Raising boys who are accountable for their bodies

The story this week is of a Stanford swimmer, but it’s a sickeningly common scenario:

Boys and young men (often athletes) who rape women (often drunk or otherwise incapacitated) and try to use their merits and sites of privileges as a defense.

But he was an honors student…

But he was a varsity athlete…

But he volunteers at the local soup kitchen…

Or the most chilling to me:

But he didn’t think what he did was rape.

In this week’s story of the Stanford swimmer, many have lashed out at what they perceive as the judge’s “light” punishment for this particular convicted rapist, or shared their outrage at the rapist’s father’s attempts to get his son out of trouble, both scenarios which serve to perpetuate what many refer to as rape culture.

Rape culture, considered in-depth here, might most simply be described as a culture (including its media) that normalizes both the sexualization of women and the sexual aggression of men, so that when sexual assault does occur, the victims tend to be blamed more than the aggressors. Rape culture perpetuates rape myths (considered in-depth here), such as that victims “ask for it” by the way they dress or what they drink, that “boys will be boys” and can’t be held accountable for their testosterone-fueled bodies, and that you can’t be raped by a friend or significant other.

I’ve thought a lot about rape culture from an academic standpoint, taught about it, and researched it, too, but these never ending real-world case studies cut straight to my heart as a mother of four boys.

Am I doing enough to teach about consent and bodily responsibility in my own home? 

Rape culture doesn’t originate out of nowhere when young people walk into a high school party or a college campus. Rape culture, and the ways it distorts our collective understanding of our bodies and power, has its roots in many, many other types of interactions that begin as early as preschool. Opportunities for conversations about bodies, power, consent and responsibility pop up on an almost daily basis at my house, and I wanted to share a few of our humble but intentional attempts to address them here.

Scenario 1: But I wanted to keep playing the game.

  • Child A wants to keep running, chasing, tagging, tickling. Child B says he’s done. Our message to Child A: It doesn’t matter if you still want to play. The person you’re interacting with is done. They’re in charge of their bodies, and they can declare the game over. The first time they say “Stop” or “I’m done” or “I quit,” the game is off. As is perfectly exemplified about this cartoon about tea and consent, it doesn’t matter if Child B had been happily playing the game, plays the game most other days, or was the one who asked to the play the game. When they say they’re done, you’re done, too.

Scenario 2: I was so hyper that I couldn’t help myself.

  • At our house, we try to be especially aware of when one of our children claims to not be in control of their body. Maybe they’re feeling too hyper, too silly, too sleepy, maybe they joke that they had too much sugar or caffeine and that’s why they acted a certain way. These justifications don’t fly. We remind them that they are always responsible for the decisions that they make, and that they can’t use a temporary state as a justification for why they failed to listen, why they crossed a line, or why they broke a rule. It might seem silly and mild-mannered when the alleged culprit is Mountain Dew, but raising awareness around ‘altered states,’ and about how these states do not justify harmful or disruptive behavior, is a lesson we hope will have far deeper consequences.

Scenario 3: I’d rather not hug her goodbye.

  • One thing you’ll never see with our boys is a forced greeting with a guest. Our boys determine how they interact with the people around them — we do not require them to kiss or hug on demand, even if it’s a family member or a close friend. On the flip side, we make sure that our boys know that they don’t always get to decide if they get a kiss or a hug from someone else — that’s up to that person to decide, and it needs to be communicated clearly so all parties are on board.

Scenario 4: Do you think he might need help?

  • One of the most sickening aspects of these rape cases is how public the original assault was (often taking place at a party or even in plain sight on a street or at an athletic event) and the consistent lack of action by bystanders to stop what they see, or report it at their first opportunity (another by-product of rape culture.) Bystanders matter, and childhood sets up plenty of opportunities for children to practice ‘seeing’ the actions of other people, and determining if they may be of assistance to another person (reaching something, helping to pick up or fix something, fetching an adult or a tissue or a glass of water.) In my experience, getting kids to practice this sort of ‘seeing’ is not an easy task, especially as younger children often float through the world in a self-focused bubble. But by modeling this behavior for our kids, and asking them to think through possible scenarios, we hope to begin normalizing this practice of seeing others and acting on our instincts to care.

These moments with young children can feel innocuous, but they come up endlessly, and the lessons behind them need to be reinforced over, and over, and over again, as do all things related to children and their bodies and their tempers (kind of like how, if you’re like me, you’ve had the whiny “Whhhhhy do I have to brush my teeth?! conversation about 1,452 times.)

The hope is that by laying the foundation of bodily responsibility in our home when the context seems low-consequence and non-sexual, that the conversation can evolve into more serious and consequential scenarios as the boys grow older, so that by the time they get to those high school parties and college campuses, they’ve had plenty of opportunities to think about bodies and consent.

Only time will tell how successful these strategies will be, and there’ll be much to learn and adapt along the way as our boys grow, but it feels hopeful (especially in face of the never-ending stream of sexual assault-related headlines) to be starting these conversations now.

Ever watchful,

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P.S. If you’re interested in raising more emotionally intelligent boys, I highly recommend this thought-provoking article on fostering nurturance culture among men, which the author argues has great potential in reversing the realties of rape culture.

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