An opportunity to engage boys in talks about harassment

As awareness builds around issues of sexual assault and harassment, many in the country are just beginning to understand the pervasiveness of everyday sexual violence in our society that has long been a reality for many girls and women.

When it comes to relationships between men and women, in both formal and informal settings, it is clear that we have reached a cultural crossroads. As each day brings yet another revelation about a male boss, politician or celebrity behaving “inappropriately” toward a female, we as parents of boys have pushed ourselves to seek solutions. These solutions invariably involve difficult conversations with our children around issues of safety, boundaries and morals.

The #MeToo movement has encouraged women to speak out about their experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault. In response to these public testimonies, many parents of boys are further exploring how they can raise their sons to treat women in ways that are respectful and equitable. As parents, there is much we can do to initiate substantive conversations with our boys about the meaning of consent, boundaries and establishing relationships based on shared power.

Many boys are taught from an early age to believe that a hierarchy exists between males and females, and the expectation is that they climb to the top of that hierarchy. Perhaps there is no greater insult that is reinforced in our culture than to suggest to a boy that he is acting like a girl.

The socialization of boys from an early age often involves the rejection of anything that is considered feminine. Qualities such as compassion, empathy, nurture and vulnerability are largely discouraged. As parents navigate conversations with their sons, we must recognize how these messages are understood and interpreted.

In addition, we must consider the ways our society socializes boys to reject and loathe anything that is considered feminine and how that can later be taken as an invitation to disrespect, objectify and dismiss females. Boys who are taught from an early age to reject the qualities and characteristics that have been feminized in our society will be much more likely to grow up to become men who mistreat and devalue women in relationships and at work.

Despite the fact that nearly half of all girls in grades 7-12 experience some form of gender-based harassment or violence, most never report it. The fear of not being believed or being blamed often keeps many girls silent about their experiences.

Our conversations with boys should address the many layers of victim blaming, double standards and risks that women and girls have to navigate when deciding to share their experiences. We must reinforce the idea to boys that three of the most empowering and supportive words they can offer to their female peers are “I believe you.”

As boys grow older, many will find that their identity and status are largely tied to their willingness to maintain silence about inappropriate actions directed toward females. Conversations must encourage boys to listen to their ethical compass when they are faced with the decision of whether to speak up. Boys must identify the inherent privilege and power that exists in deciding whether to speak up. Boys must be able to recognize that the humanity of anyone, especially females, should always outweigh the social risks that might come with speaking up.

Engaging boys in critical conversations about gender-based harassment can be a challenging task for parents. By doing so, parents can honor the courage of women across the nation who have taken enormous risks by sharing their stories in hopes of fostering change for future generations. There is no question that boys can play an important role in that change.

McCormick is an assistant professor of social work at St. Edward’s University. Sloan is an associate professor and chair of the department of teacher education and director of the Social Justice Living and Learning Community at St. Edward’s.

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