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Marin Voice: Raising boys to nurture, not abuse, women

I was 11, walking home from my religious school afternoon class. Jumped and punched by three older boys, when I got teary I was repeatedly called a “sissy.”

I’d also heard the chant of “sissy” when I cried after twisting my ankle playing street hockey. I finally got the message during those pre-teen years. “Don’t show tears if you want to be accepted by other boys.”

I didn’t cry again publicly until sometime in my late 30s. But shutting down tears, I also repressed other emotions that revealed vulnerability.

I was reminded of this while watching an episode of “The Crown” in which Prince Charles is bullied by other boys. Elizabeth wants to transfer him to a different school. But Philip insists he ne this to toughen him.

That same strong message is given to most boys today. “You need to be tough.” We spend far more time teaching boys how to be tough than modeling genuine kindness and allowing them to be empathetic and caring.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about the role our culture plays in creating the context for the massive revelations of men who have engaged in varied forms of sexual assault, intimidation or verbal humiliation, now in the foreground of our news and our culture.

How were these men raised? How could they lack the empathy and care that guard against such behavior? Male dominance is one of the messages of the peer culture.

It is also too frequently part of the message conveyed to boys at home and reinforced by the objectification of women.

Another part of the problem is the early sexualization of girls, through mass media, peers and increasingly sexualized dolls. Television advertising and mass media’s choice of sexy women announcers and interviewers reinforces the sexualization and objectification of women.

This is not an excuse for inappropriate male behavior towards women, but provocative clothing may provide an unintended justification to men who have learned to sexualize and objectify women. When men see young women in low-cut blouses, and short tight skirts, some mistakenly consider this an invitation. They are frequently not aware that this is a function of female socialization and not an invitation to sexual advances.

All of this underscores our shared responsibility for abusive male behavior towards women.

I have no mercy at all for Harvey Weinstein. There are no excuses for behavior which treats women as commodities and uses power to pressure women into sex. I am just acknowledging that this behavior is the result of a pervasive culture of male socialization and female depersonalization.

The sexualization and objectification of girls should be stopped, by parents, teachers and mass media. Girls must be educated to see how they are being manipulated and how this undermines their becoming healthy adults.

And importantly, boys should get a firm message that girls wearing short skirts or low-cut blouses is not an invitation to sexual advances.

Parents are the first models. Parents who reflect patterns of male entitlement with females relegated to second-class status teach children the wrong lessons. Fathers need to model male empathy and care. Mothers need to model assertiveness and avoid reinforcing the early sexualization of their daughters.

Schools must also directly address this through an orientation for all entering secondary school students, and/or through separate individual groups for boys and girls meeting regularly to discuss these issues.

Both at home and school, our children need to learn behaviors that reflect compassion, empathy, and understanding of each other.

This is a major first step in addressing a serious and pervasive problem in our society. We can and must do better.

Mark Phillips of Woodacre is a professor emeritus of education at San Francisco State University. He is a regular contributor to Marin Voice.

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