If you grew up in the United States, it is almost inevitable that you’ve been subject to a few standard aphorisms. These include things like: “Anyone can make it here if they try hard enough,” “Nothing worth having comes easy,” “Hard work pays off,” “Winners never quit, and quitters never win,” and “Success is no accident.”
These messages might sound inspiring, but what happens if what you are working towards is just never going to pan out? What if it is simply unethical? What if your win comes as the result of someone else’s loss? And what if you work your butt off and just don’t succeed?
Ultimately, when combined with the myth that we’re all starting from a level playing field, the hard work message simply serves to reinforce the notion that it’s not structurally sanctioned privilege that gives certain people more power, but rather, that those achievements are due to an individual’s own grit, or perseverance, or determination.
And such beliefs don’t exist in a vacuum.
So for boys who also grow up getting a lot of messages about sexuality (say, that sex with a girl is a rite of passage, a conquest, and the quintessential display of masculinity), there can be some pretty troubling effects.
One of these is that many boys feel the need to prove themselves sexually, and a common way they may try to do that is by putting sexual pressure on girls.
Now, a lot of us simply take this script for granted. Or we understand it to be part of a cishetero dating ritual. But that ritual is not only exhausting, it’s also damaging to people of all a/genders, and our kids deserve to know they can rewrite the rules.
Still, in order to rewrite them, it helps to identify just how we reinforce them. So here are four ways we teach kids it’s okay for boys to sexually pressure girls, and why we need to remind them that this simply isn’t the case!
1. We Tell Boys That They’re Owed Sex (And That Having Sex Is a Sign of Their Masculinity)
Masculinity is a tough thing to quantify, and so often the aspects of masculinity that are celebrated are things like physical strength, stoicism, chivalry, and sexual prowess.
Taken together, that can be a pretty toxic combination.
Then when it comes to what boys learn about sex, things get particularly tricky. In large part, that’s because so many boys are taught that, simply by the coincidence of their gender, they’re owed sex from a girl, regardless of the cost to that girl.
And how do they learn this? As Erin Tatum explains on this site, we teach boys that they’re sexually entitled in countless ways. We teach them this when we tell them that their virginity is a burden. We teach them this when we frame the primary goal of a relationship with a woman or girl as sex. We teach them this when we present women and girls as objects first and people second. And we reinforce these messages by holding up an expectation of cisgender heterosexuality.
As Tatum writes, “Sexual entitlement isn’t ‘boys being boys,’ it’s learned behavior.”
She argues it is also behavior that we can help boys unlearn: “Combating social and media messages early on not only allows boys to develop healthy relationships with women, it can give girls a greater sense of autonomy in their own sexual development.”
That is something we can do by letting boys know that girls and women can be friends and teachers. That they can be artistic collaborators, confidants, and companions. That there not really are these “Mars/Venus” divides that make us inherently different.
Plus, boys need to know that their own masculinity is not measured in terms of sexual conquest, and they need to be reminded that being rejected sexually is a normal part of life, not an attack on their entire worth as a person.
But, too often, these messages take a back seat to a more traditional and toxic dating narrative.
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