In addition to my work on STAND magazine I help organize the Greater Farmington Film Festival, which takes place every March in my hometown. This year one of the films we screened was the documentary “The Hunting Ground” about sexual assault on college campuses. This powerful film notes that approximately 20% of women in college have experienced some form of sexual assault, and gives voice to several brave survivors.
The aim of our wonderful film festival is to inspire acts of good and we present films that touch on contemporary social issues, such as bullying, human trafficking, health issues, climate change, and, in the case of “The Hunting Ground”, sexual abuse, all with the goal of inspiring audiences to take some action. We often pair the film with an area nonprofit organization working on the issues presented in the film and I usually introduce the films to our audience. This year “The Hunting Ground” was one of our most anticipated and discussed films.
However, a few days after the festival I realized that I missed an opportunity to address a significant issue during my introduction to the film. In the audience were many parents, primarily mothers, who’d brought their daughters to the film. But where were the boys? Where were the fathers bringing their sons out to learn about sexual violence and to encourage empathy for victims of sexual abuse?
Later I had a conversation with a woman who thanked me for presenting the film to our community. She stated that every young woman should see this film, and should learn the importance of avoiding getting drunk at a party, or walking alone across a dark campus, or going out with someone she barely knows.
But where is male responsibility in any of this?
Are we really satisfied with a world where women need to have emergency phones placed around college campuses? Where a young woman can’t make the mistake of drinking too much at a party without risking rape?
The truth is, I’ve never feared being raped. Not once. I have no idea what that fear is like and I imagine many other men feel similarly. Oh, I’ve worried about being mugged or assaulted but never raped. When I was a young social worker in Detroit I made a home visit to meet with a teen on probation. This was in the early 90s and I knocked at the door of his house for several minutes. No one answered. After several minutes a group of about five or six young guys approached me from up the street. They were chanting something. As they neared I was able to make out their words. “Rodney King, Rodney King, Rodney King”, they chanted, repeating the name of the young man who’d been brutally beaten by several white police officers in L.A. I experienced fear in that moment until one of the young men recognized me as the social worker visiting his house.
On other occasions, I was threatened with a gun by a guy on the street and one of my social work clients promised to stab me if he had to return to therapy. (He did, though never threatened me again.) I definitely feared that I might be harmed then and at other times in my life.
But sexual violence? I’ve never feared being the victim of rape. Of course, I do know that men are sexually assaulted (several men are interviewed in “The Hunting Ground”) and during my time in social work I treated many young boys who had been victimized sexually.
Many (if not, most) men, however, know very little of the kind of fears and anxiety that women experience about the possibility of sexual assault.
Although April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month it’s always a great time to consider how to raise young men to be aware of sexual assault, empathize with victims of abuse, and understand how to prevent future acts of sexual abuse.
As parents, educators, and mentors we might consider the following points when raising our young boys:
1. Encourage empathy
Some of us are more naturally inclined to empathy. My son, nearly six-years-old, is one of those. The other night we started to watch the Disney animated film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” After several minutes he left the room and stopped watching the film because he could not bear to see the abuse and ridicule heaped upon Quasimodo. My responsibility as a father is to praise that concern and sensitivity for the suffering of others, rather than mock it or humiliate him for it, as some peers might when he gets older, or as some “manly men” might suggest is more appropriate. My son has a sweet and compassionate spirit and I plan to encourage that in every way I can. That sweet and compassionate spirit is strength and not weakness.
Books and films can provide great opportunities for our children to learn and express empathy. Watch “The Hunting Ground” with your teenage sons.
We also need to encourage (and model) empathy in our sons who might have more difficulty with it. Demonstrate and model empathic language for them (for example, “Quasimodo might be feeling lonely right now. How else do you think he might feel?”). Share and express feelings of concern and hurt for the pain of others.
A good place to start is with a pet. As any pet owner knows, children can often be rough with the family cat or dog, and this provides a great teaching opportunity for the child to learn how his behavior impacts another creature.
Studies have found a link between cruelty to animals and later violent behavior as an adult so this early behavior and ability or inability to empathize can pose problems later.
2. Watch what we say
Don’t blame victims. Your son should never hear you suggest that a victim is to blame for their victimization. Your son should never hear you say, “she was asking for it,” or “she shouldn’t have been drunk”, or “she shouldn’t have been wearing that”, or “she shouldn’t have been out by herself,” or any other excuse for violence. There is no excuse and our sons should know that a woman should be able to wear whatever she wants, walk wherever she wants, and get drunk without fear of rape.
3. Watch what we watch (or listen to)
Nearly 200 billion dollars will be spent on advertising in the United States in 2016. Clearly someone thinks they have the power to influence our behavior by what we see and listen to. Still, many of us continue to watch movies, play video games, and/or listen to music that depicts (and sometimes even glorifies) violent and abusive acts, often directed at women.
We really are what we think about and what we think about is what we fill our minds with (books, music, films, video games, etc.).
The world will not suffer if there are fewer violent images in it. Really … we’ll find a way to still entertain ourselves.
And avoid pornography, which serves primarily one purpose and consequently leads some young men to believe that women have only one purpose.
4. Teach our sons to understand the word “no.”
A friend, the owner of our local bakery, told me that in her family they teach their kids that when someone says no, the behavior must be stopped immediately. This is a great practice and can teach the valuable lesson to our sons that as soon as someone is uncomfortable with a form of play, roughhousing (or later, sexual behavior) they can say no and the behavior must end.
It’s also important for parents to follow this and set an example here. If we’re tickling our children or teasing them and they ask us to stop then we should stop.
Instilling in our children the belief that no means no (and providing them the practice to say no) will be valuable later as they develop romantic relationships.
5. Don’t objectify women.
This should be obvious and is similar to some of the points above. However, we can objectify women in many ways that we might not even recognize, such as when we look at that swimsuit calendar (not unlike the way we view that classic car calendar) and consider women as simply something for us to look at, possess, or own.
My son and daughter gain a powerful perspective on relationships and marriage when the beautiful woman I admire and appreciate is their mother, rather than the woman on the cover of the Victoria Secret catalog.
Our sons (and daughters, of course) need to hear us talk about equality and to praise women for traits such as strength, knowledge, and courage.
Speaking of strength, my wife is the strong one in our family and regularly awakens at early hours I’ve only dreamed of (or through) and goes out for a long run.
Occasionally when my wife returns home from a run she’ll tell me about some guy who yelled out to her as he drove past or beeped his horn, apparently to express appreciation.
Men, enough of this.
Women are not out running for your pleasure. They are not out running so you can give cat calls, whistle, honk your horn, or ogle them. Women are running for their personal enjoyment and satisfaction.
They are not running for your amusement so don’t honk the horn and give a thumbs up to that runner you don’t know, all while driving your son to school.
6. Teach our children how to have a conversation about sex.
When I was a teen my father set me and my younger brother aside one day and had the conversation about sex. I mean “the” conversation instead of “a” conversation because I don’t believe any further discussions took place. Now many of us are uncomfortable when it comes to frank sexual conversations, especially with our children, in part because our parents didn’t talk about sex with us. This is something we need to change and there are many resources available to help parents communicate with their children about sex.
Teaching your child how to have a conversation about sex will help them discuss sex with a potential partner and enable them to clearly communicate about consent, ensuring both parties are comfortable and agreeable to any behavior.
It should be noted, of course, that the majority of men and boys do not sexually abuse women. That does not mean we don’t contribute to a culture that promotes violence, instills fear, and blames victims; in some ways acting as an accomplice to abuse.
We can do much better.
We can work together to reduce sexual violence and help bring about a world where our daughters can walk across a college campus and attend a party without fear.
Previously published on STAND Magazine