No means no – discussing sexual violence with our sons

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Collaborative artwork made by 138 young women

Collaborative artwork made by 138 young women (Photo credit: ctrouper)

As a parent, I’ve been greatly disturbed by several high-profile cases of young women who have been sexually assaulted and who have also had to deal with images of the incident being shared via social media. Not surprisingly, these cases have touched a chord with the public and prompted a great deal of debate. Much of the discussion has focused on the role of Facebook and Twitter in accelerating the dissemination of the images and how it has contributed to re-victimizing these young women. But in listening to various experts opine on the radio and television, I realized that it’s not about Facebook. It’s about sexual violence.

It’s not just that the alleged perpetrators in these cases, most of them young men under the age of 20, seemed to think that it ok to sexually assault a young woman.  It’s also that friends and family, and in some cases, didn’t seem to grasp the underlying dynamic.  In reporting on the guilty verdict of 2 young men in Steubenville, Ohio, a reporter from a main stream media outlet (a woman) went on at length about the impact of the verdict on the lives of the perpetrators. At best, the victim was invisible; at worst, she was to blame for what happened to her.

As a mother of an 11-year-old boy, I find these events very frightening. As a feminist, I want to believe that I have raised my son to respect and value women and girls. M certainly has lots of strong female role models in his life – his cousins, friends, aunts and grandmothers are all strong and independent. And the men is his life – his dad, grandfather and uncles – set a good example in terms of how they treat and relate to women. We’ve discussed Rhianna and Chris Brown on several occasions – maybe it’s because Rhianna is his favourite singer, but according to M, Chris Brown is a “douche”.

But I know that M’s world view is also shaped by lots of things outside my control. He may not be on Facebook (yet), but he does play video games and listen to dance and rap music. I’m under no illusion that all the images he sees and all the lyrics he hears convey a female-positive image.

So this morning, in between pancakes and the news report, I asked  M if they had discussed the most recent case reported in the news at school. He said they hadn’t but it was clear that he knew what I was talking about. I asked him if he understood what sexual assault was and we talked about whether it was ok to hurt a girl that way, even if she’s had too much to drink – it’s not ok, Mom. When I asked him what he would do if he was at a party and saw someone sexually assaulting a girl, M said he’d tell an adult. Same thing if he saw something on Facebook (he did remind me that he’s not on Facebook).

It wasn’t a long conversation – less than 2 minutes. It won’t be the last. It may not be as easy next time – as he gets older, he may be increasingly reluctant to talk to me about anything, let alone such an uncomfortable subject. As his parent, however, I need to get beyond his discomfort and mine and talk to my son about difficult topics, including sexual assault. I want to help him understand that no always means no. If necessary, I want him to be able to stand up and tell others that sexual violence is unacceptable.

So we’re starting the conversation, my son and I.

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