Misogyny is when women finally start reporting sexual assaults and the country's response is to say we must protect our boys from the accusations." -- Kimberly A. Johnson
This is a response to the weeks leading up to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, but it will be relevant again and again, the next time--and the time after that, and after that-- a powerful man's acts of sexual assault and misogyny are brought to light but he is not held accountable, and the next time victims of gendered violence speak out and tell their truths, and are subsequently attacked, mocked, shamed, and ridiculed instead of believed.
Written by Rachel Brinker
I am the mother of two white males. They are elementary-age: young and gleeful, full of life, kindness, and bravery. I love them fiercely. They will grow up to become US-born white men, probably heterosexual, probably cis-gender. They already have a lot of privilege. The world will only give them more.
I also have my own history of experiencing gendered violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment at work. It started when I was in fifth grade with a male teacher rubbing my shoulders in the middle of class while he was teaching. I was ten. I had to face the decision of whether or not to speak out against my teacher. It was shortly after 1991, when Anita Hill spoke out against Clarence Thomas. I could see from watching the new coverage of Ms. Hill that speaking out against my teacher could come at great social risk. Was it really worth it, or should I just put up with it and keep quiet? Maybe it really wasn't that big of a deal. Except that his touches during class made my skin crawl. Except that it made me feel so angry, so exposed, so used.
As an adult, my internal radar and defense mechanisms became fine-tuned to detect a threat before I get hurt, but the flow of harassment and threat of being hurt sexually hasn't diminished in the 25 years since I was ten. It's the air we breathe as women in this world. We try to find ways to filter the toxicity of misogyny and sexism out of the air as best we can to make it tolerable to breathe, to just exist in the world.
The "filtering" that we do looks different for each of us: parking under the light in the parking lot at night, choosing the route and time of day for our run very carefully, carrying pepper spray, taking a self-defense class, not going on a hike alone, or using a highway rest area alone, choosing one career path over another, choosing our outfit so as not the attract "the wrong kind of attention," trying to avoid the sexist banter at the office, being selective about our exposure to social media and the news, learning how to diffuse street harassers, hurting others before they hurt us, cynicism, defensiveness, skepticism, hiding, exhaustion, rage. Being on the defensive everyday, all the time, is exhausting. This is not news to women.
It's easiest (but not easy at all) for white women; add any other marker of social difference from the norm (gender non-conformity, race, ethnicity, poverty, language barrier, immigration status, mental or physcial disability), and the threat of violence and harassment is even greater. For the 25% of women who experience sexual violence at least once in their life, the defenses we used against the threats we face as women didn't make enough of a difference. It wasn't our fault. It wasn't our responsibility to keep it from happening to us.
We talk about how many women were raped last year, not how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather than how many boys and men impregnated teenage girls.
One of the parenting challenges I take very seriously, along with many other parents of boys, is:
How do I raise my boys so they will not become perpetrators of sexual violence?
What do I do as a parent to make sure my son doesn't rape someone at a party when he is in college?
What do I do while raising him so that he doesn't stand by and passively participate in gendered violence if it is happening around him?
When sexual assault, harassment, and domestic violence come into the national spotlight because of a political or celebrity scandal, we as mothers/survivors feel it. Watching the news, reading comments on social media, seeing the rise of #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport movements can be re-traumatizing. As much as we'd like to compartmentalize our reactions to these national events and keep them separate from the mothering of our innocent little ones, it's not always possible. We are one person, one body. We love our children and celebrate their innocence, but we also have our own wounds and pain.
Our children touch our bodies without permission. It's part of parenting. Young children assume that they have possession of our bodies. Because of the way the brain develops in early childhood and the bond formed in a healthy parent-child attachment, this is an appropriate and reasonable assumption for young children to make. For a survivor of sexual violence, though, this can mean that we can get triggered when we least expect it, from the actions of the most innocent people in our lives.
Mothering young children feels like having hands on you all the time. A survivor who is breastfeeding her baby, getting climbed on by her three-year-old, or grabbed by her four-year-old could be dealing with very strong conflicting signals and emotions: My body hates being touched this way. I love my child. My child is doing nothing wrong. My body is screaming. I'm touched out. I love snuggling my kid. Don't f*cking touch me. I'm here for you.
Childbirth, breastfeeding, and a myriad of other ways that our bodies are used in peaceful, loving parenting, can all expose us to touch that can be a trigger. A trigger is a sensory stimulus like a smell, taste, sound, or touch, that reminds someone of past trauma. When the body is reminded of the trauma, it goes into fight or flight mode because it feels threatened, even though the threat is a memory of past trauma, not a present danger. The innocent intimacy that children and mothers share is built literally in and on the mother's body. When the mother is also a survivor, this intimacy is built in among and on top of the invisible wounds of the past.
So, how do we honor children's innocence while building adults of the future who understand and practice consent?
How do we raise boys who know at their core that girls and women control their own bodies, when the wider world is going to tell them otherwise?
How do we keep our children safe from experiencing sexual abuse and sexual assault?
How do we honor our own needs when our bodies are triggered by something our child does?
Here are some starting points:
A few months ago, my seven-year-old son wanted to prolong my presence at bedtime. After reading stories in his bed, I would say, "Goodnight, I love you, stay in your bed," and he would quickly and forcefully grip onto my arm and pull me toward him in the bed. He wouldn't let go when I asked him to. To me, it felt like it was his physical expression of possession of my body, not love and tenderness. I would immediately feel a rush of adrenaline and rage. I would say "Let go of my arm" again with a more forceful "mom voice," but it didn't change the pattern of him grabbing me in the first place and the release of adrenaline in me. He still wouldn't let go. I would have to pry my arm away and speak sternly to him about how he needed to listen to my words. The first few nights of the this, I assumed that my reaction was just stemming from being tired at the end of the day, feeling "done" with bedtime, and frustrated that he was trying to make the bedtime routine drag out longer.
But, I realized there was more going on for me in this pattern we were in. For whatever reason, that moment in our daily life, the way my child grabbed me and wouldn't let go when I told him to let go, was triggering me. It sent my body into fight or flight mode as my animal brain remembered all the other times my word "No" wasn't honored. My body was reacting to all the times men had assumed they had rightful possession over my body and my words were dismissed when I said what I did want and did not want to be done to my body.
After several nights of arm grabbing, and me dreading bedtime, this happened: I pulled my arm back away from him, stood up out of bed before he could grab me, and put my hand up between him and me. I said, "Stop. I need to tell you something and it's very important. Grabbing my arm and pulling it toward you is not something you can do to my body. It might be ok for other people, but I'm telling you now, you cannot touch my body like that.
"My body feels upset and scared when someone pulls my arm that way. It is not your fault, and you did not do anything wrong, but I need you to hear that my body doesn't want to be touched that way. Instead, you can hug me like this, or touch my arm like this. Or, you can use your words instead of your body and say, 'I wish you could stay with me longer tonight.' Ok?"
He looked at me, paused, and said, "Ok," like he got it, like he saw me as a person who was in charge of how her body is touched. He hasn't grabbed my arm like that since then.
I did a good thing for both of us in setting a boundary with my son. I didn't damage our relationship, or cause him pain. In fact, I think this moment brought a new level of understanding and respect to our relationship, a place to build from as he grows older and will be faced with his own moments of physically intimate contact with others. Creating these boundaries with your child is healthy, helpful, and part of how we raise the next generation of men who will not harass women, who will not feel entitled to the use of a woman's body.
More than anything, I want my sons to have beautiful and satisfying relationships with whoever they decide to be intimate with. I don't want them to hurt women, intentionally or unintentionally. I don't want my sons to become a part of the invisible statistics that Jackson Katz references above: how many men rape women, how many boys and men harass girls and women, how many men and boys use intimate partner violence to feel powerful and in control. I know doing my part to prevent that starts now, not when they are teenagers. It starts with how I teach them to listen to my words, and to respect the limits I've set about how they can and cannot touch my body. Getting triggered by my child's touch is not necessary a terrible thing-- it is an opportunity for me to teach them about consent. It is an opportunity for me to voice the limits I set for my own body, and have them be respected, which helps in my own healing.
5 Ways to Teach Your Child About Consent
How to Raise a Feminist Son
Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men by Michael Kimmel
Why Kids Trigger Parents with PTSD and What to Do About It
"I'm in so much pain": How the Kavanaugh hearings are re-traumatizing survivors (includes a helpful list of practical suggestions of how to navigate triggering news cycles.)
Postpartum Support International Warmline 1-800-944-4773
Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence (CARDV) Hotline 1-800-927-0197
RAINN- Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network Hotline 1-800-656-4673
Corvallis Perinatal Support Group
Find a Therapist or Counselor