Those were the words the tumbled out of my mouth while discussing with coworkers the recent verdicts in the Steubenville rape case, and the deplorable responses from media outlets like CNN and Fox News. (CNN should hang its collective head in shame to be on par with Fox News in any context.) We were all equally appalled by the abject sympathy shown for the rapists by CNN reporters and anchors who seemed to utterly forget the victim, and Fox News’ cavalier broadcast of the victim’s first name.
It was almost as if they saw those two young as their own sons and felt sympathy for them, but somehow failed to see the victim as their own daughters — or even to see themselves in the victim. As the father of two sons, however, as I looked at those two young men I pondered what I can to as a parent to make sure my sons don’t become those young men.
And by that I don’t mean the weeping, remorseful defendants reacting to guilty verdicts, but the young men who raped in the first place and the young men who not only witnessed the crime and did nothing to stop it, but joked about it while taking pictures and shooting videos to share online.
I think that perhaps the circumstances of covering a rape case in which the victim is a minor whose identity is protected has an effect like that discovered while researching cases for the LGBT Hate Crimes Project.
I’ve written this before, but one of the most striking things I’ve found about researching cases for the LGBT Hate Crimes Project is how little information is often available about the victim. In some cases, where the victim or victims survived an assault or attempted murder, they may speak for themselves, unless they are minors or afraid of reprisals if they speak out. (Some victims are targeted because they are marginalized and less likely to speak out and report a crime against them.) In some cases — where the victim has been killed and was also a member of a marginalized group — the victim almost disappears, except for a fleeting sentence here or there in one news article or another, hinting at the life that existed before the crime that snuffed it out.
Protecting the identity of the victim is the right thing to do in this case, but it has the impact of making her disappear for many people who lack sufficient empathy or imagination to work out that the victim whose name they don’t know, whose face they never see, and whose voice they never hear is as real and human as the rapists whose identities are not hidden.
She becomes invisible. Her story, and the impact of the rape on her life becomes invisible. Even though the victim related her story in court, her emotional reaction to seeing the evidence and reliving the night in question were not seen and could not be seen outside of the courtroom without revealing her identity. The absolute necessity of protecting the victims identity robs her testimony of the visceral impact that the defendants’ reactions to the verdict obviously had on members of the media.
However, we shouldn’t need to see the victim’s face or witness her tears for her story to move us the way that the tears of the defendants — or, rather, convicted rapists — moved many member of the media, and many people in Steubenville. All that’s required is what the president referred to as the “expansion of our moral imagination,” sufficient to encompass the Steubenville victim and others like her, and “to sharpen our instincts for empathy” so that we see one another’s humanity and see another’s humanity and experience as equally valid and important as their own.
That’s how we as parents can begin raising boys to not only be men who do not rape, but men who can stop rape. As Kim Simon (mother of a four-year-old boy) puts it, we must teach our boys to be kind.
We have created this. We have allowed this. We choose not to demand more from our young men, because we see how big they grow in the spotlight. We give them adult power, without instilling in them an adult sense of responsibility and ethics.
It is time. Now is the time to make this stop. If you are the mother of a son, you can prevent the next Steubenville. It doesn’t matter if your boy is 4 or 14 or 24. Start now.
We must teach our boys to be kind.
Kindness in this context is the opposite of “Alpha Male” masculinity that our sons first encounter in the unwritten but brutally enforced tenets of “the boy code.”
“It’s shorthand for all the messages they’re getting from home, from school, the media, the marketplace … ‘Be a little man,’ we say. ‘Cut your mama’s apron strings … Pull yourself up …’ It’s got a lot of boys silently suffering with a pain they don’t even have words for.”
The extent of that suffering is debatable. But the power of the code is obvious, beyond our escaping.
It’s there in the bulging arms and ripped abdomens of action figures.
It’s there in the sexual objectification of women in video games and rap music.
… The code only gains adherents in a society feeling its way through redefined gender roles. When confused about sex or puzzled about why teachers sometimes seem to favor girls, boys struggling through their teens can always follow the code.
…The Boy Code is not one fashion line worn by all boys or even most. Rather, it is a list of accessories that — when piled on — make a full suit of armor.
Show no fear. Avoid the honor roll. Stick to sports (boys’ involvement in other school clubs is falling nationwide, surveys say).
Oh yeah, whisper to other boy-coders about sexual exploits you’ve never had.
It’s a brand of masculinity that, as John Stoltenberg wrote in his essay “Why I Stopped Trying To Be A Real Man,” requires constant vigilance to maintain, is constantly measured against others, may be called into question at any time, and must be regularly “proven” by “by doing dirt to women, making fun of queers, putting down people of other religions and races.”
Worse, it a masculinity defines anyone who happens not to measure up to its standards, or who happen to have been born without a penis, as “other” —different from and less than oneself, objectified, devoid of autonomy, rendered violable, and even ownable. As Stoltenberg writes in his book Refusing To Be A Man: Essays On Sex and Justice, it turns women in to objects of sexual gratification.
Before a man commits a sexual assault or a forced sex act, that man performs an act of sexual objectification: He makes a person out to be an object, a thing less real than himself, a thing with a sex; he regards that object as sexual prey, a sexual target, a sexual alien—in order that he can fully feel his own reality as a man. Not all sexual objectifying necessarily precedes sexual violence, and not all men are yet satiated by their sexual objectifying; but there is a perceptible sense in which every act of sexual objectifying occurs on a continuum of dehumanization that promises male sexual violence at its far end. The depersonalization that begins in sexual objectification is what makes violence possible; for once you have made a person out to be a thing, you can do anything to it you want.
Simon details how all of this — the “boy code,” “Alpha Male” masculinity, objectification, etc. — leads to rapes like the one that made news in Steubenville, and countless others that happen everywhere but don’t make news anywhere.
Sexual assault is about power and control. But it is also about so much more. While it’s true that big scary monster men sometimes jump out of bushes to rape unsuspecting women, most rapists look like the men we see every day. Acquaintance rape (or date rape) accounts for the majority of sexual assaults among young people: in colleges, in high schools, at parties, in the cars and bedrooms that belong to the men who women trust. These men are your fraternity brothers, your athletes, your church-going friends. They are somebody’s son.
Date rape is often saturated with entitlement. It feeds off of the hero worship that grows rampant like weeds on school campuses and in locker rooms. Young men are taught to be strong, to be athletes, to be feared. Young women are taught to be meek, to be feminine, to be small. As our young people begin to sort out relationships with each other and relationships with alcohol, they encounter an endless menu of ways to hurt each other.
As a community we give our athletes free rein. Young men are filled with the heavy power of triumph, their heroism illuminated by the bright lights of a brisk Friday night football game. Young cheerleaders spend hours painting signs for them, adorning hallways with flourescent notes of encouragement. Young men are known by their football number, their last touchdown pass, their ability to get any girl they choose. Young women fill the stands with hopeful smiles, dying to be noticed.
There is another way. Years ago, we sat down to watch a PBS Special, “Raising Cain: Boys in Focus.” At the time we were parents of just one boy (now we’re the parents of two boys) and wanted to learn whatever we could to help our son navigate the minefields described above.
The special was based on the the book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, which I’ve since purchased and read, an in which I’ve underlined many passages. The authors make some important points about raising emotionally strong boys that would go a long way to achieving what Simon calls for in her piece.
- Teach boys that emotional courage is courage, and that courage and empathy are the sources of real strength in life. “Popular movies aimed at boys seem to prize only one kind of courage: standing up to a physically larger opponent. The willingness to fight an enemy, to outwit a dinosaur, to defeat an alien monster, to look into the eye of a villain with a gun, is the media’s definition of male courage… Most important, boys need models of emotional courage in their own lives, not just in the media. We need to recognize and identify for them emotional courage in the lives of women and men, in our families and in the lives of children and others around us. In life and art, we need to provide boys models of male heroism that go beyond the muscular, the self-absorbed, and the simplistically heroic. Many adults display emotional courage in their work or personal lives, but rarely do we allow our children to witness our private moments of conscience or bravery.”
- Use discipline to build character and conscience, not enemies. “Sooner or later, everybody gets into trouble, whether as a result of his impulsivity, his activity level, or just because he’s human: it is a normal part of growing up. We believe boys need discipline that is clear, consistent, and not harsh. The best discipline is built on the child’s love for adults and his wish to please. If that impulse is respected and cultivated, children will continue to be psychologically accessible through their love and respect. If they are unduly shamed, harshly punished, or encounter excessive adult anger, they will soon react to authority with resistance rather than with a desire to do better.”
- Model a manhood of emotional attachment. “Boys imitate what they see. If what they see is emotional distance, guardedness, and coldness between men, they grow up to emulate that behavior…The loneliness of men has to be addressed in the lives of boys. Boys need to be encouraged to initiate friendships, maintain them, and experience the conflicts that arise in male friendships from different levels of athletic skill, from teasing, and from competition for the attention of girls. Too often boys lack both the resources and the will to resolve those conflicts and preserve friendships.”
- Teach boys that there are many ways to be a man. “Very few boys or men are tall, handsome, athletic, successful with women, endlessly virile, and physically fearless…Boys suffer from a too-narrow definition of masculinity, and it is time to reexamine that message…We have to teach boys that there are many ways to become a man; that there are many ways to be brave, to be a good father, to be loving and strong and successful. We need to celebrate the natural creativity and risk taking of boys, their energy, their boldness. We need to praise the artist and the entertainer, the missionary and the athlete, the soldier and the male nurse, the store owner and the round-the-world sailor, the teacher and the CEO. There are many ways for a boy to make a contribution in this life.”
It’s not a magic fix, and it’s not something that will happen overnight. But, really, is there ever a magic fix? Does any real, lasting change happen overnight, without daily efforts to make that change happen and make it stick?
As gay parents, we’re often asked if we think our boys might turn out to be gay. (That’s if the the question is coming from someone who’s at least trying to be thoughtful about what they’re asking. Too often we’re asked if we “worried” or “concerned” that our sons might turn out to be gay.
The answer is always the same: We don’t care. Whether out sons grow up to be gay, straight, bisexual or transgendered doesn’t matter to us. Nor does it concern us whether they are great athletes, artists, cooks, or anything else.
In other words, we’re not worried about whether they will grow up to be “real men.” We’re more concerned that they grow up to be happy, healthy adults who can take care of themselves, care for others, stand up for themselves and others when necessary, and leave the world a little bit better than they found it.
We want them to grow up to be good people. Period. If we can manage that, maybe we’ve helped stop another Steubenville from happening.