How can we raise boys to be different in a sexist society?

Predators like Harvey Weinstein were once infant boys – how do we stop young children from becoming misogynists? Emma Brown’s new book explores this thorny issue, writes Judith Warner

Sunday 21 March 2021 11:15 GMT
The disgraced producer has had several allegations made against him
The disgraced producer has had several allegations made against him (Reuters)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


It’s almost impossible, when you’re the parent of an adorable infant or toddler, to imagine that someday your child will be out in the world beyond your orbit. It’s unbearable to imagine that, in the wider world, your child could come to harm or – even more inconceivable – cause harm to others.

Washington Post investigative reporter Emma Brown found herself facing just that sort of cognitive dissonance when her son, Gus, was born in the late summer of 2017. On maternity leave, she nursed him while reading the first horrifying stories about Harvey Weinstein. After returning to work, she was tasked with following up on an anonymous text from a woman who said she had been sexually assaulted by then-Supreme Court nominee Brett M Kavanaugh. And right through Gus’ first birthday, the ugly news kept coming: Charlie Rose, Louis CK, Matt Lauer. “These men had been infants once, too,” she reflects. “And then they had grown up.” As Gus became a toddler, a central question lodged itself in her mind: “How will we raise our boys to be different?”

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Brown’s new book To Raise a Boy seeks to answer that question. To do so, Brown, a former math teacher and education reporter, went back to school, speaking with teachers and principals and coaches, exploring violence prevention programmes, consent awareness and sex ed. She interviewed academics, parents and some boys as well. She quickly learned that sexual bad actors are neither born nor unleashed by their hormones at puberty; they are made, through the lessons they learn in their homes, at school and from our wider society.

From the earliest age, boys must be taught to respect girls
From the earliest age, boys must be taught to respect girls (Handout)

Parents treat their sons differently from their daughters from the very start of their lives, Brown notes. Consciously or not, they see baby boys as tougher; they discourage growing boys from expressing pain and reward them for using anger to get what they want. In addition, while adults now encourage little girls to break free of old-fashioned gender norms, efforts by young boys to do the same tend to spark parents’ anxiety, because the social costs of being “girly or gay” is still very steep. Coaches and teachers, wittingly or not, reinforce traditional expectations around boyhood, too. And bro-y norms around male friendship deprive boys of the kind of soul-nurturing connections (and relationship-building skills) that girls enjoy with their same-sex friends.

The overall effect is that boys learn, from a very early age, to “‘halve’ themselves”, Brown writes. They “deny and disavow the necessary skills of feeling, expressing, and connecting with other people.” This self-alienation can lead to a wide range of negative physical and mental health consequences. And, she argues, it sets boys up for bad sexual behaviour too, particularly now that they’re spending so much of their time and doing so much of their ostensible social and emotional learning online.

In fact, in the absence of anything even approaching honest and comprehensive sex education in the United States, Brown notes, boys are now primarily educating themselves about sex through online porn. Not their father's porn – that is to say: pilfered, dog-eared copies of Playboy or Penthouse – but incredibly graphic, often violent, hardcore online videos that teach nothing about real intimacy and mutuality. From those kinds of lessons, Brown shows, it's not much of a leap from sexual ignorance to assault. “It is hard – maybe impossible – to divorce the effects of pornography from our failure to teach boys some basic lessons about respect,” she writes, including “that sex is something you do with, and not to, another person”.

It is hard – maybe impossible – to divorce the effects of pornography from our failure to teach boys some basic lessons about respect

Changing all this, she argues, will mean teaching boys, from the earliest possible age, the brass-tacks basics of respect, dignity and self-determination. Parents should hold boys accountable for all actions that hurt others, no matter how minor, she says, starting right in the sandbox. They should also school their sons in “porn literacy” so that they'll understand that what they see on screen is unrealistic, woman-unfriendly, often dangerous and possibly illegal. And in the light of research showing a possible correlation between privilege, entitlement and the likelihood that a boy will commit sexual assault, she encourages parents to check entitled, egocentric behaviour at its source.

Brown also urges schools to think more broadly beyond “yes” and “no” when talking to teenagers about consent. Consent education is everywhere, she notes, but it often backfires, particularly when combined with the lessons in entitlement and aggrievement that today’s privileged, litigious, success-at-all-costs parents frequently pass on to their sons. (One such mother informs Brown that she has advised her son that if he wants to have sex with a girl, he needs first to get the girl's consent in writing. There are apps for that.) “‘We’re taught no means no,’ and ‘so that teaches boys we need to get her to say yes,’” is how a student at all-male Wabash College sums all this up.

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Brown is at her best in her chapter on consent, as she engages intellectually with thorny issues involving language, school culture and the more troublesome aspects of today’s parent universe. She is considerably less strong, however, when it comes to doling out parenting advice – which she does in passages so jarringly wooden and oddly pedestrian that they sound almost as if they were shoehorned in, under editorial duress. Her homegrown “conversation starters”, for instance, which make trips to the bathroom into “teachable moments” for going over what should and shouldn't be done with our private parts, are, she herself admits, a bit “overboard”.

For parents of older kids, Brown's suggestions may serve as quaint reminders of the cozy bubble of early motherhood, when problems seem solvable and the outside world has not yet broken in. But they're ill-suited for kids in middle and high school, who need the lessons this book wants to share the very most.

‘To Raise a Boy: Classrooms, Locker Rooms, Bedrooms, and the Hidden Struggles of American Boyhood’ by Emma Brown (£20) is published by Simon & Schuster

© The Washington Post

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