On ‘Boys will be boys’ and how we teach our kids rape culture

Anyone who follows my twitter and Facebook feeds already knows that I am having a moment with Kate Elliot’s Soraya Chemaly’s post The Problem with ‘Boys will be boys’. To say I love this post is an understatement. As she explains how three different boys approached playing blocks with her daughter, it is like getting a piece of the rape culture blueprint and having a veil lifted from our eyes about just how complicit we all are in building up and maintaining rape culture. It isn’t born into us. It is cultivated into us!

For months, every morning when my daughter was in preschool, I watched her construct an elaborate castle out of blocks, colorful plastic discs, bits of rope, ribbons and feathers, only to have the same little boy gleefully destroy it within seconds of its completion.

No matter how many times he did it, his parents never swooped in BEFORE the morning’s live 3-D reenactment of “Invasion of AstroMonster.” This is what they’d say repeatedly:

“You know! Boys will be boys!” 

“He’s just going through a phase!”

“He’s such a boy! He LOVES destroying things!”

“Oh my god! Girls and boys are SO different!”

“He. Just. Can’t. Help himself!”

Oh, right. He just can’t help himself. How do boys turn into men who must dismantle their internalized sexism and sense of entitlement and privilege? One block at a time.

I tried to teach my daughter how to stop this from happening. She asked him politely not to do it. We talked about some things she might do. She moved where she built. She stood in his way. She built a stronger foundation to the castle, so that, if he did get to it, she wouldn’t have to rebuild the whole thing. In the meantime, I imagine his parents thinking, “What red-blooded boy wouldn’t knock it down?”

She built a beautiful, glittery castle in a public space.

It was so tempting.

He just couldn’t control himself and, being a boy, had violent inclinations.

She had to keep her building safe.

Her consent didn’t matter. Besides, it’s not like she made a big fuss when he knocked it down. It wasn’t a “legitimate” knocking over if she didn’t throw a tantrum.

His desire — for power, destruction, control, whatever- – was understandable.

Maybe she “shouldn’t have gone to preschool” at all. OR, better if she just kept her building activities to home.

I know it’s a lurid metaphor, but I taught my daughter the preschool block precursor of don’t “get raped” and this child, Boy #1, did not learn the preschool equivalent of “don’t rape.

What is the first rule of rape culture? No, besides: Do not talk about rape culture. The first rule is: RAPE IS INEVITABLE! Or, in this case, “boys will be boys” and all that. What else can we do?! How to possibly teach boys to control themselves, that the entire world is not theirs for the taking without any thought to whose space they might be encroaching upon or whose rights or happiness they are trampling?

Tell me that does not sound like the rape-splaining we hear about Steubenville football players and the like!

Indeed, this very dynamic of treating boys and girls differently is the root, the seed, of misogyny and rape culture. We teach boys that they have intrinsic Manifest Destiny over every space at all times. We act like there are biological differences but, in fact, they are nurtured into existence by our social programing to continue systems of oppression, privilege, and rape culture.

The opposite is true as well. If “boys will be boys” allows some children to usurp the space of others, the opposite holds true for girls. They quickly learn that their space is never their own; it is always threatened; and when overtaken by the privileged gender, no one will interfere, as Kate Elliot Soraya explains:

Not once did his parents talk to him about invading another person’s space and claiming for his own purposes something that was not his to claim. Respect for her and her work and words was not something he was learning.  How much of the boy’s behavior in coming years would be excused in these ways, be calibrated to meet these expectations and enforce the “rules” his parents kept repeating?

… Take each of these three boys and consider what he might do when he’s older, say, at college, drunk at a party, mad at an ex-girlfriend who rebuffs him and uses words that she expects will be meaningful and respecte, “No, I don’t want to. Stop. Leave.”

The “overarching attitudinal characteristic” of abusive men is entitlement.

This is a teachable moment for all of us. How do we perceive gender and gender differences? How do we perpetuate privilege and rape culture by the very ways we construct identities for children? It’s not just about blue and pink, people!

It’s also about what we are going to do about it. Even if you don’t have children, certainly there are times you come into contact with them. But for the parents among us, what will you do if you find yourself in a similar situation? I know my training as a preschool teacher did not include gender stereotypes or gender identities. So how do we help others see the light after the veil is lifted from our own eyes?

This is the hard part. This is the part where we dig deep to face the internalized tools of oppression that we all have. No matter how enlightened or progressive we are, everyone has these. When we learn something that really challenges those assumptions — those things we feel are absolute and without question — that’s when we want to turn away. ‘Boys will be boys’ is not a part of rape culture. That’s just taking it too far. Is it? How does rape culture start? Do you think there’s a Rape Culture Summer Camp everyone is secretly sending their boys off to? Do you think rape culture is only about what boys are taught?

I’m not saying that every boy who knocks over a block building is a future rapist. Nor am I saying that those who fail to question the dogma of the gender binary are trying to raise rapists. What I am saying is that we all hold these convenient “traditions” and folk “wisdom” in our collective consciousness. These things get said so many times that they feel true. I have four brothers, all younger, and I saw them run around like Tasmanian devils! I also have seen girls lay waste to a preschool classroom in a matter of minutes. Just the other day my three-year-old started running in circles around the living room — for 15 solid minutes — because she was hyped up on apple juice. She throws things. She spits. She kicks. She walks up to other kids and tries to take their toys. She climbs anything. She jumps off everything. You know why? Because she’s three-years-old! She doesn’t understand sharing yet. She has tantrums. She wants her way. These things are not “boy” behavior or “girl” behavior. They are kid behavior!

When we stop labeling things through a lens of gender and just accept that behavior is behavior, then we can stop teaching our kids to re–enact sexist, oppressive gender constructs, too. It is something to think about the next time you are about to say something like, “Girls are so much more verbal.” Are they? Or, do we talk to girl infants more than boy infants and encourage verbal skills differently in each gender? It’s a slippery slope…

Like Kate Elliot’s daughter, we are all constructing gender, the gender binary, and rape culture — one block at a time. The only way we dismantle it is to recognize how and when the blocks appear.

Cross-posted from The Tired Feminist.

11 thoughts on “On ‘Boys will be boys’ and how we teach our kids rape culture

  1. Just to clarify, the post is by Soraya Chemaly. I merely reblogged it on Tumblr!

    And thanks for this excellent “response post” — I really like the comparison to Manifest Destiny!

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