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The Thoughts We Feed Our Sons

The Thoughts We Feed Our Sons

Yesterday, the two 16-year-old football players accused of raping a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, OH were found guilty. As the blogger Black Girl Dangerous (BGD) has noted, the mainstream media has reacted to this by sympathizing with the rapists and bemoaning how this has ruined the rapists’ lives, at the girl’s expense. BGD writes,

Elevating the experience of these boys above the experience of their victim is not okay.

But, you know what is okay? Also feeling sorry for these boys.

Not in the way that CNN did it. Not at the expense of the girl who was raped by these boys. But including these boys in our feelings of sadness is okay.

I, unlike many people reacting to today’s verdict, am not just thrilled to death that two 16-year-old boys are going to jail. What they did was terrible. There is no excuse. They have to be two seriously fucked-up kids to have done what they did. But what I know for damn sure is that jail does not fix broken people. It only breaks them harder.

Watching this case and other cases like it is hard because on one hand, rape is inexcusable and the rapists should be held accountable. We should not forget the pain and suffering of the girl who was raped. On the other hand, as BGD notes, watching two more black boys get sent into the Prison Industrial Complex, knowing “they will not likely emerge from prison as two well-adjusted men who respect women and understand that sexual assault against them is not okay”—is also difficult to live with.

I think of the ways our society socializes us into genders, starting with parenting, role models, mass media, the education system, and more, and what I learned about how a man should look, act, and think. Though it is slightly different for each man in the US according to culture and circumstance, it generally looks something like this—emotionally illiterate and with an unearned entitlement to take up space by speaking and acting unilaterally. Those of us who are men need to take responsibility for this socialization, not just in ourselves, but also in others around us, as well as the ways it is institutionalized in our society, the ways conventional masculinity are celebrated and rewarded. Not only is it an extremely limited way of being a human being, but its expression as rape and other forms of violence—from domestic violence and homophobic murder to cowboy capitalism and international war—favors death, not life. As individual men, we may not act these ways and may even be critical of conventional masculinity, but we are part of its fabric and actually benefit from it.

Lastly, I think of the October 24, 2009 Richmond High School gang rape where a 15-year-old girl was repeatedly beaten and raped by a group of males—ranging in age from 15 to mid-20s—in public on a school campus, with numerous witnesses who did nothing to stop it. In trying to make visible the socialization men receive, I offer this poem, which I wrote a few days after October 24.

The Thoughts We Feed Our Sons
for the Richmond High School gang rape victim
Oct 24, 2009

manhood is a mountain     is lone
rock on a ridge     unshaken iron

hard or wanting to be
we men fear being     unmanned

drunk on flesh games
mad dog     king cobra red dog

street pack howl mob     man
hood border patrol

thug up together     conscience unconscious
the hardest manner     we take

colt 45 steel reserve     man
handle vacancy tear and fill

beat-beat-beats and mimes
beat men beating other men

beating b_____s beating f__s
beating i______s beating terrorists

how does it feel
to treat me like you do
when you’ve laid your hands upon me
and told me who you are

richmond : rich mountain     of oil refineries
child of white house gangsters     unending
strange fruit

we ask for sweet apples
from where we’ve planted lemons

and i thought i was mistaken
and i thought i heard you speak
tell me how do i feel
tell me now how should i feel

but a man can be a weeping
willow     supple hip swaying meadow

uncurling from chest     ripple listening
softer and stronger than any     steel

we can be golden     gangsters of sweet
cupcakes filled with     poetry

puppy pile pirate     with
fierce love warrior double-click option

a seed is a fruit
is a thought     we feed our sons :

the unsprouted gift

Comments (7)

  • Mushim Ikeda

    Raising a United Statesian son “from scratch” into adulthood has been my most important “job” for the past 25 years. This book is pretty good, for those who haven’t read it: “Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood” by William Pollack. (I stopped reading about 2/3 of the way through bc I thought the author was repeating points he’d already made. However, they were good points.) See http://www.amazon.com/Real-Boys-Rescuing-Myths-Boyhood/dp/0805061835

  • Dawn Haney

    I’ve been reflecting today on how unsatisfied I feel about the conviction of 2 rapists in the Steubenville case.

    The megalith called rape culture was so present in all aspects of this case – from watching kids on video making fun of rape while it was happening, to the football coach coverups, to CNN reporters (OMFG) bemoaning the loss of these boys’ futures while barely mentioning the victim.

    Rape culture was also on trial in this case, and in sending two boys off to juvie as the sole perpetrators of this crime, it feels like rape culture got acquitted. Asked another way, what does this do to end rape?

    Grateful to have you here thinking about this with us!

  • Mushim Ikeda

    I personally believe that we can only end rape by ending power differentials. As long as one human being has unchecked power of any sort over another human being, the potential for rape will be present.

    We might not be able to end rape in our lifetimes, but I think we can reduce the incidence of rape. One of the best ways is, if you’re an adult, get out in your community and volunteer to tutor and mentor young boys and male teenagers. Demonstrate what respectful behavior looks like, and how we deal with our own grief, anger, fear, and frustration. Be kind and loving, including practicing tough love when necessary. Make it a two way street: ask the youth you are mentoring to teach and mentor you in areas where they are the experts. Reverse the power dynamic and become their student. Work to communicate a forge a way of being powerful without having to exert power over.

  • Kenji

    Mushim and Dawn, thank you for your thoughts on this. I feel a little ambivalent about the term “rape culture.” On one hand, I think it’s an excellent reframing of rape from aberration or isolated act to rape as a symptom of a larger, institutionalized set of values and ideologies that leads to rape, and to a certain extent, encourages or even rewards it. On the other hand, I also think it can seem like a very large and nebulous term that feels difficult to tackle. This is why I wanted to speak more personally to how men are socialized. I think dhamma practices are particularly useful for looking at gendered socialization (as well as racialized, class, etc), if we have the critical lense for seeing our habits this way.

  • Mushim Ikeda

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, Kenji. Insofar as I understand what you’re saying, I feel I agree with you. That’s why I urge people to get out into their communities and work with young boys and young men as mentors. It’s useless (and probably very harmful) to tell a little kid, because he’s a boy, or a male teen, “Don’t be socialized by rape culture!” or to make him feel that he’s a suspected potential rapist because he’s growing up in a so-called rape culture. I am on the whole very comfortable with boys and young men because I’ve raised a son and have had boys of every age in my home, playing video games, eating the food I prepared for them, going out to the playground with me and my son, having birthday parties, etc. for two decades. My personal approach is to try to just be present with these young people and meet them where they are. Establishing that base of love and respect is what provides the foundation for then being able to consider how we are socialized and how we might begin to deconstruct the harmful aspects of our conditioning.

  • Dawn Haney

    I appreciate the caveats of being mindful about where and when certain terms like “rape culture” can be helpful. Certainly during the several years I taught middle and high school students about sexual violence (all genders, but I always had a special interest in working with boys), I didn’t use words like rape culture or masculinity, though we did talk frankly about power, hierarchy, and domination using concrete examples that were directly related to these kids’ lives. Including role playing examples of “You are at a party where people are drinking, and a guy from your school is taking a girl upstairs who appears to be too drunk to stand on her own. Is this scenario familiar to you? What are different ways you could respond? How is it sometimes easier to have ‘no response’? What if she’s your friend? What if he is?”

    But, in this moment, I’m not in front of that classroom. I’m here on Turning Wheel Media, with other folks who are trying together to see the systematic threads that produce rape over and over again. So I think this is a space where it’s appropriate to think at least a little bit about rape culture, and how it’s pointing to a broader set of interrelated systems than just the norms of masculinity (which is a core piece, but not the whole of it). I’m hoping this is a place where we can explore big concepts and interrelated systems that feel too daunting to look at alone.

    When I think rape culture, I often think first about the media and it’s portrayal of sexual violence both in entertainment (the recent grossness at the Oscars of “We Saw Your Boobs” skit sums that up) and in news (the CNN reporters lamenting the future of these poor boys).

    Part of what’s disturbed me in the Steubenville case is that we can see directly in video and text form how this has not only shaped the individual masculinity of these two boys, but shapes the social dynamics of a set of teens who went to a party, a high school, an entire town, a nation.

    People often have strong emotional reactions to rape, and respond out of a need to protect themselves or their loved ones from the threat of violence. People who feel vulnerable about being raped (women and girls, but also anyone made vulnerable by power differentials, like trans and queer folks or undocumented immigrants) can attack with the harsh language of “slut-shaming” and victim blaming, as the best way to feel protected from the threat of rape is to believe that the victim did something wrong to provoke the attack. People who feel vulnerable about being accused of rape (men and boys, but also anyone used to a position of dominance and authority) want to cover it up and hide it.

    And this spirals, as the costs of being raped are now not only the physical violation but also social ostracizing, and as we’ve seen in this case among others, threats of further violence. So people who feel vulnerable about being raped distance themselves even further from the victim, and people who fear being accused want to cover it up so as not to be like (take your pick: Kobe Bryant, Penn State, the local frat house, etc, etc).

    For me, this process is distinct from masculinity as – 1) it comes out of our experiences of domination and vulnerability, of which gender is only one axis; 2) everyone in the community/network/system contributes to it in some way, regardless of gender (and hopefully more of us are contributing in a way that resisting slut-shaming and cover ups).

    I think it’s important to be naming and resisting rape culture in parallel to supporting boys and men in developing a different relationship to masculinity – otherwise we risk leaving boys feeling isolated and ostracized when they speak up in resistance. It was a common strategy we would brainstorm together when I would talk with boys about how they might respond to a situation quite like what happened in Steubenville: “What if you didn’t have to intervene alone? How could you get her friends involved? Which of your buddies could you count on to have your back when you see the need to intervene?”

  • Kenji

    Dawn, thanks for the thoughtful response. I agree that masculinity as such is certainly different from the socialization “process” of rape culture within a context of major and intersecting power imbalances. I’m glad that this is a space to discuss in detail the systemic details, and I think the questions you would ask boys in order to help them respond to rape are excellent interventions into rape culture. Practical interventions like these are very useful in addition to the bigger picture knowledge needed to recognize the opportunity for action.

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