Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Talking with Kids about Sexual Harassment and Objectification

A line in the sand. Photo by Taliesin.
It seems that people all over social media are talking about sexual harassment and objectification in the wake of Trump's pussy-grabbing comments. People ask whether objectification even matters, or whether it matters more for women than for men. Women and men are talking about whether there's a line to be crossed, where it is, and how grey it is. Is all objectification bad, and when does it become sexual harassment? Men are confessing to having made lewd comments in the past and valiantly declaring they'll stop now. Parents are talking about how and whether to discuss this with their children, how to raise liberated girls and thoughtful boys, and many of us are claiming that our children are either too young to think such things, or too mature; too thoughtful to say them. And we know they don't do it. So I decided to talk with my children about it.

The first thing I discovered is that we parents are deluded. Some of the kids who are touted on social media as the kids who would never say such things are, in fact, saying such things in the presence of my children. Apparently, according to my fourteen-year-old son, “most boys” talk like that, or play video games, watch videos and read things that objectify women. They just don't do it when adults are listening. The word pussy doesn't phase my son, although he suggested I don't include it in this article. He didn't even blink when I said it. My daughter just squirmed in her seat, but declined to respond. So enough of pretending my kids are innocent, and onto the issues. I can suck up my feigned parental innocence when I need to.

I called a family meeting and went straight to the point: Complimenting people. When does a compliment become objectification? Do you believe that there's a line to be crossed? And where?

My husband stepped in first: “To say that there is a line that you can be on the right or wrong side of is an over-simplification.”

And my daughter replied, “If you're talking about someone, it depends on what they think the line is. If they don't think it's offensive, why should you not be able to say it?”

Her father pressed his point: “So if it's a complete stranger walking past you downtown, how do you decide what you're saying?”

“Well that's not OK,” she said.

“How do you decide?” He pressed again.

Things always seem simpler to my twelve-year-old daughter, and she looked at him incredulously. “Don't say things about strangers. I don't say things about strangers. I don't need to. I don't know them.”

But her father has grown up in our culture, and could not be talked over so easily. “People constantly tell me I have a nice beard, especially if they have one of their own. I think it's nice when they say it.”

And my kids both sat thinking. I think we all know that's a classic argument. It's OK for me to pet a black person's hair because I wouldn't mind if someone petted mine. That's the all-lives-matter stance, and it's wrong. It's wrong because certain minorities live in a constant state of oppression because of our actions, and we need to be very mindful of that. That issue needs our attention right now more than the issues of all of our lives. For a man to feel justified in complimenting a woman on her hair (or her breasts, legs, or smile) because he enjoys it when people compliment his beard is a fallacy for the same reason. Women have lived for thousands of years in a state of oppression because of the objectification of our bodies, and men haven't. My husband thinks he's making this point for the sake of argument, to incite conversation. But it takes away from the important truth that compliments being made about women come with a cost to women – an expectation of something given back: love, sex, thanks, a smile, etc. If we aren't outrightly told what is expected of us in return, then we know simply because we've heard it before, from the moment of our birth. For thousands of years girls and women have been objectified. It's just the way the world works, so that by the time we enter school we understand that our value in the world does not depend on our contributions to that world, but upon our physical usefulness.

So no matter how lovingly compliments are given to us, we lose something in every compliment given.

Should men then never compliment women? My husband feels worried about complimenting women. He feels like he can't take any step in the right direction. My son is learning this from both of us, but he's also witnessing how much it hurts his mother to never receive a compliment. I think if we don't want to be objectified, we also have to give our men some avenue towards success. I asked my kids how they think we can make women feel good about who they are, without objectifying them.

For my daughter, this is as straightforward as the last question. “Girls that I know never compliment people. Sometimes they say 'nice haircut' or something if someone got a new haircut, but only to their friends that they know well. Not to someone who's just sitting there. There's always a reason. I don't think they'd ever compliment someone they don't know.”

My son says, “It seems like men who love women would respect women more, because they love them.” But when I ask him how to respect them; how to compliment them, he is dumbstruck, and eventually mutters, “you could talk about their personality, I guess.” But do people do that?" I asked him. He doesn't know.

There is a lot we don't know. There is a lot we don't talk about. There is a lot that we shove to the back of our minds under pretenses that all-genders-matter and our-sons-would-never-do-that. There is a lot that we do that needs to be brought out in the limelight.

I don't think the rampant media coverage of Donald Trump's despicable behaviour has been a good thing, in the present, for our culture. He is bringing out the worst in us all. But it's also bringing it up for conversation, and that, after all, is the best way to move forward.

I have faith in us as a species to take the dirty shameful realities that are now being paraded out in the sunlight and do the work to heal them. I have faith in us as parents to not hide behind the pretenses we need to believe in, but to be the change our children need to see in the world, and to talk about it openly, all the time. Don't tell your children the way the world works; ask them how their world works. You may be surprised to hear what they know. You may be surprised to discover that your children are not innocent after all, and that is precisely why their voices matter so much in this conversation. Let's pull on our boots and wade into the mire of this murky problem with open ears, open minds and open hearts.

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