I don’t usually write about parenting, in part because it feels like tempting fate. I’ll write parenting advice and then my kids will end up being drug dealers, pornographers and going out in public dressed like a cartoon pony character. But there are a few things I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten right, so over the next couple of weeks I’m going to be sharing some ideas about parenting with y’all.
Today, I’m going to talk about the supposed problem of teen aged boys (and men) and the threat posed to them by girls and women who have the gall to walk about without their denim jumpers on. Really, this shouldn’t even be a thing that needs much discussion. But over the last few months, I’ve run across what seems like an increasing number of discussions on the subject. And more often than not, what I’m reading is alarming rubbish.
These discussions generally fall into two categories. Either they attempt to shame/scold/convict women into covering it up in consideration of the men who see them. Or they advise men on how to “bounce/avert their eyes” in order to avoid looking at the female forms wandering the streets around them.
As the mother of two teen boys (ages 14 and 18), I find both of these approaches infuriating and insulting. There is another way entirely to approach the subject. One which helps boys grow into, you know, mature adults who don’t think “boobies” every time a woman with some cleavage goes by. And which isn’t sexist and shaming to women. It’s crazy, I know. But bear with me here. . .
So let’s go back to a little over a decade ago to when I was walking through Target with my then 7 year old son pushing the cart next to me. Suddenly I noticed that he had begun walking strangely. Like he was clomping his feet. I asked him what he was doing and he explained that he had been walking with his eyes closed. In order to avoid looking at a picture of a woman in her underwear which was hanging from the ceiling.
I don’t remember the context, but apparently at some point, I had told him that a good man doesn’t look at women’s bodies – even if they are hanging them out for all to see. So he was doing the gentlemanly thing and closing his eyes to avoid looking at a woman’s body. It was kind of cute, but it did make me think teaching my kid something that had him walking around with his eyes closed wasn’t such a great idea.
After that I hit on a really novel idea; what if I taught my boys to view women – even naked women – as (wait for it . . . ) human beings? Like what if I taught them that instead of seeing women as potential mates or sex partners or walking titillation machines, they should view them simply as fellow human beings? What if I taught them that considerations of a person’s appeal as a sexual partner should be limited to a woman they want to be in a committed relationship with? Crazy, I know.
So now I teach my boys that I don’t care if a woman walks up to him wearing naught but the skin she came in, they’d better look her in the eye and talk to her like any other human being.
Now, some of you are saying, “but Rebecca, boys – hormones – sexy – it’s only natural!” Well, sure. Boys have hormones. They can turn anything into a dirty joke. Women are sexy. That’s reality and I’m not naive enough to think simply telling them to view women as fellow humans will change that. (Nor would I want to change that, really.) So . .
Next, I decided that the real solution to the problem of boys and boobies was to allow them to become accustomed to the female form. After all, nudists manage to live together without the men having to shift uncomfortably and cross their legs every time they are in the presence of a naked woman. Men in tribes where clothing is minimal don’t get a woody every time a woman passes by. Why do we act as if it’s unavoidable that a male who can see a woman’s body is going to view her in a sexual way?
I certainly didn’t encourage them to leer or decorate their rooms with pin up girls. But the picture of a woman in her underwear hanging from the ceiling at Target? I think I need some new underwear. Let’s go stand under it. The nude scene in Titanic? No fast-forwarding it, just sit and watch it as if it were the most normal thing in the world. We’re not German enough to sit down for dinner naked, but casual nudity became deliberately more common in our home.
Basically I made a point of treating the female form as completely normal, non-sexual and unremarkable as I could. Certainly no more suggestions that women’s bodies were a sight to be avoided. No treating the female body as a threat to their purity or standing as good men. We all have bodies. Half of us have female bodies. We all need to get over it instead of treating it like a scandal.
But still – boys – hormones – boobies – lust!
As any male can attest, pubescent boys can find anything sexy. They get turned on when the wind blows in a certain direction. And let Miss Schoolmarm wear a tight sweater to school and soon the poor boy’s grades begin to suffer. But the thing is that this is a stage. It’s a normal stage. Like all other developmental stages, a person can get stuck there. Or they can experience it and move on.
If you want them to get stuck with the mind of a 12 year old, unable to concentrate in the presence of the nefarious boobie, here’s what you do. First you tell them that if they experience sexual desire, they are going to get in trouble. Like they will go to hell. Baby Jesus will cry over them. That way rather than experiencing and getting over this normal state of development, they will spend much of the rest of their lives trying to fight it.
Or you can let them know that it’s normal. It’s kind of silly and occasionally embarrassing. But that they will grow out of it. That way they know that while being distracted by and sexually attracted to random women they meet is normal and not bad, it’s also a sign of immaturity. Real manhood lies on the other side of this stage of their development.
So add in some discussions about consent, rape culture, porn and sexting and that’s what I’ve done with my boys. As much as I hate to call down bad juju by claiming parenting success, it’s working. There are things about my boys I’m not entirely pleased with, of course. But when it comes to dealing with women and managing their sexuality, I don’t mind saying that they continual impress me. May it always be so!
This is already longer than I intended, but before I go, I’d like to share something I realized just recently. It has to do with the importance of touch. This past summer, my 18 year old spent three weeks away from home working. He reported that while he was gone, he found himself “checking out” girls far more often than was normal for him. He said he’s pretty sure that it was because while he was gone, physical touch was almost completely absent in his life. We’re a (deliberately) high touch family. At home, he regularly holds and sits with his sisters while reading, watching TV and the like. Hugs are frequent. We sit close together while talking, etc. We humans NEED physical touch. Unfortunately, we tend to be a low touch culture. In fact, once we’re past childhood, sexual activity is one of the only ways that many people experience touch. My son’s observation made me wonder how much teen sexual behavior is driven by this need for physical contact. My younger son is much less comfortable with physical contact, but oddly, he’s much more willing to engage in hugging and even sitting close together as he’s entered into adolescent. So I would suggest that giving teens ample opportunity for non-sexual touch can be a good way to reduce their need/desire to get their touches through sexual behavior.
And now I’m done.