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Teach boys to respect women

By Kristian Jones and Catherine Cubbin, Ph.D.
Published February 5, 2018
Kristian Jones

It seems another day, another headline about a new sexual assault or sexual harassment allegation against a public figure. The fallout from these allegations has been swift for the most part, as many of the accused men – Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Tavis Smiley and Sen. Al Franken to name a few – have either been fired, resigned or stepped down from the various positions of power they occupied. The allegations also sparked #MeToo, a social media movement through which people across the country share their stories of sexual harassment and assault

We are having a long overdue public conversation about sexual assault and harassment, and at least some who have abused their power are having to face consequences for their actions. However, this isn’t enough to make long-lasting changes to our misogynistic culture. Boys need to be taught better about how to interact with girls in an appropriate and respectful manner from a young age.

Allegations of sexual harassment and assault need to be adjudicated. Girls need to be nurtured from a young age to believe in their self-worth, a belief that must be shared by men and women. More women need to be promoted and elected to positions of power. Norms need to change without the pendulum swinging too far toward hypersensitivity.

The phrase “boys will be boys” and “is he behaving himself?” are often thrown around without much thought. One of us heard these phrases all the time as a young man growing up. However, these words exemplify male privilege and excuse the ways society devalues and objectifies women while making it clear that this is a man’s world. Male privilege is everywhere: in television and movies and gaming, where women are portrayed in a certain light and relegated to certain roles; in the lyrics of the most popular songs; and in the demeaning language that may be used when women are being pursued in a bar or harassed on the street.

Educating boys about male privilege has the potential to be life changing. Imagine a world where men ask for permission before they walk into a woman’s personal space and start dancing with her at a party. Or where boys are more conscious of the words they use to describe the girl they have a crush on. Or where musicians used more tasteful adjectives to describe women in their songs. Or where men are checked by their friends when they treat women as objects of ownership. The list goes on and on. Most guys don’t realize they live in a world full of male privilege, and therefore lack awareness that their behavior or words may be disrespectful and demeaning.

Boys have to be taught from a young age, by both men and women, how to respectfully interact with girls. This can be done in many ways: We as individuals can all call out and correct misogynistic language and actions when we see them. Parents and youth programs can give young people examples of double standards that exist between girls and boys and between women and men in society. And teachers can engage youths to work and collaborate with peers from all genders and races, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds in safe and supporting classroom environments.

Of course, there are entrenched power dynamics at work that may have to be addressed so nobody is put in a compromising situation by a boss or anyone with power over them. But educating young boys and adolescents about the importance of respecting women, about the value women bring to the table, and about their own male privilege will go a long way in fixing a misogynistic culture that has been long overdue for change.

Kristian Jones is a doctoral candidate and Catherine Cubbin is a professor in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin. This opinion piece was produced for Texas Perspectives  and represents the views of the author, not of The University of Texas at Austin or the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. Versions of it appeared in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.