Mothers of sons accused of campus rape recently opened up to The New York Times and said that while they don’t deny their sons’ accusers felt hurt, while they know their sons were perhaps not falsely accused, they believe their boys were wrongly accused. And, they insist, there’s a difference.
One mother, Judith, told the New York Times, “In my generation, what these girls were going through was never considered assault. It was considered, ‘I was stupid and I got embarrassed.’"
The mothers lamented the devastating consequences rape accusations have had on their sons' lives. One woman’s son dropped out of college. Another’s attempted suicide. A third leads a “double life,” unable to confide in colleagues, avoiding all contact with college acquaintances.
It’s easy to turn your back and say, “Well, that’s what you get, rapist.” That’s my impulse, in fact, and it’s probably yours.
But just for a moment, let’s presume that while the victims were hurt, while the accusations weren’t false, these boys -- like the one who had sex with a girl too drunk to consent -- didn’t knowingly rape someone. Didn't think they were raping someone.
How does that happen? And how do you make sure your own son never makes the same mistake?
It all begins with teaching consent.
Fortunately, that education can begin at any age. Here are five ways to start teaching your son about consent right now.
1. Respect his consent. This gets awkward at family gatherings, but if Junior doesn’t want to kiss Auntie, or hug Uncle, or sit on Grandpa’s lap, he doesn’t have to, because it’s his body and his choice. You can substitute a handshake or a high-five for uncomfortable bodily contact. But it’s important you don’t push him into physical situations he doesn’t want. When you do that, you tell him that a person’s desire for touch doesn’t matter -- what matters is instead pleasing someone else.
2. Model and point out opportunities for empathy. Help your child step into someone else’s shoes. If a playmate falls down, teach your son to help them up. If someone is sad, teach your son to ask, “How can I help?” Don’t shy away from big injustices, like homelessness and poverty and war. Teach your child to see every person as a real human being with feelings, just like him. Nip teasing, taunting, and name-calling in the bud immediately.
3. Respect “No” and “Stop”. Your children need to know that when you tell them to stop touching you, you mean that they must stop touching you. It’s lots of fun to tickle Mama, but when Mama says stop, they better stop -- immediately. If they’re climbing on Daddy and it becomes uncomfortable, and Daddy says stop it, then they stop it. Right away, without question. Model that in your relationship with your partner; respect each other’s no’s and requests for space.
4. Ban the "boys will be boys" excuse. Boys chasing girls on the playground and touching them in any way against their will is not just "boys being boys," it's menacing and wrong. Comments about sexual assault are not "locker room banter," or "just how men talk." Period. The idea that boys are naturally naughty has to go. Dismissing bad behavior with tired old cliches sends a dangerous message.
5. Teach them to ask before they touch. You can do this when they’re little by modeling the behavior: “Can I give you a hug?” If they say yes, go for it! But if they say no, respect their wishes. Don’t just plop down on the couch and prop your feet in their lap; ask beforehand. If you make a culture of it in your family, pretty soon asking before touching will become second nature to your kids. This, more than anything, could help them understand what consent means.
As they get older, you can be baldfaced about it: you don’t have sex with girls who are drunk, because they can’t consent. You don’t have sex with girls who say no, because they are not consenting, and yes -- no always, always means no.
The mothers who spoke to the New York Times don’t think their sons raped those women. No mother wants to believe that. And maybe their sons really didn’t understand they were committing rape. But that doesn’t make their crime less grave. It does mean that they were never taught about consent. And we, as parents, need to do our damnedest to assure our sons are never in the same position.
Here's to raising good humans.
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