What We're Failing To Teach Boys About Sexual Assault

by Sa'iyda Shabazz

As we continue the conversations around sexual assault and #MeToo, teen boys are being left behind. But it’s not in the way many people think. It’s not that we’re not considering them; it’s that we’re having the wrong kinds of conversations with them.

Many parents, especially mothers, are still looking at their sons as victims rather than perpetrators. We need to be sitting down and having frank conversations about the many layers of consensual sex and sexual assault. It’s hard, but our boys need to understand the true effects of sexual assault.

In a piece written for Time, Laurie Halse Anderson — author of books for children, including Speak, which is arguably her most famous work — talks about her experience with teen boys over the 20 years since the release of Speak. Because the book deals with rape and the aftermath, much of Anderson’s encounters with teens revolve around the conversation of sexual assault.

She notes that girls are usually the first ones to speak up, but that doesn’t mean that teen boys are excluding themselves from the conversations. The way they approach her is very different. While some feel bold enough to talk openly in the group forum, many approach her and speak privately. These boys are looking for someone to give them guidance — whether it be about their own trauma or how to deal with a female friend who is going through the trauma of sexual assault. They desperately want to understand what they’re supposed to do.

How do you, as a teenager, navigate trauma?

Teen boys need safe spaces to talk about sex, consent, and sexual assault. They need guidance on what to do if a friend opens up to them — about being the victim of assault, or being the perpetrator. By being there for them, they will be better able to handle being there for someone else, good or bad. Giving them the information and support they need will enable them to speak up for the people who can’t, even if that person is them.

The way we currently talk to our boys about rape, especially in light of #MeToo, we’re so afraid of our boys being accused that we’ve turned them into victims. They are not victims. A 2000 report from the Department of Justice noted that 96 percent of sexual assault offenders who were reported to police or other law enforcement are male. 96 percent does not a victim make.

In her essay, Anderson makes this very important statement:

“No boy has ever come out and admitted to me that he raped someone, but a few have said, ‘I might have pushed things too far,’ or ‘Well, we were drunk,’ or ‘Things got out of hand and… she refused to talk to me after that night.’ They don’t look me in the eye as they say this. They are not proud of themselves. Their confused shame is heart-breaking and infuriating.”

We must do better when we’re talking to our boys about consent. Creating a constant dialogue is the only way they won’t be confused about crossing the line. It’s never too late to talk to your boys. Teenagers still have developing brains and they aren’t as unwilling to listen to us as we may think.

The most eye-opening thing Anderson notes, though, is that in the 20 years she’s been talking about Speak, no matter what, there are boys who will argue that because her main character was drunk and had positive interactions with her rapist that she wasn’t actually raped.

“They are not ashamed; they are ill-informed,” she says. Mainly, they don’t believe that a seemingly normal, nice guy can be a rapist, even though a lot of them are.

If we’re ever going to move forward, we have to change the way we talk to our boys, especially teen boys, about sex. Teaching them “no means no” is a great start, but there is a lot of nuance that we must address. When we hear stories about things like sexual assault on college campuses, we’re seeing the faces of sexual assault — the Brock Turners, the Brett Kavanaughs. Those men — and men and boys like them — are the reality of what sexual assault looks like, and if we don’t teach our boys, they’re going to end up going down similar paths.

As parents of boys, we need to be clear about what consent is. One of the easiest ways to do that is to demonstrate it. It goes beyond the physical though. Teaching them to read cues is also hugely important. Because in these situations, girls aren’t always going to speak up, and boys still need to know that their silence or awkwardness doesn’t equal consent either.

Talking to our teen boys about sex isn’t easy, but it needs more attention than many of us are giving it. We will never be able to completely stop sexual assault from happening, of course, but the only way we can move forward is to have detailed, nuanced conversations about sex and consent.

Teaching them to read body language; teaching them that being in an altered mental state (drinking or drugs) doesn’t mean that consent doesn’t matter; talking to them about the effects sexual assault has on the victim; and being there to listen and answering any questions they have are the keys to raising a better generation of boys.