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No Means No When Boys Say It, Too

Photograph by Twenty20

I’m sitting at the school pick up line and I watch as my 6-year-old lines up with his classmates. There is a girl on either side of him, each of them holding his hand so that his school bag slips down his arm to his wrist. I can see the frustration in his expression as he tries to pull the bag back up to the crook of his elbow while the little girl on that side of him makes a face when he lets go of her hand.

When I collect him a couple of minutes later, he looks unhappy. Tucked into the car, I ask him why he didn’t just tell the girls he didn’t want to hold hands because he needed to hold on to his school bag.

“I didn’t want to be mean.”

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I’ve instilled this in him. “Be nice to your brother,” “Be kind to your friends,” “Be polite to strangers,” “Imagine how you’d feel.” He is empathetic, but I haven't impressed on him the importance of his own body autonomy and his ability to say "no" if he is uncomfortable. I have said it, but not as much as I have said the other things.

“It isn’t mean to say you don’t want to hold hands,” I tell him. “It’s not mean to want to stand by yourself.”

Outside of the circumcision debate, I can’t remember the last piece I read that dealt with boys and body autonomy. Why is that?

He nods, but I’m not sure he believes me. He’s a big kid, almost a head taller than everyone else in his class and, as it’s a Montessori school, 3- to 6-year-olds are grouped together and he is one of the oldest in the Children’s House. The little girls follow him, calling his name, seeking his attention. He gets annoyed and frustrated sometimes. He’s an introvert, a kid who wants to play Minecraft and talk about robots, or simply not talk at all. It’s hard to be popular when sometimes you’d rather be alone. It’s hard to be alone when you’ve been taught to be kind and you don’t understand the nuances of setting personal boundaries.

My younger son is at turns shy and gregarious and, I admit it, he is adorable. With his blond hair, blue eyes, impish smile and bashful manner, he is a charming little kid. Once he starts talking, with a million thoughtful questions and a vocabulary that belies his age, he is like a magnet, completely irresistible to attention. Women gravitate toward him, tousling his hair and kissing his cheeks and claiming what a smart and handsome boy he is. And while he’s tolerant—to a point—I have seen the look of panic in his eyes when an adult he doesn’t know well touches him.

Like his big brother, I have had many conversations with him about what is OK and what isn’t—and I always reinforce that he can say “no” to hugs and kisses, and he can ask that his hair not be touched. But in the moment, faced with an adult (a “big grownup,” as he calls them), he doesn’t say no. He juts out his bottom lip and scrunches up his eyes and sighs heavily, which should give anyone pause. But rather than having the desired affect, his disgruntled expression just makes him all the more adorable.

It’s a challenge to raise little boys with good manners who also know how to say "no" when their own consent is ignored. From the little girls who wait for my 6-year-old at school, each grabbing his hand so that he can't carry his school bag, to the grownups who ruffle my 4-year-old's hair and pinch his cheeks, we don't often read about what it means to teach boys about body autonomy and their own very important right to consent. In fact, outside of the circumcision debate, I can’t remember the last piece I read that dealt with boys and body autonomy. Why is that?

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At this stage, I feel like I need to intervene when I see my sons put into positions that make them uncomfortable. I feel like other adults would be more aware of their discomfort if they were little girls. A little girl surrounded by adoring little boys is likely to be watched more carefully and removed from the situation if she seems unhappy (or even if she doesn’t), a little girl being fawned over by an adult man is likely to set off warning bells. We protect our little girls, and rightfully so, but our little boys deserve protection, too. They deserve our awareness that they do not necessarily enjoy the attention of girls and women and that they are entitled to the same body autonomy as little girls. My little boys still figuring out their own boundaries and limits and desperate for guidance and understanding. I want them to understand that “no means no”—including when they are the ones saying it.

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