When my son was born, I didn’t have time to reflect on my memories of hoping he would be a girl. I didn’t think about those tender moments before I wrapped his identity in the blue paper of a cultural script called gender. When his screaming bloody face first appeared on his mother’s chest, no antiquated gender norms could prevent the flood of tears and love and shock and snot that welcomed him into the world.
It was my life’s truest moment: a sudden Nirvanic meditation. I didn’t care about the past or the future. My fears about death and purpose and freedom were suspended outside the three of us. All I cared for was this gross little beautiful screaming face and the inescapable reality that he was in the world.
Yet, as suddenly as the moment was there, it was gone, replaced by the abrupt suspicion that he would be like me. Like his father, my son would be raised in a world that would ceaselessly strive to conform him to a sexual script requiring him to violate and oppress in order to prove himself.
I realized why I hoped for a girl.
I wanted a different story for him. I wanted him free of the struggle he would either endure or perpetuate as a result of boyhood. Blinded by my own ignorant assumption that it would be better for him if he was a girl, my fear thrust me into the attic of my memory.
I remembered the day I went to school dressed in loose sweatpants and comfortable printed flip flops when one of my football coaches called me a “fag” in front of some older girls. They laughed. I quickly connected the dots that my attire wasn’t masculine enough.
I remembered the morning my soccer coach yanked me off the field because my performance wasn’t up to par. Thinking I was distracted by the girls sharing the field, he admonished me not to “let the smell of sweaty pussy” take my head out of the game. I remembered thinking that made sense.
Like a cascade, memories of the men in my life whose casual carelessness toward women poured into my awareness. They revealed the creeping narrative I had been looking for—the one I knew was there but couldn’t locate. In these memories, I found a single thread of entitlement that motivated me to take without invitation, to leer, cajole or objectify without regard to the pleasure of the other.
Sex was never the problem. Sex was the medium. The problem was my attitude. The problem was my culture. The problem was me.
A boy’s first rite of passage isn’t the loss of his virginity, which is a useless concept. It’s not the first time he gets into a fight or achieves his first major accomplishment. A boy’s first passage into manhood is how he responds to sexual violence. Will he be a bystander? Will he participate? Will he resist? Will he put his social status on the line to defy convention? Or will he be complicit?
Men have inherited a legacy of non-consent. It’s bequeathed to us by our fathers, uncles, coaches, teachers, mentors, and friends. As boys, we watch our elders reproduce sexist narratives in the ways they teach, coach or parent. In the locker rooms of our minds, we develop a script of sexual privilege as the doorway to manhood. We do not become men. We are made men.
It’s time to confront the hard truth that men must take responsibility for the countless surviving women, men, girls and boys. I know that women also perpetuate sexual violence. I don’t question that. But I’m not here to discuss the exception. I’m here to discuss the rule.
And the rule is us.
We must change the way we talk to our sons, our students, our athletes, and friends. We must show them that courage is the refusal to participate in unwanted sexually violent narratives or behaviors. We must not allow “locker room talk” to simply be an inevitable part of being male.
We must help our boys grow into men willing to explore the nuances of sexual pleasure within the context of consent.
Conversation doesn’t kill excitement. Non-exploitation doesn’t neutralize eroticism. Almost anything is sexually possible with partners committed to each other’s pleasure. I say this in the hopes that one day my son’s celebration of sexual pleasure is matched only by his respect for his partners.
I urge this as a plea to the future men in his life whose influence will shape how he interacts with boys and girls in his community. Teach him strength. Empower him to own what he desires, but temper that with honor and respect. Show him there are good things about being masculine—if masculinity is what he engenders. But admonish him, too. Help him see the balance of confidence and humility.
As his father, I’ll teach him about sexual health, the first principle of which is consent. Let’s work together to change our sons’ legacies and help them stand where we turned aside and speak where we were silent.
Did you fail your first rite of passage? Me too. Are you responsible for perpetuating a culture of violence against women and others? Me too. Are you willing to have hard and awkward conversations with your sons to promote sexual health and integrity? Me too.
It’s a difficult road ahead. Are you ready?