As the mother of a young boy and a pre-teen girl, I feel the weighted responsibility of teaching both of my children about rape culture. In a world where "boys will be boys" and victims of sexual assault are perpetually blamed for the violence they endured, I know it's important to facilitate conversations regarding sexual assault and consent immediately, directly, and often. I think there are things boys learn by age 5 that perpetuate rape culture, too, and I'm doing my best to dismantle them as they come. It's damn hard when outside forces are dead set on teaching my son otherwise, though, which is why I must remain stedfast in my resolve to raise a son that will dismantle a culture that normalizes systemic sexual violence against women.
My son has always been the literal light of my life. Born a rainbow baby after I endured two pregnancy losses, there hasn't been a day of his life that I haven't smiled in extreme gratitude for all he's given me. My son has provided me with ethereal, unwavering joy, hope, and the chance to be a mother for a second time. But the older he gets, the more pressure I feel to teach him about bodily autonomy and how, when someone says "no" or "stop" it means exactly no and exactly stop. Every day we go through the rules of consent, and every day it feels like we're back to square one. It's not like my son ignores the importance of asking for explicit permission before touching someone because he feels like it, or feels malice toward someone. And our straight-forward conversations get through to some extent. I know he is a child and he's learning. But it's because he's learning that I need to continue to teach these lessons over, and over, and over again. Because one of my biggest fears is that my son will dismiss the importance of consent when he's an adult.
As a soon-to-be 6 year old, my son is becoming increasingly curious about bodies — mainly the differences between his and mine. Lately he's had a fascination with "smacking" me on the rear, and it has me concerned. On one hand, he's barely out of toddlerhood, so he's exploring boundaries and learning what's right, what's wrong, and what he can get away with. On the other hand, he's violating my consent multiple times a day, harmless though it may be or seem, and by bedtime I'm at a loss as to what else I can possibly do or say to help him understand that touching someone without their permission is not OK.
The sad truth is that rape culture is everywhere, and probably in my own house, despite my attempts to teach my children otherwise. It makes itself known when I talk to my children about bodies or consent, sex. I feel it when I hear my children discuss what they overhear at home, school, or on television. My son is young, and I know he means no harm, but if don't instill in him the need to always seek out consent? Well, thinking of how he could act in the future is unbearable. I owe it to him, and his sister, to seriously reflect on how the things he's learned perpetuates rape culture, so I can fix it. Now.
Affection Is Mandatory
When we urge our kids to hug a relative, or even us, when they don't want to, we're subconsciously teaching them that their boundaries and personal space mean nothing. I know my son prefers to have his space respected, and it occurred to me recently that imploring him to hug a relative is taking his bodily autonomy away from him
It's important to teach our kids, and our boys in particular, that hugs and kisses aren't assumed. Consent is always necessary. The best way to educate our children is through action. We must show our sons what acceptable, respectable behavior looks like, and that means respecting the moments when they don't want to touch someone, or be touched by someone.
Some People "Deserve It"
My kids argue a lot, just like my brother and I did when we were kids. It comes with the sibling territory. But when I blame both children for arguing, trying to figure out who "started it" and who reacted with violence, I mirror a situation in which a victim of sexual assault is blamed for the assault itself. If I dismiss my son's actions as "boys will be boys," I fail to hold him accountable for the pain he has caused his sister.
Aggression, in either of my kids, should be dealt with so that it doesn't manifest into something far more dangerous later on. If I allow my son to blame his sister for triggering his anger, I'm part of the problem.
Girls Should Dress With Boys In Mind
My son is always watching and listening. So if my daughter chooses to wear something that is inappropriate for school, because of the established school dress code, I try to tell her privately so not I don't unintentionally shame her in front of my son. If my son notices what his sister is wearing, and says something, it's important that I intervene and remind everyone involved that it's her body, her choice.
There's no denying that school dress codes that disproportionately target girls are problematic. And while I fight to combat the idea that what a female student wears is responsible for the attention span of a male student, I must mirror body positive talk at home.
You Pick On The People You Like
When boys bullied me in elementary school, administrators and parents told me it was because they liked me. The idea that inappropriate touching or acts of violence is in any way "romantic" perpetuates rape culture, so we must teach our sons that hitting, punching, kicking, yelling, bullying, or anything toxic and abusive isn't courting. It's violence.
Persistence Pays Off
I loathe the trope about the person who's eventually "won over" by a romantic interest simply because the person was persistent. In real life, that's called stalking. That's called manipulation. That's called control, and that's something I do not want my son to do.
My son will learn that no means no, not "keep trying."
Consent Is Evergreen
Giving someone your consent once does not mean that individual automatically has it in the future. Boundaries are confusing when you're 5, yes, but I need my son to understand that just because his sister let him hug her today, doesn't mean he can automatically hug her tomorrow.
None of these messages are easy to combat. The fact that I have to continually stop and think about what I'm doing to contribute to my son's actions, and the outside lessons he has learned, weighs heavily on me. I want my son, and my daughter, to grow up respecting consent and bodily autonomy, not further perpetuating rape culture with words or actions.
And for not it ends, and begins, at home.
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