Monday, March 18, 2013

Boys & Rape

Photo by sboneham
The verdict is in. The two boys accused of raping a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio have been found guilty.

The discussion, though, is not over. While pundits and Internet commentators parse the details of the trial and the crime, parents everywhere are trying to figure out how to prevent this from happening again. No one wants their daughter to be raped. And no one wants their son to be a rapist.

So letters like AskMoxie's "A Letter to My Sons About Stopping Rape" are circling the Internet, and moms (why does it always seem to be moms?) are saving the letter to show to their sons when the time is right. But do we really need long letters about sex to 8- and 11-year-old boys get the point across?

I don't think so. Remember, kids -- especially boys -- tune out words. Ever notice how simple, direct instructions catch your sons' attention so much better than long, rambling requests and explanations? That's because their brain is wired to catch essential info.

Boys (and girls) are also much, much, MUCH more likely to follow our example than our words. So if want to teach our boys not to rape, we need to:

1. Demonstrate consistent respect for humanity. Our kids need to see us showing respect for every single member member of humanity. Even the people we don't like. Even the ones who annoy us. Even the ones who act provocatively, in any way.

Our kids need to know that beneath every human exterior lies a person with a heart and soul and hopes and dreams, and I'm a firm believer that the best way to teach our kids this essential fact is to treat others with kindness and respect. Look people in the eye. Speak gently to them. Do not make derogatory remarks about others' appearance or history or behavior, and never, ever imply that someone deserves something due to the way he or she behaved.

Teach your children -- by example -- to give people the benefit of doubt. Teach them to treat others as they'd like to be treated.

2. Talk about our values. I will never be able to change the culture to conform to my values, and neither will you. I am also unable (and unwilling) to completely shield my boys from the world in which they live. But that doesn't mean that I need to stand silently to the side when TV shows, movies or music depict any kind of abuse or degradation of another human being.

When the media depicts an act or behavior you don't approve of, or seems to honor a celebrity for less-than-stellar behavior, talk to your kids. Talk about what you don't like. (My kids are well aware of what I think about Charlie Sheen's poor choices.)  Talk about why don't like it. Talk about what kind of behavior you value instead, and why. And whenever possible, serve up for-instances and examples of exemplary behavior.

3. Respect boundaries. It's next-to-impossible to expect our kids to respect other people's boundaries if we don't respect theirs. So when your son starts asking for privacy in the bathroom, give it to him. When he declines your offer of a good night hug, simply wish him good night; don't guilt trip him into hugging ol' Mom, or he'll learn that he should stuff down his internal instincts in order to keep other people happy.

Respecting your sons' boundaries may also mean listening carefully when he tells you he wants to quit a chosen and once-treasured activity. Certainly, you'll want discuss his reasons for wanting to quit, and it's best to ponder the decision together. But ultimately, you want your son to learn to trust his inner voice, the one that tells him when something doesn't feel quite right. And the only way you can do that is by listening to your son, considering his wishes and respecting his boundaries.

4. Speak up. Don't participate in the culture of silence. Don't keep shameful family secrets. All kids need to know that it's OK to speak up, OK to let someone know that something is wrong. So if you see someone being hurt, stop. Speak up. Intervene.

I once pulled the van over at the middle school when I saw two kids physically harassing another. I didn't know the kids, didn't fully know the situation, but had watched just long enough to know that what was going on was not fun for all involved. I parked the van, left the kids in the car, and got out. The bullies scrambled. I made sure the other kid was OK and stayed with him 'til his ride arrived.

I still don't know the kids' names. I don't know what, exactly, my kids took from that situation, but I'm pretty sure they know that 1) their mom is not going to sit by while a kid gets hurt and 2) that onlookers can help.

Am I being overly simplistic in thinking that these four steps can help stop rape? I don't think so. Rape was never about sex anyway. Rape is about power. Rape dehumanizes another. And learning to respect all humans, I think, will go a long way toward changing our rape culture.


  1. Love this post, Jen. You're right - ACTION is what my boys respond to, and I have to be a good role model in what I do as well as what I say. I also need to make sure the men in their lives are "in on it" with me.

  2. As usual, an excellent article. But I think you missed a 5th one:

    #5 Positive Male Role Models - They can seem to be in short supply. I feel it's very important for both boys and girls to have good men to look up to, who know right from wrong, know how to treat a woman properly, and know how to respect others.

    Surrounding boys with positive male models provides a template for how to behave and respond to life. And it shows our daughters what a good man is, so hopefully they choose wisely (I have 2 girls).

    Having a positive male role model can go a long, long way to preventing rape... and a lot of other violent problems facing our youth today

    1. Meagan & Vince, you're absolutely right. Vince, thanks for writing #5 for me!

  3. I would add one more: Be explicit. Tell boys how to listen to girls. Tell them that no means no -- in the middle of sex or whenever. Tell them that if a girl is drunk, sex is off limits. Period. I believe that when we tiptoe around these very explicit messages, we leave a lot open to interpretation. Sadly, rape culture is strong, and our children are hearing far more messages than we can counter by living our lives as examples.

    1. Good point, Laura. I really do think our boys (and girls) need to learn that "no answer" doesn't equal consent.

  4. Loved the article. I shared the link on my facebook page.