How to protect the world from our sons

My friends with daughters are terrified for their future. They watched this past year as a man accused of sexual assault was confirmed to the Supreme Court. They saw the bravery of his accuser mocked by the highest office in the land, occupied (no coincidence) by a self-confessed perpetrator of sexual assault. They watched as the #MeToo movement gained ground, offering some comfort but also serving as a harrowing reminder of the prevalence of sexual violence.

I have no words of comfort to offer these friends. In their shoes, I would be equally fearful. However, when one of them suggested that I was lucky to have a boy—lucky not have to worry about any of this, I had to disagree. The thing is, while my friends with daughters are striving to protect their girls from the world, I am striving to protect the world from my son.

He was four months old when it started. Comments about how he was “all boy” when he wrestled with his favorite stuffed animal, or how he was such a “ladies’ man” when he toddled over to a strange woman at a restaurant. I’m not shy about asking people not to say these things around him. The response I receive is usually an eye roll and some version of “Oh come on, he doesn’t understand what we’re saying”. Perhaps, but he will soon. Kids start to perceive stereotypes around age three. If you don’t correct them they assume that’s the way things are.

My son will grow up white, male, and upper middle class. He will come of age in the South, a region known for debutantes, college football, and Roy Moore. It is the epicenter of male entitlement and institutionalized misogyny. How, then, do I ensure that he doesn’t grow up to be jerk? Or worse yet, a criminal?

Sexual misconduct starts younger than we like to admit. As in the case of the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, men who commit sexual violence tend to start in high school or the first couple of years of college. Most often it involves crossing the line of consent with someone they know. Sexual harassment starts even younger. It generally kicks off in grade school as kids start to become more aware of sex and gender differences. By high school it is the norm, with no exceptions for race, class, or how much tuition you pay for that elite private school.

If you have sons, I’m sure that like me you look at them in all their little boy sweetness and think, “They could never be capable of that.” Yet the math is not in their favor. One in five women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Eighty percent of them will experience unwanted sexual comments or other forms of harassment. Someone is doing this to our girls. Our boys are doing this to our girls.

I say “our” because there is no such thing as other people’s children. At home I’m trying to do my part. I’m doing what the research tells me to do. I read my son books with strong female protagonists. He sees my husband doing laundry and loading the dishwasher. We try not to speak in gender stereotypes. In short, I have created a utopian bubble that looks nothing like the outside world. The truth is, though, that with two working parents, my son spends way more time in that outside world than he does with us.

In that world I’m not there to help him understand what’s right and wrong. So, if you’re his coach, his teacher, or the parent of one of his friends, now it’s up to you. If my son is at your house or on your Little League team, you are responsible for what gets said. You are also responsible for what doesn’t get said, because sexist comments and stereotypes that go uncorrected or unchallenged sound like truth to little boys.

No one wants their child to be judged for a mistake he made in high school. When that mistake is a crime, like sexual assault, the stakes are very high. I don’t claim to know what went on in Brett Kavanaugh’s head the night of the alleged assault. I have a feeling though, that it wasn’t a decision about whether he should or shouldn’t commit sexual assault. I’m willing to bet that what led up to his action was a long series of smaller rationalizations about the role and worth of women. Maybe that it was okay to interrupt a woman in class when he had something smart or important to say, and a teacher who let this happen. Or a friend’s older brother who signaled that it was acceptable to comment on a girl’s body if she looked a certain way or wore a certain outfit. Or a coach who didn’t shut down derogatory, objectifying remarks in the locker room. I’d bet it was all those things—the same ones that my son will probably encounter.

So don’t tell me that he’s too young to understand a sexist or stereotypical comment, or that one joke won’t hurt anything. The stakes are too high. Our children are watching, listening, and learning. If you think otherwise, then God help us all.