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Don’t Be A Rapist: Of Survivor Parenting & Young Males

We have a lot of conversations around masculinity now since kid #1 is pubescent. At not quite 12 he’s starting to feel his way through what kind of man he wants to be and having parents that he feels he can talk to is helpful, but occasionally traumatic for all concerned. We’ve talked about sex, drugs, booze, and money at various points over the last few years. All those conversations were tough but the “Don’t be a rapist” convo was possibly the most awkward of my life.

When the story first broke about the 11 year old girl being assaulted in Texas he asked me about it. Why? Well he’s 11 and he has a ton of 11 year old female friends. Since we’ve been pretty open about the mechanics of sex he was upset & confused at the idea of a girl like one of his friends being forced to “do it” with anyone, much less with a group of strangers.

After the initial conversation about why rape happens, and a discussion of the harm it can do, I left the door open for him to bring any other questions to me or his father. Over the last few months we’ve talked about kinds of rape as he’s seen them mentioned on the news (date, stranger, corrective, etc.) and why people blame the victims. Lately, the conversation has turned to stuff like Slut Walks & how telling women to live a certain way in order to avoid being raped doesn’t do anything to stop rape.

He’s having conversations with his Dad of the “No means no”, “Alcohol, emotional upset, drugs, etc. can impair judgment”, & “Don’t hang out with guys that think a girl has to be convinced to have sex” variety. At one point during the course of these conversations I got a little worried about whether the topics were too heavy for him. Then I had a chat with the mother of his best female friend who reminded me that this is the age where girls start talking about it, because this is when the warnings about how to behave to avoid trouble really start pouring in as their bodies start changing. So, I guess if the topic isn’t too heavy for his female friends it isn’t too heavy for him either. Is it okay if it feels too heavy for me right now?

11 thoughts on “Don’t Be A Rapist: Of Survivor Parenting & Young Males”

  1. Prerna says:

    I remember you from my days at the Booj :) Having semi-abandoned my LJ, imagine my surprise to find your piece through the lovely tangled interwebz.

    Anyhow, I really appreciate this post. How to talk to my future children, particularly sons, about sexual assault boggles my mind. As a victim, I fear how emotional I’ll get. That I won’t be able to convey the importance without scaring them off. But I like your strategy of letting real life take the lead and just being honest. Your story brings a smile to my face, and gives me a little comfort and hope.

  2. Michele says:

    It IS heavy and sad that we have to have these conversations at all, at any time, with our kids. My 6 year old daughter recently started asking about the mechanics of sex and wanted to know why someone might not want to keep a baby. I gave her: too young, not ready emotionally/financially, not wanting to raise a child alone. But I did not feel ready to broach the subject of rape. I simply did not know how to tell her that sometimes, something that should feel good and be fun to do might be horrible and completely wrong. And that it could result in something that left the victim in a situation that is untenable. Talking to kids about rape SHOULD feel heavy!! But don’t stop, it’s too important for all of us.

  3. JMS says:

    My heart is broken that this basic and important and responsible parenting—teaching one’s son that rape is wrong and that he should never rape anyone—is such a revolutionary act in our society. I honor you and your husband for doing this.

  4. Robin says:

    I discussed rape with my then five-year-old son, Gavin, and yes, it was heavy. This is what I wrote about it at the time:

    “I read in a friend’s journal about some bad experiences she had had, and I was standing at the kitchen counter trying to make dinner and mulling it over. I couldn’t fight off the tears, and Gavin wandered into the kitchen shortly after, to do Quality Control. (That’s what we call it when he and/or his brother eat bits of food while I’m preparing it, and then they tell me if the ingredients taste good. They take the job very seriously.) He stared at me (the sight of me crying is not one he sees often) and then asked, “Why’re you crying, Mama?”

    “I’m crying because one of my friends got raped,” I said. He asked the obvious question – “what’s rape?” I said, “You remember how sex works, right? Like in Where Did I Come From? How a man puts his penis or another body part inside another person?” I waited until he nodded, then said, “Well, rape is when the other person doesn’t want him to put his penis or fingers or other part of his body inside them, and he does it anyway even though they don’t want him to.” (Yes, I know that’s a gross oversimplification of sex, and also of rape. He’s only five years old, I have to start with the basics.)

    He thought it over and said, “That’s not nice at all. He shouldn’t do that.”

    And I looked at my son and thought about the fact that he is growing up in a rape culture. He’s growing up in a culture where 1/3 of college-age boys don’t have any problems telling a surveyor that having sex with a woman who is passed out drunk isn’t rape. He’s growing up in a culture where the courts keep telling women over and over and over that they did something to bring it on themselves. He’s growing up in a culture where celebrities publicly support another celebrity who drugged and raped a 13-year-old, and say that that “isn’t rape-rape”. He’s growing up in a culture that believes that the only real rape is when a stranger jumps out of the bushes and holds you down with a knife to your throat – and even then, you better not ask him to put on a condom, and you better struggle, and you better be in a good area of town, and you better not be a sex worker or promiscuous, and you better not be wearing anything less than full-body armor. He’s growing up in a culture that is teaching him each and every day that women are disposable. I thought about the fact that almost none of us talk to our children about rape, especially our boy children. And this is how we end up with a society where one in three college-age boys doesn’t have a fucking clue what rape is, and some of those boys will do it without ever acknowledging the truth of what they’re doing.

    I got down on his level and looked him in the eyes and said, “No, they shouldn’t. But it happens, and it happens a lot. Mama has three friends – no, wait, five friends – no, seven friends,” and I could feel my heart sinking as more and more names popped into my head, “nine friends,” and I stopped counting there even though I knew there are more, “who have been raped. And honey, you need to understand this. This is so important. Someday you’re going to grow up, and you’re going to want to put your penis inside other people. And that’s fine, as long as they say yes and they mean it. But sometimes they’ll say no, and you have to stop right then, because otherwise it’s rape. And sometimes they want to say no, but they won’t say no. Sometimes they won’t say no because maybe they’re scared to say no, or they might be sick and not thinking well because they drank alcohol, or they might feel badly about themselves and believe they deserve to have bad things happen to them, so they won’t say no even though they want to. And if you have sex with someone when they don’t want you to, even if they don’t say no, it’s still rape. It isn’t enough for them to be quiet. Being silent is not the same thing as saying yes. They have to say yes, and they have to mean it, and it’s your job to make sure that they really want to.”

    He said seriously, “Okay, Mama.”

    “I love you,” I said, and hugged him, then got up and offered him some food for testing.

    He ate it, pronounced it good, and then ran back to the living room to play Super Mario Galaxy. And I knew that just as with racism, homophobia, etc., this is only the first of so many conversations we’re going to have to have as he grows up. It makes me ache inside to know that I have to raise my children explicitly not to rape people. But the alternative – letting him just absorb all the messages from the media, his friends, his culture – is part of why we’re in the rape culture that we’re in. It’s part of why there’s so many rape apologists (and yes, there’s some of you on my FL) and people who would rather blame the victim for what they didn’t do, than blame the rapist for what they did do.”

  5. Rose Fox says:

    You and P. are heroes for doing this. Seriously.

    For a lighter tone, maybe try focusing on “yes means yes” and the awesomeness of enthusiastic consent? I actually prefer “yes means yes” over “no means no” because it sets up not having sex as the default, and also because it focuses on joy and collaboration and being really into it rather than on fear or shame.

    1. Heidi says:

      Yes, Rose Fox! I also prefer Yes Means Yes, because it covers those uncertain moments like when a woman is too drunk or actually unconscious to give a clear NO. Because apparently, to some men, that is consent enough. UGH. SADLY.

  6. itchbay says:

    I love the idea of “yes means yes!” I wish I had heard more of that when I was a teen and young adult. Too many dire warnings, and not enough support for healthy sexual behavior that wasn’t strictly abstinence.

  7. lifelearner says:

    Thank you for this post. Powerful commentary Robin! I have two boys and will be taking notes for our conversation as well.

  8. Bhan says:

    I don’t really have anything helpful to add, I just wanted to say that you are awesome for doing this and awesome for blogging this as I bet a lot of parents don’t know how to begin having that kind of discussion at a young age and the fact that your kid is aware in the ways his participation in this shows means you have an awesome kid and did a great job parenting him.

  9. YoungOliveTree says:

    When I look at stuff like this, I get really emotional, but I’m so glad it’s around, and that there’s even a few blogs like this, I’m very glad for.
    I, am technically still a kid, even though I’ll be 18 this year, but even so, I fell like I’m contributing in a way, because I’m still a kid, and I can still influence others kids while I’m still young, and still in high school.
    So reading this, I fell a little like I’ve been praised, for existing in a way, and getting into things like feminism and anti-racism, which, I still need to be more involved in. I just started, and I don’t think I’ll let these things go like fads so easily, I’m really interested in how I can help spread awareness of these things. I really wish I could take part in the slutwalk as well. :)
    I don’t want kids, but if I did have them, I’d raise them on so much of this.

  10. Sam says:


    came here because I saw the post title in a “blog her” syndication feed on another website and the title spoke to me. I’m one of the boys who were spoken to about feminism and rape early on in puberty and who didn’t take it too well.
    That’s also a consequence of other bits of my education and my personality, and I totally agree that it’s important to talk about these things with boys, but as important as confrontation with this sad part of reality is, it can be sexually traumatizing for boys to hear that they have an at least potentially toxic touch. Hearing “don’t ever pressure a girl” from my mother was an important part of making me be afraid of my sexuality and completely hide it as a consequence. While other boys and girls were discovering their sexualities with each other, I was too afraid to play, for fear of accidentally hurting a girl I liked. It took me a decade of therapy and self-help to work through this fear of myself and finally be kissed for the first time a couple of years after getting my graduate degree. I’m still not entirely over it at mid-thirty. I still have serious problems even initiating a kiss.

    I’m not saying my case is typical, it certainly isn’t. But talking about this can indeed be “too heavy” for boys, it can, as in my case, be sexually debilitating, when sexual desire is mentally identified with hurting someone and that identification is in some way identified with motherly authority.

    Again, despite my personal history, I think it’s very important to talk about these things, but I do think that it needs to be balanced with positive notions of male sexuality, in order to still allow the boy to feel good about his nascent sexuality and not be afraid of experimenting with it for fear of hurting the girl he likes (and by extension, his mother).

    I’m now at a rather content place, despite all the time and opportunities I’ve lost as a consequence, but there was a time when I resented my mother for her making me feel bad about my sexuality. I know it wasn’t her intention, but both my debilitation and my resenting her were in part a consequence of her “heavy talk” that I’d like other people to avoid if at all possible.

    All the best!

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