Sometimes feminist wisdom comes from unexpected places. Discussing patriarchy while on a road trip with my partner the other weekend he came out with the observation that ‘the world would be a very different place if men realised that sex isn’t really all that great’.
I replied ‘but they think sex is what makes them men, and they think that being a man is the most important thing they can be’.
He responded with, ‘they think that being a man is all about drinking, f**king and fighting. So their whole life revolves around those three things.’
‘And women suffer for it’, I concluded.
We hear the term ‘toxic masculinity’ and it doesn’t really mean much until you look at the way boys learn that being a man is the most important thing they can be, and that in order to be men they must behave in a certain way and shun everything feminine.
If boys learn that men are the most important thing and that femininity threatens masculinity, of course they are going to develop an ingrained fear and dislike of all things feminine.
And what is the most feminine thing? Girls and women.
In my house, I am no shrinking violet. I speak without fear. I call out sexist language. I point out the things that promote sexism in our society.
We also avoid most mainstream media. I don’t let my children watch commercial television. Yes, I have one child who writes comics about stick figure zombies and loves the XBox, and one who loves AFL football. But I also have an 11yo who is not worried about being seen hugging me in public and a 9yo who doesn’t bat an eyelid when his long hair and pink football lead to him being called ‘young lady’ by friendly strangers. We are making progress.
I have a few things that I constantly reinforce. One is that your body is yours and yours only. Except in circumstances where your parents make decisions for the benefit of your health (like enforcing the eating of vegetables or brushing of teeth), you get to choose what you do with your body. If you want a haircut, or want to grow your hair, you get to make that choice. If you don’t want to hug a relative, you don’t have to. I have even told my older child that if he really doesn’t want to have any more teeth pulled in the pursuit of a perfect smile, that is his choice. I know how awful it was being marched into the dentist for my extractions as a kid, and I am not going to force anyone to go through that for the sake of straighter teeth.
The goal of this is that my boys will learn to respect the physical boundaries of others, and when the time comes, consent in sexual encounters will be easy to navigate. ‘No’ will be heard as ‘no’. A less obvious ‘no’ will still be recognised as ‘no’.
The other important thing that I constantly reinforce, is that gender should not alter the way you treat somebody. In fact, gender is not really important. Being a good person is the goal. Anyone with a penis can ‘be a man’. It is not a special quality, not an achievement or something that makes you better than anyone else. What someone’s genitals look like, or what you assume they look like, should not affect the way you treat that person.
If someone is smaller or younger than you, be gentle with them. If they are up for a bit of rough and tumble, make sure you respect any request to back off or stop altogether.
My goal here is that my boys will grow up with the notion that women are people. That dominating women or treating them as objects is as unthinkable as doing the same to another male. That everyone deserves the same respect, regardless of whether they play football or netball, whether they have long hair or short hair, whether they wear shorts or a dress to school.
If they grow up with this attitude, encouraging them to speak out when their peers say things that are disrespectful to women or girls should be easier. Because they will recognise sexism and know it is wrong.
Some feminists say ‘teach boys not to rape’. I say ‘teach boys that women and girls are people, and all people deserve the same respect’. For when boys grow up to see girls and women as equal and fully human, not as sex objects or inferior beings, not as something to be attained or achieved, not as a tool for their entertainment, they will find the idea of harming, dominating or violating a woman as abhorrent as the idea of someone harming, dominating or violating them.
And if they grow up without the notion that ‘drinking, f**king and fighting’ are the most important things, they will have plenty of energy for less destructive pursuits.