Thursday, November 19, 2009

Gender and Violence

The other day I was reading The Liars' Club by Mary Karr, a memoir of her childhood in Texas, when I came across an incredibly disturbing scene that made me start to shake with disgust and horror.

In this scene, 7 year-old Mary has just finished reading Charlotte's Web up in her bedroom and has this revelation about the importance of the book and its true meaning. She calls for her male babysitter to come upstairs so she can tell him about it. He comes upstairs and she starts babbling to him about what she had read, about the significance of Charlotte and Wilbur's friendship. He asks her if she would like to be his special friend, and at this point we know where this is going. In the next few paragraphs, Karr describes (very graphically) how this babysitter gets (forces) her to perform oral sex on him. At SEVEN YEARS OLD.

Now first of all, I read books like this all the time - I was not shocked out of innocence by this occurrence or anything. Second of all, she had already described being raped by a neighborhood boy at an even younger age earlier in this same book. But something about this particular scene - the way she described it or perhaps the vividness of the image in my head - this one had a very different effect on me.

I sat there stone-faced and shaking on the couch, book in my lap. My husband asks if I'm okay. I say "no," he asks why not, I explain the scene to him. He shakes his head in disgust/anger and says "See? That's why I don't want to have girls."

At this point I realize that my take on the situation is quite different from his. I get angry and ask quite forcefully, "Oh, you'd rather have the perpetrator of the crime be your child than the victim???"

I realize that this was a very sexist thing to say, and a very sexist feeling to have in the first place. But I have heard so many people express a preference for having sons because of similar reasons, claiming that boys don't need to be worried about as much, that I reacted viscerally to both the scene and my husband's statement.

What does it say about us and our culture if we would rather raise violent perpetrators than victims? What does it say about us and our culture that we associate a specific gender to one status or the other?

I have heard strong, independent females say things like "Oh, I'm so glad I never had a daughter. Boys are just soooo much easier." As if girls require some kind of high-maintenance parenting and boys just kinda take care of themselves.

My thoughts after reading the passage in Karr's book were essentially that I have to imagine it is much easier to teach a child how to never be a victim than it is to teach a child never to be a perpetrator. How do you teach your son (effectively) not to ever touch another person or force them to touch him against their will without making sex and sexual contact seem dirty, wrong and forbidden (Because we all know where those lessons lead.....Jeffrey Dahmer, anyone?).

Isn't it easier to teach a girl that she has rights, that her body is her own, that she doesn't have to respond to intimidation and that fear doesn't have to control her life? Isn't that easier than teaching a boy to control his hormonal urges, to respect females as equals, to respect female sexuality in a world where all the messages he is bombarded with are to the contrary?

I think the most disturbing aspect of that passage for me was the fact that I never once got the impression that this boy wanted to hurt Mary. He wasn't being mean, he wasn't malicious. I believe he had a strong sexual urge, he needed an outlet for it, he saw an opportunity and took it. I don't think he believed he was hurting her. I didn't get the impression that this boy was the type who would grow up to be a child molestor or a rapist. But nonetheless, he did what he did to her.

And I'm willing to bet this shit happens all the time and no one ever hears about it. The sick fuckers always seem to be adults and get caught because they do it over and over again. But what about the ones who, just once, lost control of their shit and no one ever finds out what happened?

We all know of ways to protect kids from bad people in the world. Sometimes we can't control it, but we all do our best.

But how can we effectively protect our kids from themselves?


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Anonymous said...

Well, with the whole Catholic Church pedophile priest scandal - it goes to show boys really are every bit just as vulnerable as girls. :(

Lost Law Student said...

I think the point you make about teaching boys not to be predators is a very important one. Unfortunately, I think our society actually creates more sexual assaults later in life because the focus is on telling young women to protect their virginity and telling young men to try and have sex whenever they can. Instead of imparting a healthy view of sexuality we set our children up for conflict. Check out the Yes means Yes movement for a healthier alternative. Of course I fear this might fall into the telling other parents how to raise their kids category you seemed disturbed by in later posts.

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