Sexual assault has been in the news a lot lately, and the topic isn’t likely to fade away any time soon. Thanks to wall-to-wall media coverage, our kids know all about Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged assault…
Sexual assault has been in the news a lot lately, and the topic isn’t likely to fade away any time soon. Thanks to wall-to-wall media coverage, our kids know all about Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged assault of Christine Blasey Ford, Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior toward young female starlets and the drugging-and-raping that put Bill Cosby behind bars. They’ve heard President Trump describe this era as “a very scary time for young men in America,” and have heard the phrase “toxic masculinity” over and over as pundits and ordinary people search for the root cause of violence against women.
But exposure doesn’t equal understanding. Today’s boys are coming of age in a culture that simultaneously glorifies and demonizes male dominance. Long-held notions of “what makes a man” are beginning to crumble, yet an enlightened understanding of men and masculinity has yet to take its place. Many of our boys care deeply about respect and consent and are upset that the predominant social narrative paints all males as potential sexual predators.
You can help your boys develop a more mature understanding of sexual assault by introducing nuance and context into the conversation. Start with these five facts:
Boys can be victims of sexual assault too.
The #MeToo movement has drawn attention to the many ways women and girls are sexually harassed, assaulted and objectified. It’s important for boys to know that males can be victims as well. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), 1 out of every 10 rape victims are male. Experts say that at least 1 in 6 men have experienced sexual abuse or assault; and the actual number is probably higher because many men don’t ever tell anyone about their experience.
Contrary to popular belief, teenage boys often experience physical or emotional abuse in romantic relationships. According to a recent Canadian study, boys are more likely to experience physical abuse than to dole it out. One in 14 boys said they were purposefully hit, slapped or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the last year, compared to 1 in 25 girls.
False accusations are rare.
As the hashtags #BelieveHer and #BelieveWomen have gained ground on social media, some have begun to question whether it’s wise to believe claims that may be decades old. The trend toward believing victims, they say, puts all males at risk of being falsely accused of sexual assault. However, while false accusations do happen, they are rare.
According to a review of several research studies, the prevalence of false reporting is between 2 and 10 percent. In other words, there’s approximately a 1-in-20 chance that your son will be accused of sexual assault — and a 1-in-6 chance that he’ll experience sexual abuse or assault. The odds of your son being a victim of sexual assault are much greater than the odds that he’ll be falsely accused of perpetrating it.
Over the past year or so, many Americans have learned that sexual harassment and assault are far more common than they thought. However, it’s important for boys to know that sexual misconduct is not a given; it is possible to be a masculine man and respect women.
That’s a hard message to impart, given that movies, music and TV — and real life — often equate a man’s worth with his sexual prowess and imply that women exist for men’s sexual pleasure. In a recent poll of 1,000 American kids and teens ages 10 to 19, half of the boys said they’d heard men in their families make sexual jokes or comments about women. We can help our boys by pointing out examples of men who treat men, women and children with respect. We can demonstrate respect and discuss consent within our own families and circles of influences. And we can help our boys wrestle with changing social mores. Boys need to know that it’s OK to be a guy, and that being male doesn’t predispose anyone to (or excuse) disrespectful or violent behavior.
Many women don’t talk about their assaults because they’re afraid of your reaction.
The male desire to protect is socially ingrained and may be hard-wired. It can also inadvertently keep victims from coming forward.
In a recent Washington Post article entitled “Dear Dads: Your daughters told me about their assaults. This is why they never told you,” writer Monica Hesse shares heartbreaking snippets of messages she received from women and girls. These women didn’t tell the men in their lives what happened because they didn’t want to make things worse. They didn’t want to disappoint their fathers or see them cry, and they were terrified of further violence and trauma. “To the father of the teenager who was raped at a party,” Hesse wrote, for example, “You don’t know about this, because she was certain that if you knew, you would kill her attacker and go to prison, and it would be her fault.”
Saying things like, “If anyone ever does anything to you, I’ll kill him!” is not helpful. The best thing a boy (or anyone) can do for a victim of assault is listen compassionately. Phrases like “It took a lot of courage to tell me this” and “I’m so sorry this happened to you” are much more helpful than revenge-motivated action.
Peer influence matters.
Peer pressure is one of the most powerful determinants of sexual assault. Boys who are surrounded by peers who consider sexual activity a measure of success are more likely to feel compelled to seek sex by any means necessary. Conversely, boys who are part of diverse friend groups that include males and females and peers with a wide variety of interests are less likely to commit sexual violence.
Of course, it’s nearly impossible to curate your son’s peer group; the more you object to his choice of friends, the more adamant he’ll become about spending time with them. What you can do is talk to your son about the correlation between peer influence and sexual assault. If your son fears being accused of sexual assault, he should steer clear of guys who put a premium on sexual conquest. You can also support and encourage friendships with girls; as males and females get to know one another as humans, the likelihood of abuse decreases.