Teaching Our Boys About Sex, Consent, and Respect

I seem to see a LOT in the media these days about sex and consent – specifically, about teaching boys about consent as a way to reduce/prevent instances of sexual assault and rape. I work in a university, and there’s a LOT of news in our field about various institutions constantly upgrading and re-visioning their approaches to sexual assault – everything from peer education programs and helplines to better processes for reporting assaults and supporting survivors.

More attention to sexual assault and efforts to prevent it are GOOD. There’s no doubt about it. And as a mom with a son (even though he doesn’t understand such topics yet), I’m grateful that this push is happening.

At the same time, I can’t ever escape the feeling that no matter how many articles are published about the importance of teaching boys consent, no matter how many clever cartoons or YouTube videos go viral for explaining why the issue of consent should be a no-brainer, no matter how many universities, school boards, and public health organizations ramp up their efforts to address this issue… we still have a rampant rate of sexual assault and rape in our society. And that’s just CANADA. NORTH AMERICA. Places that are (supposedly) ‘advanced’ and ‘civilized,’ with ‘equal rights’ for men and women, where the work of feminism has already brought us to ‘the good life.’

Unfortunately, I don’t think all of these efforts are tackling the real root of the problem. Because the real root of the problem is not that many men think they are entitled to women’s bodies. The real root of the problem is not that women have been shamed for centuries anytime we express sexuality outside of a very narrow (yet precarious and shifting) set of boundaries that we are always in danger of transgressing. The real root of the problem is that our culture as a whole has never really been willing to address or challenge the core belief that ‘men are better than women‘. That masculinity is superior to femininity. That the traits commonly associated with men – rationality, physical strength, self-assertion, and self-preservation – are somehow inherently more valuable than those assumed to be their opposites (and therefore associated with women) – emotionality, physical nurturing, cooperation, and vulnerability. And worst of all, that this value system actually does mean, even to people who don’t want to admit it, that those who possess the former have more ‘right’ than those who possess the latter. (Sure, there’s a lot of talk around increasing the value of typically feminine traits, but I feel this is usually framed with an attitude that feminine traits are a nice, politically-correct side dish to the main course of masculinity, which just needs a little tweaking, rather than a full overhaul.)

So we need to address this problem, at its root. As a mother, this means teaching my son that cooperation is just as valuable as self-assertion – and that a balance is the best route to leadership. Teaching him that emotional understanding is just as valuable as rational thought – and that a balance will allow him to make sense of his experiences in a fulfilling way. Teaching him that vulnerability is just as valuable as self-preservation – and that a balance is necessary for successful relationships.

In a more tangible¬†sense, it means never reinforcing for him (even indirectly) that it’s reasonable to write women’s feelings or perspectives off as ‘crazy.’ Never modeling for him that it’s ‘funny’ (even by remaining silent) to demean a male by calling him a female. Always encouraging him to see the value in other people’s perspectives – especially those that tend toward the feminine (after all, he’s going to get reinforcement of the value of masculinity from everywhere else). I will also have to talk to him about consent, sexual assault, and feminism. But those talks will make a lot more sense to him if he doesn’t have the subconscious belief that really, he is better than his female peers (for all the reasons above).

Only when we actually don’t believe in this binary hierarchy of values anymore – deep down in our collective, human, subconscious, most secret don’t-want-to-admit-it heart-of-hearts – will we be able to make a meaningful impact on issues like sexual violence, consent, and respect.

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