How We Can Protect Women by Empowering Boys

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

Reading #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 with useful information. 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.

Girl with 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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