To Protect Our Sons, We Must Destroy Their Innocence: Raising Sons in a Rape Culture World
Do you remember having ‘the talk’ with your parents?
“When a mommy and daddy love each other very much they give each other a special kind of hug and….”
We all know how the rest of that old tale goes. Families vary it -- some add detail, some get by on euphemisms, some tell the whole thing like an allegory leaving kids lost somewhere between terrified and befuddled -- but for the most part, all parents give the same sex talk to prepare their kids for what is to come.
But that was before we understood we lived in a rape culture.
A culture of misogynist sexualization and violence against women has reshaped that talk in ways that make me incredibly sad and, at times, overwhelmingly angry because I am a mother to sons -- only sons. I am a mother raising the enemy.
In our house, the sex talk was and is an ongoing conversation that began when our sons first reached down and noticed that extra appendage between their legs. Our job now is to offer occasional age appropriate updates and provide bug fixes for when they download some incorrect information. Our job is to add a little reality to the fantasies of growing boys.
If only that was all we had to do. If only it was just about biology and facts.
The words “Mom, I like LIKE this person at school,” stop me in my tracks and inside my head I scream: No. Not yet. It’s too soon. Hold on to childhood a little bit longer, my sweet son. I don’t want to destroy your youthful idealism yet.
But it’s not in my control. When the lines between friendship and more-than-friendship begin to move, our young men are thrust into a new sense of being. Relationships that they could clearly define and understand morph overnight. Youthful clarity is replaced with hesitation, judgment, and dissection of every interaction. Texts are sent. Inquiries are made. There is teasing, flirting, avoiding, crying, yelling, abandoning, hand-holding, kissing, misunderstanding, making up, making out, touching, fondling, rejecting, second guessing, and loving. The head rush of those early desires is, if you recall, intoxicating, and can’t be ignored.
Don’t go there yet, son. I’m not ready for this talk. Once you cross over I can never bring you back to here -- here, where you don’t know the whole truth yet.
But it’s not in my control. Knowledge is all we have left to give. So we expand the talk to include a combination of practical and protective words of advice. There is a lesson on birth control and condom use. We say to our sons, “If you’re too embarrassed to buy a condom, you’re probably not ready for any activity that requires one.” Then when we think it’s time, we give our son a condom for his wallet -- just in case.
Just in case. Just in case. I repeat to myself.
There is a lesson on expectations and knowing where the lines are. NO MEANS NO. Clear (as mud). Concise (but not complete). NO MEANS NO is ambiguous because NO is a moving target, an ever-moving line that changes partner to partner, day to day, mood to mood. Where NO was yesterday, it may not be today. Where NO was ten minutes ago, it may not be now. How the hell do we teach our sons to read that map? I always remind them they have the power to say NO, too.
What about love?
When I talk with my sons I want to tell them how beautiful a life with love is. I want them to know love is indeed blind, that love is wonderful, and that words fail to describe the feelings of love.
Love makes the world go ’round. Without love there is nothing!
But we have no time for that kind of talk.
While we live in a world that continues to glorify violence against women, limits the rights of women, and justifies the sexualization and objectification of women with dollars, my sons -- all our sons -- will never get the chance to love with abandon. We can’t let them risk that. We have to tell them the truth.
So we take the talk to the next level. The talk we must lay at their feet will have our sons looking at love suspiciously. It will cause them to act and react with caution. They will move toward love tentatively because in some last-ditch attempt to protect them, we will resort to scaring the hell out of them.
I am so sorry, my sons. I wish there were another way.
But it is our responsibility. I have convinced myself if we are to do our job right -- if we are to protect our sons -- we must destroy their innocence.
Sons, yes, love is wonderful BUT you are not allowed to love. Not wholly. Not without restraint. You must check your feelings at the door because every action you make as a male will be held against you. You are guilty until proven innocent, and are always on probation. It’s not your fault. Your purest intentions, your deepest respect for others, will simply not be enough.
We’ve tried our best to prepare you. We’ve raised you to believe in the ideas of equality and fairness but this world we are giving you is broken and chaotic. In all these years, this country still doesn’t grasp the concept of real equality. We debate human rights like we get to choose who has them. We confuse our youth by empowering them to embrace their sexuality and then we shame them for it. We reward violence. We fail to protect our most vulnerable. And you, my son, have to survive in that world knowing the truth. We do not have the luxury of waiting for you to learn about life one day, one experience at a time. There is no Santa Claus. You can never touch a rainbow. Wishes don’t come true. You are male. You have to pay for the sins of those who came before. You may not be the enemy but you look like him and so you will be treated like him until things change.
This is how parenting a son can feel some days. It’s profoundly unfair. I love my sons. I love being a mother to sons. They give me hope. They deserve so much better than what this world offers young men. They are each strong and compassionate people who will in some way change the world where they are for the better.
They are NOT the enemy.
Go, sons. Embrace life. Embrace love. Do the right thing. Be a force of change so your sons and your daughters will never know there was ever an enemy.
K.M. (Kelly) O’Sullivan is a writer, blogger, and unapologetic feminist mother living in the Midwest with her husband, their three boys, and the cats. Kelly writes about parenting, politics, feminism, body image, and more. Read more from Kelly at www.kmosullivan.com and connect with her on Facebook (www.fb.com/SlightlyAskewWoman) and on Twitter (https://twitter.com/KellyMOSullivan).