Teaching Our Boys

There are men who look at women as playthings, vessels for their whims.

New Media Fellows 2013

By Anindita Sengupta

September 15, 2013

Also published in the Bangalore Mirror and the Pune Mirror

Last week, sexual violence was at the top of our minds. Even as the four men convicted in the Delhi gang-rape case awaited their sentence, the UN released a report that said one in four men in the Asia-Pacific region had admitted to raping a woman once in their lives. If the statistics were horrifying, the reasons even more so: entertainment, punishment and revenge. "Sexual entitlement" emerged as a common point. Clearly, there are systemic, cultural and environmental flaws spawning several generations of men who look at women as commodities, playthings, vessels for their whims. "The second most common motivation reported was to rape as a form of entertainment, so for fun or because they were bored," said the author, Dr. Emma Fulu.

While poverty, personal history of violence and victimization were factors that contributed to men committing rape, they were not the whole story. Often, they were not even the most important part of the story. The middle class man next door is as likely to commit rape because he is in the mood for some "fun" as is the mechanic down the road. Now, here's the real kicker. More than half of these men first perpetrated rape when they were in their teens. So, make that middle class boy. It is hard to look at the shorts-clad boy playing cricket in the compound and imagine that he may inflict heinous violence. It is even harder to think that if he happens to be your son.

But that's where it must begin, this anguished questioning that we have been indulging in since December. If it is to mean anything, it must begin at home. It must begin with the boys.

As one mother said in a blog post titled 'How we teach our sons to rape': "The truth is that someday my son might commit rape. And if that day ever comes, he may not even realize that he is a rapist....Everything and everyone, their peers, the media, our culture, would collude to convince them that what has happened is not a crime."

This is a mother aware of the problem and likely to do something about it. There are others. Smriti Lamech, a journalist in Delhi and mother of two kids including Aviv (8), talks about how tough it is to teach a son the right values. "It is a Herculean task to teach boys about rape in a misogynistic cultural environment," she says. "The word is bandied about in conversation, about how a teacher totally raped you with the maths test, or how a particular football team totally raped the other. It's lost its meaning. It's lost the sheer horror one should associate with it. It is also something they're exposed to over the news etc and after a point it becomes so commonplace an occurrence that it's hard to explain to them how gross a violation it is." Lamech tackles this in one of the best ways possible—by letting her son see a strong woman and by constantly pointing out media products that commoditise women.

Aarti Sankaran who lives in Chennai and is mother of eight-year-old Manu, agrees: "A boy who sees his mother as a strong woman, who stands up for herself and does not put with nonsense, at home and in mindless entertainment, grows up respecting women."

Other methods include: "teaching your son to first treasure and respect and all women in his life, teaching him not judge a person's worth by the physical strength he/she has or the economic contribution he/she makes, reinforcing early on that he is not special because he is a boy and his gender does not grant him any privileges."

Emphasising that physical force is unacceptable is also important. This is something we sorely neglect in in a culture where boys "must be boys". Sankaran carries the discouragement of violence to what some may consider an extreme. "He does not hit, even to defend himself. He may be called a wimp now, but I would rather encourage his belief that physical force brings no good than teach him otherwise."

Then there is the question of personal boundaries. When we teach them about respecting personal boundaries - their own and others - we lay a foundation. "Children are like little sponges and learning at a year that you help mummy to lay the table and that you don't push another child because it is not your right to violate their physical space, is good enough," says Lamech. "My kids already know that you must not hug and kiss people without their permission and no one is allowed to do that to them without their permission."

Amen to that.

Anindita Sengupta is reporting on health in India as a New Media Fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).