To the Parents of U.S. Teenagers,
(An open letter.)
Remember that intimate conversation you had with your son? The one where you said, "I love you and I need you to know that no matter how a woman dresses or acts, it is not an invitation to cat call, taunt, harass or assault her"?
Or when you told your son, "A woman's virginity isn't a prize and sleeping with a woman doesn't earn you a point"?
How about the heart-to-heart where you lovingly conferred the legal knowledge that "a woman doesn't have to be fighting you and you don't have to be pinning her down for it to be RAPE. Intoxication means she can't legally consent, NOT that she's an easy score."
Or maybe you recall sharing my personal favorite, "Your sexual experiences don't dictate your worth just like a woman's sexual experiences don't dictate hers."
Last but not least, do you remember calling your son out when you discovered he was using the word "slut" liberally? Or when you overheard him talking about some girl from school as if she were more of a conquest than a person?
I want you to consider these conversations and then ask yourself why you don't remember them. The likely reason is because you didn't have them. In fact, most parents haven't had them.
By contrast, here are some conversations you might have a better recollection of. I'll give you a telling hint: they probably weren't with your son.
"Be careful with the way you act and the way you dress -- it's easy to get a bad reputation."
"That's just the way boys are -- you can't give them any excuse to behave that way towards you."
"You need to be safe! When you dress that way, some people read it as an invitation."
"Never go out alone, never walk alone at night, never drink from an open beverage."
These are conversations often had by loving parents like you. They come from a place of care, they come from a place of concern but most notably they come from a place of upside-down, cultural indoctrination that is hurting, stifling and punishing young women.
The cultural indoctrination that I'm speaking of goes something like this: It is a young woman's responsibility to safeguard herself from rape, assault, harassment, stalking and abuse because boys will be boys and some of them just can't help themselves.
As a writer on issues of sexual health, I've talked to a fair share of parents who are more than aware of this screwed-up reality but don't really know what to do about it.
"It's unfair and it's horrifying," one mother admitted to me, "but that doesn't change the fact that it's true. I can't change the fact that there are creepy men out there behaving badly. I have to help my daughter protect herself."
So let's take a quick look at these "creepy men." Who are they, really? Who are the creepy men that are making it unsafe for your daughter to go solo to a party on campus? Who are the creepy men that are catcalling her or slut-shaming her or intimidating her with their words? Who are the creepy men that are stalking her? Harassing her? Attacking her?
Who are these "creepy men" and where did they come from AND who in the hell raised them?
The answer, unfortunately, is YOU.
We have too much information to continue blaming the anonymous man lurking in the shadows. We have more than enough data to conclude that the majority of perpetrators aren't "others," they are peers and classmates and ex-boyfriends and friends.
They are young men your daughter probably knows and interacts with. You cannot build a wall up around your daughter to keep these men from entering her world -- they are already inside it.
I don't expect you to welcome this news. I doubt many will even accept it. I want you to know that I'm not saying all young men are rapists or disrespectful of women -- and I'm certainly not saying that all young men are just hardwired that way.
What I am saying is this: we live in a culture that puts victims on trial with questions like, "well, what were you wearing?" and "how much did you drink?" We live in a culture where a mother, concerned about raising sons who "act honorably," holds young women accountable for the way young men objectify them. We live in a culture where a judge hands down a 30-day sentence to a rapist because his 14-year-old victim was "older than her chronological age." We live in a culture that relegates not getting raped to women and girls instead of expecting and demanding boys and men to be responsible for not raping.
Your son is coming of age in that culture with those messages swirling around him. You might have raised him in a home that perpetuated that culture without ever intending to or perhaps you raised him in a home that taught values in complete contrast to that culture. The more important question is: did you ever directly tell him to never buy into that culture? Did you ever tell him that culture is unacceptable and WRONG? Did you ever have any of the aforementioned conversations?
When you have the "avoid getting raped" conversation with your daughter, it is difficult, as you don't want to imagine her as a victim. The idea of having the "don't rape" conversation with your son is more difficult as you don't ever want to imagine him as a perpetrator.
Do it anyway.
Do it because so many parents have thought they didn't need to and so many people have suffered because of it.
Do it because you love your son and want him to have a bright future.
Do it because not doing it is irresponsible.
Do it for your daughter or for your nieces or for young women in general because while this particular conversation might be terrifying, the much more terrifying reality is young women continuing to be taught to live in fear of men.
That is really what you're doing when you have the "don't get raped" conversation with your daughter. You are telling her to always be suspicious, you are telling her to spend her life looking over her shoulder, you are telling her that any man is a potential predator.
"BUT IT'S TRUE," you might think. "All of these things are true."
And you're not wrong. Sexual assault is pervasive today -- 1 in 4 to 5 female college students will be sexually assaulted by the time they graduate.
But sexual assault is pervasive despite the conversations many parents have had with their daughters. It seems that the "don't get raped" angle is not a successful strategy for curbing this pandemic. In fact, it is counter-productive as it perpetuates a culture where men don't feel the need to take responsibility.
Fortunately, you do have the tools to curb these crimes. You CAN help to protect your daughter and other young women like her.
And you can do it from your living room.
All you have to do is talk to your son.