Why We Need To Talk To Our Sons About Rape

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We teach our daughters about rape, but men can be victims too, as the author learned the hard way. So why are men so often left out of the conversation?

Several weeks ago, my college-aged son was raped by a male acquaintance. With the immediate crisis stage behind us, my whole family has started to heal and we are all trying to return to some semblance of normalcy. Our son has returned to his regular routine, and his dad and I have stopped calling him twice a day and texting him constantly asking if he is OK.

When our son does call, the conversations are short. I am ashamed to admit that I am relieved he doesn’t want to talk because I am not feeling very chatty myself. We are barely talking to each other, and talking to people outside the family even less.

One of the reasons we are isolating ourselves is that each of us is feeling a deep weight of guilt. Our son has tried various ways to blame himself. His newest is saying that he should have known better than to hang around certain people after he had been drinking.

I try to find ways to tell my son that his attempt to blame himself is ridiculous. But I am not sure that “Son, you are being an idiot” is a recommended strategy for comforting your son in this situation. And saying, “It is no one’s fault but the rapist’s” rings false when I say it because I am convinced—right down to my marrow—that I am to blame.

Let me be absolutely clear about one thing: It is not a victim’s responsibility to avoid rape, and our emphasis in sexual education should not be teaching our children how to not get raped. Instead, we should teach our children that full consent is the most important sexual ethic of all.

Still, I am filled with regret for what I believe is the biggest mistake of my life: I never once talked with my son about the risks of sexual assault, defending himself against it, or what to do if he ever was assaulted.

I understand why, given the statistics, so many women fear being sexually assaulted. That’s why I drilled our daughter on everything I believed could help her feel safe or protected if she ever found herself in that position. Everything I told her was just a suggestion. As I said to her, only she would know the right thing to do if she found herself in that situation. I reminded her that her goal was to minimize the damage done by her attacker, not the preservation of some kind of purity.

I gave her suggestions like these:  

  • If you can turn your fear into anger, it can keep you from freezing and allow you to strategize.
  • Feel free to be rude and make a scene.
  • Be noisy and fierce. Use the loudest, clearest, most authoritative voice that you can muster to say something along the lines of, “I said NO!”
  • Name the crime that the person is about to commit if you believe it will help—say clearly, “This is rape.”
  • Feel free to lie if you think that it might work. Try everything from saying you have your period to an STD.
  • There is no obligation to fight fairly in this situation. You can sucker-punch, go for the nuts, scratch, pull hair, and even use potentially lethal force. Your goal is to incapacitate so that you can run for help.
  • If you are sexually assaulted, I will not pressure you or allow anyone else to pressure you into pressing charges or not pressing charges. The person who survives gets to decide what happens next. However, you should get medical attention to preserve your health and your choices in the future. This means that even if you think that you will not want to press charges, you should not shower, change your clothes, brush your teeth, or anything else before visiting the emergency room.

In part, I taught my daughter these things because I know that we, as women, are trained to behave in socially acceptable ways. So even when we are being attacked, we sometimes have a tendency to want to be polite. When it comes to lying or tricking an attacker, it helps to have done the moral arithmetic ahead of time. It helps to know that when faced with rape, you can forget that the situation makes it perfectly permissive to be rude, deceptive, or combative if you believe that those things will help you achieve any degree of safety. 

But I never gave my son the same talk.

Yes, I had conversations about consent, but they were based on the assumption that he would be the one seeking it, and that he would be the person responsible for being absolutely certain that it was meaningful and given without reservation. It simply never occurred to me that he might find himself in a situation where he would need to worry about sexual acts being performed on him without his consent. 

The result is that when my son was attacked, he had none of the advice I’d given my daughter. He did not have a list of options for self-defense. He had no idea what to do afterward. When he called me, he had trouble articulating what had happened, because I had never talked to him about the sexual limits he could set for himself, only those that he should be observing.

While I feel responsible for not educating my son, I also acknowledge that I am not alone in my culpability. Men aren’t the primary victims of sexual assault, and there just isn’t a lot of information out there for men about defending themselves.

Yes, we teach boys how to protect themselves from being sexually abused, but many of us, myself included, assume that when they become men the threat of sexual assault just vanishes (outside of prison, of course). But it doesn’t. In the weeks since my son was raped I have been appalled to discover how prevalent it is.

There is so little information out there on this subject that I am not even sure what advice I should have given my son if I had the talk with him. What advice would I give him about the pros and cons of reporting? I haven’t seen a single article about what a male rape victim should expect when a rape kit is collected. What little I have read on the subject leads me to believe that police are woefully unprepared for such reports. If he had physically fought his attacker, I wonder if our justice system would have seen it as two guys brawling or recognized it for what it was.

You can argue with me about the efficacy or ethics of teaching sexual assault self-defense. That is fair. You can tell me that nothing I could have done would have prevented this, even though I admittedly don’t believe that. But one thing is clear: My beloved son deserved—and needed from me—the same knowledge and skills to defend himself against a rapist that I gave my daughter.

I urge you to avoid making the same mistake I made. Please, talk to your son about rape.

The author of this piece has chosen to remain anonymous to protect her family’s privacy.

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