The case for raising feminist boys

Introducing alternative models of masculinity early on will create male allies later

June 15, 2014 3:00AM ET
Andrew Rich / Getty Images

It has never been clearer that American society is in desperate need of a generation of feminist men. Not men who will take over the women’s rights cause and “mansplain” what feminists are doing wrong but true allies who will hold other men accountable and are committed to gender equality and the eradication of misogynistic violence.

According to the World Health Organization, 30 percent of women who have been in a relationship report having experienced a form of physical or sexual violence by their partner. The United Nations has found that intimate partner violence accounts for 40 to 70 percent of murdered women in the United States. One in four U.S. college women reports surviving rape or attempted rape since her 14th birthday. Just two weeks ago, Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California — a devastating culmination of his hatred of women.

It’s not just about violence. The gender wage gap persists, and women’s contributions are often devalued. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, in 2012 full-time female workers made only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Women, on average, earn less than men in nearly every single occupation. Though women outnumber men in college by 10 percent and hold almost 52 percent of all professional jobs, they fall significantly behind in leadership positions.

Empowering young women, of course, is critical to dismantling patriarchy. And it’s crucial to engage men in feminist discourse. In the long run, however, it’s even more important to mindfully raise and educate boys to respect women — and stamp out misogyny before it sprouts.

Let boys and girls talk

One way to do this is by teaching boys and men to cultivate empathy — and not just for one another. The violence prevention organization A Call to Men, for example, encourages boys and men to recognize and reject a culture of manhood that enables violence. Part of that involves actually talking to girls.

Societally, “we teach men to distance themselves from the experiences of women and girls,” said Tony Porter, one of the organization’s co-founders. Boys aren’t encouraged to befriend girls, he said. When they do, they are teased about romantic or homosexual implications. To encourage mutual respect, however, boys and girls must be allowed the space to form meaningful bonds.

A Call to Men conducts workshops — on football fields and in community centers — across the country. During these sessions, young men are encouraged to question traditional gender roles and challenge sexist and misogynist attitudes — often in the presence of women.

“As a society, the only emotion we allow boys to have is anger. We need a critical, purposeful conversation with our sons about their experiences. Doing this early on is very important,” Porter pointed out. “Once they turn 16 or 17, they become accustomed to not talking to us.”

By challenging boys with honest conversations, dissuading them from aggressive behavior and giving them space to talk to girls, we make it likelier that those girls will become women in a more equitable world.

At home as well, talking can help discourage aggressive behavior. Tomas Moniz, a father from Berkeley, California, who chose to raise his son as a feminist, told me that when it comes to roughhousing and tickling, for instance, parents should show respect for space and model consent. “We need to be listening to children when they say no.” Moniz said. “They can understand that their words have power.” 

Equal play and safe outlets

The playing field can be fertile ground for dismantling patriarchal attitudes. A Call to Men collaborates with coaches — such as Ron Rivera, head football coach for the Carolina Panthers, who worked with the organization to design its A Call to Coaches program — to exhibit positive models of masculinity to young athletes. Rob Barron, a self-identified feminist father from Newburgh, New York, told me he is grateful that his son plays in co-ed soccer and basketball teams that require no tryouts and prioritize fun over fierce competition; such teams drive home a critical message that boys and girls are equal.

Robert de Leon, founder of Bro Models, an organization that does community outreach to end violence against women and girls, believes that young boys in sports are too often exposed to harmful language. As a kid, he told me, “I couldn't show my true self because as soon as I did, I was a ‘faggot.’”

De Leon, who grew up witnessing his father physically abuse his mother, said he had no outlet to hash out his problems in a safe space; as an adult he became verbally and emotionally abusive toward his partners. He wants to ensure the next generation has the outlet he lacked. “When we don’t know how to deal with pain and hurt in a safe way,” he said, “we turn to other risky behaviors that can ruin our lives.” 

Redefining women's work

Key to cultivating young male feminists is a reconsideration of traditional gender roles, especially in the home. During his workshops, de Leon encourages boys to question the division of labor in their homes. In many traditional Latino households, for example, women are completely responsible for the housework.

Delegating chores more evenly — and in fact, getting rid of the notion of women’s work altogether — is crucial to end the perpetuation of gender inequality. In a recent article in The New Republic, Rebecca Traister argues that reviving home economics for both girls and boys can help divide housework more evenly in the future. Not only that, it can help boys develop healthy communication skills.

Though Barron is the primary wage earner, he said he and his wife remind their son that her work is just as important. “I like to think he’ll grow up thinking women are as powerful as men are,” he said.

Parents can’t completely shield children from sexist attitudes. But Moniz said he makes a point of always talking to his son about sexism on television and in video games and music. Instead of trying to prevent his children from witnessing sexism, he chooses to confront it regularly.

The fight for gender equality has, particularly in the last few decades, yielded definitive improvements in women’s lives. But there is much work ahead. Women must join forces with men who genuinely care about equality to raise the next generation of feminist boys.

There is no panacea for misogyny and sexism. However, by challenging boys with honest conversations, dissuading them from culturally sanctioned, aggressive behavior and giving them space to talk to girls, we make it likelier that those girls will become women in a more equitable world.

Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and writer living in Chicago. Her work has been published in Cosmopolitan, Salon, Rolling Stone, The Guardian and other publications. She is a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and a "Discovery"/Boston Review poetry prize. Find her at www.erikalsanchez.com or on Twitter at @ErikaLSanchez.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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