Since women have started speaking out about sexual assault, starting with #MeToo and #TimesUp, I have seen a lot of moms say that they’re afraid for their sons. What if someone accuses my son, these women ask, and I can hear their hands wringing.
When I see mothers of sons asking this question, I feel sick. What about the countless women who are suffering at the hands of these men? How can we, as mothers, put our sons’ potential suffering over the actual, current suffering of women?
As I watched Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, blotting my eyes and nose with a tissue, my five-year-old son sat across from me on the bed. He was watching YouTube, completely oblivious to my sniffling. But as I looked from the screen filled with men ready to hand Dr. Blasey Ford her head on a platter to the sweet little boy sitting next to me, I didn’t feel fear for him.
I felt hope.
I have been teaching him about consent and respecting someone’s wishes for as long as I can remember. If we’re playing the tickle game, as soon as he asks me to stop, I stop. Even if he’s asking through an absolute fit of giggles, I stop. No means no, and there’s never a gray area there.
This year at his preschool, most of his friends are girls, which I love, not just because it’s good to have a diverse group of friends at his age, but also because it has given me more moments to reinforce our conversations about consent and respecting the wishes of women. When he went to hug one of his girl friends, I threw my arm between their bodies.
“Did you ask her if it was okay?” I asked him.
“I just want to hug her,” he said, confusion spreading across his face.
“We never put our hands on someone without asking them. If you want a hug, or a high five, or anything, you ask. Do you understand?” I looked him dead in the eye.
When he asked his friend for a hug, she said no. And that was that. He didn’t try to ask again, or try to hug her anyway. He understood that she didn’t want to be touched, and it was his responsibility to honor her wishes. When he stepped back and gave her space, I saw a flash of relief in her eyes. If she’s only four and has that look in her eyes, I can only imagine what it will be like when she’s 14.
I’m not mentioning this to pat myself on the back, but to make a point of how easy it is for us to teach our sons to respect boundaries. Not once have I ever thought, What if my son’s future is jeopardized because a woman accuses him of sexual harassment or assault? I’m instilling in him at a young age that consent isn’t optional.
Once he gets older, it will be so ingrained in him that he will have no other frame of reference for how he is supposed to treat a woman. He will know that a woman can be standing in front of him stark naked and high as a kite, and if she doesn’t explicitly tell him, “Yes, I want you to touch me,” then if he lays a hand on her, he’s in big fucking trouble.
As a mother, and as a woman, no matter how much I love my son, I cannot with good conscience put his future before the future of a woman simply because he’s my son. I am a mother, but I am a woman first and foremost. I try not to hide the reality of being a woman from my son; he will see me react to catcalls and harassment from men on the street. I’m also surrounding him with strong women and teaching him about the women who have paved the way for both of us.
I will admit, since the moment the sonogram technician told me I was having a boy, I’ve been terrified. What if, in spite of everything I do to make sure he’s a decent person, he turns out to be a Bill Cosby or Brock Turner? How could I live with myself knowing that he inflicted lifelong pain on a woman? People will say that because I have that fear in me, I’m laying the foundation for him to not become the type of man who will treat women like they don’t matter. And that’s probably true, but I can’t help but be concerned.
As mothers of sons, we owe it to ourselves and our boys to step away from the “what if he’s accused?” line of thinking. It’s not healthy for them because we will go out of our way to shelter them from the reality of male entitlement, which could ultimately breed that entitlement. I will continue to not only teach my son consent, but to teach him how stand up for women — and not just the women in his life, but all women.
The #MeToo movement has given me just another tool to make sure that I’m raising the kind of man I would be proud to know: one that understands his privilege as a man and never uses that privilege to exploit or demean a woman.
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