Ask them, “What do you think about the words, ‘rape culture?'”
Then listen. Listen to what they say and to what they express. Listen for the silences and hesitation.
Listen past the defensiveness. Bite your own tongue, if you must, but instead of building a rebuttal, try to hear what’s behind your boys’ words.
Paraphrase his words. Repeat them back to him. Ask if you’ve heard him correctly.
Ask for clarifications.
Ask to hear about his experiences.
Almost all of us can agree that rape is a truly heinous crime, and that no human should ever attack another that way. But things get complicated and slippery when we start to discuss and define rape culture, a term created by women to describe the systematic and habitual shaming and blaming of women for their own sexual assaults. A term created to describe the acceptance of sexual violence against women (in movies, music, etc) and the ways in which such an environment affects the thoughts, beliefs and actions of its inhabitants.
As a woman, I know these things happen. Women continue to be blamed for their own rapes; just recently, a judge in Canada asked a rape victim why she “couldn’t keep her knees together” or put her “ass in the sink.” Games such as Grand Theft Auto and TV shows such as Game of Thrones include graphic depictions of violence against women — and go to number one.
The conversation cannot end here. Because while women and men are drawing attention to females’ experience in our culture, our boys and men are suffering too. The vast majority of boys and men will never, ever rape or harm another human, yet males are increasingly looked upon as threats.
Don’t believe me? If you’re a female who has suffered at the hands of males, a female who continues to feel and experience the sting of sexism, it may be hard for you to accept as fact the idea that boys and men are somehow — or at all — disadvantaged in our society which, let’s fact it, was built by and for white men.
That’s where listening comes in. We can only learn about others’ experience when we ask about it, when we listen and when we are open to their words. So unless you ask and listen or observe carefully, you may not know that many of today’s boys feel they are deemed guilty, simply because they possess a penis. Not quite a year ago, one of my sons walked out of an assembly at school, one that was intended to end violence but focused only on male violence against women. An assembly at which the boys — all of them, and only them — were asked to stand and pledge to never hurt a woman.
The idea of never hurting a woman (or anyone!) is a good one, a valuable one. But the presentation — singling out the boys, all of them, as potential perpetrators of violence — not-so-subtly created the impression that “men are just monsters that society needs to put in little cages,” my son said.
Writer Jody Allard recently created a stir with her Washington Post essay, “My teen boys are blind to rape culture.” In it, she laments that her sons, now ages 16 and 18, “roll their eyes and argue when I talk to them about sexism and misogyny,” despite the fact that they’ve been listening to her “talk about consent, misogyny and rape culture since they were tweens.”
Talking, yes. But has she listened?
As a I read the article, it was very clear to me that Allard — like all of us — views the world through her own experiences. She is a sexual assault survivor, so of course the problem of rape and society’s treatment of women is at the front of her mind. Of course she wants her sons to know and understand why it’s important to speak up when a buddy calls a girl a slut or pressures his girlfriend into sex.
Right now, her boys aren’t doing that. Allard writes:
they aren’t willing to sacrifice their own comfort for my sake, or for anyone else. When it comes to speaking out against rape culture and questioning their own ideas and behavior, they become angry and defensive. Not all men, they remind me, and my guts wrench as my own sons mimic the vitriol of a thousand online trolls.
I wish Allard had put down her pen, her hurt and her preconceived notions long enough to ask her sons why they feel the way they do. I wish she’d listened for the emotions behind the anger and defensiveness. Is it fear? Fear of being unjustly accused? Fear of disappointing their mother? Frustration at being blamed, yet again, for something they haven’t participated in?
Maggie Dent, an Australian parenting educator and mother of four sons, recently wrote a brilliant blog post entitled, “The one questions mums of sons should ask.” In it, she writes,
there is often a mismatch between what a boy does and what his mum thinks has happened….Often when we see the world through just our mummy eyes we can misinterpret much of our children’s behaviour – especially our boys – as being intentional and deliberate.
The point she is making is that our boys have reasons for their actions and reactions. They may not act or react as we would, but that doesn’t mean that our interpretations of their actions (or inaction, as in the case of Allard’s sons) is necessarily appropriate or correct. Far more often that not, boys’ actions make perfect sense when considered in the context of their world.
If she asked (& listened), Allard might learn that speaking out against the popular guy who routinely calls girls sluts is social suicide. And if she was sympathetic to that explanation — if she could hear it and accept it and consider it from her boys’ point of view — she just might learn more about the pressure her boys face everyday. She might learn more about the reality and complexities of being a male in today’s culture. Until she understands that, it will be next to impossible to have productive conversations with her boys about rape culture and sexual consent and how to respond to covert and overt incidences of sexism, because whatever she’s saying now does not consider their perspective, their reality, their needs.
It’s true that her boys are likely doing the same. They have not been able to step out of their reality long enough to consider their mother’s perspective, to realize what it might be like to be a female in today’s society. But her boys are still teenagers. They are still learning about themselves and about other people. They look to us, in fact, to learn how to listen to and respond to others. And when we listen to them and open our hearts and minds to their perspective, we’re teaching them to someday do the same.
That’s important, because in order to have effective dialogues and discussions about difficult topics such as rape culture, we have to first know and respect the reality and perspectives of our fellow human beings.