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Over ninety percent of sexual abuse and sexual violence is perpetrated by boys and men. To eliminate sexual violence, we need to raise boys who will prevent rather than cause sexual harm. While these ideas that follow focus on males’ sexual violence toward female partners, they can be helpful for children of all genders and sexual orientations.
Risk Factors for Sexual Abusers
The Centers for Disease Control provides a comprehensive list of factors that make people more likely to commit sexual violence. Gender justice activist Rus Funk emphasizes the following preconditions as important to men who sexually abuse their intimate partners:
- Lack of empathy. Men who sexually abuse their partners often lack empathy for women in general, but sometimes just for the women they hurt. A man who does not feel empathy for his partner when he pushes sex is apt not to empathize with her around other issues either. For example, he might feel angry rather than sympathetic when she is sad or does not feel well.
- A system of justifications. People who use sexual violence have to live with what they have done, and therefore persuade themselves (and maybe others) that their actions are acceptable. This results in victim-blaming. An abuser might tell himself, “She said ‘no’ but meant ‘yes.’” Or “I pay for a lot of things—the least she can do is give me sex.” Or “She became mine when she married me.” Or even, “It’s not fair that I have to push this hard to get what I need.”
- A vision of sexual assault. Sexual assault (including Intimate Partner Sexual Violence) usually involves some degree of planning and imagining. The abuser pictures the sexual acts. If he anticipates resistance, he plans how he will overcome it (whether through alcohol, drugs, intimidation, or other forms of coercion).
- A sense of social approval. Men who sexually abuse their partners have a sense that what they are doing is acceptable and normal—maybe even manly. Much of pornography pushes the narrative that force and coercion are okay—and this can feel like social approval. Some conservative religions believe women are obligated to submit to their husbands sexually after marriage. And men who sexually abuse women typically surround themselves with other men who speak about women in hostile terms.
- Confidence that he won’t face sanctions. Men who sexually abuse feel rather certain that they will not get in trouble for their actions. They expect the victims will not tell anyone or will not be believed. They expect that their communities—including law enforcement and their peers—will not consider their actions serious, problematic, or criminal.
- Poor understanding of consent and sexual assault. Many boys and men admit to having “nonconsensual sex” with a woman, but do not consider it sexual assault and do not consider themselves rapists.
6 Lessons for Teaching Boys Healthy Sexuality
As parents, teachers, clergy, and other adult community members, how can we raise boys to be sexually kind to their partners, rather than pushy, forceful, deceptive or entitled? We can teach them the opposite of the preconditions named above.
- Teach boys empathy, especially towards women. We can model empathy toward our sons and toward others. We can help children identify and manage their feelings. We can expand our sons’ “circle of concern” to include people they may not think about often, such as people they do not know— including those who struggle with disabilities, illness, or poverty.
- Teach responsibility for one’s own actions. As adults, we need to start by modeling accountability. If we have done something wrong, we engage in the Four Steps of Accountability proposed by Mia Mingus: self-reflection, apologizing, repair, and behavior change.
- Expose boys to loving, caring, cooperative relationships, so they can imagine themselves interacting in a similar way. “Sex education” is not mostly about birds and bees or what happens below the belt. Sex education is mostly about teaching kind and affectionate ways to interact. If you are in a destructive relationship, your son may grow to see this kind of relationship as normal or desirable. Try to model loving, caring, and cooperative relationships with friends and family members—not only intimate partners. Learn more about teaching kids about healthy sex here.
- Communicate clearly that dominating women is negative, not positive. Show them what “gender respect” looks like. Teach them that kindness is cool. Show them models of a self-assured masculinity that does not depend on dominating women.
- Work to improve accountability for those who perpetrate sexual violence. Accountability might mean education, restorative justice, or incarceration—depending on the acts committed, the age of the person who committed them, and the community in which the acts occur. For example, one high school sports coach noticed that his team of (male) athletes were ogling women and making sexist comments about them (and to them!) from the playing field and the bench. The coach informed them that he would not tolerate this kind of behavior. He told them that anyone caught making these kinds of comments would sit out a game. And he reinforced this idea at other points throughout every season, as he told his team the kinds of athletes and men he wanted them to be.
- Educate about consent and sexual abuse. Bystander Intervention Programs and healthy relationship programs, delivered in schools and youth groups, can make clear that community norms do not support pushing sex onto another person. Parents and others can also show this short Tea Consent video.
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