My daughters are big personalities. Not only are they tall, they are intellectually assertive and always have strong opinions. No wonder it came as a surprise to their younger brother, who could barely get a word in for most of his childhood, to discover that women are more likely to be dominated, abused and underpaid in society at large.
In our family equality is implicit, and my husband and I have always spoken to our daughters about owning their own power. Without wanting them to mistrust the opposite sex, we have encouraged awareness, and the #MeToo revelations of the past several months have only reinforced the importance of preparedness for abusive situations – from subtle lack of respect to significant physical danger, from parties to the workplace to public streets.
Of course we cannot shield them from difficult situations that may come their way, but they do seem well-prepared, and the #MeToo-related discussions taking place at our dinner table are only additive.
But what about our son? It is clear that the #MeToo movement is a teaching moment for our girls, but what conversations, lessons and support can we offer our sons at a juncture when so many men are being held accountable for bad behavior? Recently my son came home from high school and said something along the lines of, “I feel like I’m being judged and told who I am by people who don’t even know me.” It would never occur to him to not respect girls and women. So pre-judgment, just because he is male, is a hard pill to swallow.
This a complicated time, and it seems especially complicated for teens who are dealing with the emotional landscape of adolescence and navigating the new terrain of romantic and sexual relationships. As our teen boys work to gain confidence and strength, the media is rife with condemnations of men, and exchanges at school or in social situations may turn heated quickly, full of anger and accusations.
Change, even when it is definitively for the better, is often messy. Societal change is messy on a grand scale, and our adolescent and young adult sons may feel caught in and even demeaned by the melee. As messy and tender as this time is, as divisive as it may seem, it has the potential to result in the betterment of society and our sons deserve to feel part of that betterment. We can help them look beyond the surface to see that at its core this movement is about understanding and equality. This should not be a moment of admonition, but rather of revelation; when men and women are allies we are all stronger.
The first thing I do is I remind my son that he is not those men who are being accused. When he sees that hashtag, he may feel that an accusatory finger is being pointed at him, individually, or at men in general. But it is being pointed at abusive people who are male. Indeed, he may experience anger from females, maybe judgment from females who don’t know him. When an individual has been hurt or is afraid – in a classroom conversation, for example – they may express anger toward all males, and it might feel like it is directed right at him. It is hard – and this is a huge life lesson – but he should try not to take it personally.
I also remind him that although he may not have first-hand experience with an abusive relationship, may be lucky enough to have never witnessed sexual bullying or assault, it happens way too often, which is why this long-overdue public movement is happening. Defensiveness will serve no purpose. Compassion will go a very long way. If there is a way to let a girl or woman know he is on their side, it will strengthen her. It will also strengthen him.
Someday he might end up in a situation where he needs to step in and stand up for a female. It is not enough to identify a bullying or intimidating situation, he may need to intervene or get help to intervene. This happens in high school, in college, in the adult workplace…everywhere, and throughout life. It is less likely, but it could potentially happen to him. We talk about “group think” which is tricky because it can normalize behaviors that are not okay. The key is never to witness and allow an abuse of power, no matter the genders involved.
These discussions have been straightforward. He is a smart, intuitive kid and is usually a step ahead of me. But one important conversation, maybe the hardest to broach, I handed off to my husband. The Sex Talk is a gimme compared to the Porn Talk. Pornography is a subject that the public has not given much time in the discussion of #MeToo, but parenting experts who have been urging us all to have “The Porn Talk” for years (The Porn Talk: why, when and how to tackle this troubling part of modern life).
We parents can’t fathom the exposure this generation has had to pornography – when we were young pornography was a few magazines found by rummaging around the back of a garage. Our kids are coming of age in an era when porn is everywhere, and easily accessible. Porn is usually about sex that is devoid of intimate feelings. Often it is about sex that is violent and aggressive. It is critical for our kids – sons and daughters – to understand exactly what it is and what it isn’t, and how it could lead to confusion about what is okay in sexual situations.
We are by no means a conservative family when it comes to sexual mores – I am certain our kids would agree with that statement – but teens need to be told, and told again and again, that sex without intimacy does not belong in the same sentence as sex with feelings of emotional and physical adoration and tenderness. Our children’s generation could easily be led to believe that sex for sex sake is the main show, and/or that sex is just another athletic activity.
Although porn has become normalized, they need to know there is nothing normal about it when it comes to real life sexual relationships. Built-in to this discussion is the notion of consent. Consent is essential and critical in all sexual encounters. If a relationship grows and trust develops over time, if a long-term commitment is made, consent will become implicit. But even in a long-term relationship, nothing should be taken for granted. The rule of thumb for a male is to be overly sensitive and overly careful.
Finally, I want my son to know that I understand the bind he is in. He is growing up in an era where certain romantic gestures – the classic date, romance and sexual restraint – are perceived as outdated and uncool, even awkward. I heard a teenager interviewed on the radio recently who was very honest about the fact that she is much more comfortable interacting with the opposite sex on social media, that when a boy looks her in the eyes it makes her uncomfortable. With the exception of the prom or homecoming “ask,” both boys and girls, young men and young women seem, on the surface, to have adopted the idea that there is no need for old-fashioned gestures of romance, and young people are convinced that all other young people feel that way.
However, a recent study by The Harvard School of Education found that although there is a widely accepted belief, by parents and teens themselves, that teenagers are active and willing participants in the “Hook-Up Culture,” the vast majority of teen respondents did not want to have casual sex. We have 100% guaranteed our son that if he is patient and waits to meet the right person, someone who appreciates the romantic, slow-train approach to a relationship, he will be greatly rewarded.
After many dinner table conversations while our daughters were home from college over the break, a family viewing of The Golden Globe Awards and #TimesUp speeches, and discussion of the “#MeToo backlash,” the consensus in our family is that the #MeToo movement is not just a woman’s issue. This is a moment for all of us, young and old, male and female. It is not, at its core, about gender. Rather, it is about humans and power.
This is a movement pointing out an ongoing pattern of abusive sexual behavior, mostly toward women, that has been allowed to exist despite our proposed belief in equality. Hopefully, when all is said and done, this movement will be about the next generation doing a better job caring for and bringing each other up, banding together to protect each other from those who abuse power. Hopefully, someday it will become about good men and women recognizing that despite the appearance of division, we are all on the same team.
Kirsten Jones Neff lives in Northern California where she and her husband have raised their three children, ages 16-21. She is a freelance magazine writer with a particular interest in parenting and mental health, food and farming, the environment and the arts. She writes regularly for Edible Magazine and Marin Magazine, and several of her pieces on parenting can be found at GreatSchools.Org.