By Lindsey Abston Painter | 28 January 2019 |
Lately, every time a feminist hashtag goes viral, or sexual harassment is debated in the media, I see people wringing their hands about their sons. What if my son is falsely accused? How can I raise a son in a world that isn’t safe for him? Anything he does can be misinterpreted as sexual, and then he will bear the consequences for life!
I’m just going to breeze right by the fact that these exact questions could be asked about our daughters. (How can I raise a daughter in a world that isn’t safe for her? Anything she does could be misinterpreted as sexual and she will bear the consequences for life!) I’m amazed at some people’s vigilance about protecting our precious sons, but our daughters’ safety seems only threatened when a trans person wants to use their bathroom—but that is a whole different ridiculous and false assumption, and not what this article is about.
I do, in fact, have a son. He is turning eight years old next week. So this question isn’t hypothetical to me. How can I raise my son in this modern #MeToo climate?
The first thing I’m teaching him is the concept of consent. We play a game—and have been playing it for years—that is intended to teach that. In this game I tickle him, or he tickles me. Or his sister tickles him, or he tickles her. But the point of the game is that at any time, and for any reason, the person being tickled can say “stop!” and the tickler has to stop—immediately. It’s part of the fun! Sometimes he will allow me to tickle him for a full minute before he yells “stop!” Other times he yells “stop!” when he sees my hands coming toward his tummy for tickles. Sometimes he likes to yell “Stop! Go! Stop!” in quick succession. In this, and any other situations, I want him to know that he controls who touches him and under what circumstances
The idea is that he has control over his body. He gets to make the decision. At the same time he learns to recognize that I am in control of my body, and his sister is in control of her body. When we say stop, he must stop. No delay.
But there’s more to this than the tickle game. My children both have full control over their hair choices. There was a time my son liked his hair long. There have been a number of times when I hated the haircut he chose.
He also gets to choose what he wears. Of course he gets my guidance on these choices. I can make some rules of my own, based on understanding that he can’t be expected to have. “You can wear that t-shirt in this 40 degree weather if you want to, but you are required to take this coat with you.” But he is the final decider when it comes to what he prefers to wear.
Understanding consent seems to be a problem with many adults. I read a study the other day that asked college men if it is okay to force someone to have sex with you. Before I share the result, I would like to say that the wording of that question is already problematic. You can’t “force someone to have sex with you”—that is called rape. Nearly one third of the respondents said that it is okay, or that they have actually done it. The researchers found that that third had, in general, a more hostile attitude toward women and a more casual view of sex.
Which brings me to the second thing I’m teaching my son: to respect women. Women are people. Surprisingly, a lot of our culture doesn’t seem to see us that way. I have heard prominent politicians talk about how the issue of rape came to their attention because they have a daughter. Which always makes me scratch my head. You didn’t know that rape was a problem before you had a daughter? Is rape only a problem because it threatens your daughter?
My son should learn that a woman are people, just like men. We are as intelligent, and as stupid, as men. Women aren’t a special breed separate from men, either more noble or less so. Women aren’t angels, and we aren’t devils. Some of us lie and manipulate. Some of us are honest and trustworthy. Some of us are smart, and some of us aren’t. We are not the fictional creatures he might see in movies or on TV, and certainly not the fictional creatures portrayed in pornography—which is a big danger to boys trying to learn how to treat women. (Not even porn actresses are the women portrayed in pornography—but that’s another topic.)
I want my son to realize that women make their own decisions, just as he does. I want him to understand women as he understands men: by learning about them as real people. When he is in a professional setting, he should assume that the women are as knowledgeable as men. When he sees women drinking and having a good time, he should assume the same things he assumes about the men: that drinking and having a good time isn’t a reason for anyone to be taken advantage of, ever.
When and if he dates a woman, he should respect her opinions and knowledge. He should also respect her boundaries. He should be kind and attentive to her. He should abandon the silly notions of masculinity that society will have taught him all his life, and do things like share his feelings, help with chores, take on a caregiving role when necessary, like if she gets sick, or needs someone to watch her pet, or needs help with an ailing grandfather.
I will teach him that false accusations of rape are real but extremely rare. (He is actually more likely to be raped himself than be falsely accused of rape.) That if he is respectful and follows the rules of consent, he needn’t be afraid.
I try to teach him that consent doesn’t just mean “when she says stop,” as our tickling game implies: it also means paying close attention to your partner to see if she feels uncomfortable or pressured. It means that if she seems to be having a good time but suddenly seems uncomfortable, it is his job to check in with her. That she can stop at any time—literally any time, even in the middle of intercourse—and it is his responsibility to stop.
All of the above applies whether he is married to her or not. I mention this only because there is some bizarre Christian element that believes marital rape isn’t real. For the record, it is absolutely real. And it is just as wrong as every other kind of rape.
My son is a sweet boy, but also a normal boy. He loves everyone, but doesn’t always get along with everyone on the playground; he hates doing his chores; he gives the sweetest and wiggliest cuddles; he loves chicken nuggets even though his mother thinks they are disgusting; loves asparagus, which his mother also loves; is a genius at puzzles and legos; and is still learning to respect other people’s boundaries.
And really, when we think about it, we are all learning how to respect other people’s boundaries. That’s not a thing any of us ever master. Our world would be a better place if we all spent some serious time learning that skill.
Lindsey Painter is a writer, teacher, and mother of two. She enjoys reading, playing with her cat, writing about feminism, and strawberry pie.