A letter to the young men of my high school, from a school administrator.
To the young men of our school,
First, I want to make a very intentional point here: this letter isn’t about presidential politics, or about the candidate, political party, or political philosophy that resonates with you. I firmly believe that you should decide these things for yourself, and I hope that the matter at hand will strike you as a topic beyond the scope of political preferences.
I want to turn your attention to some very specific words you may have heard last weekend. The words in question were accidentally caught on a hot microphone in 2005, and were spoken by one of our presidential candidates. You may already know this, but I want to be absolutely sure: those words describe sexual assault. Kissing and groping women (or anyone) without their consent is sexual assault. I believe it’s important to put it that way, to make it plain what those words mean.
Now, you probably don’t talk about women or to women in the ways we heard on that tape. And I applaud you for that. But, as young men, I’m guessing you’ve heard this kind of language before. I know I have. Most often that language doesn’t describe assault, but I’d say I know the genre pretty well. I heard that talk mostly when I was your age, and definitely in college. The candidate called it “locker room talk” in his apology video and in the second presidential debate. In my case, because I was more musician than athlete, I heard it backstage, or in the practice space, or in dorm rooms, or in the men’s room. But where it happens isn’t the point.
When I was young, I was mostly silent in those conscience-testing moments. I’m ashamed to admit it now. I desperately wanted to fit in, to be one of the guys. I wanted to be successful with the opposite sex, and when I failed, it was confusing, and frustrating. I am loathe to admit that, on some level, I resented the girls who didn’t notice me, because the rejection felt horrible and crippling. And the truth is, the agony of rejection created a blind spot in my younger self. Though I disagreed with what I heard, that blind spot made me quiet.
I’m addressing my letter most specifically to the young men of our school because, frankly, I think young women hear about their bodies, their safety, and how their words can suggest the wrong kind of thing all the time. Women are told how to act, how not to act, what to wear, what not to wear, how to be safe when they’re alone, how to be safe when they’re out at a party, how to be safe at night (and during the day), how to be safe when they’re out walking or jogging–you name it. They’re taught about how to be safe around men they know and men they don’t know. Women and girls learn early on that their bodies are policed, critiqued, objectified, and potential targets for violence. You may remember from Challenge Day last year that every single female member of our community crossed the line when asked whether they had experienced sexual harassment or worse. That’s no coincidence; over 99% of women in this country report having experienced street harassment at least once in their lives.
And it gets worse, because the thing is, you also probably know someone who has experienced either an attempted or completed rape. One in six women has. One in six. Let that sink in for a moment. Most young men don’t have to worry about their safety and so we don’t talk to them about sexual assault. Now I say “most” because men of color, gay men, trans men, and differently abled men do worry about their own safety. And we must acknowledge and not forget that.
To the young men, please know that I’m not accusing you of misconduct, but know also that we all stand accused if we passively accept a culture that supports sexism and violence against women. I’m addressing you not because I think you’ve done something wrong. You probably haven’t. My intent isn’t to make you feel guilty about your gender, or your color, or your privilege or anything else. Instead, I want to make you aware of a critical opportunity.
Some of you may already be perfectly comfortable standing up to sexist, sexually-charged, and lewd comments about women and girls. You may already be saying “that’s wrong” when someone says it’s okay to kiss or grope a girl or woman without her consent. I know for me, it probably took until I was in college to be confident enough to stop those comments. And frankly — real talk here — I’m still not perfect. Many times I’ve reflected on a conversation and wished I’d had just the right response to sexism when I’ve encountered it. The truth is, I haven’t. Even though I think I’m pretty good about it, I’m not always as quick to respond as I’d like to be.
And though I think the tape we heard last weekend was awful and unacceptable, it also gives us an opportunity. It gives us a moment to stand up and say: we’re not going to sit idly by when these kinds of comments are made. We’re not going to tacitly accept the misogynistic culture that inundates our social spaces by staying silent. Though it may feel daunting, we know from psychological research that even mild pushback against these comments can have a significant effect on curbing this kind of behavior. We can all choose to do this.
I hope you’ll decide that women and girls should not be catcalled, should not be assaulted, should not be targeted again and again by words and actions because of their gender and because of their bodies. We have to decide as men — as humans — that we’re not going to allow this to go on, not just because women are related to us in some way, but because women are human, and that’s enough.