I have been on a period time piece kick lately when it comes to my entertainment consumption. Recent highlights were “Bridgerton” on Netflix and then the over 30-hour audiobook of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” While clothing, technology, and transportation have drastically changed, some things are still exactly the same — specifically, stereotypical gender roles when it comes to dating and sex.
We don’t have the same system of courting or arranging marriages these days, but we sure as fuck have a problem with thinking it’s a man’s job to pursue a woman and then eventually propose while a woman waits patiently for the right one — or anyone — to come along, and then hope he shits or gets off the pot. Was I watching and listening to relationships from the 1800s or catching up on the latest “Bachelor” gossip and being reminded of nearly every romantic comedy ever made?
And was I entertained or annoyed? Both, because some things are painfully comical about the way society continues to revolve around the heteronormative way of thinking that all couples are straight and cisgender. But what isn’t funny is that this power dynamic has contributed to — and continues to contribute to — sexual violence.
Sexual assault is about power. Boys who grow up to believe in society’s standard of masculinity are more likely to be sexually aggressive in words and actions. Males who believe in gender norms are more likely to sexually assault someone because they believe they are more powerful; they use sex to show that dominance.
Because sex and data around sexual violence is often discussed in binary, cisgender, straight terms, I’m going to present my opinions and facts in those same terms. However, transgender boys or more masculine teens and men will feel the same pressure to live up to society’s gender rules as their cisgender peers. The same goes for transgender girls and femme presenting folks.
When we reframe general expectations for all kids, no matter their gender, we can reduce the long-lasting and more dangerous expectations that live in how they view sex, and what they see as normal. This starts by teaching kids from an early age that any toy, article of clothing, or hairstyle is for any gender. We should encourage our kids to have mixed-gender friendships without placing weird sexual connotations on them that suggest he is a “heartbreaker” and she will need to be “locked up someday” because she’s so pretty. We need to raise kids who believe any gender can do any job and get paid equally for it.
We need to continuously talk about the ways sexism fuels our patriarchal society so that we know how to change it; if both men and women have a high tolerance for sexist remarks and unwanted sexual advances, women are less likely to see what they are experiencing as assault, and men are more likely to continue their behavior. When we make women less vulnerable and dependent on men in the home and workplace, we make them less vulnerable to sexual violence too. If a woman isn’t afraid of losing her job, her home, or her children, she is more willing to seek help and support. And if a man knows his bullshit doesn’t have leverage, he’s less likely to use it.
From birth and gender reveal parties to locker rooms and sexual education classes in high school, there are patterns and messages that feed our children’s notion of what it means to be male or female. Girls are emotional, nurturing, and need to be protected. Girls internalize that they are meant to look pretty and act in ways that attract boys. They develop the idea that they are objects who need to depend on men for safety, financial security, and sexual identity.
On the other side, boys are told to be tough and brave. They internalize the idea that they are the protectors and will someday be the man of the house. There is still stigma around women being the breadwinner of a family and even more so around the idea of a man being a stay-at-home dad. These messages mix with normalized locker room talk and the objectification of women. Boys begin to see themselves as superior to girls — in part because their peers consider being called a girl an insult — and a girl’s virginity becomes something to take. This is why so much of consent focuses on the “no.”
We are constantly telling our boys to listen to a girl’s no, while girls are more likely taught to say no as if they aren’t sexual beings too. Consent is the most important part of sex, but if we give girls agency to be sexual and not simply objects and passive participants, then we give them power. We can give their virginity, or lack thereof, back to them instead of it being something that was “taken” and now owned by someone else. Absolutely teach every sexual participant to listen for and look for signs of no, but we also need to normalize a female saying yes. We need to reduce the stigma around older girls and women who are excited about sex and pursue it rather than wait to respond to a man’s advances. A guy fucks 100 girls and is a king, yet a girl fucks just as many and she’s trash? Fuck that noise. We need to stop slut-shaming girls and women and let them own their sexuality.
If we don’t intentionally break gender stereotypes, we will continue to raise our children in ways that implicitly feed into rape culture. Whether the assault is from a stranger, domestic partner, date, or the fragile ego of a husband who begs his way to a yes, rape is about control. To be clear, coerced sex is rape even if you are married. No one needs sex, and no one’s desire for it is more deserving than someone’s lack of interest. If we want to reduce sexual violence, we need to improve gender equality, so that we shift expectations and distribute power to the point of creating respect.
I realize this is a very rooted problem — see “Anna Karenina” for ways women were blamed for a man’s infidelity and lack of purity — but we can start trimming back the tree that bears the fruit.