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Experts Say 'The Talk' For Boys Needs To Change In The #MeToo Era

The Canadian Press, 28 Sep, 2018
  • Experts Say 'The Talk' For Boys Needs To Change In The #MeToo Era
It's a family exercise so universally uncomfortable, neither parents nor children dare speak its subject by name: having "the talk." But nearly one year into the #MeToo movement, these parent-led discussions about procreation are in dire need of an overhaul, say experts.
 
 
"The talk" can no longer just be about the birds and the bees, said Rachel Giese, Toronto-based author of "Boys: What It Means To Become a Man."
 
 
Parents need to do away with such euphemisms and bring the public discourse about gender-based power dynamics into their homes, she said, because failing to address the thorny issues surrounding sex would be doing a disservice to their children — particularly, their sons.
 
 
"Barely a year into (the #MeToo movement), there has been this backlash emerging, and we're hearing it in the people who say things like, 'Boys will be boys.' Or, 'This is what all young men do,'" said Giese.
 
 
"The message that that's putting out in the world to current young men and to current young women about what should be normal is pretty devastating."
 
 
These dinner-table discussions look to be no less difficult as parents work to make sense of a sexual landscape that seems to be shifting beneath their feet, Giese and other advocates said, forcing some fathers to reconsider their own youthful indiscretions within modern conceptions of consent.
 
 
But as stories about the far-reaching impacts of sexual violence continue to dominate headlines, they said, talking to kids about news events like the sexual misconduct allegations dogging U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh could be a good place to start.
 
 
In a high-stakes spectacle Thursday, Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford delivered duelling testimonies before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee about an alleged high-school sexual assault, with control of the highest court in the land hanging in the balance.
 
 
Blasey Ford has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers. Kavanaugh denies the accusation.
 
 
For many, the emotional she-said, he-said exchange encapsulated the swirling social anxieties that have forged the dividing lines of the #MeToo debate.
 
 
For proponents of #MeToo, Blasey Ford has become the face of the life-altering impacts of sexual violence and the forces that have prevented women from coming forward.
 
 
Kavanaugh's defenders, including the president who nominated him, contend that the dredging up of decades-old allegations is further evidence of the cultural overreach that has eschewed due process in order to advance a political agenda and ruin the lives of those who cross it, effectively putting all men at risk.
 
 
But Giese, who is raising her own teenager, said concerns about false accusations are not top of mind for the parents she's heard from on her book tour.
 
 
"I think there are a lot of parents who really want their boys to be decent young men," she said. "The most devastating thing ... would be to find out that their son participated in an assault or participated in an act of bullying."
 
 
She said the messages boys and girls receive as they approach the age of adolescent experimentation instils a double standard that encourages young men to sow their wild oats, while demanding young women be constantly on guard against unwanted sexual advances.
 
 
While her greatest sympathies lie with the women who live with the lasting trauma of sexual violence, Giese said the "tragedy" of these harms cut across gender.
 
 
Young men, she said, are socialized to treat women as "pawns" in a performance of masculinity that prizes aggressive sexual behaviour, which, fuelled by peer pressure and intoxication, can lead some to commit acts of violence that will haunt them years later.
 
 
"I think for young men, putting themselves in a situation where they're behaving in ways that are cruel and disrespectful … there can be a degree of guilt, regret, a sense that one is only valued for being a bad person rather than a good person."
 
 
This shifting understanding of masculinity weighs on Brian Russell, provincial co-ordinator at Dad Central Ontario, a non-profit that promotes paternal involvement in parenting, particularly as the father of three young women.
 
 
But it's those same macho expectations that make it all the more difficult to speak openly about these emotionally charged issues, said Russell.
 
 
"History is showing us that these conversations aren't happening at the right level, or in the right way," he said.
 
 
"I think guys need to be really aware of what boundaries look like, what consent looks like .. and to not just see it from their perspective, but to have a bit more of an empathetic view."
 
 
For some fathers, said Russell, the questions raised around consent take on a personal resonance, as men look back on their previous relations with women in a new light.
 
 
"As a dad talking to his son about these things, where is he putting his own past in perspective?" he said. "I think that the guilt will get in the way, cause discomfort with the topic."
 
 
Humberto Carolo, the executive director of White Ribbon, a men's group that works to end violence against women, said concerns about past behaviour is one of the key barriers preventing men from talking about the #MeToo movement — not only with their sons, but among themselves.
 
 
While past harms to women cannot be undone, Carolo said fathers can draw from these experiences to prevent their sons from making the same mistakes. 
 
 
In raising his three sons, Carolo said he brings up his own experiences witnessing violence while growing up in Portugal as a way to drive home the need for a culture shift.
 
 
Carolo said he thinks men are interested in engaging with these issues, but often don't know how, which is why they need to follow the lead of those who have spoken up about their own #MeToo experience at great personal risk, and put their apprehensions aside in order to set an example for the next generation.
 
 
As he sees it, "the talk" should not be a one-off lesson in the mechanics of human sexuality, but an ongoing conversation, so parents and children can work together to navigate the #MeToo era.
 
 
"The vast majority (of parents) are not having the conversations, because they themselves don't even know how to deal with their own challenges, with their own thoughts around this," said Carolo.
 
 
"We have to break that mould because silence is not going to be the solution to this problem."

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