How We Can Protect Women by Empowering Boys

Nicole Melanson - Writer Poet Editors of WordMothers - and 5 sons

Reading all these #MeToo stories in the wake of the Weinstein revelations, I’m aware of how much my own experiences of harassment inform the way I parent my sons. Right now, I take my boys to the park and they look like puppies, racing around and tumbling over each other in a gleeful, messy mob. But I’m aware a day will come when they go to the park without me, or to the mall, or into the city. They are already strong in number, and soon they will be strong in stature, too. There will be 5 of them—young, solid males, bound together by habit and familiarity. And that closeness, coupled with their size, will be intimidating to other people—especially women. That’s why my job is so important right now, while my boys are still at home and listening to their mother.

I don’t believe my sons will grow up to be predators, and I don’t want them to grow up worrying that other people fear them, but I do want them to recognize the long legacy of injustice they’re inheriting. Historically, women haven’t been treated well; historically, men have been responsible for that mistreatment. Hence, there’s a lot of work to be done in relation to gender and behaviour, and it is my sons’—and all sons everywhere—responsibility to be part of that work.

And so I teach them. Not just the simple stuff like, Don’t hug or kiss a girl if she doesn’t want you to. But the more subtle things, such as: If there’s a 2-seater, you only get half of it, and you leave a little bit of space between you and the other person. And if you’re walking up a flight of stairs behind someone else, you leave a little bit of space between you there, too. And if you have to stand right behind someone on a crowded train, then you angle your body to the side a little bit so you’re not pressed right up against their body.

Crowded train

We warn our children about sexual assault and abuse. We educate them about consent. We school them in modern-day feminism and equality. But we need to teach our kids how to apply those lessons in everyday life. Our boys may understand that the balance of power between men and women still tips in men’s favour, but they may not understand how they can help correct that imbalance. This is where we, as parents, need to empower our sons. It’s not enough to just tell them to never rape their dates or touch a co-worker inappropriately. We need to provide practical guidance on how even the most subtle actions can either contribute to a culture of intimidation and assault, or help undo it. We need to teach our boys to make sensitive choices—all day, every day—and peer-pressure other boys to do the same.

Headphones

Teach them that if a girl picks up a book or puts on headphones or puts a phone to her ear instead of returning their advances, then that conversation is closed. Teach them that if they’re walking towards a woman in a laneway, maybe they should cross to the other side of the street or at least put their hands in their pockets—not because they’re a threat, but because no matter how innocent their intentions may be or how friendly their face, they’re up against history and the only way to challenge and change those patterns is to show that they’re willing to try a different approach. Encourage them to extend the sense of solidarity they feel with teammates on the sportsfield to their female classmates, co-workers, and neighbours. Praise them when they make respectful choices, and point out other men doing the same. Tell them to intervene when they see or overhear someone else doing the wrong thing.

The way forward is not just to stop bad men from being bad, but for all of us to do our part in teaching good men to be even better.

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Why I’m Not Passing Anymore

Nicole Melanson ~

A+ grade written on paper

The best and worst thing about living with an invisible disability is being able to pass. Most minorities will be familiar with this term. It means you managed, however briefly, to pass as part of the majority. The mainstream. The normal.

Passing a test equates to success. You did it! You made it! You won! But there are many more associations with the word pass, and most of them are negative.

Passed over. Passed by. Passed in.

Passed up. Passed off.

Passed out.

Passed away.

And that’s what’s happening every time a minority “passes” as a majority. We are giving up the opportunity to be recognized for who we really are, to be seen as multi-dimensional human beings who defy easy categorization. We are not the ins or outs, the ups or downs; we are the in-betweens.

We might be the schoolgirl walking beside her white father, her skin light enough that no one knows her mother is black. Or the trans woman whose feet are so small and her jaw so soft that her Y chromosome comes as a shock. YA writer Steph Cuthbert tells me this nuance applies to sexual orientation too, that “when you’re bisexual, you’re always coming out” to people who presumed you were “just” gay or “just” straight, depending on which relationship you were in when they met you.

Faceless woman walking with coffee cup

I’m not going to lie: I’ve often been grateful for the low profile of my health issues because it means I avoid pity, I don’t get called “inspirational” (a loaded term usually implying a disabled person hasn’t “let” their disability “limit” them), and nobody leaves me out of stuff because they think I won’t be capable. In each instance, passing feels like a win because I get to decide whether or not I’m capable. When your disability is visible, others make those decisions for you.

The problem with passing is that it’s living life in two dimensions, only revealing things already understood and accepted by the mainstream. But not sharing things doesn’t make them go away. Wearing a long skirt to hide a knee brace doesn’t negate the need for the brace.

And for all I value being able to fly under the radar, there are other times I can see the appeal of increased visibility. During the decade or so I spent pushing a pram, taking the elevator was my only option. However, now that I’m often at the shops while my boys are at school, I can theoretically take the stairs or use the escalator instead. Now when I squeeze into a crowded elevator (after waiting my turn), it’s not uncommon for me to weather a sneer from people with prams, shopping trolleys, and wheelchairs. I get it – they have no alternative. But when I’m unwell, I have no alternative either. On a bad day, I struggle with level changes, and any kind of pattern – like the gnashing of an escalator’s teeth – can make me dangerously dizzy.

Looking down from the top of an escalator

Even when you do “come out” as a disabled person, it’s hard to articulate that many disabilities are nuanced and variable. If you break both legs in a car accident, people expect you to use a wheelchair. It’s harder for people with healthy brains to comprehend that neurological illness can mean your legs might be perfectly fine; you just don’t feel them.

Where the confusion deepens is when you have a disability that looks different every day. Anna Spargo-Ryan has written about this dichotomy in mental illness and I personally experience this with autoimmune disease. AIs flare, meaning you can have days when you feel strong and healthy, followed by days when you can barely function. Unfortunately, for all you might try to pinpoint triggers and attempt to curtail a flare through diet, exercise, or medication, there’s really no surefire way of knowing when a flare with hit, how long it will last, and whether it will be The Big One – the true game-changer.

Spiral clock

I have said yes to things when I was feeling normal only to find myself unable to follow through thanks to a flare eg. the time I offered to help at a preschool fundraising BBQ, then couldn’t cope with the heat rising from the grill or hold my grip on basic math. To avoid running into this situation again, I mostly just say no now. I won’t volunteer to scoop gelato because leaning into the cooler might give me vertigo. I won’t commit to a night on the town because I might need to go to bed at 7:00.

I can appreciate this unpredictability proves inconvenient and frustrating for other people. It’s inconvenient and frustrating for me too, and this post is partly me trying to justify that and apologize. But I want to do more than just make myself understood. Generally speaking, I’m a confident person, capable of standing up for myself, and speaking my truth. But what about all those people who can’t? What about those with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities who have lost their voices altogether?

Mute button

I recently had a conversation with authors Leah Kaminsky and Lee Kofman about entitlement, during which I questioned whether or not I was disabled “enough” to write this piece. For the most part, I can still go about my daily business, run a household of 7 (5 of whom are young children), engage as a mother, wife, daughter, and friend, run a blog, read a book, and write. I can sit in doctors’ offices, detail my symptoms, and debate treatment options with near-professional fluency. I can expertly gauge whether vomiting will make a migraine better or worse, and then just get on with it. If there’s no elevator, I can opt to take the stairs – even on the days it hurts or leaves me breathless.

But I also know what it’s like to be “legitimately” disabled – to tell the school office that my kids will be late because I’m waiting for the sensation to come back in my foot so I can drive them. I know what it’s like to close a laptop with 80 unread messages because the words resemble smudges on the screen. And I know that when I feel like that, when I can barely stay awake, make it through a paragraph, or utter a single sentence without slurring, what I long for most is for someone else to take over – to turn down the background noise, bullet-point important information for me, and speak on my behalf. And I know there are people living like that every moment of their lives. People who are always disabled. People who don’t have enough “spoons” as Christine Miserandino calls them to decide when and where to use them up.

So whether you’re one of those people, you’re a part-timer like me, or you’re “only” someone who loves someone like us, I know there are days when you simply don’t have it in you to order a coffee, never mind get out there and advocate. And on those days, you’re welcome to blow my cover. I’d much rather lend you my voice than pass.

Microphone