Beyond “boys will be boys”: The role of boys, men, and athletics in ending sexual assault
By Jesse Mahler, Program Specialist, Public Education Campaigns and Programs at Futures Without Violence
“boys to watch out 4”…
…were the words scrawled out on a bathroom wall at Berkeley High School (BHS) that ignited a wave of activism in mid-February. This title was accompanied by a list that identified a number of male students as rapists, exacerbating tensions in Berkeley, California, where just weeks prior an anonymous student had filed a lawsuit against Berkeley Unified School District and its staff for allegedly neglecting to effectively respond to an attempted rape reported on its high school’s campus. These events unearthed the trauma of many students from past sexual assaults and sparked large school walkouts and student demands of the administration centering on support for survivors of sexual assault and preventative education for all staff and students.
On March 20th, just as shelter-in-place orders were going into effect across the country, FUTURES’ staff did a virtual “sit down” with a group of girls from the student group Enough — which had been established to end sexual harassment and assault at BHS and which played a central role in organizing the walkouts and creating the demands. On our call, the group painted a picture of a school culture, not unique to that of the Northern California community of Berkeley, in which sexual assault became normalized. As one member put it, “[the list] was born out of time and time again there being perpetrators who would go on to assault other girls.” The group emphasized, though, that this violence did not come out of thin air. Instead, it was the product of escalating destructive behaviors that were repeatedly excused over time — none of this behavior was a surprise, as another girl shared, “The same boy that [the BUSD] lawsuit was about [had been harassing her] since 6th grade.”
When faced with this culture, then, we asked why they chose to include a demand that focused specifically on athletics by calling for the Coaching Boys Into Men (CBIM) campaign program to be implemented at the school. The program, developed by FUTURES, trains and motivates athletic coaches to teach their young male athletes healthy relationship skills and that violence never equals strength.
The young survivors turned Berkeley student-activists’ reasons for why CBIM was high on their list of demands was straightforward: Most of the students on the “boys to watch out 4” list were “star athletes,” who felt like they could get away with anything because of the praise they received from the school community. They went on to say that because of this mentality, “the boys think they have the privilege to do anything to anyone. So, when it comes to girls’ bodies, they think they have the same privilege.”
The group spoke freely describing some boys’ behavior ranging from harassment and stalking to sexual assault both on and off campus. Despite the survivors’ pleas to the administration, nothing changed, and in fact, they say the praise for Berkeley’s “star athletes” just continued.
It’s this praise — and the general lack of accountability for these actions — that the girls say comes from coaches, their classmates, and even the community at large that plays a significant role in enabling continued assault and rape. One young survivor said that, “[Male athletes] didn’t want to believe that their teammates had assaulted. It’s willful ignorance. [Male athletes] pretend that the problem doesn’t exist…What they’re doing is giving their friends a platform to assault others.”
Particularly for boys, receiving praise and gaining social status through athletics can too often come without the education and accountability around what it looks like to use that social power respectfully. We must not take for granted that boys will inherently understand others’ boundaries (let alone their own) or how to intervene when witnessing abusive or violent behavior, given the messages that boys receive that equate manhood with aggression and sexual dominance. For these reasons, we need to push back on these toxic messages with environments where boys can learn what healthy relationships and healthy masculinity look like.
Particularly for boys, receiving praise and gaining social status through athletics can too often come without the education and accountability around what it looks like to use that social power respectfully.
It was with this purpose in mind that CBIM was designed by FUTURES to leverage coaches’ influence on boys and young men to help them build healthy relationship skills. Research shows that the program’s messages on topics like consent, bragging about sexual reputation, and communicating boundaries can positively change the attitudes and behavior of young men, in turn becoming examples for their peers and allies to survivors.
With this in mind, we asked Enough what allyship looks like for them. They quickly shared a story of one male soccer player who, after learning that several teammates had been accused of sexual assault and hearing the stories of female survivors, pushed for his fellow players to sit out on their big upcoming game to hold their teammates accountable. In its place, he advocated for the team to attend a school performance highlighting the experiences of BHS sexual assault survivors. Then, when he walked out of school alongside these survivors, he asked to lead workshops and healing circles for other boys who walked out.
This is not to exceptionalize this one athlete. Rather, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month — a period of reflection and action to create a world without sexual violence — this example demonstrates the important role that boys and men play. For when we empower boys and men to prevent violence and promote healthy relationships through practice with accessible, practical tools, this one athlete’s behavior will become the norm, not the exception.
Futures Without Violence (FUTURES) is a health and social justice nonprofit with the mission to help heal those among us who are traumatized by violence today — and to create healthy families and communities free from violence tomorrow.