In the dead of night I was startled out of sleep by the click of my bedroom light being turned on.
I opened my eyes thinking I saw a figure at my door but the lights went out again making me blind.
Surely I was dreaming.
Confused I said hello.
Like an invitation.
Then he pounced.
I felt heavy gloves over my mouth and a sharp pain in my neck as my head was yanked back by my hair. He told me I would die if I made a sound.
I believed him.
What happened to me is statistically rare. It was a home invasion, and it was a stranger. More often it is someone the woman knows or has just met, and often involves a sense of entitlement on the perpetrator’s part. Either way it is more a crime of power and violence than it is a crime of sex.
Being a survivor of rape is more common among women than being a cigarette smoker. How is that even possible? Simple—we still live in a culture that supports rape.
Aggression is still valued in our boys, especially if they are involved in sports. The country is still full of leaders, coaches, and parents that subscribe to the “boys will be boys” philosophy—overlooking violence and giving little weight to teaching empathy, honesty, and respect not only for those above you but those next to you. The winner is the most powerful. The quickest way to feel powerful is to make someone feel powerless.
Women are still often portrayed as objects—to be taken, given, or manipulated and controlled. Objects aren’t human. Kicking a box is more acceptable to the mind than kicking an actual person. Women are still prey, and victims are still blamed.
This dehumanization of a female was very apparent when the Steubenville football players were convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl. They were town football heroes—“better than” and “powerful.” They also sadly ended up doing one of the least masculine things there is—they took advantage of the weak. when they came across a young girl sick from alcohol and barely conscious, where was the masculine urge to protect? When friends witnessed the violation of this girl, where was the instinct to be brave? To stop it? To fight for someone who couldn’t? A friend in the Steubenville case on the night of the party fought to take keys away from a friend who was going to drive home drunk. Moments later he walked in on a naked girl sprawled on the floor being violated and did nothing.
After the news of Steubenville broke, the Internet was on fire. I’ve never seen the term “rape culture” get so much play, and for that I’m glad. We need discussion, because something that happens as often as sexual assault should be talked about far and wide. In fact, let’s all keep talking about it until everyone is so exhausted from hearing about it that no one ever rapes again.
As a feminist and a survivor, it struck me as fortuitous that I gave birth to boys and not the girl that I always wanted, as it gives me the chance to help change the rape culture. This change will come from mothers but it also must come from men and future men. Rape is not a women’s issue. Rape is a man’s issue. Trying to teach our daughters not to be raped will never change the culture. We must teach our sons not to rape.
A new generation of boys is rising and they will have the power to truly shake the structure of the rape culture. More and more parents, like me, are steering away from gender stereotyping our young kids. I am teaching empathy and compassion. I am not valuing aggression simply because my kids are male. I am emphasizing respect for fellow human beings and honoring both (classically defined) feminine and male qualities. As my boys get older, I’m hoping to foster the knowledge that violence toward another person is usually done by the weak and out of control.
They will know that the strong take care of the less strong, that they can never be brave without first being afraid.
They will know that no person is “less than” another because of their color, sexual preference, or gender.
They will always know that they are loved, that they are worthy, and that others are worthy too.
When they are age appropriate, I will talk to them about sex.
I will talk to them about rape because the two are not the same.
They will know about personal space, asking permission, and respect for another person's body.
I will talk and talk and talk and encourage them to do the same.
Because talking isn’t just what girls do, it’s for anyone who wants to be heard.
Someday a long time from now, I will also tell them about what happened to their mother.
I have no reason to be ashamed of it, and they should have every reason to want to change it.
We can teach our sons not to rape, and we can teach them to change the culture that encourages it. We can teach them to step up, and speak out against rape and any other violent dehumanizing act. The groundwork for human decency starts at a young age.
When you truly see a fellow human being as an equal, an act of rape is unfathomable and doesn’t make sense.
We can teach our children to hold the door open for someone and to cover their mouths when they sneeze. We can teach them to shovel snow off of an ill neighbor’s driveway. We can teach them to hold a crying friend’s hand.
We can teach them to tell the truth. We can teach them not to rape.
There is a new generation of boys rising, and mine will be among them.
I believe it is possible that someday common sense, common decency, and common ground will be more common than rape.
This essay was originally published in print issue themed YOU.