The Awesome And Terrible Responsibility of Raising Boys

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Date night with NicholasAt present, the web is a hornet’s nest of outrage over the light sentence given to the swimmer convicted of rape—and his father’s response—and his victim’s lengthy, no-punches-pulled response to her attacker.

And all of this makes me think about myself as a parent, and what this means about my particular responsibility as a parent of boys.

I have for a long time been convinced that the terrible ugliness that is sexual assault is a multifaceted problem. Saying that always lands me in hot water—usually by being accused of “blaming the victim.” So let me be clear: rape is no one’s FAULT except the perpetrator’s. No one is “asking for” rape, no matter what they wear or say or do.

Yet it’s a dangerous oversimplification to pretend that outside factors don’t come into play. Men are visually stimulated; it’s a biological reality. Alcohol removes inhibitions, and people under its influence say and do things they know are wrong and would never do if they were in their right minds.

Does any of this excuse rape? No. Men who rape are responsible for their actions, no matter how much alcohol they’ve consumed, no matter how much alcohol their victim has consumed, and definitely no matter what a woman is wearing.

But if we want a solution to this problem–which has been a plague of humanity as long as humanity has been around–we have to address every facet that exerts an influence. I have a lot of opinions as a woman about women’s responsibility, but what I really want to focus on today is the men.

See, another thing we’re not supposed to do is talk about sex when we’re discussing rape. Rape isn’t about sex, we’re told, it’s about power. But sex is the tool being used by men who rape, so you can’t pretend it’s irrelevant. And here’s the thing:

We have a cultural problem with sex. Men are taught–conditioned, even—to view women as objects to fill their desires. (See how that ties into “power”?) They are encouraged to measure their self worth by the size of their genitalia. The culture of boyhood teaches them to appeal to the basest, grossest part of their nature. In childhood, it’s fart humor and poop jokes. In college, it’s the bragging rights, the “let’s sit around in the lounge and turn every discussion to a joke about sex.” (In grad school a group of us one day were having a conversation about conductors, and I was talking about working under so-and-so, and this guy goes, “See that’s your problem. You’re always UNDER instead of on top!” Har har. You’re so witty. Excuse me for a moment while I add you to the list of “people not worth talking to ever again.”)

It’s not that girls never do this, but it’s not part of the girl culture the way it is for boys. Boys are conditioned to view their own gratification as paramount, and to belittle something that, truly, is the most intimate act in the human experience. I mean, as women, we are literally inviting someone else to take up residence inside our bodies. This is no trivial thing!

And this is the world my sons are inheriting. The world I’m supposed to be preparing them for, the world they will have to navigate. I already see them having to choose whether to buy into the boy culture or to stand aside from it, as their father has chosen to do.

Blog Dance 1I love being a mother of boys. I love how they just lay it all out there. I love the adventuresome spirit and the pursuit of thegrandiose and heroic.

I also love that they have, in their father and myself, a model of a relationship based on deep respect and a willingness to call each other out when one person is in the wrong. Whatever other flaws we possess as human beings, I am secure in knowing we are showing our kids what it looks like to treat the opposite sex with dignity. I know they are seeing a relationship in which the good of the other is paramount, and that it’s a two-way street. In which we set aside “me” (I’m tired, I had a hard day, I’m in a bad mood, I want to watch TV) for the good of the other. I love that we are raising boys who are watching the news and who are processing the world and trying to figure out how the puzzle pieces fit together.

It is an awesome and terrible responsibility, being a parent of boys. There’s no doubt in my mind that this ugly reality surrounding assault and the lack of dignity given to women can only be addressed if we get over our hangups about talking about sex. It can only change if we teach our children—all our children, but especially our sons, because let’s face it, for the moment, men still have more power to shape the world—how to treat everyone around them with dignity. It’s a hard lesson to teach, because it’s a hard one to model. It involves approaching choices with thought, rather than impulse, and considering how every choice impacts the people around you. It’s about moderation and self-control—two values that are really not a part of the consumer economy we live in.

This post has taken me pretty much forever to write, and as long as it is, I’ve abandoned almost as many words as I’ve included. So I’m going to hit pause for today and just conclude by saying that this awesome and terrible responsibility is why I am so grateful for the Theology of the Body—because in all the static out there about abstinence-based versus so-called “safe” sex education, this is the one philosophy that is really acknowledging the whole picture of humanity: What happens to the body also impacts the soul, and what injures the soul also affects the body. If we can use that reality to shape the next generation, it will make a difference
for the better.

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The Blame Game

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Every time something bad happens, the biggest topic of (cough-cough) “discussion” is: whose fault is it?

It may be a natural human tendency, but it does nothing to solve the problem at hand. Trying to boil everything down to whose fault it is leads to an all-or-nothing approach to complex problems. That ensures one thing: that nothing will ever be solved. Because as long as we are focused on how it’s someone ELSE’s problem, it absolves us of any responsibility to address the larger issues. And whether we want to admit it or not, there are always larger issues at play whenever a hot button topic comes up. But too often, attempts to open up those larger issues devolves into accusations of “blaming the victim.”

Photo via Pixabay

Photo via Pixabay

And that’s a shame, because the biggest, most important issues the human race faces do not exist in a vacuum. People’s choices and behaviors are influenced by a complex series of factors that include their personal experiences, their racial/communal memory, their philosophical and/or religious convictions (or lack thereof), the tone and bias of the news and commentary they encounter, and the society-wide messaging–which frequently pits very contradictory values against each other (i.e.: violence is bad, but violence in entertainment is good. Women are to be respected, except when showing them as sex objects will separate you from your money for a truck, a value meal, or a can of beer).

When we start talking about appropriate or inappropriate use of police force or about sexual assault, to name two, we cannot pretend these other factors do not have an impact. Violations to human dignity are everywhere, from the big and sensational to the way we entertain ourselves and even to the way we interact in comboxes and on Facebook. The problems are systemic, and they often go unacknowledged until they manifest in sensational (i.e. horrific) ways. But sensational or systemic and unseen, the problems are all tied together. If we are ever to make a difference, we have to address the larger context in which the individual violations occur. And the more time we waste hurling accusations about whose “fault” it is, the more ingrained those violations become.

When there are society-wide issues, the solutions have to be society-wide. But when we assign a problem to a macro level, we tend to forget that macro solutions involve a micro level, too. Big violations feel beyond our control, but big violations are built upon billions of little ones, and some of those happen in our schools and communities and even in our own hearts. And those, we can do something about. We have to have the tough conversations with our kids, because if we don’t, their attitudes will be formed by that conglomerate, in de facto ways, instead of deliberately, by those of us who love them. We have to examine our consciences for the ways we could act and don’t, or the ways in which we do act and shouldn’t.

When it comes to the societal problems that outrage us in the news, we all have a responsibility. That doesn’t mean it’s our fault. It means we have the power to impact the world for the better in some small way by the way we speak and the choices we make.

It’s time to stop playing the blame game and look for solutions.