There is a certain false sense of security that comes with having my daughters in an all-girls middle school. There is a modicum of relief that washes over me when I hear other parents talking about the flirtatious interactions and attractions, both clandestine and overt, that their children experience daily, hourly, continuously. My girls get to go to school and not have to endure ‘accidental’ jostling or groping from the boy whose locker is adjacent to theirs. They are not awash in titillating situations between or during classes.
But, like I said, this is a false sense of security. Because the fact is, both of my girls identify as heterosexual at this point and both are attracted to boys – both the celebrity variety and those they know peripherally. And while they may not see boys on a daily basis at school, they know boys and interact with boys over text and Skype and email and Facebook and I have recently begun wondering how these non-personal encounters will ultimately affect their comfort level with boys in the actual flesh. This, of course, leads me to wonder how boys and girls learn to communicate with each other in general (and not on a sibling-level which is vastly different than both friend and partner interactions). Should we be talking to our kids about how they present themselves, talk about themselves, assert themselves in person with someone they might be physically attracted to? I think so.
Yesterday The Lancet published a study they conducted on the prevalence of rape, specifically, “Prevalence of and factors associated with non-partner rape perpetration: findings from the UN Multi-country Cross-sectional Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific.” (Yeah, I know – it’s a mouthful.) I was blown away by what they found. If you wish to examine the study and attendant findings, it is here. If not, I will attempt to accurately paraphrase the portions that shocked me to the core.
First of all, in surveying these men, ages 18-49, they did not use the word “rape.” Rather, they described circumstances that are most definitely qualified as rape and asked whether the men had engaged in any of these actions. One example was to ask whether the respondent had ever “forced a woman who was not your wife or girlfriend at the time to have sex” or “had sex with a woman who was too drunk or drugged to indicate whether she wanted it.” The numbers were staggeringly high.
In New Guinea, more than 26% of men self-reported having raped (by the above definitions) at least one woman. This ranged down to the lowest percentage of men (2.6%) in rural Bangladesh, but the numbers on repeated or multiple incidents was frightening as well. There were no countries in this study where the sample did not contain at least one percent of respondents who had raped multiple women. The table of results is here and includes data on men raping other men.
In nearly every country, 50% of the perpetrators committed their first rape prior to the age of 19, China being the exception. My heart stopped when I saw that statistic.
This from the study itself: “All men who had raped were asked if they agreed or disagreed (on a four-point Likert scale) with a set of statements about why they did it. The statements expressed sexual entitlement (or the belief that if a man wants sex he has a right to have it, irrespective of the woman’s views: “I wanted her”, “I wanted to have sex”, or “I wanted to show I could do it”); entertainment seeking (“I wanted to have fun” or “I was bored”); anger or punishment (“I wanted to punish her” or “I was angry with her”); and drinking (“I had been drinking”).
And this, folks, is why I think it is vitally important that we talk to our children about the way they interact with the opposite sex. I will grant that this study did not take place in the United States and there were some correlations with violent conflicts (civil wars) and men’s attitudes towards women (a similar study in South Africa shows that nearly 28% of men admit to multiple rapes of non-partner women), but I wonder how much different the answers might be in our country. When interactions of a personal nature are increasingly less personal (sexting, Skype ‘sex,’ etc.), how can we truly appreciate physical cues and tone of voice? When girls are objectified by the media (think: “Toddlers and Tiaras,” “Dance Moms,” any magazine advertisement for clothing or perfume or accessories in your local hair salon) and boys absorb those messages whether or not they mean to, how do we learn to talk to each other about ourselves in an authentic, meaningful way? How do we begin to have honest conversations about who we really are and how we deserve to be treated?
I don’t claim to have the answers, but I am certainly going to begin encouraging my girls to find ways to be in casual social situations with boys where they can practice simply being who they are. I imagine it will be an education for them as well as the boys they are around and I can only hope it will build their confidence to the point where they look beyond stereotypes of what a boy ‘ought’ to be like to the person inside as well as letting their true personalities emerge.
God help me.
My son, who is now in the ninth grade, went to a public charter school in the middle of Los Angeles for five years, graduating last year from the eighth grade. What I noticed in the co-ed environment is the opposite of what you've described here: the boys and the girls (of different races, too, I'd add) hung out together, in groups, and were pals. Rarely were there boyfriend and girlfriend situations — rather, the kids went to the mall and movies together as a group, hung out after school or at each other's houses, etc. There was so little "dating" or boyfriend/girlfriend attachment — at least far less than when I was a kid. The texting and FB stuff exists, but we find it's more the girls who use it than the boys. Now that he's in high school, though, my son says that he wants a girlfriend, so I'm gearing up for a whole new phase.
It's daunting, I know. Well begun is half done, and you've got this one.
Thank you for your two cents, Elizabeth. Perhaps that is the drawback to single-gender education. It's nice to know that boys and girls can be friends in a 'normal' way. Good luck with the girlfriend phase.
I admire how proactive you are in educating your girls on such things.