I was making small talk with a dad at a gathering a few months ago and the conversation had turned from college tuition and driver’s license tests to more serious topics, like bullying and harassment. I shared a couple of incidents my daughters had already endured—catcalling from strangers, an overly aggressive reprimand by a male middle school counselor—at the end of which the father of two chuckled, looked away casually and said, “I’m glad I have boys.”
I was disappointed in his nonchalance, his apparent mocking of the seriousness of the subject. Mostly I felt anger that he seemed to feel that because he had sons, he didn’t share any of my concerns for what my daughters or every other female on the planet was subjected to. I regret I didn’t have a snappy comeback, but comments reeking of male privilege always stop me dead in my tracks.
The #MeToo campaign that exploded on social media over the past few days has women coming forward with stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault, and one of the complaints being heard is that there is a lack of male voices. It brought up the question of what I wished I’d asked that dad that day: What are you telling your sons about the role they play in these injustices against women?
It turns out, people are having these important conversations.
Liz D. has two teen sons, and they’ve already talked about sexual harassment, what the #MeToo hashtag means and how they can be an ally to their classmates. “My 16-year-old brought it up to me and told me that when he is at school and hears boys talking about girls' bodies and whether they're virgins, he gets made fun of for telling them to cut it out,” she said. “And he said that a few times when he's been out at teen gatherings, he's heard that other guys say he's gay because he stands up for girls. But he said the hashtag is just another sign that he can't be a bystander and allow men to treat women like this.”
A dad of three, Aki N. witnessed an incident that he used as an opportunity to broach the subject of sexual harassment with his daughter, now 20, and give a stern message to his 18- and 11-year-old sons. “We were at an event at my daughter’s middle school when two boys started telling her friend that another boy liked her and that she should go out with him. She politely declined, but they aggressively insisted until she became visibly agitated,” Aki recalls.
“That's when I stepped in and told them to stop and leave her alone. I shared the story with my sons, and told them that this kind of behavior, while seemingly innocent, is a stepping stone to other situations where 'No' is not accepted and that the woman or man is forced to do something against their will," he continues. "I also told them that if I ever found out that they engaged in this behavior, I would have their balls. Yes, that’s what I said—verbatim.”
My 16-year-old son told me that when he is at school and hears boys talking about girls' bodies and whether they're virgins, he gets made fun of for telling them to cut it out.
Some parents are using their own experiences to start the conversation about the hashtag with their kids. “I asked my 20-year-old son if he had seen the #MeToo posts and if he knew what it was about, and he did. I told him that I also was part of #MeToo—he looked surprised,” Kirsten D. says. “I asked him what he thought about sexual harassment and as expected he replied it was wrong and disgusting. I shared with him the gist of a short piece I saw on Facebook about why it continues to be a problem, that it's framed in such a way that it's about the women not the men.”
But Kirsten also wonders about the different messages we're sending our sons and daughters. “I have taken plenty of opportunities to talk to my daughter about how she needs to be careful as a young woman and how to avoid bad situations and people, to always listen to her gut instinct. But when my son goes out, I say things like, 'Drive carefully!'" she says.
“Maybe I expected his dad to dispense ‘dad advice'?" she continues. "I'm pretty sure my husband never went in his room to say, ‘Hey, don't be a jerk to girls tonight.’ We know we've taught both our kids to be respectful and kind to people. I asked my son if I should have told him specifically how not to behave, but I was relieved when he said it wouldn't have been necessary—that it's common sense.”
My son is only 5 years old. It's hard for me to wrap my head around how to talk to him about #MeToo and the whole ugly issue of sexual assault.
Some parents know it’s never too early to teach lessons on boundaries. Cindy L. tells this story of a brief incident that lays out the essence of consent. “We were leaving a friend’s house, and my 3-year-old son wanted to give their daughter, also 3, a goodbye hug,” she remembers. "I told him he needed to ask her if it was OK.
“She said she didn’t want one, but her dad, afraid of hurting my son’s feelings, said, ‘Aw, give him a hug.’ I said, no, it’s fine, and then told my son that sometimes people don’t want hugs, and that he needed to respect when people said ‘no.’”
Jennie W. is already planning on how she and her husband will talk to their 5-year-old son about what behaviors are appropriate. “My son is only 5 years old. It's hard for me to wrap my head around how to talk to him about #MeToo and the whole ugly issue of sexual assault,” she says.
“But I know that at some point, my husband and I will need to talk to him about the meaning of consent," she continues. "I guess we'll start where it all begins, the first kiss. I'll tell him that if there's a girl that he wants to hold hands with, or kiss or hug, that he needs to ask first. And if she says, ‘No,’ he needs to respect that—no badgering, no cajoling, no ‘if you loved me.’ And that it doesn't matter if she is his girlfriend, or if he has been walking her home from school all year. No means no, and consent means both parties enthusiastically desire the contact.”