anything that can be typed into a search engine can be brought to life. Our society is full of people who have seen things that can’t be unseen, and I can’t help but wonder if it dehumanizes us to some degree.
Additionally, as a friend, also a parent of two sons, pointed out to me: around the age of four or five, we shift the role of human touch in the lives of boys. There arises a distinct fear that loving and hugging on our boy-children will somehow compromise their masculinity, that it will feminize them. So we withdraw that physical affection, we curb the softness with which we approach boys. We resort to hair-tousling and chin-chucking; we tolerate when they jostle and roughhouse with one another. We aim to toughen them up, to make them into men.
To further complicate the impact of violence, we popularly define personal power in frat-boy terms of “letting loose” and “going wild.” Our culture approves, as evidenced across all platforms of media, the use of violence in pursuit of satisfaction and fulfillment.
This is a critical juncture wherein violence and sex can converge into the realm of assault.
There is power inherent in both sex and violence. I think it is instinctive to desire and fear that power. Perhaps in some mysterious proportion, desire and fear can produce respect.
The desire to explore and understand these elements is natural. But I would agree with the arguments that there are no real American rites of passage that guide our children safely through either of these realms.My theory is that if we can keep innocence somewhat intact through the tween years and allow it to fade or be peeled away, rather than shattered or ripped away, we can cultivate compassion and enlightenment.
In American culture, kids learn about sex and violence mostly from one another: the blind leading the blind. Our young people often find themselves navigating these stomach-lurching waters alone, no voice with which to call to their adults for guidance or protection.
When I remember that girl in her shorts that hot day, or think of my high school students whose spring and summer fashion choices are carefree and bare, I wonder about the judgment that takes shape in my own mind: how I want to pull these girls aside in cautious whispered conversations; how their outfits trigger in me an urge to Cover. Them. Up.
Why don’t I feel this way about my pierced and mohawked kids? Or my disheveled and schlumpy kids? I guess piercings and spiked hair say, “Back off.” Sweatpants and shapeless t-shirts are camouflage, invisibility. But intentional bareness, a peek at the parts of us that society deems private, says, “Come look.” It reads like an invitation, which troubles me when it is not.
But that my judginess comes from a place of concern does not minimize the judginess of it. And if there’s anything I know after all these years of being me, when I am judgmental about others, it usually speaks directly to an insecurity I have about myself. Truth: I have rarely felt confident enough for bare exhibition; I have often thought of men on some level as intimidating, dangerous, even lecherous.
So can I teach the crux of what I want my boys to learn—how to distinguish between exhibition and invitation? At some point, they will feel the draw of that exhibition, their hearts will race and their blood will heat, and they… will… feel… drawn. That heat is part of what makes us human.
But can exhibition—when it is just the outward appearance of someone—be neutralized? “The weather is hot, and those shorts are just shorts,” or “A low-cut neckline is what many find more flattering and empowering,” or, in the words of that young woman’s editorial, “A bare leg is just a bare leg.”
Maybe the more we humanize the objectification and neutralize the judgment around sexuality, the further we untangle it from force and violence and assault.
That day when my sons and I see the young woman in her shorts, and we talk about the desire to find a mate and to reproduce, they are curious. They have known for a long time that it takes a man and a woman to make a baby. They know that penises and vaginas play a part. But now they are curious about the mechanics.
I am driving, but I think a second and say simply, “Well, you know men’s private parts and women’s private parts? They fit together.”
In the rearview mirror, I see the boys look at one another with eyes as big as saucers, their mouths shaped into astounded Os.
A week later, my younger son sits, shakes his head side to side, and out of nowhere, sighs, “I just can’t believe the parts fit together.”
It occurs to me then how sensitive and impressionable their imaginations are, even without diagrams or charts or blue language or scenes from PG- or R-rated movies; how just considering that the parts somehow fit together is astounding enough for now.
So, on raising sons not to rape: I hope measured matter-of-factness lights my way in these early years, as I set out to essentially dismantle the stereotypical paradigms of American sexuality for my two children. I hope that early and consistent neutrality in language and tone and pacing can combat how we have normalized violence as a part of our culture. I hope that I can oversee, for the time being, just an IV drip of knowledge, slowly, deliberately circulated into the psyches of my sons so that they can eventually express the range of their masculinity without being assholes; that what dictates the range and motion of that masculinity is their humanity.