“If you have not hooked up with girls then you are considered gay!,” declared a 14-year-old boy I met recently. He went on to share how he actually “did not really care to hook up” but “there was no other way” as “you have to man up, you know!” As I was really curious about this “manning up” business, he went on to give me a short walk through the seeming rite of passage that boys, or at least some of them, were expected to follow.
Firstly, it was the language — girls were referred to as “chics”; the “sluts” who “put themselves out there” were “hoes” (slang for whores); and “thot” was an acronym for “that hoe over there” or even “thirsty hoe over there”. There was talk of watching “aggressive porn”, and the inevitable high school preoccupation with oral sex.
Do you find the language objectionable? Was I shocked as I watched this little boy talk so nonchalantly with any seeming lack of awkwardness? Very much so.
However, what I felt most was compassion at this boy trying his level best to “man up” and fit in. This was the first time he was talking about his confusion with me as talking to his parents would not help as “they do not get it”.
Why do we avoid talking about these awkward issues with our boys? Like a mother of a 13-year-old year told me, “I know he is watching porn on the net but I can’t talk to him about it.” Another father dismissed it as “boys will be boys”. While writing this column, I did an informal survey with my friends, family and some therapy clients and asked them if they had discussed #MeToo with their children. The responses ranged from “no”, “did not even think I needed to”, “they are too young”, “they are old enough to make up their mind”, to “did not get time to”. Only a very few responded with “yes” and among this lot who had, a majority had only talked to their daughters. And when they did, it was mostly as a discussion on the news that broke out on #MeToo or even as a joke.
I have had some really meaningful discussions on #MeToo with my own children and young people I work with, and I have learned more from them than anything else.
What can we do as parents? Are there ways we can equip our boys to be more mindful and aware of these gender issues?
1. We need to have conversations with our boys in our homes and schools on power, especially in terms of gender politics. It is meaningless to dictate to children that “men and women are equal” when they are faced with patriarchy all around them. #MeToo is a great opportunity for all of us to start conversations with our children. Not just a one-off but throughout different ages and stages. Ask your teenage boys what they think about it. Listen to them without judging or shaming them even if you think they are being sexist or dismissive. If it gets awkward, that is fine, all conversations on this topic have to be awkward to be real. There is a growing body of research that boys who are in touch with their feelings and are allowed to talk about it in a safe space learn to regulate their behaviour more effectively.
2. Ask them to understand or even invite a girl’s perspective. My 17-year-old daughter told us in a family conversation, “I can never be completely free when I am out on my own — in the Metro, walking on the streets or cycling in the colony. We, as girls, are taught to live with this paranoia that is so a part of me at this point. I don’t think I’ll ever be rid of this.” Another young girl, in a family therapy session, shared how she had kept silent about abuse in her childhood due to the shame and stigma attached to it, “You would not have believed me so what was the point?” Her brother cried as he heard her say that as he realised the truth in her words.
3. Every child needs to learn the mantra, ‘It’s your body, you decide.’ To help younger boys understand what consent means you could do a little role play of two scenarios where you take the role of a distant uncle. In the first scenario you just pull them into a hug and in the second you check with them, “Can I give you a hug?” and if they say a clear ‘Yes’, you give them a hug and if they say ‘No,’ you accept it graciously. After the role play, check with them about which felt more comfortable and where they felt they had no say or voice and were treated like objects. As an 18-year-old young man told me, “Things become black and white when you ask. Then there are no grey areas or maybe.”
4. Boys also need to understand transgression and boundaries by knowing that there are four elements involved – consent, equality of power, age appropriateness and context (space). You could explain this with an example. Suppose in the school bus a boy of Class 12 touches a girl of Class 6, despite the fact she has consented, it is transgression on three counts – equality of power (he is a lot older), not age appropriate for the girl and in the wrong context.
5. Discuss how language is so intricately related to power and how using words like “slut”, “hoe” or “thot” can just feed the shaming culture that women have to face. You could share your experiences too as it makes the learning even richer. A mother sharing how uncomfortable she felt in a male dominated class in college, or a remark on the streets, will make them more empathetic towards the girls. It is only when boys learn to empathise can they understand issues such as gender bias and what it means to be a girl and the impact of lewd remarks and jokes.
6. Make them media savvy so that they can decode the hidden and sometimes not-so-hidden objectification of women in our movies, advertisements and media. My children and I used to play this game when they were little where we would try to decode what the advertisers were trying to fool us into buying.
7. Depending on their age, it is extremely important for them to understand the legal implications as defined by Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012 , according to which, rightly or wrongly, children under the age of 18 can be prosecuted for engaging in a sexual act irrespective of the fact if it was consensual or not.
The problem is not out there, we are all part of the problem and we are all swimming in the cultural soup of patriarchy. So what do we need to do as parents, educators and as people who are concerned? For me the answer is simple – restorative justice at an institutional level that prioritises justice and healing for all. To understand that, #MeToo was crucial, but now we need to move forward to a movement of solidarity such as #WeToo.