When my son was born, 15 years ago, I gazed at his angelic little face and anticipated the things I'd teach him: Say please and thank you! Always wash behind your ears. Be sure to share!
And oh, while we're having this little chat, no gang raping, OK?!
No? That last one wasn't on your list?
But, you know what, I think it should be.
You may have heard about the high school boys who were accused of raping a drunk and unconscious sixteen year old girl in Steubenville,OH. Lesser known is the story of another young man, a Steubenville High alumnus, named Michael Nodianos. Nodianos appears in a video making vile jokes about the incident. Giggling, he says things like “she is so raped right now” and she’s “deader than a doornail” (as in, dead drunk).
There are a million directions to go with this horrifying and offensive story, but I want to focus on a statement by Nodianos's lawyer. He said, "[Michael] sincerely regrets his behavior and the effect it has had on all parties involved, especially his family. He was not raised to act in this manner."
I find the last part so interesting: "He was not raised to act in this manner." I imagine he wasn't, but apparently, that wasn't good enough. What exactly does it mean to not raise your son to laugh about rape?
I'm not blaming Nodianos's parents. This question is for everyone, including me. I think it's important to ask because I recognize this whole situation. Do you?
It reminds me of my own college years, where I found myself immersed in a party culture that was downright predatory. Groups of young men who were hyper-focused on sexual bragging rights did insidious things: from groups that created point systems to track their exploits; to young men who agreed to spy on one another’s sexual feats; to boys who would say anything to make a girl feel special; to date rape; to drunken rape; to gang rape. An intoxicated girl at a party was nothing short of prey.
Sure, I knew a lot of nice guys who would never engage in such practices, but that doesn't change that rape happened a lot. The worst incident I knew of differs little from what occurred in Steubenville. A friend of mine went to a fraternity party. The last thing she remembers is sitting at a table in the party room. When she woke in the morning, she found herself in a strange bed, naked. She could tell from the pain that she had been raped and sodomized. She found her clothes and shoes in a different room, a horrifying fact that suggests her naked body had been passed among multiple assailants in multiple rooms.
I think this kind of thing is far more common than people think. And the perpetrators aren't necessarily psychopaths. They're the boys next door.
Our boys grow up in a culture that normalizes violence against women. Our media blames the victim and our lawmakers talk about "legitimate" rape while our video games, television, film, advertisements, music and readily available porn all tell our sons to seek their masculinity through violence and sexual conquest. In a rape culture such as this, women come off as pawns, stepping stools, obstacles, or play things.
Put all these ideas in the boiling pot of a young teen's head, then add alcohol. Fold in a little group psychology and sprinkle with peer pressure. Top it off with a dash of drunken girl. Stir.
We create monsters out of otherwise run-of-the-mill, responsible young men. They don't break other laws; they perform well in school; they treat their friends and family with respect, but they treat women like trash.
How can we stop it?
I think one thing is clear. We won't stop it by simply not raising our boys to tolerate or perpetrate rape. Such a passive approach leaves room for rape culture to teach those things for us. We need to prosecute offenders, of course, but we also need to actively and explicitly push back, to teach our boys to value women as human beings before they have a chance to treat women otherwise.
How do we do that?
We can model positive male/female partnerships at home. We can beef up their media savvy by talking about how certain images objectify women. We can talk about responsible and intimate sex, and finally, we can talk about rape--especially the kind that might not seem like rape to them, the kind that happens between friends or acquaintances, or at parties.
So I told my son about Steubenville and Nodianos's video. I told him how the rules can feel suspended when you're drinking at a party, but that the morning will always bring accountability to the girl, the law and the self. I told him I knew women who were raped in college--that it wasn't uncommon. I told him he should never touch an unconscious or incoherent girl unless he's trying to help her. I told him that one day, he could find himself at a party where friends might suggest he have a go at the “dead” girl in back.
What would he do?
The most obvious answer, "don't rape the girl." But beyond that, beyond what he wouldn't do, what would he do? I realized as I was asking him, that I didn't necessarily know the answer.
These kinds of rapes occur, in part, because bystanders tolerate them, so we agreed he should stop it if he could. Yet, I admitted I could easily imagine a situation where that wouldn't be possible. In that case, I suggested, he should get out of there and call the police. I insisted that whatever he did, he could not be a bystander. I asked him to think of his sister--he would want someone to help her.
I speculated that he would probably need new friends after all that, but who needs those kinds of friends anyway?
Finally, I told him he could always talk to us about anything.
Of course, like Michael Nodianos's parents, I don't think I've raised my son to perpetrate, tolerate, or laugh about rape. But the Steubenville case made me question what I had done to explicitly raise my son not to do those things, especially since he's grown up in a culture that repeatedly tells him it's OK.
I'm glad he and I had this talk. I know I haven't solved the whole problem, but by giving him the gift of a little forethought, I'm doing my best to send this one young man out into the world with the understanding that a woman might be a number of things to him: a friend; a confidant; a partner; a lover, but never a toy.