by Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
What are we teaching our boys?
We keep hearing different versions of the same story: sexual assaults on girls by teen boys are captured digitally, then zapped far and wide through cyberspace. In Saratoga, California, for example, 15-year-old Audrie Pott committed suicide last year after photos of her — passed out and naked — went viral. Rolling Stone reports that, before her death Audrie told a friend, “My life is over…I ruined my life and I don’t even remember how.”
October is National Bullying Prevention Month and as the occasion rolls around again, Audrie’s story is a reminder of how far we still have to go. There’s been an uptick in awareness of bullying in recent years and prevention programs have sprouted up in schools around the country. At the same time, slut-shaming incidents like the one in Saratoga keep occurring.
In Piedmont, California, athletes at the high school organized a “Fantasy Slut League” (They “drafted” girls without their knowledge and earned points for sexual acts performed). Other incidents include the rape of a girl in Steubenville, Ohio by two football players, the molestation of a Louisville, Kentucky teen at an alcohol-soaked party, and the gang rape in Nova Scotia of a 17-year-old who later took her own life.
What kind of boy would do that?
These ugly incidents make you wonder about the boys involved. Not only did the Saratoga teens, classmates of Audrie's who’d known her for years, allegedly molest the unconscious girl, they drew all over her naked body with Sharpies. Then, exhibiting a stunning lack of remorse (and not much intelligence, since charges were pending at the time) several of the boys took more pictures of nude girls after the incident; one even tried to sell the photos. And yet, according to a friend of a friend whose daughter had grown up with a couple of the boys, they were known in their community as nice, normal teenagers, not predators or delinquents.
Which prompts the question: what are we teaching our boys? Why do so many young men feel free to degrade girls in the most callous way — and then brag about it on social media? Laurie Halse Anderson, who wrote a book about a high school rape, told Rolling Stone’s Nina Burleigh that when she visits high schools and middle schools to talk about the issue, she’s surprised by how many boys consider sexual assault — and crowing about it after the fact on social media — just a harmless prank.
Masterminds and wingmen
Clearly, we need to do a better job educating our kids about sexual exploitation. A big part of the problem is that we give kids such mixed messages about sex and how to handle this powerful human impulse.
“Great young men want to have rich emotional lives, but everywhere they turn, people are forcing them to live the stereotype of being a sexist, not-caring, emotionally disengaged, superficial guy. It's amazing because we turn around and get angry with them when they go over the line, without acknowledging what we do as adults that stifles and silences and shuts boys up from being emotionally engaged people.”
Wiseman emphasizes the role fathers can play — positive or negative. A number of the boys she interviewed had experienced some version of this scenario: “A very attractive 18-year-old woman walks by and the dad nudges his son and says, ‘Go get that.’”
They just don’t get it
The media plays a huge role as well. Rolling Stone, for example, sends mega mixed messages when it publishes a powerful story like Burleigh’s condemning the treatment of Audrie Pott — and the next month features former Disney-star-turned-train-wreck Miley Cyrus, leering and topless, on its cover. It’s a great way to sell magazines, of course, and Cyrus may be a consenting adult (although that’s a questionable premise) but seriously?
Given that so many grown-ups who should know better don’t, is it any wonder that so many boys keep misbehaving?Follow @CMMatthiessen