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How to raise boys who respect women

I hope you didn’t come here looking for answers, because this will be a column full of questions.

How is it that we’ve come so far, but we haven’t come far at all?

Before feminism, men gave women a bad deal: You stay home, forego most opportunities for self-fulfillment, have no financial or physical independence, and put up with whatever life deals you, and we’ll take care of you. It was imperfectly enforced: poor women still had to work though with little pay and no status; all women had to risk that there were men who weren’t interested in holding up the we’ll take care of you part of the bargain.

Then we got feminism, we got some basic civil rights (though they’re still not guaranteed in the US Constitution), and we got the sexual revolution. That pact between men and women was thrown out: women were then expected to work, expected to do both the jobs they used to be confined to and also their new jobs, and expected to be sexually free. Men no longer had the responsibility of taking care of women; we were supposed to be strong and take care of ourselves.

Then we got third wave feminism or post-feminism (depending on who’s defining it), and we realized that we still hadn’t quite got it right. Men were still preying on women but women weren’t being protected. Women could get jobs, but with no guarantee that they’d be treated equally once they were there. Women were supposed to be sexually available but were also supposed to take care of themselves when they didn’t want to be sexually available. No one had clearly defined the line between “flirting” and “harassing.”

How do we raise sons in this world?

I don’t know. Men are now being called out publicly for behavior they committed which was excused under the first pact (any woman not in the care of a man is fair game), and which was encouraged by the second pact (women who go out in the world are sexually available to all men).

I haven’t asked them, but I’m guessing that the moms of these men didn’t raise their sons to behave this way. Heck, maybe even their dads didn’t. (Being a dad was different 50+ years ago.)

But I’m speaking here from the perspective of being a mom. I’ve always hoped that if you are a woman who expects and receives respect from the men in her own life, and if you model that behavior in front of your sons, it will eventually take root.

Here’s the problem: It’s not like you can enforce respectful private behavior the way you do, say, manners. When your child doesn’t say please, you prompt him, right? And eventually he turns out to be a polite person (when he’s not at home, that is).

What do you do when your child starts laying the roots of private disrespect for girls in his life? Will you even see it happening? How much more influence does what your son sees in media and out amongst his friends have on his behavior? We can do our best at home, but these things don’t happen at home.

If men’s private behavior is so different from their public behavior, how can we prevent it?

Is this actually a question about raising girls?

I am in no way a believer in the men-are-victims-of-their-own-biology line of reasoning. Men can, and do, control themselves.

All humans control ourselves: We learn not to defecate in the backyard. We learn to eat in a socially acceptable manner. We learn how not to throw fits at the DMV.

None of these behaviors follows our biological programming.

So the argument that men will be men and thus women have all the responsibility for protecting themselves is b.s., pure and simple.

How can we parents make sure that our kids’ experiences are different?

Boys that sees girls as friends and people first are less likely to treat women as targets later…or so we hope!

Humans will always be complicated, and no human system is perfect. But there’s just got to be a better way.

Men should know when they are harassing a woman.

Women should feel empowered to deal with it publicly.

As a society, we’ve been in a place where any woman not directly under the care of a man was fair game. We’ve been in a place where women were assumed to have full agency and were expected to stop victimization at the hands of men. But we’ve got to get to a place where men take a responsibility for their own and other men’s actions, and where women are able to get the support they need when they can’t handle something on their own.

But what is the path from here to there?

Sorry, just questions today.

Posted in Culture, Parenting, Sexual Politics.

2 Responses

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  1. Katie Augustyn says

    Very good questions. Thanks for the thoughtful article. I am the mother of a 26 year old son, and I have also thought about these issues. I appreciate the way you frame them!

    • Suki says

      Thanks! I keep thinking I’ll write a further exploration of the issue with – perhaps? – some answers in it, but somehow it doesn’t seem to be happening yet…!

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