What About the Boys, Part One Billion

by Shaker Laurakeet, a feminist and knitter in Chicago who loves her two cats and her husband, as well as his mother who is a lovely pediatrician.

[Trigger warning.]

A recent New York Times story in its "18 and Under" health-section column, "Another Awkward Sex Talk: Respect and Violence," caught my eye. In it, Perri Klass, MD addresses how hard it can be to explain to adolescent boys the issues of sexual violence and respect for women—but she unfortunately goes about it, well, wrong. The takeaway message is, ultimately: Oh, it's so HARD to teach boys to respect women. It "hurts their feelings," one doctor asserts! When we talk about rape, it just paints all boys as "potential perpetrators" and all girls as "potential victims"—think about the menz!

And don't think about the reality of who constitutes the vast majority of rape victims and who constitutes the vast majority of rapists.

"Somehow," Klass laments, "there has to be a way to talk about sex and relationships beyond the anatomical details, and a way to discuss what happens in school and what happens on the cover of People magazine."

Facts could be useful. But Klass is not as interested in using facts to convey the reality of sexual violence; she's intent on figuring out how to very carefully avoid that reality so as not to hurt boys' feelings.

She notes that it's hard for adults to talk to young people about sex. Pop culture is hypersexualized, and adults are always "lamenting children's exposure to that endless parade." Movies star "adolescent boys [as] clueless, sex-obsessed goofballs." The thinly veiled Chris Brown and Rihanna reference ("There's increasing knowledge of dating violence, including well-publicized celebrity incidents") was a bit squicky, but it at least broaches the subject of dating violence.

And then, despite being a self-professed feminist, she concludes:
Stir it all together, and you may get an official worldview in which boys are viewed as potential criminals and girls as potential victims.
O rly? Sounds suspiciously MRA to me. Actually, most of the time men and boys are seen as perfectly justified in their attitudes and behaviors toward women. When women experience violence—especially sexual violence—at the hands of men, they are not believed nor sympathized with nor taken seriously as people. This phrasing also seems to erase the experiences of young boys and girls who have already crossed the "potential" to actual, whether survivors or assailants. Which is all to say: Read this blog. Please see dictionary under "patriarchy." And this isn't to say that boys and men always benefit directly from the patriarchy—in fact, they are often deeply damaged by it, even despite conferred privilege—but this is not the way to discuss the impact of sexual violence on boys.*

Then Klass and other doctors reinforce this "official worldview" with Official Medical ExpertiseTM. Given the opportunity to undercut a worldview that casts all boys as potential criminals and all girls as potential victims, to balance it with stats or stories that explain how girls are disproportionately targeted and boys disproportionately victimizers, which means decent boys have a key role in preventing sexual violence, Klass and her quoted peers instead reinforce the worldview she dislikes.

William Pollack, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School (double points for Ivy League) and author of a 1999 book "Real Boys" (another point for potential MRA material), quotes an adolescent boy who says he's been made to feel like a future perp. Nice to know hearsay backs up this argument.

Another psychologist and boys'-health author-expert (how often do these two go together?), Michael G. Thompson, boldly suggests good manners for both genders, and hints that gender blindness is best. Well, we all know that being a privileged class and then pretending you don't SEE difference doesn't help anyone and certainly doesn't make you look any smarter. See: 2008 election. He does have one special note for boys:
"I would teach boys that there are many adults who are scared of boys, who have fears of boy aggression, and I think politeness is the surest way that a boy can reassure the adult world that he is O.K. and trustworthy."
OMG. Call me a hysterical feminist—go ahead, I'll wait—but I think he's simultaneously giving a boys-will-be-boys argument about "aggression" and telling boys how to hide that aggression from adults and therefore avoid culpability, in addition to implying there's justification for people to be scared of boys.

There is a spot of hope among the MDs: Dr. Lee M. Sanders, a pediatrician and professor, began incorporating a discussion about respecting girls into his treatment of teen boys after a mom asked him to address it.
"We'll talk about respect, about whether they feel they are respected in their own families, the respect they have for their mothers, the respect they see other men paying to their own mothers or sisters — do you think that applies to other girls that you meet?

"At first it was a very awkward conversation for them to have," he went on. "But now I'm used to having it with them, and they're used to having it with me."
I don't think this is half bad, though I'm wondering if he gets to the heart of the discussion—how disrespect can lead to violence, and perhaps even the importance of bystander action when you see one of your peers being mean or violent.

Then our author steps out with her own medical opinion (emphasis mine):
As a pediatrician with two sons and a daughter, I acknowledge the need to emphasize manners and respect as boys maneuver into adolescence and adulthood, and to help them understand the implications and obligations of their increasing size and strength. And I acknowledge that for their own protection, boys need to understand that there are people — male and female — who will see them as potential predators, and judge them automatically at fault in any ambiguous situation.

But I am enough of an old-fashioned feminist to want to teach daughters the same fundamental lessons I teach sons: err on the side of respect and good manners; understand that confusion, doubt and ambiguity abound, especially when you are young; never take advantage of someone else's uncertainty; and, just as important, remember that adolescence should be a time of fun, affection, growth and discovery.
I include the second paragraph to show how quickly she backpedals from the boys-are-in-danger point of view. But it's still there. Even if she is an "old-fashioned feminist" (which I take as code for "I don't follow the feminist movement any more; it's over, see I'm a doctor!"). I also wanted to emphasize the subtle reference to the gray rape myth, as if ambiguous situations abound and boys have to be extra-cautious to be "polite" and have "manners" so as to get themselves out of these sticky wickets.

And she still opens up this personal part with YET ANOTHER reminder of her expertise as pediatrician. Maybe it's just poor editing, but I think it's a subconscious maneuver to remind readers that she is the doctor in the room thankyouverymuch.

Perri Klass, I learn after a quick Google, is a professor of journalism and pediatrics at NYU and the medical director of Reach Out and Read, "a national literacy organization which works through doctors and nurses to promote parents reading aloud to young children." To my personal dismay, she is also an avid knitter and knitting book author (as I'm a giant knitting geek this hurts me on a whole 'nother level).

I want to give Klass the benefit of the doubt. I will send her a note, and ask her why she seems more concerned with bursting boys' bubbles of privilege than she is with teaching them how to recognize that privilege and understand the way the world works. This post is up for discussion on the Times' Well blog here, and Perri Klass is responding to some commenters. She can also be reached through her website.

Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus