Of the many American women dismayed by the wave of sexual misconduct scandals, there’s a subgroup with distinctive hopes and fears: mothers of boys.
Among them are women who have sought to raise their sons, sometimes from infancy, to shun sexist mindsets and be respectful of girls. Yet even some of these mothers worry about countervailing peer pressure their sons might face. And there’s uncertainty as to whether their sons’ generation, as adult men, will be less likely to perpetrate or condone sexual misconduct.
For Regina Watkins of Pine Bluff, the answer is simple: The Bible.
“I have a son who is 8, and I have taught him from the time he could understand that Jesus is the only role model he needs in his life,” Watkins said. “Jesus didn’t create no mess. He respected and loved everyone. It saddens me to see so many men in the news who have mistreated women. It’s about respect for yourself and respect for other people. I teach my son these things every day.”
Danielle Campoamor, a New York-based writer and editor, has been wrestling with these questions even though her son, Matthias, is only 3. She says she feels extra pressure because she was sexually assaulted five years ago by a co-worker.
“I worry what kind of man I’m raising and how he’ll treat women and girls in his life,” said Campoamor, 30, who already takes Matthias to events where sexual misconduct is discussed.
“Does he understand? No,” she said. “But it won’t be a taboo topic later on. I hope he’ll have the courage to stand up for what’s right.”
In a recent article for the website Romper, Campoamor wrote that the scandals provide a “teachable moment” for her and Matthias.
“It is my responsibility to provide him with concrete examples of what to do, and what not to do, when he witnesses, hears about, or is a victim of sexual assault,” she wrote.
Neena Chaudry, education director for the National Women’s Law Center, has taken her son, now 10, to pro and college women’s basketball games in greater Washington since babyhood. Chaudry says he’s now a devoted fan who extols the virtues of women’s sports to other boys.
“It helps him see women as strong and formidable,” Chaudry wrote for the law center’s blog.
A Denver mom, Cynthia Boune, said she and her husband set out early in parenthood to raise their two sons to resist sexist attitudes.
“With all the sexual harassment news, we’ve had a lot of family discussions and thank goodness our parenting style was validated,” Boune wrote by email. “My boys were disgusted by the attitudes of predatory men.”
She recalled an incident when her oldest son, now 18, was a high school freshman, and walked away when some soccer teammates laughed about a cellphone video showing a drunken girl kissing numerous boys.
“I hope now that he is older he feels secure enough to not just walk away, but to call them out on it,” Boune wrote. “This is where the real work is.”
Long before the latest scandals, programs emerged aimed at reducing boy-girl gender friction and curtailing sexual harassment.
Among them is Coaching Boys Into Men, developed by the nonprofit Futures Without Violence. Thousands of high school and middle school coaches have been trained to convey to their players the importance of treating young women with respect and avoiding abusive behavior.
Brian O’Connor, who runs the program, says the recent scandals have boosted interest among parents who’d like it implemented at their sons’ schools.
A Seattle couple, Esther Warkov and Joel Levin, are among a growing number of activists who believe the fight against sexual harassment should start in elementary school, with boys getting an early message that girls should be treated respectfully.
“Some people seem to think sexual assault starts in college — but it took them (the perpetrators) 12 years to practice,” said Warkov.
She and Levin founded Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, which creates anti-sexual harassment curriculum, after their daughter allegedly was raped by a fellow student during an overnight high school field trip in 2012.
California, a pacesetter in sex education, implemented a law in 2016 that included sexual harassment as a topic public school districts must address, starting in 7th grade. Women’s rights activists welcome the requirement.
“Teaching boys how they can be part of the solution is tremendously important, and it has to start in lower grades,” said Noreen Farrell of San Francisco-based Equal Rights Advocates.
However, legislators and school officials in many states are wary of broaching such issues in curriculum.
“You need a lot of political will to do it,” said Debra Hauser of Advocates for Youth, which contends that adolescents need “accurate and complete” sexual health information.
Hauser, who has a son and daughter in their 20s, says there’s a contentious argument nationwide over which traditional male behaviors are potentially harmful and which are worth preserving.
As for boys who harass and bully, “they aren’t born that way,” Hauser said. “They’re reflecting the culture, the image of what a male should be.”
Author Warren Farrell, whose books about gender issues include “The Myth of Male Power” and “The Boy Crisis”, says efforts to curtail sexual harassment would benefit from more understanding of the insecurities experienced by many boys.
“In high school, a 15-year-old boy, the less mature sex, is expected to risk the rejection of the more mature sex,” Farrell said via email. “Having fewer social skills and being more likely to be a ‘failure to launch’, he may feel overwhelmed, withdraw and fall addict to the world of internet porn.”
Among Farrell’s suggestions: More dialogue between the genders, and a greater balance in sharing responsibility for initiating sexual interest.
Amy Lang, a Seattle-based sex education expert, talks about sexual harassment issues with her 17-year-old son, including how he should respond to friends’ sexist comments.
“You can say, ‘Dude, that’s not OK,’” she said. “But it’s super hard to go against the tide.”
She has learned how harassment can evolve out of now-commonplace sexting — boys sending explicit photos to girls, girls often reciprocating to their later regret.
“Many parents have their heads in the sand,” Lang said. “It doesn’t occur to them to tell their sons, ‘It’s not OK.’”
From Portland, Oregon, Lisa Frack founded a Facebook group in 2016 called Raising Feminist Sons. It now has more than 670 members.
Frack says her 14-year-old son respects her principles, but he and his friends sometimes bridle at the word “feminism” and seem untroubled by misogynistic music lyrics.
“If a friend posts a sexist Snapchat, they don’t feel they have to call it out,” she said.
Several mothers expressed hope that harassment might abate as their sons’ generation reaches adulthood. Among boys they know, they see a willingness to abandon some old gender stereotypes.
Michelle Loftus of Forest Park, Illinois — whose 5th Grade triplets include two boys and a girl — took heart from the fact that boys her sons’ age were puzzled why one of their coaches said, “Don’t throw like a girl.”
“It’s the coaches using that terminology,” she said. “Not the kids.”
Back in Pine Bluff, Samantha Waller said that her 16-year-old son “knows that he needs to treat women with the same respect as he treats me.”
Waller also has an infant son, and she plans to bring him up with the ideal “do unto others,” just as she did with her older child.
“I can’t say what will happen in the future, but I know in my heart that my boys would never do anything to hurt anyone else, especially a female. If you bring your kids up right, teach them right from wrong, the chances are pretty high that they will steer clear of any kind of meanness. And you pray as well.”