Raising Better Boys: It’s The Patriarchy
Once, I caused a car accident. Luckily I was the only person involved, but I definitely erred in judgment and was mortified. I ended up with a broken ankle, a towed car, and a heap of guilt. But those stakes were low, compared to this whole childrearing business. Being a nervous over-planner, I think about worst-case scenarios a lot. There are so many, and as parents we’re afraid of all of them. We have to carve out the day-to-day mental space to parent our children without a wall of terror flattening us at every turn, but somehow still keep the long-term in mind. Our children will be adults so soon, and their actions will have adult-sized consequences. Most parents hope to be the strongest influence in their children’s lives, even or especially once they exert no direct control over their children’s actions.
Which is why it’s disturbing to see parents, over and over, vehemently deny the possibility that their sons could have assaulted someone—particularly when those parents are women, subject to the same socialization and indoctrination women overwhelmingly receive. I wouldn’t want to believe such accusations about my child either, and I’m taking some parental pains to (I hope) minimize the likelihood that my children could hurt someone so egregiously. But I know I’m not perfect, and neither are my children. I don’t intend this as rape apologetics—not “anyone can slip up and rape another person”—but that we must acknowledge that a patriarchal society grants masculine people powers over others, which it’s possible they may abuse. Parents must acknowledge a near-inevitable future where their children will become sexually active in order to provide them with accurate information about contraception and sexually transmitted infections. We must also admit the possibility that our children could avail themselves of power differentials in sexual dynamics so that we can give them the ethical and behavioral framework not to.
I suspect many parents don’t actually do the work of instilling specifics, instead “leading by example” and “teaching them to be a good person” by “being respectful to women”. “We don’t really need to teach our sons not to rape,” says a mother identified as Judith, in a widely reprinted New York Times article. “How many times have I told you, you need to keep it zippered,” another mother in the piece recalls telling her son, when first hearing about the allegations against him. These are not the words of someone concerned for the victim, or confronting the morality of a child’s alleged actions. We most certainly do need to teach our children not to coerce, pressure, or take advantage of people sexually; to read and act upon the signals that indicate disinterest, hesitation, or fear; and to prioritize the well-being and autonomy of others over their own desires.
I’ve seen the objection that “we don’t teach our children not to murder people,” but I think it’s a specious comparison; we do teach our children to touch gently, to feel empathy for those in pain, to read expressions to recognize physical pain, and to avoid unintentionally inflicting injury. Most parents never get to a point of saying “never ever murder someone!” to their children, but most of us don’t need to, because we rigorously police any actions we see as possibly leading to such an outcome. Few people grow up in an environment where murder is normalized: where it’s expected that parents teach children to specifically avoid getting murdered; where it’s framed as a matter of personal responsibility on the part of murder victims; where people argue that the expectation of not being murdered is a recent innovation and to expect it of everyone is to apply today’s standards to those who grew up in a different era. Nor are there widespread expectations that anyone could be accused of murder for actions that might happen in the normal range of human interactions, that false accusations of murder are common, or that people should avoid discussing attempted murder out of shame or culpability. We are not with our children every moment of their lives, nor can we be—nor should we be. In order to draw hard lines in what many still consider to be a continuum of behavior, we need to discuss that continuum and the situations upon it frequently and openly. Young adults need the equivalent of “gentle hands” and “see what friends are feeling” for sexual consent. Starting at “don’t rape” and “don’t get raped” is neither helpful nor effective.
And what of when children actually are guilty? Carleen Turner, mother of former Stanford student and convicted sexual assailant Brock Turner, discussed her child’s smile, his childhood, his discipline and goal-setting, his kindness to other people, his family’s love for him in a letter to the judge—as if any of those somehow preclude someone’s ability to sexually assault another person. She describes the trial and verdict as having ruined his life and career trajectory. “His dreams have been shattered by this. No NCAA Championships. No Stanford degree, No swimming in the Olympics (and I honestly know he would have made a future team), no medical school, no becoming an Orthopedic surgeon……..all gone.” She was so certain he would have swum in the Olympics; was she also certain he would never sexually assault someone? I wonder if, before he went to college, Turner and her spouse ever discussed with their son that long list of things he now can’t do as a sex offender. “Your honor, please be kind and merciful to my beautiful son. He is suffering and will continue to pay for this for his entire lifetime.” I wonder if they explained to him how sexual assault works, that one’s behavior can cause someone else’s suffering, that experiencing such treatment can ruin that other person’s life and aspirations, or that one’s behaviour can cause other people to pay for an entire lifetime. The timeline of Turner’s letter is such that she’s no longer arguing that that her son couldn’t have sexually assaulted someone; she’s attempting to make a case that he should have no consequences for having done so.
Two of the women in the NYT article aren’t showing their faces. Three of them aren’t using their full names. One isn’t using any name at all. Is their desire for anonymity protective, or reflexive? Did they ever wonder if the parenting their children received played a part in the behavior leading to allegations against them? If these families defaulted to the norm, they may never have had a discussion about specifics of rape and sexual assault with their sons, brushing them off as an issue for vulnerable people to avoid, rather than for men to take responsibility over. A parental silence about sexual behavior and consent is irresponsible and unsupportive; patriarchy and the toxic masculinity it enables are the night that’s dark and full of terrors. That night is here for the most boyish of our boys, as well as our more vulnerable children. Teach them to push back against it.