I wanted him to want me. I did not want sex. I remember him trying a few times. I might have whispered a “No.” I’m not sure. I do know that he gave up, and I passed out. I awoke the next morning with a blanket over my body, my clothes nearby. I was embarrassed. I was hung over. I was thankful.
And for all these years when I’ve thought about that unsettling night, I’ve felt the same embarrassment and gratitude — until I had two sons of my own.
And then I began to think of that night in a new way, realizing how angry I would be if I ever found out one of my sons took off a woman’s clothes without her full participation and consent. Because that doesn’t just show lack of judgment, it shows lack of human decency.
Their father and I are trying diligently to raise those boys to understand that everyone deserves respect all the time. Everyone. All the time. Drinks don’t negate that. A skimpy skirt wouldn’t negate that. A history of make-out sessions shouldn’t negate that.
There is a joke I’ve been told many times – usually by men – when I say I have two sons and no daughters. “You’re lucky,” they say with a grin, “because when you have a boy, you only have to worry about one penis. When you have a girl, you have to worry about all of them.”
I have laughed at that joke without thinking. But now I’m thinking. And as a woman, a parent and a mother of boys, that joke is really starting to infuriate me. And as is usually the case, the anger is masking something far worse: fear.
I fear for my sons. I fear for them having to grow up in a world that heralds their ability to get ahead, to be the boss, to “get” the girl. To score. I want them to view every girl they meet as a person and an equal, not a conquest.
But just as importantly, I want each of them to be viewed as a person and an equal themselves, not as a giant walking penis, a danger to girls everywhere. The joke is supposed to make me feel lucky that I have boys and, therefore … what? Don’t have to worry about them? Yet that same joke actually makes them the punch line. My sons are, essentially “all of them.” At just 5 and 7, my boys are already destined to be just a couple of jerks in a sea of immoral jerks that parents of daughters everywhere must guard against. Every parent of a male should be offended by that.
But we have to be more than offended, more than defensive. We have to give our boys the tools to rise above the stereotype they’ve been born into, instead of laughing at the joke that we allow them to become.
Right now, we’re doing a poor job of it. We teach our boys that it’s up to them to be the aggressor, to make a move, to ask her out. We teach our girls to sit and wait and hope for someone to invite them to prom.
Media and pop culture messages tell boys that girls are desirable and weak and emotional. Conversely, they show girls that boys are aggressive and strong and, more often than not, in charge.
The thing is, we’re not all that different. A psychologist’s look at nearly 50 statistical analyses conducted in a 20-year span showed that males and females, from childhood to adulthood, are basically alike in terms of personality, cognitive ability and leadership.
But instead of focusing on our vast similarities, we foster differences and power struggles between boys and girls in so many ways and on so many levels that we end up with something as preposterous as the University of Virginia’s recent mandate from its sororities’ national chapters, which banned all sorority sisters from attending fraternity parties on a recent bid weekend, citing “safety concerns.” The women expressed their outrage at such a backwards, sexist move, but the men should have been equally angry about the blanket implication that mandate draped over all of them.
It’s ludicrous that it is still up to the female to deflect negative attention, to prevent or stop sexual assault or harassment. (Or disappear altogether to avoid the chance.) Yet I can’t help but think that persistent mindset is in part because we keep pitting the genders against each other. Offense vs. defense. The very term “consent” means “permission,” which again makes the (traditional) female’s role seem passive. Why is the focus on whether or not she consents to his advances?
The tide won’t turn until we focus on what happens before that, and I don’t mean how many drinks are consumed or what anyone is wearing. I mean back much further, all the way back to childhood, to the time when girls and boys were not two opposing forces, before our differences were magnified and our sexual identities were laid out for us like neat little blueprints labeled with expectations and biases.
We’d be better off building them up to be on the same team.
Sexual assault has a clear definition: It occurs when a single line is crossed and a crime occurs. There is a perpetrator and there is a victim. But there are often other lines crossed on the way to an assault, lines of faulty judgment and poor communication and built-in lies on how these things usually go, on how it’s the guy’s job to convince or persuade the girl into doing something she doesn’t think she wants.
But I think the very first line that is crossed happens in childhood. It is the line that delineates the time before and after we forget or begin to disregard the fact that everyone on Earth is a person first, and a gender second. It is imperative that we stop tripping over that line, and allowing our kids to trip over it as well.
When you see those around you as human beings first, worthy of dignity and respect, then gender-based issues of attraction and power and weakness and scoring are undermined by the primary and pressing need to make sure the other person is cared for and respected. When you see someone as your equal, the need for coercion is replaced by the opportunity to practice meaningful, mutual consent. Nobody has to win or lose, attempt or defend. You decide together, as two humans, what you both want to happen.
So how do we stay on the right side of that line? I’m sure it takes all of us. My plan is to keep asking my boys about the girls in their lives, not asking them who they like, but asking them questions that get at the heart of our commonalities. Which girl is the best in math? Who do they notice is great at art? I want girls to be on their radar as people just like them, not as pink sparkly objects of their affection, so that when they do eventually feel that tug of attraction for someone, they see all of her, not just the parts they want to touch.
That mindset is an invaluable gift we can give our kids, even though in today’s world, it is not an easy job. I routinely have to answer questions like “Why are there hardly any girl superheroes, Mommy?” and “Why do you have Daddy’s name?” The answers don’t always come easy, but I figure if they’re still asking questions, I might be doing something right.
With the benefit of 23 years of distance between myself and that night in the dorm room, along with the grown-up knowledge of what a consenting sexual encounter is supposed to feel like, today I wonder how to frame that incident. I do not feel like the victim of a crime, but I can now see it should not have taken that long for the absence of mutual, meaningful consent to become apparent. I deserved respect, even in my inebriated state, not to be the object of an exercise in how far someone could go, what someone else could get away with. We did not treat each other like humans first. I was the girl, trying to look pretty and dutifully waiting for him to make a move. He was the boy, following a course of action he’d been programmed to follow his whole life. All I wanted was for him to like me.
Now all I want is for my sons to grow up and inherit a world where neither gender is at risk, or the butt of a joke.
Robyn Passante is a freelance journalist and Huffington Post blogger who writes about parenthood, faith and women’s issues on her blog, Holding the Strings.
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