Recently, I wrote an essay titled “I’m Done Pretending Men are Safe (Even My Sons).” I’ve taken a lot of heat for it, and multiple conservative media sites have written hit pieces on me in response. I haven’t read them, and I don’t read most of the comments on social media, but it’s clear that one of the primary concerns from readers is that writing about my kids is “abusive.”
Setting aside the “abuse” claims for the moment, one of the most interesting aspects of the response to my essay is that it’s emerged that many people don’t actually understand what “rape culture” and “toxic masculinity” mean. Many readers were enraged by what they characterized as my calling my sons rapists or saying that being a man is toxic. Neither could be further from the truth. “Rape culture” does not mean holding a belief that men are rapists (whether my sons or men in general); it refers to a set of societalbeliefs that blame women for sexual violence and misogyny, while normalizing sexual violence and aggression. Likewise, “toxic masculinity” does not refer to the idea that men are toxic, but rather that societal conceptions of what it means to be a man are harmful or toxic (particularly to men).
With those definitions out of the way, it should be clear that discussing how particular men, even my children, absorb these cultural ideas is in no way “abusing” them. It’s important for teenagers, in particular, to begin to think critically about the messages they absorb and to challenge themselves to reject convenient, but harmful narratives. Some commenters have likewise claimed that taking kids to gay pride parades or even discussing consent is abusive, which is patently absurd. Children need their parents to teach them right from wrong, and part of teaching kids about what’s right includes concepts like safe sex and consent.
I find it difficult to equate writing about my children to abuse or “shaming.” I could write the same piece about my sons, your sons, or anyone else’s sons because all of our sons absorb these messages. But I only parent my own sons, so it makes sense to talk about how these cultural attitudes have impacted my children and me. I am not ashamed of having absorbed racist ideas as a white person because that was not under my control. It is an unfortunate side effect of living in a culture that’s rooted in white supremacy. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t my responsibility to work to dismantle my own indoctrination in these types of ideas because they are harmful to others (and, frankly, to myself).
By the same token, I encourage my sons to reflect on their own cultural indoctrination into racism, sexism, ableism, etc without shame. This is sometimes met with a surprising willingness to reconsider their ideas about the world, and is sometimes met with defensiveness or even anger. That it’s unpleasant to dismantle internalized racism or sexism isn’t a sign that the work should stop. That simply comes with the territory. No one wants to think of themselves as racist or sexist, and many people avoid that by simply denying it’s true. I am proud of my sons for being willing to do the work, and to dig deeper than knee-jerk defensiveness. (My son was angry at me recently for not allowing his girlfriend to sleep over, so I also don’t judge my parenting decisions entirely by how my kids feel about them.)
Fear of shame keeps us from being honest with ourselves about our flaws..."
Similarly, the concept of safety I refer to in my essays isn’t physical; It’s emotional safety. Many people of color discuss how there is a degree of emotional safety they can’t achieve with white people, and it’s hardly revolutionary to discuss the same about men. Like it or not, sexism makes (cis) men less emotionally safe for women. Like it or not, even children absorb sexism. That my own sons aren’t perfect is expected; the best they or any man can be in this cultural framework is a good man. The heartbreaking part is that even good men can’t be fully or completely emotionally safe for women, even when they’re our own flesh and blood.
There’s no doubt that writing about this journey opens my family up to examination and criticism. However, it’s a bit absurd to suggest that my sons are the ones bearing this burden. They are unnamed in my essays, and I often blend them into a single “character” in difficult pieces to preserve some degree of anonymity. It is, in fact, this blending that upset one of my sons the most. He wasn’t upset that I wrote about sexism and my sons for The Washington Post, he was upset that he wasn’t more fully separated from what he characterizes as his brother’s more deeply-rooted sexism. That is why, in my most recent piece, I addressed the gentler, more progressive sexism that even the best men struggle with, and honored his wish to be delineated from his brother in these kinds of essays.
We need to face the ways in which we subconsciously indoctrinate our kids into our cultural failings."
I am not surprised that many people conflate exposing problematic beliefs with shame; however, that conflation is a reflection of their own unwillingness to admit mistake without accepting shame. In my household, shame is the enemy. It is unproductive and unhealthy, and it simply doesn’t belong. Fear of shame keeps us from being honest with ourselves about our flaws, and prevents real growth. It’s not always easy to ditch the shame, but it’s something I’ve dedicated myself to as a mother. When my children make mistakes, they know they will be greeted with compassion, not shame. As a result, they are more open to admitting their own flaws than, unfortunately, many adults.
Ultimately, I write about my children and difficult topics because these conversations need to be had. We need to face the ways in which we subconsciously indoctrinate our kids into our cultural failings. We need to look at ourselves and our children honestly. We need to be brave enough to face hard truths. And while it is possible for me to hide behind reporting, the fact is that my best experience in this area comes from being a parent myself. I write what I know, and I write about my own struggles because an open dialogue is how hearts and minds open and change.
My children know they can veto topics I write about them. They have done so before, and likely will do so again. Many readers have been appalled at my writing about my son’s depression, but they might be surprised to know I use my own name now at my son’s behest. The first essay I wrote about his depression was written anonymously; when I told him that, he told me to use my name because it’s important to him to be honest about his depression, and to do his part to break down mental health stigma. He’s also given multiple presentations at school and in the community about depression and suicidal ideation. I’ve agreed to write under my own name, but I’ve never used his name in those essays either, as a way to honor his request while also preserving his privacy.
I don’t expect my work to appeal to everyone. I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with me. But I’ve spoken to many women writers who say they stopped writing about their children after receiving thousands of abusive messages (in response to very benign topics). I’ve received everything from death threats, to dozens of messages telling me to kill myself, to dick pics, to comments saying I lied about being raped or that it’s too bad the man who molested me as a child didn’t “finish me off.” These are unfortunate facts of life as a woman writer on the Internet, and I understand why many women have chosen not to continue writing in controversial arenas (or about any aspect of parenting, which always seems to be controversial when it’s done by a woman). I respect their willingness to prioritize their mental and emotional health, and there are times when I do the same.
But my mother gave me one bit of valuable advice as a child: Don’t let the bastards win. And for as long as I think it’s valuable to write about my family, that’s exactly what I’ll do.