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.