To start some important conversations about gender and double standards with your students, share this teen-written story, “Three Double Standards That Hurt Guys and Girls,” from Sexetc.org. For training on addressing the needs of transgender students in your classes, register for Answer’s LGBTQ Issues in Schools.
Posts Tagged ‘gender’
The most common reason I hear parents give for why they haven’t started talking with their children about sexuality is, “Because my kids haven’t brought it up yet.” These parents, who will confess sheepishly that they are looking for any excuse to put off “the talk” as long as possible, believe in their hearts that by not talking about sexuality they are keeping their children “innocent.” Yet they are actually doing the exact opposite. Children do not live in a bubble. And when parents fail to take the lead and proactively talk about sexuality, they are relinquishing control over the topic and allowing the culture at large to educate their children about it.
One reason why parents hesitate to talk with their children about sexuality is the misunderstanding that doing so means talking about sexual behaviors. It actually doesn’t—particularly for younger children. What children are bombarded with from birth and what parents need to talk with them about from the earliest ages has to do with gender: what society says it means to be a girl or a boy and the consequences of either fulfilling or going against those expectations.
There is no greater cultural example of this in the U.S. than Halloween costumes. Costumes, separated by what are considered “girls’ costumes” and “boys’ costumes,” communicate that girls should be sexy, while boys can celebrate a range of their boyness, from strength to humor to scariness. Boys are told to “Be fearless!” and girls to “Be sassy!” Because nothing says scary like a sassy 12-year-old girl.
Halloween costumes are far from the only offender. Most toy stores separate their inventory by gender; greeting card sellers do the same. Boys’ toys enable a boy to “be like dad” (because, why would he want to emulate his mother?), while toys for girls represent “everything nice.” When a baby is born, we learn that “B is for Boy…and balls and bats… and bikes… and banged up knees…”and that “G is for Girl…and giggles and grins/games and glitter….”
“Inoculating” Against Homosexuality
Why is our culture so set on gendering how we act? The egregious examples above come from the land of capitalism. But the real root of this worldwide cultural investment in raising boys to be masculine and girls to be feminine is homophobia—the irrational fear of or discomfort with people who are or are perceived to be lesbian or gay.
With so much progress recently relating to same-sex marriage, this admonishment of homophobia may seem misplaced—but believe me, it isn’t. The general public still confounds sexual orientation and gender, assuming that a boy or man who has stereotypically feminine traits or interests is gay, and that a girl or woman who has stereotypically male traits or interests is lesbian. And because this remains a distressing thought to far too many parents, our culture tries to “inoculate” children from the get-go, convinced that swathing a baby boy in blue and a baby girl in pink will ensure their heterosexuality.
There is more flexibility for girls than for boys. A girl who plays with stereotypically boy games and toys is being strong, improving herself by being more “male.” Conversely, if boys play with stereotypically girl toys, they are weak. And although we tolerate some ambiguity the younger a child is, a gender line is usually drawn by the elementary school years, when children are told, “Isn’t it time you started playing with…?”
Now, I am not saying that parents of boys need to go through their homes and throw out their footballs and action figures or that parents of girls need to push their daughters away from playing dress-up or having tea parties. What we need to do, however, is be very aware of how we respond to kids who fulfill the cultural stereotypes and those who don’t and why we are responding as we do. Parents need to remember:
- The types or colors of clothes, toys, books and hobbies a child chooses do not necessarily indicate anything about that child’s future sexual orientation.
- Parents cannot change their children’s gender identity or sexual orientation.
- Gender stereotypes and the accompanying messages can limit young people and lower their self-esteem– e.g., “Boys don’t cry; therefore if you express your emotions you are gay” or “Girls don’t run around like that; therefore if you do you will never have a boyfriend and people will think you are a lesbian.”
The Gift of Acceptance
The single most common question we hear from young people is, “Am I normal?” If children get the feeling from their parents that how they behave, dress or speak is not OK, they will learn to play a part in order to make their parents happy. And while this gender conformity may comfort the adults in their lives, children who limit themselves rather than being true to who they are are much more likely to have lower self-esteem. If we communicate instead that we accept our children—whether a son is a football player or loves to play the violin; whether a daughter is a ballerina or fascinated by how cars work—our children will be more likely to grow up to be strong and sure of themselves. And that means they are much more likely to be strong, sure and happy adults.
We survived Halloween and are already seeing ads for the upcoming winter holidays. This holiday season, the best gift we can give the young people in our lives is to talk with them about gender and sexuality, share accurate information and impart our values and remind them that they are important, valued and loved, no matter what.
When I was starting out in the sexuality education field, I was hungry for training on how to effectively teach the many topics we address. A colleague recommended a training on domestic violence, and since healthy versus unhealthy relationships was a topic in our teen curriculum, I attended. As the facilitator began the training, I realized that the entire room was made up of medical professionals being trained on screening for and treating women who had been physically assaulted by their partners or spouses. I was the only educator—the only person who was interested in learning how to teach young people about healthy versus unhealthy relationships. I asked a few questions, and the facilitator did her best to answer them. I was able to cull some useful information here and there, but overall the training had very little to do with me or what I needed.
This is what far too many boys experience in the sex ed classroom.
Teaching as if Guys Aren’t in the Room
The vast majority of sexuality education curricula are written with the needs and issues of girls in mind-reinforcing, perhaps inadvertently, the idea that “boys will be boys” and so we must arm girls with as much knowledge and as many skills as possible to be the moral gatekeepers within male-female relationships. When a teacher focuses on the needs of and uses language that is designed to resonate with girls, boys often end up feeling invisible—like they don’t belong in the classroom, like sex ed doesn’t apply to them or is a waste of time, which is just like I felt during that training. It was a strong training; it just wasn’t directed to me. So, just like boys in the sex ed classroom, I had to find the information I was looking for on my own.
Sexuality education must integrate messages and teaching methods that resonate with boys. There has been push-back by some that learning based on biological sex is sexist. And I have to admit I have struggled with that over the years. But as a parent of a son and an educator who has worked directly with thousands of adolescent boys, I have seen firsthand that there are certain methods and efforts that work differently with boys than they do with girls. Does this mean that these methods work with ALL boys? No. Does this mean that these methods do not work with ANY girls? Of course not. But at the most basic level, we need to stop teaching sexuality education as if boys aren’t in the room or as if girls need all of this guidance and help, but boys can figure everything out on their own. It does a disservice to girls as much as it does to boys.
Involve Guys From the Beginning
I was at a meeting recently where a discussion took place about maternity leave at school for pregnant and parenting teen girls to ensure they remain in school. It’s a worthwhile goal to help these girls both complete high school and be successful parents. Yet it struck me that the idea of family leave for their male partners did not even come up. Why? Is there an unspoken assumption that this isn’t necessary? Or that the boys wouldn’t be interested? Yet how many adults then judge the biological dads for not being present, when in fact, provisions were not made available to them the way they were for their female partners?
If we truly want guys to be engaged in their sexual health and relationships, we need to involve them from the beginning. If we want them to value sexuality education, we need to teach in ways that resonate with them. If we want to help them make healthy decisions, both now and into the future, we need to see them as part of the educational process, not an afterthought.
We address how educators can create sexual health lessons and use teaching methods that resonate with boys in Answer’s latest online professional development course, Boys and Sex Ed: Beyond Statistics and Stereotypes. If we as educators are going to provide boys with the guidance they need and deserve, then we have to find more effective ways of reaching them.
Albert Einstein said, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” We keep telling boys that they need to be responsible about their sexual health without providing them with the educational venue through which they can learn to be responsible. As a result, many live their lives believing they are stupid about or irrelevant in relationships-regardless of the gender of their partner. And no young person should be made to feel stupid or irrelevant.
As a parent of a boy, I understand how some people have found sympathy in their hearts for the boys convicted of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, OH. I have to be honest, however—I have not. But I do feel strongly that what these boys did came from years of distorted cultural lessons about what it means to be a boy or man, and therefore the blame for what happened does not lie with them alone.
“Boys Will Be Boys” Hurts Us All
News coverage has posited that Steubenville was another case of “boys will be boys”—the collusive attitude that boys are uncontrollable, and therefore we should shake our heads with an appreciative smile and enjoy their rough-and-tumble way of figuring out the world.
But the typical “boys will be boys” attitude implies a passive acceptance that boys figure out on their own what it means to be male and behave accordingly. In reality, that’s not the case at all. Our culture proactively defines masculinity for boys and is deeply invested in creating so-called “real men.” Tragically, what our culture glorifies in masculinity leaves no room for teaching boys that being a “real man” means being a person of integrity who is respectful and kind. Masculinity is defined so narrowly that boys do not question whether their behavior is appropriate let alone abusive—especially when their peers are behaving the same way or cheering them on. We see this in bullying cases as well as sexual assault cases. Our culture is far more comfortable with a hyper-masculine “All American” boy who can hardly keep himself away from girls than a boy who is caring, respects boundaries or says he isn’t interested in having sex at the moment.
The Indoctrination of Boys Into Rape Culture
As the Steubenville case gained more national attention, strongly-worded messages and memes were posted on the Internet to protest rape and the attitudes that foster rape. These included, “Culture teaches women not to get raped, instead of teaching boys and men not to rape,” “Don’t tell me how to dress, tell them not to rape” and “Real men don’t rape.” Yet what was also posted online were offensive images, such as a photograph of the Dos Equis beer’s “most interesting man in the world” character with the caption, “I don’t always rape your mom, but when I do, I don’t use a condom.” Stemming from historical, and relatively tame by comparison, insults about a person’s mother, these sentiments have morphed into abhorrent references about sexual assault.
Last year, Amazon’s UK division stocked t-shirts with the statements, “Keep calm and hit her,” “Keep calm and rape a lot,” and “Keep calm and rape me.” Although the site eventually took down the t-shirts, the fact that these t-shirts were created and posted for sale in the first place demonstrates how ubiquitous the attitude that violence—and, in particular, violence against girls and women—is funny. Now, I don’t think—as someone who is parenting a boy and has worked with many adolescent and teen boys-that boys are incapable of feeling sympathy and empathy. I think boys come into this world with great capacity for sensitivity and caring, and are then aggressively socialized away from having those feelings-that being emotionally intelligent is a female trait, and therefore a weakness. The result for boys is a disconnect between their actions and the consequences of those actions.
Trent Mays’ “apology” was a clear example of this:
“No pictures should have been sent out, let alone been taken.”
What is missing here is a pronoun. The photographs were not magically taken and forwarded on to others. I speculate that Mays apologized because he got in trouble and people were upset. But he did not acknowledge or own that he should not have done what he did; he should not have taken or forwarded the photographs. I also think that part of why he and Ma’lik were crying so hard in the courtroom was because they were genuinely confused by how what they did was wrong, and why what they tried to do to cover it up didn’t work. The lessons they’d received about male invincibility failed them, and the result was incomprehensible and devastating.
How Sexuality Education Can Help
Could sexuality education have prevented what happened in Steubenville? No one knows for sure, especially in an abstinence-only-until-marriage state like Ohio where it’s highly unlikely any discussions relating to gender, gender roles and relationships would take place. But it’s not just Steubenville, and it’s not just Ohio.
Sexuality education certainly can help. But to be most effective, it must start early. Kindergarteners need to learn about maintaining and respecting others’ boundaries. Instead of just learning “no, go, tell” if they were to be touched inappropriately, children need to be clearly told, “And you should not do this to others, either.” Sexuality education in the first and second grades should include lessons about how boys and girls are similar and how they are different, and that no one has the right to put someone down for being different. Specifically, kids need to hear that it is OK if boys do not like sports and instead like music; if girls like sports instead of dolls and dresses. Sexuality education needs to extend into fourth and fifth grade with lessons about not just the physical, but also the emotional changes of puberty, which can be scary and overwhelming to boys as well as to girls. And sexuality education should continue on from there, getting into what is considered to be traditional lessons about pregnancy and STD prevention, as well as lessons about gender and relationships and much more, throughout middle and high school.
By and large, sexuality education nationwide still focuses on the needs of and issues relating to girls. This must change. Sexuality education needs to provide lessons that are designed for and include the realities that boys face, and it needs to be far more direct about how people can and should treat each other, regardless of gender. It needs to stop holding girls up to be the moral gatekeepers of their sexual interactions with others. It needs to be comprehensive in scope and must get the time in the curriculum that is required if we are hoping to change negative attitudes relating to gender and relationships. Finally, sexuality education must include training and education for parents and adult professionals who can play integral roles in ending the perpetration of gender role stereotypes and creating respectful boys and young men.
What happened in Steubenville happens far too frequently, in communities throughout the United States. It happens in urban settings, suburban settings and rural settings; it happens to girls, and it happens to boys. Incidents are reported, and they are covered up.
So Steubenville isn’t alone. Like Ma’lik and Trent, Steubenville just got caught. I hope that an enduring lesson from Steubenville is that more young people can and should have the courage to come forward. Only then will the groundswell of national motivation to end sexist attitudes and socially-endorsed misogyny continue to grow.