As allegations pile up that everyone from Hollywood heavyweights like Harvey Weinstein to political conservatives like Roy Moore have stalked, abused, harassed or sexually assaulted women and girls, it makes me wonder: Are all men animals? As the mother of two girls, I worry: Will they become victims? As the mother of two boys I fear for them, too: Will they be predators? Will they be painted as such even if they’re not?
To be sure, sexual assault statistics are disheartening: According to RAINN, there are approximately 321,500 victims of rape and sexual assault every year and people ages twelve to thirty-four are the most at risk. I hope my daughters never experience this tragedy and will attempt to inform and prepare them for a world where such horrible things happen. The same goes for my boys—but in some ways, I worry about them even more. As my ten-year-old marches ever forward toward puberty, I’ve begun to think about his development with more curiosity and, given the climate, a protective, even defensive, spirit.
Recently, several stories have surfaced about boys and sexuality that are disconcerting. In a series on young people and sex in America, CNN correspondent Lisa Ling profiled, among other subjects, a young man who, as a senior in high school, had consensual sex with a freshman girl, aged fourteen. Ten days later, police arrested him for sexual assault and he now faces up to forty years in jail and a lifetime on the federal sex offender registry.
Other, similar stories have surfaced of young men facing prison after they were discovered to have been texting—or “sexting”—pictures of their private parts to young women. Over the summer the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would make teen sexting a federal offense, subjecting convicted teens to fifteen years in prison. While it’s aimed at ridding society of pedophilia and pornographic offenders, it will likely also catch young people who are merely being foolish in its net.
The climate on college campuses is equally challenging for young men and women. The New York Times recently profiled four mothers whose sons were accused of sexual assault and who are trying to push back against a system they think fails to follow the legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” While one boy was expelled and another was suspended, the other two were completely cleared of all charges; nevertheless, and not surprisingly, they have struggled to return to their normal lives as college students. Turns out, being a man who is falsely accused of rape is a stigmatizing experience. As the story described:
According to university documents provided by Alison, her son was cleared. Additionally, a grand jury declined to indict him, she said. But, Alison contends, the investigation should never even have gotten that far, and the damage was already done.
Her son had become a pariah, dropped by his friends and called a rapist by women on campus. The semester after he was cleared he called home, sobbing, to say he could no longer take it and was dropping out, she said.
Five years later, at 24, he has not received a diploma and is trying to ease back into college life by taking courses online.
When stories of false rape charges surface, I don’t feel empathy for the young woman, who likely got a quick high from perpetuating a false myth and slandering a fellow classmate. I feel for the young man who has to live forever in the shadow of a crime he didn’t commit. It’s important to believe rape victims—they’re often telling a difficult truth. But it’s also important to acknowledge that not every woman who claims to have been raped is telling the truth, as many high-profile cases have shown. It’s also important not to falsely accuse young men of a crime, the manifestations of which, even if they’re proven innocent, will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
The more serious issue is this: How can we protect boys without ignoring women who have been victimized?
First, lawmakers need to be careful when proposing blanket legislation that is too broad and punitive, and which fails to actually protect the people it purports to want to help. Betsy DeVos, secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, recently rescinded Obama-era Title IX guidelines on campus sexual assault, saying (correctly) that they violated principles of fairness. The culture on campus has for too long been one that presumed guilt first, rather than innocence, in an effort to ensure that the accuser—usually a woman—was believed. In practice, however, this has led to kangaroo-court-style “justice” for far too many young men.
Second, an underreported aspect of many of these stories, particularly those involving teenagers sexting, is that the teenagers are in fact profoundly ignorant of the consequences of their actions when they send each other racy images of themselves. As parents, we need to teach boys how to be healthy, sexual beings who are proud of their burgeoning masculinity; we also need to teach them that they should make good choices when it comes to expressing their sexuality. Similarly, we need to teach our daughters the same thing about their femininity. Not all young men are animals, and often the “sexting” that occurs between teenagers goes both ways. If boys are going to be held accountable for sexting, so, too, should the girls who engage in this behavior.
The onus is on parents and trusted community members to discuss the importance of sexuality and define healthy sexual boundaries so that both young men and young women understand the ramifications of disregarding those boundaries. If we teach young men they are predators, they might indeed act like them; if we teach them they are sexual beings who bear responsibility for their behavior—as do the women in their lives—it might contribute to a healthier and responsible approach to sexuality for all young people.