A Letter to My Teenage Son About Sexual Assault
My hopes and advice for you about healthy masculinity.
Posted Sep 06, 2016
I wrote a letter to your sister about sexual assault, after some incidents at her school made me realize there were some things I wanted to share. You’re a little younger, but I want you to be part of that conversation too. More importantly, and as I told your sister, I have faith that you can be part of the solution.
Your father and I are very proud of you and happy to see you growing into a young man. Just like with your sister, we look forward to watching you explore new relationships and new horizons, and we want you to be confident in your sexuality.
In some ways, I wish I could write the same letter to you that I wrote to her, but you face different challenges. As I watch you learn what it means to be a man, I worry not only that you might be sexually victimized yourself, but also that you will get exposed to distorted views of sexuality and pressured to go along with aggressive behavior.
Probably your biggest challenge will be to stand up for a culture of respect. The strongest person in any group of boys is not the one who is bragging about humiliating or even hurting women, making sexist jokes, and using homophobic slurs as casual insults. You’ll almost certainly hear some of these kinds of comments. Who am I kidding? You probably already have. Don’t listen to those boys, many of whom are driven by their own insecurity. The strongest boys are the ones who have the courage to avoid hurtful behaviors and not laugh or encourage it in others. Boys who fall for phony bragging by other boys are at higher risk of committing a sexual assault. As you grow into a young man, know that manhood and respect for women go hand in hand.
You and your friends don’t need to worry about getting “left behind.” Your generation is having its first sexual experiences at older ages and waiting longer to get into serious relationships. Fewer than half of high school students have sex. Yup, you heard that right—most high school students are not having sex. About 1 in 4 people have their first sexual experience in their 20s, and most men don’t marry until their late 20s. Lots of boys—some bragging about experiences they don’t have, some just staying silent—are not as sexually active as you might think.
I wrote to your sister about being a good friend. Sticking by your friends when you go out is what I want you to do too. For young men, being a good friend also means be willing to speak the truth about sex. Know that if you wait for the right person and the right moment, you will be like most of your peers. In the meantime, being able to say “no” to a classmate or a teacher is just as important for you as it is for your sister.
Part of being a friend means choosing friends carefully. Sometimes a very hurtful culture emerges in certain sports teams, fraternities, and other groups. Look to the behavior of coaches and other leaders to get an idea of whether a group will offer a healthy environment. If coaches or advisors are using homophobic slurs or calling players “girls” when they are unhappy with their performance, then find another activity. If you are unable to avoid such groups, then find ways to show, verbally or non-verbally, that you are not interested in those kinds of comments. Your response can be subtle—a slight shake of the head, a slight turning away, or even muttering “not cool” under your breath. On the positive side, when you hear something good about relationships, respect, or sex, a nod or a few words of agreement help create a healthy culture.
Another important piece is understanding consent. The most important part of consent is that it needs to be “affirmative.” That means you need some clear sign that your partner wants to be sexual too. The best consent is saying “yes” out loud. Someone who is passed out or too drunk to stand easily is too intoxicated to give consent. That’s just as illegal—and gross—as having sex with someone in a coma. Also, consent for making out is consent for making out, not for sex. People have the right to stop any time. Sex should be enjoyable for both people.
There are also dangers out there. Boys and men are sexually victimized too, with about 1 in 20 boys reporting a sexual victimization by age 17. Like your sister, I expect you to take reasonable cautions to avoid sexual victimization. Men face different risks here, too. You are about as likely to be sexually assaulted by another man than by a woman. Older women sometimes target underage males. Don’t ever be impressed with a prospective partner just because they have a driver’s license or credit card. Adults who can’t handle other adults are not good relationship material.
Much of what I wrote your sister is the same for you. Alcohol and drugs can leave you less able to defend yourself and more vulnerable to exposure to violence. Drug spiking happens to men as well as women (about 1 in 20 in one study), so also be careful about where your drink is coming from. If you drink, drink in moderation. Even more importantly, drink in safe places.
Someone may disclose a sexual victimization to you, and if they do you should be as supportive as you can. Don’t ask questions that might suggest it is their fault, such as whether they were drinking or what they were wearing. Say things like, “If you want, I can look online to find out about local help,” “I’m so sorry—no one deserves to be hurt like that” Sometimes just being there for someone is the best thing to do. Be an honest witness about the help available from teachers, police, other adults. Don’t make promises that may not come true. For example, don’t promise that the perpetrator will go to jail or get what he deserves. Encourage them to keep trying, because there are a lot of places to get good help.
I am so very proud of you and believe that you are can handle these challenges and will emerge every bit the man you want to be.
Much love, always,
© 2016 Sherry Hamby
Sherry Hamby, Ph.D. is editor of Psychology of Violence, Research Professor of Psychology at the University of the South, and a clinical psychologist who studies violence and resilience.
I’ve been working against sexual violence for a long time, but it wasn’t until some cases were disclosed at my daughter’s school that I realized that there is almost nothing available to help parents talk to their teens using the most up-to-date research for guidance.