Weekend Reads: Raising Children Who Will Speak Up to Prevent Rape, Not Defend It
I spent Sunday morning at a birthday party for one of my son’s classmates. As the kids gathered around a paper-covered table to begin an art project, I stood off to the side, furiously typing away on my phone as I scoured my Twitter feed for news of the verdict in the Steubenville rape case.
I would have much rather been focused on the puffy paint creation my son was immersed in than be glued to my phone, but I couldn’t tear myself away. I had been following this case closely since news broke about it in December, and I needed to know how the judge was going to rule.
As a parent, this case gutted me. “Jane Doe,” a 16-year-old girl from West Virginia, had been sexually assaulted while unconscious at a party. The evidence of her rape was photographed and shared via text message and social media by fellow classmates. The more I absorbed about the case, the more questions I had. How did the two teenage boys accused of raping her think that what they did was O.K.? Why did none of the other partygoers stop them? My mind would drift to my own 6-year-old son, and I’d wonder what he would do in 10 years if faced with a similar situation.
At some point between my son proudly showing off his newly decorated tote bag and the singing of “Happy Birthday,” I was finally able to allow the twisted knot of anxiety inside me to release its hold as I read the guilty verdict. A judge in the juvenile court system found 16-year-old Ma’lik Richmond and 17-year-old Trent Mays, both football players at the high school, guilty of rape. Yet despite the verdict, I knew that this case, like our national conversation about rape and sexual violence, was far from over. A glance at my Twitter feed later in the day proved me right.
Many similar tweets came from other teenagers across the country who had no trouble placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of an unconscious girl, showing that what happened in Steubenville certainly did not happen in a vacuum. One came from a parent, shown holding her own child even as she condemned someone else’s. As parents, we owe it to ourselves and our children to look at the uncomfortable truths surrounding this case and figure out how to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
How do we keep from raising rapists or children who will not only stand by and allow a violating assault to occur, but end up blaming the victim as well? Much of the change needs to come from how we frame the way we discuss rape. For a long time, the default was teaching our daughters how not to get raped. Discussions revolved around not drinking too much and not wearing clothing that might seem “inviting.” All of this places the burden solely on girls, while assuming that a male urge toward rape is unavoidable.
When we frame rape as inevitable in this way, we devalue our sons. As the mother of a boy, I will not write him off like that, and will do my best to ensure that he knows better than to rape.
In my own home, I’ve already begun teaching my son about bodily autonomy. He understands that he is in charge of his own body and only his. This means that he stops if somebody lets him know he’s playing too hard. It means that he asks before he tackles or tickles a friend. It also means that he feels comfortable enough to tell somebody “stop” or “no,” and that he understands the power of those words. These are the building blocks that will make the necessary conversations about sexual consent and rape easier to have when he is older. But that’s not enough.
I also want to raise a son who would speak up, or, having failed to do so, would not protect a rapist with his silence. But I am up against many challenges. We live in a society that trades on the cult of masculinity, one in which male power and strength are championed, from the football fields outward. One only needs to look at the community that Richmond and Mays were brought up in to understand that. These two boys were groomed to expect praise at every turn, in a pro-victor, pro-sports community that was willing to overlook any indiscretion, allowing them to think of themselves as indestructible, or at the very least, untouchable.
So while I will reframe the way rape is discussed in my house, I call on my fellow parents to do the same and more. And let’s go beyond rape to discussing bystander culture with our children. Instruct them to listen to their guts when a situation feels wrong and to stand up for what is right. It won’t be easy. Steubenville is a harsh reminder of the alternative.
As a parent who spent the rest of last Sunday with an adorable cake-fueled and paint-covered boy, I don’t want to have these conversations. It’s hard to think that my sensitive, sweet son would ever do or enable such horrible, violating things. At the same time, it is absolutely my duty to ensure that I instill in him the knowledge and values that will allow him to understand why rape is never an option. Though there is a final verdict in the Steubenville case, the jury is still out on whether we, as parents, are ready to take on the challenge of dismantling rape culture, starting in our homes.