My client Lucy (not her real name) has a son in high school, dating a girl whom Lucy believes to be unstable. The girlfriend often breaks up with Lucy’s son, and then the girlfriend’s mother will call Lucy, claiming that Lucy’s son is a terrible person and broke the girlfriend’s heart. This has happened four or five times in the course of the school year. One night, Lucy’s son decided it was over, and Lucy got a call that stopped her own heart. According to her mother, the girlfriend was alleging that Lucy’s son assaulted her.
In the era of #MeToo, this story may have become more common than it once was, and parents are facing terrifying decisions between trusting their sons, whom they’ve always known to be sweet boys, and holding their sons responsible for abusive behavior.
This is also a tricky topic because there is so much misinformation about the rate at which women lie about sexual assault and harassment. The research shows that sexual assault is falsely reported at a rate of 2% – the same rate as every other crime. Because of surveys, it is clear that sexual assault is vastly underreported, but not more falsely reported than any other crime.
For parents whose son has been accused, or for parents who are worried their son will be accused, the specter of false reporting is almost as scary as the idea a report could be true. If there were a magic solution I could give you to make sure your family was never involved on either side in an assault or harassment situation, I would do it in a second, but it’s not that easy.
So, here are three tips I’ve gathered from working with these cases over the years.
Talk About Enthusiastic Consent.
First, talk about the issue. If you are too afraid to say something wrong or intrude on your son’s privacy, you can’t help him. Be willing to talk about it and answer questions. When you do, don’t make consent complicated—it does not have to be.
Be clear that consent is an enthusiastic “yes.” Consent is not the absence of “no” or bruises from someone fighting a person away. While that may not always be the version of consent the law uses, it is the safest version for your son to use. If he always expects enthusiastic consent before starting or changing sexual activities, he is protecting himself from a situation where someone is afraid to say no. Enthusiastic consent is not only to protect females, but it is also to protect males.
Privilege is Something to Honor.
In being a man, your son has certain privileges. Don’t get me wrong, daughters have privileges, too, but as a society, we still treat daughters differently than sons, and so the privileges are different. Privileges are something to honor, respect, and expand to other people.
Your son does not need to be ashamed of being a man because of the violence men have perpetrated against women; shame rarely helps anyone. However, he may be expected to take up more space or express himself more loudly than the girls around him just because of the nature of the privilege he has. It is easy for boys to believe they are entitled to the space their privilege gives them.
So, teach him to recognize and honor those privileges and to care when other people don’t have the same privileges. Teach him that advocating for other to have those privileges too doesn’t mean he’ll lose his.
Why does this protect him from allegations? Because most harassment and assault allegations start with a bad power dynamic.
It starts with a woman being—or at least feeling—like she is in a powerless place. When your son can understand there are things he takes for granted that women aren’t allowed, he is less likely to put himself in a situation where he expects something from a woman that she doesn’t want to give. He is less likely to engage with that power dynamic. If a woman does not say an enthusiastic “Yes!” to what he wants, he is less likely to feel entitled to take it. If he understands it as a privilege, not an entitlement, it won’t undermine his ego to let it go.
No parent wants to believe their son is an entitled abuser, and hopefully, yours is not. However, when sons can respect and honor their privilege, it allows them to respect and honor the people around them as well.
Model Good Boundaries
I once read the transcript of a student conduct hearing, in which a woman was saying she had tried to set good boundaries with her harasser and make it clear she did not want him to touch her. The harasser responded, “What about my boundaries? What if my boundary is to touch her??”
A boundary is like a property line. We often confuse boundaries with our expectations for how people should behave so that we can feel a certain way.
For example, it is not a boundary to say, “I want you to remember to buy me a birthday present and if you don’t, my feelings will be hurt.” It is not a boundary to say, “I want to come to your house and go through your stuff.”
It is a boundary to say, “No one may touch my body without my permission.” It is a boundary to say, “I don’t date people who lie.” The boundaries you model can help your son stay away from an unhealthy relationship where he is crossing boundaries or where he is with someone who crosses boundaries. If he expects only enthusiastic consent and respects his own privilege and boundaries, your son will be in a much safer place.
Related, here on GMP:
A gentleman shares tips on how to earn her enthusiastic consent and how to know when to get comfortable in the friend zone.
For ‘yes’ to mean anything, a few preconditions apply.
How can you ask for what you really want from a woman?