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?

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.

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

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.

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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.