I recently read about an experiment performed by social researcher, Jackson Katz. He asked the male members of his audience what they do on a daily basis to prevent sexual assault. He was met at first with silence and then some awkward laughter, but it was clear that the men were simply unaware of what he was asking. Katz then posed the same question to the female members of the audience and nearly every hand went up resulting in a lengthy list of, think 30 to 40, responses. The men were stunned.
Women learn at a very young age to constantly be on guard to prevent sexual assault. We subconsciously make choices in our daily routines and I am not sure we are even fully aware how much of our day is spent trying to stay safe. I, in particular, check my backseat when I get in my car, immediately lock my car doors, carry a taser when I run alone or in the dark, think way too much about whether my running clothes are too revealing, avoid parking garages when possible, and obsessively check that the doors to our house are locked and the outside lights are on. Until I read about Katz’s experiments, I had never thought much about the fact that men simply don’t have to factor in these decisions or this fear into their daily routines.
About four years ago, I was out for a run early on a Sunday morning. It was daylight but I was running in an area that is pretty quiet at that time of day on the weekend. All of a sudden, I heard male voices behind me. I looked back and they were walking, wearing jeans, and carrying backpacks, all of which seemed a bit off to me. I got that uneasy feeling, to which most women can relate. The hair on the back of your neck stands up. Your heart starts racing, and you just have that debilitating feeling of fear. I kept running forward trying not to let onto the fact that I was absolutely terrified and certain that I was going to be attacked. Finally, after a few minutes of total panic, I saw a group of three runners heading toward me on the other side of the road. I crossed the road and asked if I could run back toward town with them for a bit. The three runners included a female college student and her parents. They said as soon as they saw me, and the two men behind me, they had a funny feeling and were glad I crossed the road to join them. After that day, I carried a taser with me anytime I ran alone, for almost two years. My point in recounting this story is to ask you to consider whether or not a man who was running alone would have even thought twice about two other men walking behind him. Why am I, and most women I know, so conditioned to make choices every day out of the fear of being sexually assaulted?
How do we change something that is so ingrained in our culture, accepted as status quo, or even “common sense” safety measures? We need to start by stopping the “boys will be boys” rhetoric in its tracks. Boys should be held to the same high standards for appropriate behavior, particularly as it pertains to the treatment of girls, from a very young age. Let’s stop giving them a pass for making girls feel uncomfortable simply because they are boys and cannot be trusted to respect boundaries or adhere to societal rules for appropriate behavior. Parents, teach your boys from a young age the meaning of abusive behavior. Abusive behavior can be verbal or physical. Boys must learn to take cues from girls what might make one feel uncomfortable and not another.
And what about our girls? Do they even know what constitutes abusive behavior? When we get uncomfortable due to the behavior of a man, unwanted verbal or physical attention, we are taught to just “lighten up”, to giggle awkwardly, and to not be such a prude. Most of us even remember being told from a young age, for me it was elementary school, that when a boy teased you or picked on you, it meant that he had a crush on you. This is how it starts. Boys get a pass and girls are taught to just accept it as the status quo.
I think back to my first experience with boundaries being violated. I was sitting at my desk in third grade, and I turned around in my desk to see that they boy sitting behind me had cut off my hair. I don’t remember the exact response from school administration, or even from our parents, but I do remember the message of “boys will be boys” being communicated. Was this somehow my fault? Was my hair so shiny and full and long that he simply couldn’t resist? Should I not have let my guard down while learning my multiplication tables? Here I was, an eight year old girl, my boundaries were violated, a boy had made a decision to violate my body without my consent, and the message was planted, internalized, firmly rooted in my subconscious that he was just a boy and didn’t know better. What if the school administrators had given him firm consequences and communicated that this was abusive behavior? What if his parents started the conversations at this age about appropriate behavior and how to respect a girl’s boundaries? Maybe by the time he was in 6th grade he would think twice before snapping a girl’s bra strap. Maybe by 8th grade he would choose not to slap a girl’s butt. Maybe by the time he was in 10th grade, he would choose not to ask a girl to send him nude photos. Maybe by the time he was at a college frat party, he would know that he needed a girl’s consent for any physical contact.
As for my family, for my three daughters, I will teach them that they get to decide what is acceptable behavior for them. They get to decide whether or not a boy’s comments to them are disrespectful or even abusive. They get to decide on the boundaries for their bodies. They will learn how to speak up and that they don’t have to settle for the “boys will be boys” rhetoric and standards. They shouldn’t have to make choices everyday to stay safe simply because our society has allowed for boys to have lower standards for their behavior or because our society has taught girls that they are somehow at fault for it. As a mother of three daughters, I am starting at home.
This is all about boundaries. Teach your girls to have them, to stand up for them, to insist on them. Teach your boys to respect them.