Rape Culture Begins with Boys
Efforts to Address the Pervasive Nature of Sexual Harassment Must Start in Childhood
When I was in 2nd grade, I decided the weather had grown too hot one day and I no longer wanted to wear my turtleneck shirt. Instead, I’d just wear the short-sleeved shirt I had layered on top. Rather than excusing myself and heading to the bathroom, I decided I would take care of this in my seat. So I began trying the impossible: removing an under-layer without removing the top layer. It soon became apparent that this was ill-advised, but I was too far in to wrangle myself out without revealing some skin.
I recall that my wiggling attracted the attention of Scott, my classmate, who snickered, waved other boys over, and announced: “She’s gonna do a strip tease for us!”
We were 7 years old. When my teacher, an older woman with the decorum and beehive hairdo of someone in the 1950s, discovered this, it was me she scolded.
As our American culture undergoes a high-profile reckoning and renewed attention is focused on the entrenched nature of sexual misconduct, we would be wise to address the reality that this problem starts young. American childhood is not without its sexual undertones, even in the first half of elementary school. I grew up in the 1980s well aware of the folk tune — the “snake charmer’s melody” — with the saucy lyrics There’s a place in France where the naked ladies dance. There’s a hole in the wall where the boys can see it all.
From our youngest days, girls are taught in ways numerous and implicit to understand their bodies as the targets of male scrutiny — you’re the naked lady doing the dancing. At the same time, boys may learn that they are the ones who get to scrutinize. Anecdotally, we can appreciate that we are often body-centered in our everyday interactions with girls. Girls on the Run blogger Cheryl Unterschutz laments our common emphasis. “Girls in our culture grow up hearing more about their appearance than just about anything else,” she writes. “How many times have you caught yourself saying, ‘Aren’t you pretty’ or ‘Don’t you look nice today’? I do it too.”
We have empirical evidence among college-age youth that points to a possible cumulative effect of body-focused comments and other forms of scrutiny. Clever work published in Psychological Science by an Israeli-US team asked female students to describe themselves to a study partner. When the women believed they were being viewed from the neck down by a male partner, as manipulated by the position of a camera, they spoke about themselves for less time than when they were communicating via audio alone or viewed from the neck up. The young men showed no such difference — they spoke about the same amount regardless of the camera’s position. What does this result suggest? By the time she reaches late adolescence, a woman is likely to adapt her behaviors (and possibly disadvantage herself) when she believes her body is a focus of attention.
The message we’re transmitting to boys may be different. Body image is something boys are known to worry about as well, with particular concerns about muscularity. However, boys’ bodies are not conceptualized as sexual targets so much as the instruments of achieving a sexual goal. Related to this, there’s a certain boastfulness about male body parts that does not have a corollary within the culture of girls or women.
We hear about male genitalia often. Two recent episodes from my own life provide examples. My longtime friend’s son received an in-school suspension last year as a high school sophomore. What happened? He had, of all things, drawn a picture of a penis in the snow on the school’s football field. Relatedly, while waiting to pick up my 16-year-old daughter from a choir rehearsal, two of her male peers passed by, one of whom was loudly singing a Christmas carol with the words “suck my cock” added. These boys and my friend’s son are not alone: witness the recent incident of the naval pilot suspended for forming a giant image of a penis in the sky with the exhaust from a fighter jet.
Maybe these incidents are restricted to mid-adolescence and later years, or maybe they’re isolated and rare. Unfortunately we have evidence that neither is true. Qualitative research reported this fall by Louise Favaro in 21st Century Learning International found a culture of aggressive sexuality flourishing among middle school age children. A bullying incident led to the inadvertent discovery of a group chat littered with messages “that were at times overtly sexual, racist, sexist, homophobic, and even on occasion, pornographic.” Posted content of this nature, provided almost exclusively by boys, also included song lyrics, videos, and photos, some of which went so far as to describe sexual acts.
Interestingly, when confronted in gender-segregated groups, the boys’ consensus was that they were just joking around, while the girls were described as reticent and resigned. As Favaro explained, her team’s discussions with the girls led to the conclusion that the girls “had been dealing with inappropriate behavior that had been normalized and secretly tolerated for years.”
This formal conclusion of rampant sexual harassment among student populations is neither unique nor new. The American Association of University Women produced an Executive Summary outlining findings from nearly 2,000 students in grades 7–12 surveyed in mid-2011. Their observation that 48% of students had experienced some form of sexual harassment during that school year led to this remarkable assertion: “Sexual harassment is part of everyday life in middle and high schools.” Of further note, the large majority (87%) of students experiencing harassment reported that the experience had a negative effect on them.
Also sobering: the AAUW found that a mere 9 percent of victims of harassment reported the behavior to a teacher or other adult at school, and just over a quarter discussed the experience with a family member, including a sibling.
So what do we do? A search for solutions points to the chronic nature of this problem among children and teens. Edward Mentell, a school administrator in Wisconsin at the time, wrote in the journal Character Education almost a quarter century ago: “Sexual harassment has been taking place in the schools for years, but only recently has it begun to get the attention it deserves.” That was 1993. His proposed solutions included prioritizing harassment mitigation with institutional time and attention, educating students, involving parents, and teaching victims effective responses — all still good advice.
With increased cultural attention on sexual harassment, the time has arrived to address the early origins of this problem via health curricula in elementary schools. We must confront children’s developing attitudes by teaching both boys and girls to recognize boundaries and to identify and respect the many ways that “I’m just joking around” can turn hurtful. Further, despite reluctance from some corners, we must educate school-aged children about their own and others’ sexuality.
We should also innovate new approaches. One, we ought to research ways that cognitive processes in the first decade of life contribute to ideas about male and female bodies, such as with early biases based on relative size and strength, for example, or from children’s experiences of men and women in contrasting care-giving, household, and cultural roles. Relatedly, our cultural discourse ought to address how the historical and contemporary positions of men and women in positions of power and influence, both globally and in our micro-communities, influence children’s conceptualizations about bodies and their understanding of their own bodies in relation to others.
When we chronically look the other way, or believe that sexual and power-play behaviors and their consequences are the province of adults only, we create a flourishing underground in which aversive consequences begin early and are unlikely to ameliorate over time. As we’ve seen repeatedly, many cultural channels are affected by the continuum of sexual misconduct, and our communities suffer as a result.
Favaro, Louise. “Reversing and Preventing A Culture of Silence Among Girls.” 9 Nov 2017. Retrieved from www.21c-learning.com
Mantell, Edward. “What To Do To Stop Sexual Harassment At School.” Character Education, 51(3), (1993). Retrieved from www.ascd.org.
Saguy, T., et al. “Interacting Like a Body: Objectification Can Lead Women to Narrow Their Presence in Social Interactions.” Psychological Science, 21(2), (2010).
Unterschutz, Cheryl. “Changing the Way We Compliment Our Girls.” 12 October 2016. Retrieved from www.girlsontherun.org.