A few weeks ago, a friend stumbled across a picture of her 10-year-old son and his younger cousin that threw her for a loop.
While visiting a pirate museum with family, the two boys became intrigued with a statue of a scantily clad woman dressed like a female version of a pirate. His grandmother snapped a picture of the smiling boys, one on either side of the statue—each boy with his hand carefully placed on the woman’s nearly bare chest. My friend was horrified. “He’s only 10!” she cried. “Don’t they realize that’s wrong?” She glanced at me for my opinion. “Um… teachable moment?” I suggested.
Sexual assault prevention begins with educating our boys. After all, nearly 99 percent of sexual assault perpetrators are men (US Department of Justice). Cultivating respect and good boundaries from an early age is a prerequisite for healthy relationships in adulthood. To raise our sons to not sexually assault, we have to chip away at America’s persistent rape culture and debunk the rape myths. Rape culture —very evident in the media, on college campuses, in the military, and in some organized sports—downplays the prevalence of sexual violence and the harm it does to survivors. It perpetuates the myth that victims are at fault for attacks because “boys will be boys” and assault will always be a part of our society. Educating our sons from an early age about these false assumptions will get them on the road to understanding and practicing consent.
As the parent of a preteen boy—and as a sexual assault survivor—it is my top priority to raise my son to respect people and their boundaries. Sounds like it should be easy, right? Wrong! Talking to our children about sexual violence can be awkward and scary, but with the right tools and support, it is well worth the effort. Here are some essential “boys will be (real) boys” points to cover with your kids:
- “Real boys” understand that no means no. With youngsters, we can role-model maintaining appropriate boundaries for ourselves and respecting others’ wishes. With older teens and young adults, we can delve into the concept of consent in relationships. The Tea Consent video is a great way to get the conversation going with a college-bound son.
- “Real boys” understand that violence hurts people. Cultivating compassion for the needs and feelings of others dispels the myth that sexual abuse and rape is “no big deal” and that male and female survivors should just “get over it.”
- “Real boys” understand that pornography can hurt people. It desensitizes boys at an early age and can exploit vulnerable people (always a risk when money is exchanged for sex). We can restrict access to adult content on our kids’ devices and monitor their use of all media.
- “Real boys” know that the manner in which a person acts or dresses does not justify assault. For older boys, we want to send the message that regardless of how a girl acts or dresses, the rules of consent and mutual respect still apply.
- “Real boys” speak up when their friends treat girls disrespectfully or taunt other boys. We can help them practice strategies for challenging their peers’ verbal and physical assaults.
- “Real boys” tell safe adults when they see abuse. They get help immediately if someone they know is being hurt. As parents, we should teach them that reporting sexual abuse is a first step toward healing. We want to reassure boys that if they experience assault, we will always believe them.
- “Real boys” ask for help when their own behavior toward others becomes a problem. If they have bullied or assaulted someone, or are tempted to do it, we can teach them to speak up and ask for help. (StopItNow.org has excellent resources.)
One of the best ways to reinforce these messages with the youngsters in your life is to model healthy relationships at home and in public. “Do as I say, not as I do” does not work when it comes to sexual assault prevention! Be sure your interactions with your children and others exemplify the values you are imparting. This all may seem daunting, but we can start by taking it one step at a time.
Suzanne Alden is a sexual assault prevention advocate and survivor. Drawing on her experiences and knowledge of powerful personal healing strategies, she writes on the topic of sexual violence and has given dozens of talks to audiences throughout New England about the potential for bystander intervention on sexual assault prevention. Suzanne has degrees in sociology, women’s studies, and accounting and works in higher education.