In the past year, there have been many revelations regarding systemic physical and sexual violence against women perpetuated by powerful men who control and dominate the mainstream media. Allegations have been made against countless public figures, and range from offences that have just occurred to those that transpired decades ago. The attention this garnered has propelled an existing social movement, the #MeToo campaign, into full media focus, and has highlighted a very ugly, yet simple truth: sexualized violence has occurred, is occurring, and will continue to occur until it is addressed in an effective manner. Now, there has been some backlash against this campaign, and more specifically the survivors who are now telling their stories. Detractors have thrown out cries of “where’s the proof?!” and “If this happened years ago, why are they just saying something now?!” and even “These stories are made up to get attention or money or something!” These and other victim-shaming statements and behaviours are some of the mechanisms that allow sexualized violence to occur by silencing those who are targeted. But that’s a conversation for a different day. Today, I want to discuss the aggressors, the overwhelming majority of whom are men.
Research tells us that sexualized violence does not occur randomly. Men do not wake up one day and decide to sexually harass women. Rather, this is a learned behaviour, taught through socialization starting in early childhood. Messages about violence are presented across the lifespan, and can be either overt and obvious, or covert and subtle. And the thing is, these messages are not lost on the children who see and hear them. While completing my graduate thesis, I presented a sexualized violence prevention program to young males in schools throughout London and the surrounding area. I was incredibly surprised by the depth of knowledge and understanding that these young men demonstrated regarding sexualized violence, as well as the range of beliefs they held regarding violence in general. While there were countless lessons I learned about the ways violence is discussed and perpetuated, it quickly became clear that there were two primary factors that played an important role in the way these youth understood violence: the discussions they had with peers about violence and, more importantly, the discussions they had at home about violence.
In other words, it did not necessarily matter if these youth were witnessing violence in the media, whether it be through movies, TV shows, news programs, or video games. What actually mattered the most was the way their parents and family members responded to this violence, and the values and beliefs that are presented in the home. Having a role model or guide is incredibly important for young men. They are seeing this violence, and they understand what is happening, but they are unsure how to feel about it. When they do not have a role model or guide at home, they turn to their peer group, for better or worse, as a source of guidance regarding violence. Early on, children look primarily within the home for guidance and support. As they progress through their formative years, they begin to identify more with their peer group, and to emulate the behaviour they are seeing at school and with friends, rather than what they are seeing at home.
The bottom line is: if you are raising a boy or young man, it is up to you to model the behaviour you wish to see, and to have the difficult, awkward conversations about sex and violence that you might wish you could avoid. With the proliferation of technology and media, it is impossible to censor all forms of violence, so don’t waste your time trying. Instead, talk with your child about what they are seeing, and help them understand the importance of respecting others. Because if they don’t learn from you, they will look to their peer group for answers, and you might not like what they learn.