Amid the acrimony over allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a female peer during his high school years, some parents have expressed concern that their sons might be held accountable as adults for their teenage behavior.
During a campaign rally in Mississippi, President Trump said the #MeToo movement was unfairly hurting men.
“Think of your sons,” Trump told a cheering crowd. “It’s a damn sad situation.”
On the “Today” show, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she’s often asked about being a parent of a daughter.
“I also have two sons, and I wouldn’t want a false accusation to be what determined the rest of their life,” she said.
The outpouring of fear is what some academics are calling “himpathy,” a term first coined by Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne in her 2017 book, “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny.” She defines it as the “excessive sympathy sometimes shown to male perpetrators of sexual violence in the attempt to preserve their reputation, power, or status.”
While statistics on false accusations vary, a recent study published in the Journal of Forensic Psychology found that about 5 percent of rape allegations in the United States between 2006 and 2010 were false.
We spoke separately to two parenting experts about concerns around boys and sexual assault: Alison Cashin, director of the Making Caring Common project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Michael C. Reichert, head of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania. Their responses have been lightly edited for length.
Are some parents’ fears that they can’t protect their sons from false allegations legitimate? What can parents do to minimize the chance that their sons will be in such a situation?
Cashin: The most effective way for parents to insulate their sons from sexual assault allegations is to help them develop a clear understanding of assault and consent, raise them to care for and value the humanity in others, and give them the tools to work through the powerful negative emotions that can sometimes drive boys and young men in particular to violate others. In other words, there’s no silver bullet. It’s the hard work of parenting.
The premise of some of these concerns is that boys shouldn’t be held accountable for certain behaviors (the “boys will be boys” idea). Are there real developmental differences between the genders or are we parenting our boys and girls to think differently about accountability?
Cashin: I’m not a developmental psychologist, but I think in the literature it’s clear that there are a number of important developmental differences between boys and girls. That doesn’t mean in any way that boys should be any less accountable for their behavior than girls. Many families — whether they intend to or not — also parent boys and girls differently and hold them to different standards in a variety of ways. But when it comes to young people’s ethical obligations in sexual relationships, we don’t do all that much parenting, period. Our research suggests that most parents don’t talk to their boys or girls about making sure that their partner wants to have sex, not pressuring someone into sex, not having sex with someone who is incapacitated and other key aspects of consent. Parents may have “the talk” with their kids, but it’s often much more focused on preventing pregnancy and STDs than on preventing assault.
When I was growing up in the early 1980s and boys would pull a girl’s hair and or even hit us, teachers would just shrug and say, “They must have a crush on you.” Can parents start talking about these issues of touching and consent earlier, so it seems more natural once they are teenagers?
Cashin: For younger children, it can be helpful to begin a conversation about consent when it comes to physical contact like touching or hugging. Letting children know that they are in control of who touches or hugs them and giving them the language to enforce those boundaries when they are young can help them feel more natural asking for and vocalizing consent later in life.
Are there any roads to talking openly about mistakes?
Reichert: We are in a period where there is a lag between what females will put up with and boys are conditioned to try to get away with. But boys are catching on (much quicker than adult men) and we just have to tolerate the messiness of this transition. Modeling respectful attitudes toward women and setting a high bar for intimacy at home will help boys make the transition.
Most of these concerns are coming from white parents. Are there cultural differences in parenting or experience that lead parents to think about childhood accountability?
Reichert: I do notice a difference between white boys and boys of color, in the degree of freedom and constraint, which is different. Boys of color are more conscious of crime and punishment, where white boys feel more latitude to act out. Boys of color receive explicit instructions about how to behave around law enforcement, and many white families [and] white boys believe that even if they test the limits and push against boundaries, chances are they will be spared consequences.
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