Making Men

On raising sons to not rape

Jen Wick Studio

Every time I read the words “rape culture,” I feel the distinct weight of being a mother to two young boys. I feel the responsibility of evolving beyond or around the scourge of sexual violence that people (often men) perpetrate upon others (mostly women). I think, “This problem is my problem; it is my husband's problem; it is my sons' problem,” and I feel heavy with its implications and complexities.
     I'm not sure it's enough to say, “Teach boys to be good people, and they will know not to rape.” We must be deliberate in rejecting the casual violence and rampant dehumanization that permeate our cultural norms.

It seems exceptional, the hypersexualization and hyperviolence of modern-day American culture. But it isn't. Raping and pillaging is a waaaaay-back thing. Like, the thing with which power has historically been taken, the thing upon which empires have been built. We live in a time, right now, of “ethnic cleansing,” a.k.a, literally raping the identity out of others, but it is not different or distinct from the violence that has always been used to take over the land, the lives, the identities of those overpowered.
     I make a tacit promise to my sons that their empires will be built on saying please and thank you, on focus and follow-through, on remaining calm, on the belief that there will usually be enough, and if there isn't, there will be a reasonable way to work things out.
     But, between you and me, I'm not certain. You know, because of the raping and the pillaging—everywhere and throughout time.
     We use sex to sell triple cheeseburgers and sports cars. We stock checkout stands with magazines full of “beautiful,” “perfect,” “sexy” bodies and faces, all staring empty-eyed at our littles idling in their grocery-cart seats. Objectification starts here.
     And then we overlay objectification with sexualization so casually, it just comes home via pop radio with your preschoolers: a few years ago, my then four- and five-year-old boys bounced around the house after school singing LMFAO's line, “I'm sexy and I know it.”
     I tried to be light as I cautioned, “Children are never sexy,” which obligated me to talk about sexiness. I explained it as an appeal so strong it drew the desire for mushy kisses from most all potential mates. My boys, cringing, decided they could just as well be socks-y.

A while back, a local high school girl wrote an editorial in the newspaper rightly chastising her school's administration for a student handbook that discriminates against females: the dress code for female students outlines strict guidelines on how long skirts should be, what parts of the body should be covered, what undergarments can or cannot be exposed. Boys are advised simply to look “neat and tidy.” This writer ends her essay by saying we should teach all students that an exposed leg is just a leg.
     And, whether from prudishness or my own lack of body confidence or my fear of being a mother-of-sons, I flashed to, “But what about an ass cheek? Or full cleavage? Or midriff bared from rib cage to hip bone? Why wear clothes at all?”
     In the neighboring high school where I am a teacher, we, too, debate the boundaries around appropriate student dress codes. A fifty-something female colleague, steeped in the revolutionary feminism of the '60s and '70s, mutters to me after a staff meeting, “Let the girls wear whatever the hell they want. Teach the boys not to look.”
     I swallow hard, no courage to say, “I'm not sure yet how to teach that.”

It is the middle of August and we drive by a teen girl in Daisy Dukes. My then-six-year-old son asks, “Mom, why do some people like to wear shorts so short they look like underpants?”
     I realize this is the moment when we will evolve.
     I say first, “Well, it's hot. And that kind of shorts is popular fashion.”
     We don't talk about hootchies or trashiness or womanly wiles. We don't talk about sexiness or hotness or sluttiness. And we don't do this because these are the social constructs and judgments that justify predation.
     We talk instead about how teenagers are at the beginning of the reproductive phase of life, that hormones may have them wanting to attract a mate. How one dresses one's body can do that. I tell my sons there can be pride and a sense of being beautiful and powerful when you dress in certain ways.
     This should be part of how my sons understand women from the get-go: that often their clothes have nothing to do with men.
     My sons know from books that in cave days, attracting a mate and reproducing would have built up the tribe. But we talk about how today's society has contrived a lot of requirements for modern-day survival—education, employment, acquisition—and that society frowns on reproduction before meeting those requirements has gotten under way. But, I explain, our urges—both to look for an ideal mate and to be looked at as an ideal mate—surface nonetheless.
     Society frowns on shorts as short as underpants, but society also sells shorts as short as underpants. My sons and I talk about how complicated that is, for your biology to conflict so strongly with the judgment of your double-talking culture.

While modern American sexuality is confounding, violence is a kind of cultural dope, manifested in gruesome, bluish or sepia-tinged Saw and Hostel movies; in dozens of basic cable TV programs (I admittedly am a fan of several of these); in video games that are both otherworldly and totally, terrifyingly of-this-world.
     And this is just the surface, speaking nothing of the vast virtual world, where anything—no matter how exploitative or inhumane—anything that can be typed into a search engine can be brought to life—right in the middle of your family room or on the handheld device in your minivan. Images that may once have been just the inner workings of society's outliers are now accessed in a few clicks by the masses. Our society is full of people who have seen things that can't be unseen, and I can't help but wonder if it dehumanizes us to some degree.
     Additionally, as a friend, also a parent of two sons, pointed out to me: around the age of four or five, we shift the role of human touch in the lives of boys. There arises a distinct fear that loving and hugging on our boy-children will somehow compromise their masculinity, that it will feminize them. It actually speaks, in some part, to our culture's deep homophobia, that on some level there are many people who believe that loving and hugging on our boy-children will make them gay. So we withdraw that physical affection, we curb the softness with which we approach boys. We resort to hair-tousling and chin-chucking; we tolerate when they jostle and roughhouse with one another. We aim to toughen them up, to make them into men.
     To further complicate the impact of violence, we popularly define personal power in frat-boy terms of “letting loose” and “going wild.” We mistake these catchphrases for lack of inhibition or freedom or authenticity. But it's really just when we divest ourselves of personal responsibility and empathy. We mask entitlement as enlightenment and ambition: “I am ready to have what I want,” or “I deserve to have what I want,” or “Real go-getters take what they want.” Our culture approves, as evidenced across all platforms of media, the use of violence in pursuit of satisfaction and fulfillment.
     This is a critical juncture wherein violence and sex can converge into the realm of assault.

There is power inherent in both sex and violence. I think it is instinctive to desire and fear that power. Perhaps in some mysterious proportion, desire and fear can produce respect.
     The desire to explore and understand these elements is natural. But I would agree with the arguments that there are no real American rites of passage that guide our children safely through either of these realms.
     It is mostly a psychic collision wherein we are jarred out of the innocence and wonder of childhood into the titillation and taboo of adolescence and adulthood. I believe that the earlier this collision occurs in one's life, the more desensitized one is to empathy and compassion. My theory is that if we can keep innocence somewhat intact through the tween years and allow it to fade or be peeled away, rather than shattered or ripped away, we can cultivate compassion and enlightenment.
     In American culture, kids learn about sex and violence mostly from one another: the blind leading the blind; the predators and coquettes sexting and catfishing; the bullies haranguing the weak in hallways and in cyberspace. Our young people often find themselves navigating these stomach-lurching waters alone, no voice with which to call to their adults for guidance or protection.
     And how this being unmoored educates: I think of the TED Talk “Make Love Not Porn,” where speaker Cindy Gallop talks about teaching a young lover that no, she did not want him to ejaculate on her face, as he had thought was normal from all of the online porn he'd seen.

When I remember that girl in her shorts that hot day, or think of my high school students whose spring and summer fashion choices are carefree and bare, I wonder about the judgment that takes shape in my own mind: how I want to pull these girls aside in cautious whispered conversations; how their outfits trigger in me an urge to Cover. Them. Up.
     Why don't I feel this way about my pierced and mohawked kids? Or my disheveled and schlumpy kids? I guess piercings and spiked hair say, “Back off.” Sweatpants and shapeless t-shirts are camouflage, invisibility. But intentional bareness, a peek at the parts of us that society deems private, says, “Come look.” It reads like an invitation, which troubles me when it is not.
     But that my judginess comes from a place of concern does not minimize the judginess of it. And if there's anything I know after all these years of being me, when I am judgmental about others, it usually speaks directly to an insecurity I have about myself. Truth: I have rarely felt confident enough for bare exhibition; I have often thought of men on some level as intimidating, dangerous, even lecherous. Even as I recognize the unfairness of that prejudice, I also believe that prejudice has protected me on numerous occasions.
     So can I teach the crux of what I want my boys to learn—how to distinguish between exhibition and invitation? How not to be dangerous, lecherous, threatening? At some point, they will feel the draw of that exhibition, their hearts will race and their blood will heat, and they… will… feel… drawn. That heat is part of what makes us human.
     But can exhibition—when it is just the outward appearance of someone—be neutralized? “The weather is hot, and those shorts are just shorts,” or “A low-cut neckline is what many find more flattering and empowering,” or, in the words of that young woman's editorial, “A bare leg is just a bare leg.”
     Maybe the more we humanize the objectification and neutralize the judgment around sexuality, the further we untangle it from force and violence and assault.

That day when my sons and I see the young woman in her shorts, and we talk about the desire to find a mate and to reproduce, they are curious. They have known for a long time that it takes a man and a woman to make a baby. They know that penises and vaginas play a part. But now they are curious about the mechanics.
     I am driving, but I think a second and say simply, “Well, you know men's private parts and women's private parts? They fit together.”
     In the rearview mirror, I see the boys look at one another with eyes as big as saucers, their mouths shaped into astounded Os.
     A week later, my younger son sits, shakes his head side to side, and out of nowhere, sighs, “I just can't believe the parts fit together.”
     It occurs to me then how sensitive and impressionable their imaginations are, even without diagrams or charts or blue language or scenes from PG- or R-rated movies; how just considering that the parts somehow fit together is astounding enough for now.
     So, on raising sons not to rape: I hope measured matter-of-factness lights my way in these early years, as I set out to essentially dismantle the stereotypical paradigms of American sexuality for my two children. I hope that early and consistent neutrality in language and tone and pacing can combat how we have normalized violence as a part of our culture. I hope that I can oversee, for the time being, just an IV drip of knowledge, slowly, deliberately circulated into the psyches of my sons so that they can eventually express the range of their masculinity without being assholes; that what dictates the range and motion of that masculinity is their humanity.


Family, Gender, Power, Values


8 comments have been posted.

After the last comment I had to look up some things. For the main fact of trying to put equality when it comes to the subject of rape. So first I looked up the definition of rape: Definition of Rape. The crime of rape generally refers to non-consensual sexual intercourse that is committed by physical force, threat of injury, or other duress. Common law defined rape as unlawful intercourse by a man against a woman who is not his wife by force or threat and against her will. So after seeing this basic definition, it is sad to admit that rape does generally lean toward the male on female scenario. So then I wondered what the average was for rapes made by women and found this: Little research has been done on male rape, so statistics are fuzzy. But here is what is known: – 1 in 10 rape victims are men. (Rathus, Nevid and Fichner-Rathus, 568) – In a survey answered by hundreds of rape and sexual assault support agencies, they estimated that 93.7 percent of male rape perpetrators are male and 6.3 percent were female. (Greenberg, Bruess and Haffner, 575) – Many people do not believe that male rape by a female exists. However, penile erection can be achieved under emotional duress such as anger, fear, and pain even if the male does not wish it. So while there are females that rape, it's still more recognized as something done predominantly by men. And while I'm all for equality between men and women, this unfortunately is not one of them. Maybe there are more rapes by women that are not reported, just as there are many of women by men not reported. The woman has always been seen as the weaker sex and so to think a woman can force herself on a man, it's hard to truly conceive that. But I can agree that these days, as women do fight for equality, they are stronger and more forceful than in generations past. It's an interesting concept to want to have equality of all things, but I think an article on "teaching girls not to rape" just isn't warranted at this time. And just from the original author's viewpoint, she has two boys and no daughters. So she feels it's her responsibility as their mother to teach them to respect women, and this is just her viewpoint on the matter. I'm sure if she had a daughter, she would speak on that as well. She's speaking of what she has experience on, which I think is one of the reasons we all read the article. If someone who has the viewpoint of raising daughters, and titled the article "On raising daughters not to rape" then I'm sure that would help with the equality you're searching for. I myself have two sons and one daughter, and I made comments earlier expressing the viewpoint of raising a daughter among this sexually thrived generation. And yes, I teach her to respect herself and not to be swayed by men or boys to do something she's not comfortable doing just because they say "But I love you". I also teach my sons to have respect for girls and if they say "no" to truly respect that. But it would seem out of character to flip those, and I guess that's just the way the media has always portrayed things when it comes to the subject of rape and the differences between men and women. This article has opened the conversation on so many different levels, and this topic of equality has been a new way (at least for me) to view the subject. So I do appreciate the comments and viewpoints of others, as I'm sure the author does too. I grew up with the author, have known her since we were six-years-old. She has always been so intelligent and has always had a way with expressing herself with words. And while it may seem her article is one sided, I'm sure it's only because it's what she knows, what she herself has experienced and what she can speak on through her own experiences. I'm not trying to speak for her, just speaking as a mom of three trying to raise my children the best way I know. Thanks.

Mary Ciffarelli | September 2016 | Champaign, IL

The reality of the matter is that most boys and girls are raised with basic moral and ethical worldviews. By the time we reach sexual maturity, virtually all of us know what is and isn't wrong, and what is and isn't rape. The unfortunate side to this reality is that there will always be people who lack regard for those morals (boys, girls, men, women, etc.). Additionally, the idea of having to teach men "not to rape," implies that men are born lacking morals, and are genetically driven to be aggressive rapists, which is simply not the case. There are over 7 billion people on this planet, most of them are likely not to be rapists. Criminals will always exist, and that unfortunately includes rapists. There is no harm for either boys or girls to learn self-defense, and there is also no harm in teaching both boys and girls about proper sexual behavior. While teaching both men and women the rules of consent is something that should be done, I would argue that most parents and schools teach children about about was is right and what is wrong. These moral teachings easily translate into how we should treat others as human beings. I am by no means, saying that we shouldn't teach boys and girls the rules of consent. However, when we explicitly make it about boys, and say something along the lines of "teaching boys not to rape," not only does it assume that boys are the only ones capable of becoming rapists, but that they are born rapists. This is a step back for the equality that I want to see amongst humanity. Until we stop making these sweeping generalizations about each other, true equality will never happen. Thank you.

Art | September 2016 |

Oregon Humanities Editor: A well-read copy of the summer 2016 edition (of Oregon Humanities) was just shared with me. I read with great interest Bobby Willis Soeby’s piece “Making Men”. It is time that more parents take seriously the responsibility for raising good citizens of any gender. I grew up in a home with boys and girls both and I recall a particular evening that my older brothers were asking our dad’s advice about getting classmates to date them. My father said: “Don’t worry if they say no, they’re just playing hard to get, keep asking, .” I laughed when he made this pronouncement. I called out to my siblings sitting with dad on the patio – saying “don’t bet on it”. We then had a family discussion, with both my mom and I presenting our female viewpoints. My brothers came to understand that “No” means “No” and by moving on to ask other girls out they would develop better social lives. After high school, my brother’s and I went on to good careers, long marriages and healthy families. Whatever gender our children are, we need to teach both viewpoints. While Willis Soeby’s boys may be younger than my brothers were, it is important that the culture of dating, and the ability to get over the disappointment of “unrequited” relationships is stressed in raising both our sons and daughters so that the culture of aggression, violence and “sex as power” disappear from American Culture now.

liz campos | September 2016 | ventura, ca

This response is coming from a man. I believe that we're over-stepping something important: There's an assumption in this premise about men who rape and that is that men have some kind of inborn tendency to rape... I hate to say it, but it's a view that men are 'born in sin.' Since this subject has been raised, I feel it's necessary to point out this oversight. No, men are not born in sin--they are not kids that somehow transition into raving lunatics that could rape at any moment. I'd like to highlight that, as with just about any other tendency, it's a LEARNED TENDENCY. It's what we learn by example from parents and through our many windows to society (internet, whatever). Let me set the point even more firmly by saying that kids come with all kinds of character traits that can develop into parts of their personalities, but how that manifests is largely through what they learn and CONCEPTS THEY ACCEPT. They are actually alright. Boys and girls, they are alright as they come. This also begs the question: Why are people taking such a complicated approach with their kids. Why are people making this so hard? When I heard the show and saw some of the responses, I thought, "These people are making this more complicated than they need to." ...As if they really had so much control over how their kids will really develop. Some control, yes, but it seems people are a bit touchy. No need to be! They come out of the box in pretty good shape folks, and you should know that you don't need to be SO careful. You will not commit a cosmic mistake with your boys or girls. Teach your kids respect as you would normally: Mainly be an example and throw in a few good words to make it sink in. Ensure they have a sense of self respect and self-worth as well. They'll want that for other then, too. If they feel loved, then they won't grow up looking for love or pleasure in such strange ways. If they learn respect for themselves (by example is best, parents!) they'll offer it to others as well. It's not so hard! Let's not make this a complicated conversation about this notion of having to steer boys away from some dark, innate nature which doesn't really exist.

Chris | September 2016 | Forest Grove

Great article. I just heard you on NPR and I agree with everything you have said. I would just add that boys and girls also need to be taught about "group think" and how you can find yourself doing something encouraged by others you would never do on your own, then wondering later how you could have participated in something you know is wrong. They will be tested by their peers in several dangerous ways.

Tom Petchell | August 2016 | Portland, Oregon

I tried to post a comment on this once but I lost it all before I was able to post it, so I'm hoping to get back some of my thoughts I had then. Wonderful article, and so full of insight. You're so right on target on the fact that our kids are so much more exposed to sex and sexually charged games, TV shows, entertainment in general. I too have two boys that I'm raising, trying to show them how to be a gentleman and respect other people's choice of clothing attire and choices of entertainment. I'm also raising a daughter, who is now 16, and ready to express herself through how she dresses. So when she spends her hard earned money on a dress that in today's standards is "the fashion" but dad and I feel is too short, what are we to do? She's not dressing this way in order to get the attention of the opposite sex, she's not inviting them to a roll in the hay. She likes the style, she likes how she looks in it, and as she puts it "It's the fashion these days!" Long sleeves and short skirt. If she bends over, all the world will see some very private business. But it's not form fitting, and not hoochiefied in any sense of dressing inappropriately. It's just too short for our standards. But I'm so proud of my daughter having reached a point where she actually does like herself, and likes how she looks and feels in certain clothes. I don't want to have to "dirty" it up by telling her she could be sending out the wrong signals to boys and men. Where does the responsibility line get drawn in this instance? Your boys will have very right to question why she wants to wear something so short, and she has the right to wear something that looks good on her and makes her feel pretty. I feel it's up to each parent to raise their children to respect themselves, and others. Respect their choices in what to wear, how to wear it, and then teach them that how they react to such things will be up to them. Will they be respectful and admire it from a distance, or be annoyed with it from a distance? Will they feel the need to "teach" her a lesson that if she chooses to dress like that, she will receive attention she's not trying to get? As a teenager I wore things my mom didn't approve of, things that were in fashion that she found unattractive. It happens with all generations. But the part that is the same, is that certain types of dress will attract certain types of attention. And we need to teach our children that there are various ways to react to things, and not to say which is the right way or the wrong way. Just which is the respectful way. Thanks again for opening this conversation. Especially when unwanted advances are still wide and prevalent among the young and inexperienced. Hormones going crazy and these children hitting puberty are still just that, CHILDREN! Their bodies experiencing things and feelings that are foreign to them and if it's caught by the peers before it's caught by the parents, the results can be disastrous. Keep that communication open with the children, no matter how uncomfortable. It shouldn't be so taboo like it was when we were kids. Our kids need to know they can come to us with questions, any questions, and we won't tease them or make them feel like they are being ignorant for asking and not already knowing. Social media is great at letting us know what to feel and how to react to something on the outside. But to get to that person on the inside, that's a parents job. And if parents don't do their jobs, then a peer will. Or even worse, social media will, and the mentality will be "It's okay because everyone else is doing it." Nobody wants to be different, but in the end it's all we have between us, differences.

Mary Ciffarelli | August 2016 | Champaign, IL

I 'got' every feeling of angst for her boys, society, even the world at large. All the realms affected from family life, education, religion (although unmentioned but somehow inclusive at any rate), social media, even to politics. And what exactly IS our culture? How can we teach when their are no rulebooks? How about including this topic in a library series topic, perhaps each stage of an individual's personal growth to each external influence (education, media, religion, politics, what have you) and somehow by brainstorming all of our hopes fears within the intrascope as well as the extrascope, come up with some fresh ideas or at least share little known great ideas so our culture can develop in a positive, rather than haphazard manner? My kids are all grown but hindsight has a wealth of knowledge and ideas too.

Pat Kiser | August 2016 |

Thank you

R. O. | August 2016 | Norfolk, Virginia

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