After Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was accused of teenage sexual misconduct in the fall of 2018, President Trump stood on the White House lawn and said, “It’s a very scary time for young men in America. This is a very, very — this is a very difficult time. What’s happening here has much more to do than even the appointment of a Supreme Court justice.”
Fallout from the #MeToo movement continues to be one of the most polarizing topics in our current political climate. For parents of sons, navigating complex and sensitive conversations with their boys about sexual consent, harassment and assault, and respect for women and LGBTQ people is difficult enough, especially when they’re young. And, it’s only compounded by the fear President Trump is helping to spread that young men could be unjustly accused.
“You don’t really know how to have [these conversations], you’re not prepared for them. I don’t think that we had them when we were growing up,” says Gemma Gaudette, a Boise-based radio host and mother to two young sons. “I think going into these tween and teen years it’s like parenting on steroids. It’s this whole new level that I have not been prepared for. I’m reading books and all of this.”
Ruth Whippman, an author and mother of three young sons, says that as a self-identifying feminist, conversations with her kids about these issues can cause some cognitive dissonance for her.
“I think it’s a really complicated time to be raising boys, because as a feminist I don’t want to be there saying, ‘Oh, boys are the real victims here, and feminism has gone too far.’ … But I think there are some pressures and difficulties, which are very specific to boys in this moment, and they are part of the conversation of feminism and gender roles,” she says.
“I think the whole atmosphere has gotten so charged when we come to gender politics, and to defend boys feels like you’re somehow denigrating girls, or denigrating feminism, which is absolutely the opposite of what I want to do. And it sort of feels a bit of an ‘us versus them’ thing, and if you tell one story, you’re automatically taking up space that could be used to tell another story. “
It can feel like a difficult balancing act to try to empower girls to continue to fight against systemic discrimination on the basis of sex, while simultaneously trying to give boys proper attention to their specific needs. Whippman says she would assume the vast majority of parents are not intentionally looking to raise violent or sexually coercive men, but she does fear that societal norms may overpower the life lessons she shares with her sons at home.
“I was gripped with fear and a terror, almost. … Would I somehow unwittingly create sons that were like this?” says Whippman. “Was I working within a system that would tell them repeatedly that it was OK no matter what I did personally? And it was a fear for who they would turn out to be. It was a fear for how much I could control that, or affect that, given the circumstances that we were working in.”
Jennifer Fink, founder of BuildingBoys and mother to four sons, believes that the #MeToo movement has created fertile ground to speak about the problems so many people are grappling with.
“The good news is that all of these news stories, sex scandals, #MeToo, misogyny, workplace harassment, have created a ton of opportunities to have these conversations with boys,” says Fink.
She tries to create space for her sons to ask questions so they can have constructive conversations. “The term ‘rape culture’ came up last week. My 16-year-old told me he doesn’t believe that there’s such a thing,” recalls Fink. “His definition was that rape culture means that there is a culture in which it is OK to rape. And he said, ‘Clearly, it’s not. There are laws against that. We know that that’s not OK.’ So I started by listening to him and digging into his definition, and then I did my best to try and explain what people mean when they use that term. What are the things that have been tolerated? What are the things that people have gotten away with?”
She adds, “It’s a conversation that we revisit over and over.”
Ted Bunch, the co-founder of A Call to Men, recommends using informal conversations to talk about big issues rather than sitting kids down for a structured discussion about #MeToo. He says it’s easy to use pop culture and mass media as a jumping-off point.
“You’re watching a movie, there’s lots of material in movies that you can pull from. So just open up the conversation, and not judge them for it,” says Bunch. “They’ve gotten a lot of messages, just like we have, and they don’t have the experience as we do as adults. But I think we’d find that they know a whole lot more than we might imagine, and have a lot more wisdom, and know what’s right and wrong, and what’s fair.”
For journalist and father David French, conversation is also key, but he doesn’t believe that the #MeToo movement needs to act as the framework. He believes #MeToo is really another way to tell people to respect one another and their boundaries, which is something that should be instilled in young people anyway.
“If you are living with manners and treating people honorably, the #MeToo thing is interesting to observe, but it is not something that’s altering your life,” says French. “… If [our son is] upholding the values that we have taught him and the values that he believes, there is not going to be a #MeToo issue. There would be a #MeToo issue if he violates those values or if he falls short of the standards that he aspires to. So, you’re not raising kids according to #MeToo, you’re raising kids according to a set of values.”
Despite the anxieties and discomfort that parents can experience with having these conversations for the first time, they are still happening. Gaudette feels it is her duty to educate her sons about the issues #MeToo contends with.
“If my husband and I won’t have the conversations with him, who will?” she says. “As uncomfortable as it makes us, I need to put a good functioning human being out in the world. Someone that understands what consent looks like all across the board.”
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