#RaisingBoys: Football, Gender Roles and Violence Against Women
by Alumnae Guest Blogger Gretchen Edwards-Bodmer
By now you’ve probably seen the elevator video of (now former) Raven’s football player Ray Rice knocking out his domestic partner Janay Palmer. The NFL has handled the Ray Rice situation badly, but they have been called out on it and admitted they were wrong. Since I am raising two boys (five and two years-old), I have a slightly different perspective on this situation.
People are focusing on how we can end violence against women by getting men to call out their friends or random strangers they see committing violence against women. Since October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I see this as the perfect opportunity for the NFL—and all of us—to really step up by naming, shaming, and putting a stop to violence against women. Recently President Obama rolled out a new campaign called #ItsOnUs. It aims to get men involved in ending sexual assault just like their “1 is 2 Many” campaign. They’re asking men to be upstanders instead of bystanders and to safely intervene when they see violence occurring. On social media, men have joined the conversation about gender equality by participating in the #HeForShe Campaign announced by Emma Watson this week at the United Nations. These are very valuable and necessary messages, and I applaud them for it. However, I feel we also need to focus on how we raise our boys from the beginning.
Our patriarchal culture is over-saturated with images of men committing violence and images of women as sexual objects to be won. We have prescribed gender roles that require men to be “tough,” strong, and violent, while women are required to be beautiful, available, and weak. These roles shape men into thinking they are entitled to women, and when intimate partners don’t bend to men’s expectations, violence is the answer. They learn this from day one. It’s not just because of the pink and blue toy isles in the toy store telling our kids they should only be certain kinds of people, or the violent imagery in video games, movies or music. Societal conditioning definitely has a starring role in how our boys learn to take what they want—and to hell with the consequences. But, we can truly guide our boys, taking preventative measures on an individual level, through what we teach them and how we raise them.
From the time my boys were born, I analyzed everything I gave them, how I talked to them, and how I played with them. Believe me, it is exhausting, but parenting in general is exhausting. However, I am determined that my boys will understand consent, use their words to express their emotions instead of yelling, screaming or throwing things, have empathy for others (Walk A Mile In Her Shoes) and to never, ever hit or use violence to solve problems. These lessons are not something you can tell them once for it to stick. These lessons you have to stay on top of, because letting “little” things slide add up and send our boys messages about what is appropriate behavior. Their future and the future of those they meet is too important not to teach them how to nonviolently manage conflict.
We have to consider what messages we are sending through the toys give them and the games we teach them. I don’t allow my boys to play with any kind of toy resembling a gun or weapon. Though my husband wasn’t easily convinced, since he had toy guns when he was little and “turned out fine,” he also didn’t grow up in a world where preschoolers drill safety procedures in the case of an active shooter in their school. Violent imagery continues to escalate in our media, teaching boys that it is the only way to deal with feelings (yes, boys have emotions) of rejection, loneliness, inadequacy (because they have stereotypes they’re expected to live up to as well) or pressure from peers. The answer to violence is not more violence; it is compassion, empathy and communication.
As we’ve seen with the Ray Rice incident, it is especially important that we teach our boys how to communicate their feelings, needs and desires with their intimate partners and peer groups. We can do this through our interactions with our partners in front of them. After I saw the story of the dad who turned his Ray Rice jersey into a message about healthy relationships for his daughter, I decided it was time to have a more direct conversation with my five year-old. We are Ravens fans, so we were watching the game that took the opportunity to talk about domestic violence. I took that as my cue to explain why the man got fired from his job as a football player: he hit his wife and that is not something that people should ever do. Using my husband and my relationship as an example, I told my five year-old that he would never see daddy hit mommy or mommy hit daddy. He quickly replied “Yeah! Because you’re in love!” When he sees someone on TV hitting, bullying or saying something mean to another person, he will look at me and say, “That was not nice.” So, he gets it and knows how to identify unhealthy behavior, but I will continue to have honest conversations with him just to make sure it sticks. I’m continually working with him on lessons of how to deal with his emotions in a healthy way.
Women have been working hard for many years trying to stop sexual and relationship violence, but until men are by our sides as allies, it is never going to be eradicated. The solution starts with us, with everyone who has a child in their life. Kids are like sponges, and if the only thing available for them to absorb is unhealthy behaviors and negative messages, we will continue to see 1 in 5 college women experiencing sexual assault and 1 in 4 women experiencing domestic violence in their lifetime. Not all men are violent, but most violent offenders are men. It’s time that men did something about this instead of blaming the victims. Those of us raising boys can teach them how.