As a senior administrator at an all-boys' school in suburban Philadelphia, I spend each day with 1,000 boys, many of whom, by virtue of their gender alone, occupy positions of privilege and power at least one step removed from the important issue of sexual assault. To state the obvious, while it is women who are overwhelmingly the victims of this crime, its prevention is not a women's problem -- and boys' schools have a unique opportunity and responsibility to be part of the solution.
The challenge has been well chronicled: from our earliest days, we boys bask in marinades of hyper-masculine stereotypes. From the sandbox to the locker room to the high school dance to the conference room, we are conditioned to compete: relationships, we learn, are zero sum games to be won. Of course, where there are winners, there are also losers, but it does not pay to consider their fate too carefully. Keep your eyes on the prize. Act hard, and tough; be logical and remote, witty and distant. And then become boyfriends and husbands and fathers... of sons.
But by placing relationships at the center of everything we do, we can break the cycle. Witness the first day of school here: a senior takes a new kindergartner by the hand and walks him to opening assembly. Without thinking, the young boy crawls into his lap, and the young man responds by instinctively wrapping a pair of gangly arms around him. "It's safe here," the arms say. "I've got your back." Or witness the last day of school, some twelve years from now, when that same kindergartner, now a grown man himself, will cry in the arms of a classmate, a teacher, or a coach.
Or watch boys discuss gender dynamics in Human Relationships Seminar or debate sexual politics in a class on Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Without the pretending, posturing, or posing I have seen in a co-ed classroom, our boys talk openly about what it means to be a man in a world that too often expects the worst from them. We expect the best from them and so are not surprised by the extent to which they treasuring relationships with each other, with their teachers, and with the women in their lives.
At Peer Counseling, see our boys share stories of personal trauma, engage in deep listening exercises, and build a shared vocabulary for understanding their feelings that includes the word love. Growing up these days, the boys will tell you, is no small task; growing up alone is nearly impossible. The relationships they form with their "brothers," as they call one another without self-consciousness, sustain them when times are tough and serve as models, and practice, for the healthy relationships we hope they enjoy as men.
Our boys listen with empathy and concern to the stories of those who have been victimized by sexual assault, they read reports about the failures of campus police and disciplinary boards, and they track the debate on how consent is to be defined and determined. They are sometimes confused, perhaps even a little defensive, but they definitely care, and we expect them to stand up when others stand by.
We aren't out to fix boys; we're out to build better men... by creating the conditions whereby their predisposition to be good friends, good partners and spouses, and ultimately good fathers will shine. By surrounding them with love, we teach them to love, and in turn, we have faith that they will treat the women in their lives (as well as the men) not as trophies to be won or deals to be closed, not as the spoils of war, but as fellow human beings who seek and deserve meaningful connection and mutual respect.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Take Back the Night in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about Take Back the Night and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-866-331-9474 or text "loveis" to 77054 for the National Dating Abuse Helpline.