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Without showing them misogyny, how do we teach our sons respect for women?

Children are subject to an onslaught of confusing messages about their place in the world. We want to teach our sons about consent and respect for women, but how this is possible without teaching them what men as a class do to women?

Teaching consent and respect for women is not shaming men. Photo: Getty

When he first started talking, my eldest son believed that the word for “woman” was “mum-man”. I never bothered to correct him. Part of me always wanted to think that – that everyone was a man, with the same worth and status, and I just happened to be his mum as well.

Of course, he now knows different. While I don’t think he’s aware of biological sex, he knows a hell of a lot about gender. He knows the colour-coding, the rules of the playground, the fact that girls cry and are weak while boys fight and are strong. He finds me ridiculous when I tell him this doesn’t matter. You, too, can like pink! He stares at me in bewilderment, wondering why no one bothered to tell Mummy the difference between women and men.

I don’t know whether gender-based value judgments have kicked in yet. Then again, do many people nowadays think “men are more human than women”? I doubt it; nonetheless, as with other forms of oppression, I think many of us feel it. It helps us negotiate the world around us without feeling enraged, guilty or utterly bewildered. Men are the story, women the scenery. There is no shame in absorbing this message. It’s a perfectly logical response to living.

In a recent piece responding to the House of Lords decision not to reform sex and relationship education (to include the teaching of consent), Ally Fogg wrote dismissively of women’s claims that boys need to be actively taught to see women differently:

It concerns me deeply that the political narrative that portrays young men as sexually aggressive, abusive and violent can easily become part of the problem. Young men who are at heart compassionate, gentle and kind cannot be well-supported by being constantly told they are the exceptions, when they are very much the rule.

However, the point should not be that is a narrative that dehumanises men (although it does). It is that if boys do not feel shock and horror at the normalisation of violence against women, they too are diminished.

I don’t see my sons as misogynists-in-waiting. I see them as wonderful little people, subject to an onslaught of confusing messages about their place in the world. As white, middle-class boys they learn that they are part of the elite, the main players. I don’t think this fills them with confidence. They are not arrogant, puffed up with the joys of white male supremacy. They are little boys. They will benefit from being white men, of that I have little doubt. But the notion that they are more real than other human beings isn’t something I want them to accept, any more than I want to feel at home with my own sense that as a white, middle-class woman I am more real than other women. 

I want them to be taught a different way of being. I want them to be able to access that sense of humanity they enjoyed before they got to know categories and hierarchies of human worth. I want them to know what it was like when people were people and I was just a mum-man. But I don’t see how this is possible without teaching them what men as a class do to women, not in an attempt to humiliate them, but so they question the unspoken beliefs around them.

We need to teach our sons, not that they are destined to be “sex-crazed monsters,” but we are all porous and vulnerable and need to listen. Teaching consent and respect for women is not shaming men; it is countering a culture in which the objectification of women is self-perpetuating. If you do not seem real, I will not treat you as though you are real, and neither of us will even know this is happening. We will find ourselves not understanding the hurt, and so it will be normality, because it’s always easiest that way. We can do better.

The linguist Eric Hawkins described teaching a new language without an immersive approach as “gardening in a gale”. However much of the target language is used in the classroom, students will eventually leave and find themselves back in the “real” world, that of their mother tongue. However hard we try to plant those seeds, strong winds will blow most of them away. Nonetheless, we have to keep planting. I can’t possibly counter all of the messages my sons will absorb, in the playground, on the internet and in the stories they read. I can still push to create a culture where, bit by bit, perspectives are shifting.

As a feminist who blogs about parenting, I sometimes get comments from men’s rights extremists. They cheerfully inform me that my sons will grow up to hate me and I think “yes, you’re probably right”. Nonetheless, I hope that hatred is short-lived; I hope it is a phase, a part of growing up, a necessary process. I want them to break away from me because I am their mother, because that is what they need to do. I don’t want them to feel apart from me because I am a woman. I don’t want them to see me, or any other woman, as less than human. I don’t want them to have to unlearn hate.