Fathers of Sons: 8 Steps to Avoid Being Dan Turner

Just yesterday I wrote a hellish rebuke of Brock Turner and rape culture, but it turns out I’m not done.  And if you’re a father, neither are you.

Dan Turner’s shitty letter defending his son is an act of violence.  It positions him clearly as an agent and ambassador of rape culture, blaming everything but his son for the rape of an unconscious woman behind a dumpster.  It positions Brock as a victim of alcohol and (his victim’s) promiscuity and, worst of all, it completely erases the the actual victim of the crime.  (By the way, @alexandraozeri on Twitter fixed the letter.)

But alcohol and promiscuity aren’t the problems.  Men are speaking up about that fallacy all over social media, thankfully.  Matt Lang notes:

I’ve been drunk many times, even in the presence of promiscuous women who were also drunk, and I managed not to rape them, so I don’t think drinking and promiscuity are the problems.

This here is the problem: some guys are entitled pricks, and they’re entitled pricks because their fathers and coaches and friends taught them to be entitled pricks. Because they are entitled pricks, they think they can have whatever they want, and that their worth is defined by what they have and what they take.

Chris Taylor echoes Lang in a piece he published on Mashable yesterday titled, “Dear Dads, This is what rape culture looks like and you’re responsible:”

Rape culture is a thing. I’m sorry if you bristle at that notion, guys, but it just is. Any time you put the onus on our daughters — don’t wear that dress, don’t get drunk, don’t lead guys on — you’re perpetuating it. Any time you make a rape joke, you’re perpetuating it.

And any time you miss an opportunity to educate our sons about the concept of consent — even if you prefer to talk abstinence because you’re not comfortable talking about sex, or if you just say something vague that conflates drunkenness and rape — you’re perpetuating it.

See, educating one’s children about consent and sexual assault is a responsibility that typically falls to mothers as a matter of course in the form of somber, hushed conversations between mothers and daughters.  (Of course, leaving that kind of educating to mothers also adds to the heaping pile of invisible labor that we already do, but that’s a post for another day.)

“Well,” you might say, “It falls to mothers because rape is a women’s issue.”

But when we frame rape as “a women’s issue,” we make it women’s problem, and we make it women’s responsibility to prevent our own assault. That is victim blaming and rape culture, full stop.  Don’t believe me?  Let Jackson Katz tell you about it in his TEDTalk,  “Violence Against Women–It’s a Men’s Issue.”

Until we make rape everyone’s problem, we excuse it with our silence.

rape_infographic

WaPo published this infographic.  The system is fine, right?

Turner’s joke of a sentence reminds us that–at least with matters of sexual assault–we can’t count on the legal system to do what is just, moral, or ethical. We must rewind, look deeper, and take control of the narrative ourselves.  What interventions should have happened along the way, before it seemed drunkenly reasonable for Brock Turner to unrepentantly drag a woman behind a dumpster and rape her?


A 2015 study from the University of North Dakota found that 1 in 3 young men would force a woman to have sex with them if they knew there would be no consequences and they wouldn’t be caught (and isn’t that what the Brock Turner sentence confirms?); however, here’s where it gets interesting:

But, when the researchers actually used the word “rape” in their question, those numbers dropped much lower — suggesting that many college men don’t associate the act of forcing a woman to have sex with them with the crime of committing rape.

So young men understand they should think rape is wrong, but they don’t really know what rape is.

That’s obviously a huge problem, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone.  We live in a society that, in every way conceivable, sends the message to women that we are less human than men, only valuable in relation to men, and they are entitled to our bodies.  It’s oppressive and misogynistic and it’s way worse for women of color and LGBTQ folks.

So what do we do?  If you’re the father to some sons, the best thing is to get in on the conversation early and often.  You probably already have the best of intentions and a lot of love for your kids, but you might not be aware of some of the things you yourself have absorbed around masculinity and rape culture.  Here are some ideas to get started:

1. Get curious about your own privilege and take nothing for granted.  The first step is figuring out your own privilege and the ways in which masculinity and rape culture have been part of your life. Things that seem natural might suddenly start looking kind of messed up and it’ll be uncomfortable and hard.  Watch The Mask You Live In and Tough Guise 2 and then talk about them with other dads/men. Ask why.  Ask who benefits, who is harmed. Being self-aware will make everything I suggest after this a lot easier and already puts you leaps and bounds ahead of Dan Turner.

2. Abandon the stand-alone lecture. Start talking early and make messages about consent ongoing, consistent, and age appropriate.  Embed consent in your family culture/code of honor.Outside of the fortress of your home (and even in it as long as we have TVs and internet access), violent masculinity and misogyny are everywhere.  And guess what?  Those two are the grotesque parents of rape culture.

See, rape culture isn’t just manifested in an isolated, sudden act of brutality like the one rapist Brock Turner committed; rape culture is everywhere we are.  It’s in music, movies, pop culture, advertisements, conversations, and so much more.That means that whatever messages you try to share with your kids about consent will run counter to everything else they’re soaking in.

So you can’t do the one-time lecture and be done; you have to start early and make consent culture a part of your everyday family life.

3. Early messages about consent don’t have to be about sex, but can focus on bodily autonomy. Teach your young son to honor the bodily autonomy of other people by having him ask before he touches others.  If he’s too young to form sentences, model it for him. “I think Buddy here wants to give Aisha a hug–is that all right with you, Aisha?”

Another way to model consent is to ask before you tickle or roughhouse with your children.  At our house, we also do safewords for starting and stopping a tickling session–“time out” to stop, and “time in” to resume.

Don’t make your kid give hugs and kisses to relatives and friends if they don’t want to.  Instead of saying, “Go give Auntie Gretchen a hug and a kiss,” try, “Do you want to give Auntie Gretchen a hug, a high five, or a wave?”

Show them that their own bodily autonomy matters so they might think to value the bodily autonomy of others as well.

4. Teach your sons that women’s and girls’ bodies don’t exist for their pleasure and judgment. Never, ever comment about other people’s weight loss/gain or clothing choices.  You might say to your younger child, “In our family, the rule is we don’t comment on other people’s bodies.”  At the same time, follow your own advice and don’t disparage your own body or the bodies of others in front of your children.

If you are having a play date with younger kids, don’t comment on a girl’s appearance or clothing.  Resist the urge to tell her how pretty she is or that you like her dress; you wouldn’t tell a boy the same thing, and that’s because we want boys to value–and know we ourselves value–other things most.

If you have older sons, find out if there’s a dress code at their school and talk to them about how dress codes can be oppressive and they value the education of boys at the expense of that of girls.  Ask your sons what they think about the idea that an exposed collar bone on a girl will make them incapable of doing school work. What does that say about people of all genders?

5. Don’t buy into the heteronormative gender binary (which is not real anyway) by saying things to your sons like, “boys will be boys.”  We’ve all seen it–boys roughhouse or play-hit a girl and we joke that they’re showing affection.  It might sound harsh, but these are early displays of violent masculinity and heteronormativity (assuming a boy will be interested in girls and not other boys), and they are the precursors to rape culture. These precursors start early and so should you.

There is real harm when we say things like “boys will be boys,” because we plant the seed that there is an inherent, insuperable, irresistible drive inside boys to dominate and conquer.  “Boys will be boys” promotes the idea of boys as savages who can’t control their violent–and later sexual–urges.  We tell them that to be a boy and a man, they have to be heterosexual and aggressive. Similarly, we teach our daughters that aggression and violence are healthy ways for their male partners to express affection.

So when you hear comments like “boys will be boys”–especially in front of your sons, name it and talk about it.  Don’t let your silence be an endorsement.  Those little silences add up into a loud message down the line. (The Mask You Live In is a good documentary to watch with teen sons.)

6. Name rape culture when you see it.  When your kids are old enough, start conversations about the music, ads, movies, jokes, and comments they encounter that seem to promote rape culture.  If you see the Budweiser ad that says, “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night,” ask your son what he thinks of it and if it seems problematic. Ask who benefits and who is harmed.

With teens, expose the intersections of race and class with rape culture by noticing the disparity in sentences for kids like Brock Turner and Cory Batey.  Talk about how young men of color are serving decades in prison for lesser, non-violent charges and get curious with your sons about why that is.

7. Observe and comment on representations of women. Get curious about what they’re watching and watch it with them, or have a family movie night.With younger kids, watch things that show women as three-dimensional, powerful agents of change in their own lives. Ask questions during bedtime stories about why it seems like the main characters in a lot of books are boys.

With older kids, ask questions about representations of women when you watch a movie together.  Things like the Bechdel test for films (a tool so simple it’s absurd) can be useful in exposing misogyny, sexism, and male privilege. Look at this graph showing the disparity of dialogue between men and women in movies and see what your sons think and if they noticed.

When your sons see messages all around them that women are objects and no one contradicts it, those messages become lessons that they take into their relationships.  Make yours a voice in the conversation.

8. Don’t enforce rigid notions of masculinity.  So many of the messages we send boys about how they should act comes from the way we ourselves were raised and things that seem natural or normal to us.  When we subtly guide kids toward one of two extreme, rigid gender poles, we run the risk of erasing their identities and sense of agency.

Please don’t tell boys not to cry.  Don’t make them play sports if they’d rather take ballet.  Don’t show them that withdrawal, anger, and humor are the only safe emotions to show.  Don’t make homophobic, sexist, or rape jokes.  Don’t laugh at homophobic, sexist, or rape jokes.

Show boys that men can–and should–be sensitive.  Show them that being gay doesn’t make them less of a man.  Share their interest in art or theater.  Teach them empathy and compassion for animals and other people–especially women and other marginalized folks.  Show them affection and let them see you cry. Believe women, girls, and non-binary people  and stand up for them.

Because when you don’t do these things, and even if you don’t mean to, you teach them to conflate weakness with femininity and to despise and devalue both. When you can’t empathize with someone and you don’t see their value as equal to yours, it’s a whole lot easier to dehumanize them and treat them like their pain and life and feelings don’t matter–especially if you’ve been doing it your whole life and adults brushed it off.

We must be able and willing to transform our own actions to be more in line with our ideals.  All parents can do this, but dads of sons have the added benefit of being able to consistently model what it means to be a man who respects boundaries, communicates clearly about consent, and values women and other marginalized people as human beings.  You can embody it, live it, not just lecture about it.  So much of what kids learn is from what is not said.

The bottom line is, if we don’t want to raise more Brock Turners, if we want to raise more kids like the ones who stopped Turner from continuing to rape his victim, then we need fewer Dan Turners in the mix.  Dan Turner loves his son and surely doesn’t see himself as a rape apologist, so the best and first step to avoid becoming a father like Dan is to cultivate self-awareness and reflection in yourself.

Believe me, women are watching.  We notice when men say nothing and when men take a stand against rape culture. And you know who else is watching?

Our sons.

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