Talking to Boys About Rape and Domestic Violence
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After experiencing abuse, I have an obligation to teach my sons how to treat women
When I was pregnant with my first son, I wanted a girl. When my son was born, I experienced a magical transformation. I wanted a boy. I wanted him. He was perfect. I didn’t talk myself into it; I viscerally wanted this child. This boy. But why had I wanted a girl in the first place? I have a strong girly side, but it wasn’t that. I didn’t have visions of going shopping together or sharing clothes. No, I wanted a girl because I didn’t know anything about boys. How would I raise one?
It turns out that I had a baby, not a boy. He was not yet a boy who was recognizably male in any way other than anatomically. He was a baby. Over the years, I learned to raise him and then his little brother. I ended up with two boys on the very masculine side of the gender spectrum. This is especially true of my older son, who is so far on the masculine end of the spectrum that I fear that he will fall off entirely. He is 6’2” and broad shouldered, like his father.
I wish I could say that with pure pride, but I say it with fear, too. “I fell down the stairs,” I told my mother once when she noticed bruises on my arm. Shortly after my now ex-husband threw me to the floor in front of my two boys, then ages four and 10, I passed a public-service advertisement at a bus stop. It was a picture of a boy about 10 years old looking passively into the camera. The caption said, “Awaiting instructions on how to treat women.” I felt sick.
I left my ex-husband, who was troubled enough that I’ve ended up raising my two boys alone. With a history of domestic violence in the family, I knew that I had a particular obligation to teach my sons about domestic violence and rape; they were awaiting instructions.
It is hard, as a mother, to think that you have to teach your boys—your wonderful, beautiful, perfect boys—not to do anything as horrible as rape or battering. But we have to do that. My older son thinks that men who rape and abuse are just psychopaths and that nothing anyone could say or do would change that. I’m not so sure.
I’m open about the fact that I experienced domestic violence, but most people are not. The proverbial “people like us”—educated, affluent women with jobs and standing in the community—email me late at night or pull me aside at cocktail parties for a quick conversation. They tell me, “It happened to me,” “I grew up with it,” or most heartbreaking, “It happens sometimes, but he is getting better.” I know that there are male victims, too, but they don’t confide in me. Perhaps the stigma is too strong. It is hard to measure domestic violence and rape, but available statistics suggest that up to 25% of women will be victims of domestic violence or rape, or both. There are simply too many batterers and rapists for all of them to be psychopaths.
I wish that I had a formula for raising boys who will not grow up to be abusers or rapists. I don’t. But as a Solo Mom of two boys who is struggling to raise them well, I have a few thoughts. More than a few of these are controversial. I claim no perfect wisdom or expertise, but here they are:
- If you are in an abusive relationship, you have to leave. I understand all too well that a woman who is dealing with abuse faces her greatest chance of being killed when she leaves. But nothing you do or say to your sons will matter if they see you being abused by a man in your life. It doesn’t matter if you are strong and wonderful in other aspects of your life. That will simply teach your sons that even the most wonderful women can be abused.
- Teach boys not to hit girls. This is controversial, but I stand by it. I stress to my boys that hitting anyone is wrong but that hitting a girl is one of the worst things that you can do. I’ve told both boys that if a girl hits them, then they should walk away and never see her again or even, if the situation is serious, call the police. But they are never, ever to hit a girl or woman. Period.
- Include emotions when you talk to your boys about sex. So often, when we talk about sex, we talk only about disease and pregnancy. I’ve tried to include discussions of how the boys themselves might feel and to talk about remembering that the girl has feelings, too. I hope that this will help my boys negotiate dating situations.
- Talk about the news. Rape and domestic violence come up in the news a lot. I’ve had (admittedly brief) conversations with my sons about the situations we hear about. I try to listen and not be judgmental. I make clear to them what I think, and sometimes they are open about what they think. I’ve also found it useful to ask my sons what their friends think about cases of rape or domestic violence in the news. That has opened up a few interesting conversations.
- Celebrate the masculine. It can be hard as a Solo Mom, particularly one who has experienced domestic violence or rape, to not be fearful of or feel anger toward men. Having boys whom I adore has helped me to escape this trap. I’m not saying that I never have anger or fear, but I truly adore men. I think—and I hope—that my boys understand that my rejection of the worst and most violent aspects of masculinity is not an indictment of masculinity itself. I celebrate the boys that they are and the men that they are becoming.
Mothers can’t stop rape and domestic violence, but we can teach our boys right from wrong. Perhaps that is enough.
If you are a victim of domestic violence who needs support, our confidential community of Sisters is a place to connect with other Solo Moms who get it. Our Domestic Violence Resource Section has useful links and articles to point you toward safety.
Robin Rogers is an associate professor of sociology at Queens College, City University of New York. She lives in Brooklyn with her two boys.
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