This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project and was reprinted with permission.
He looked crushed, his open arms falling limply by his side. My son simply refused to hug him.
“Go hug him,” intense words (not from me) followed.
But my child was adamant; he did not want to hug his relative.
I stood firmly rooted in place watching the interaction and feeling uncomfortable. Seeing my son required to hug his relative felt wrong.
Much has been said on this topic already, especially in regards to girls, so I know I am not alone. But as a mom to boys, there is a surprising reason why this bothers me.
The popular, worn argument is that if kids are forced to engage in physical contact they don’t want, even if it is friendly and familiar, they are vulnerable to unwanted physical contact in later years. Leading, perhaps, to their rape and molestation.
CNN reporter Katia Hetter wrote in her powerful article from 2012, “Forcing children to touch people when they don’t want to leaves them vulnerable to sexual abusers, most of whom are people known to the children they abuse, according to Ursula Wagner, a mental health clinician with the FamilyWorks program at Heartland Alliance in Chicago.”
Three years later, this issue is still very much on parents’ minds. Recently Everyday Feminism posted an article I have seen many times in my Facebook feed. Writer James St. James lists seven reasons why children should never be forced to hug anyone. All of these are striving to keep children’s boundaries and their instinctive nature to protect themselves from sexual predators intact.
While the danger is higher for girls, boys are still sexually molested at a rate of 1 in 20. This scares me. This should scare all of us.
But there is a part to this that no one is talking about, one that tickles the back of my mind in the scary sleepless nights.
I don’t want my sons to learn that it is okay to force physical touch.
Let me put it this way: while I don’t want my sons to be vulnerable to sexual molestation later in their lives, I don’t want them to sexually molest anyone either.
Clearly, I couldn’t imagine this actually happening. My sons are six and three. They are sweet, innocent, and honest. But I don’t think any mother anticipates a rape allegation made against her son.
During their formative years, my family and I need to model for my sons how to patiently wait for enthusiastic consent before forcing or coercing contact.
This is hard to digest. Sex and physical touch are tough topics to teach on a good day. There are things we don’t say piled on things we can’t say. There are expectations without any written rules.
In addition to how to say “no” to unwanted sexual contact, my sons must learn to wait for enthusiastic consent before they make advances on someone else. I am not teaching them this if I force them to hug someone against their will. It seems, rather, that I am teaching them that consent doesn’t matter if the physical activity is “the right thing to do.” Or, even worse, because it is “expected.”
It may seem like a far stretch from requiring my children to hug their aunts and uncles to raising sexually forceful men.
But young men are under scrutiny. They are being pushed to new standards of responsibility before they engage in sexual activities. Universities are rushing to redefine what rape means. Women who have spent years silenced are finding the burden of proof in the he-said/she-said game slightly lighter.
These newly defined standards are good and, as a woman who attended the University of Virginia and followed the recent rape story closely, I am fully supportive of this change. Yet I think of the impact this will have on my boys.
This American Life had a powerful episode wherein boys at a college fraternity were asking blunt and open questions about what “consent” really means. Posing situations to a trained female professional, the kids were asking for concrete answers as to how this new standard translated to real life situations. They didn’t receive any clarity, though, because what could happen is endless. A man can’t predict everything; he certainly can’t predict another person’s behavior.
My boys may be on a college campus someday, possibly even in a similar fraternity session, confused by the same questions. I actually feel compassion for them. The college boys recorded seemed like good men trying to get answers on a very confusing issue, trying to find a way to ensure they didn’t cross any lines.
“Consent is consent and it should be obvious,” we say. Or we say, “Your answer is to wait for enthusiastic consent.”
But those words seem hollow if we don’t ask these same boys for their consent, enthusiastic or not, during their youth. And yes, that can be as simple as waiting for their enthusiastic consent before they hug the people that love them.
To be clear, I want my boys to hug their relatives. But I want them to do it enthusiastically. I want them to hug because it is a natural extension of their love.
My hope is that this will teach them that waiting for consent is what people who love each other do.
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