On Columbus Day, my son and I were at my mother-in-law’s home for dinner. There was roti and goat and doubles and ackee… I was in food heaven. Just as I sat down with my plate, my favourite aunt walked in. It was her first time seeing my son all year. She dropped her bag on the couch and spread her bangle bracelet-covered arms wide enough for the whole family to fit.
“Come here and give auntie a hug!”
My preoccupied toddler clearly replied “No thank you, I don’t want to hug.”
He continued playing with whatever he was playing with and I started eating my dumplings. She screwed her face up and was clearly offended. She sucked her teeth, crossed the room, and asked him again, as if he hadn’t heard her request the first time. He repeated his response — and she snatched him up to kiss him anyway. The whole family cracked up and really got a kick out of the way he struggled. I was horrified.
Maybe the most important part of this story is that despite my disapproval of her actions, I did nothing. Even now, I am ashamed. It was a chance for me to defend my son’s right to consent and I failed him. He quickly got over it and continued playing, but children remember and internalise these moments. There are too many of us who do what I did when someone if forced to do something against their will.
What We Teach Our Children
I know this might seem silly — it did to my relatives, obviously. But it made me think about the lessons we teach young boys about consent and what’s appropriate when it comes to touching. If unwanted touch is a thing that’s OK at that age, when would it stop being OK?
From then, I made made a conscious commitment to teach him (and demonstrate with my actions) three things:
- “No” means “no”.
- Only “Yes” means “Yes”.
- “Yes” can become “No” and as soon as it does, you have to stop.
I try my best to give him this same respect when he doesn’t want to do something. It is hard and seemingly impossible with a child, though. Any parent knows that our children will say no to many things that we make them do anyway: baths, eating vegetables, bedtime, etc. For me, outside of food, clothes, shelter, and health, I try to respect his decisions — and hopefully that will lead to him respecting women.
Why do I mention that?
My son is a three-year-old ball of love. He is smart, loving, playful, energetic, and adorable — like, even more adorable than all of the other adorable toddlers. His big, brown eyes, his unkempt curly hair, his heartwarming laugh… everything about his existence is the manifestation of all the good in this world. He would never hurt a soul.
But I am positive that Brock Turner’s mother thought the same thing about her son. Parents of the Steubenville “rape crew” likely never imagined that their sweet little boys would go on to rape a girl and claim that it was consensual. The mothers of the men who raped an unconscious teen on video probably thought their sons were little angels at some point, too. The problematic attitudes that my son will be exposed to outside of our home are the same ones that those rapists grew up hearing. I have been thinking a lot lately about what I can do inside our home to prevent those same variables from influencing my little man cub.
First, let’s break down what it is that we’re actually talking about — rape culture.
What Is Rape Culture?
Rape culture is the normalisation of harmful gender binaries. That is a complicated way of saying that women get blamed for being abused and men are rewarded for being abusers.
The societal belief goes like this: Women are weak, emotional creatures unable to think for themselves. Men are justifiably violent providers who have dominion over women and their bodies. Men escape blame for the bad things they do to women because the perception is that women exist to satisfy men. This is the root of rape culture. It is the reason victims blame themselves for being brutalised (“I shouldn’t have been drinking;” “I shouldn’t have walked home alone;” “He was my husband, so I guess I had to have sex with him even if I didn’t feel like it”). It is the reason rapists claim what they did was consensual, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The persistence of this culture stems from lack of belief in its existence.
Even before we are mentally ready to understand what sex is, these problematic ideas present themselves. Often, these gender norms are perpetuated by loved ones who don’t realise the impact of their words/actions. I know how deeply my family loves my son, but I am often mortified by the things they say to me about him. Things like:
- “Don’t let him wear pink.”
- “Cut his hair, he looks like a girl.”
- “You baby him.”
- “Boys don’t cry.”
- “That’s a girl toy, he can’t play with that.”
This is about more than just replacing a Barbie with an action figure. We teach boys that to be feminine is to be weak. This means that to be a man, you must reject all the characteristics associated with being feminine: crying, discussing feelings, asking for help, etc. It stuffs them into an unfair and unrealistic container that limits their emotional range and perpetuates the cycle. A boy who is prohibited from crying becomes a man who devalues people who show emotion. Although not every man who grows up this way will be abusive, it does mean that they will fail to truly be invested in anything (or anyone) that requires a healthy emotional response. They will rob themselves of a happier life and will potentially feel unsafe if they ever need to report assault.
Of course there are studies and academic theories and opinions about why men rape. After reading as much of it as I could stomach, what I have come to realise is that we have to start teaching our boys not to rape. Criticising girls for dressing a certain way is not effective. If anything, it is actually the reason so many rapists get away with — and in cases praised for — their horrible actions. It is common practice for a defense attorney to depict victims as sluts to discredit them.
More than 35% of rapists are repeat offenders. Only 10% of all sex crimes result in a criminal conviction. The average amount of jail time served is less than half of the time that gets sentenced. People don’t deserve to be raped because of how they look, where they are, or how much they’ve had to drink. Victim-blaming attitudes only prevent people from coming forward when they are assaulted. If the person you love most is attacked, you would not tell them, “you shouldn’t have been wearing such assault-provoking attire” or “if you didn’t want to be robbed, why did you buy fancy things?”
What Can We Do About This Right Now?
As mothers, fathers, caregivers, and people who want to live in a world where rape doesn’t happen, we have a responsibility to deconstruct rape culture. For those of us raising little boys, it is essential to recognise the different at play and deal with them accordingly. My plan is to continue encouraging my son to express himself freely and empower him to made decisions about his own body. This is a small step that will have a significant impact.
If I am ever in a courtroom with my son, I want him to be neither victim nor offender. I also don’t want him to be on the sidelines. I want my son to be a legislator working to ensure that the laws in existence are upheld and strengthened. The trends that discourage women from reporting rape must be stopped. My hope is that he will be a proactive advocate for the destruction of rape culture. I want to teach him in a way that makes him a compassionate and active advocate for what is right.