Elliot Rodger’s shooting spree in Isla Vista sparked a national conversation about the pervasiveness of misogyny in American culture via the #YesAllWomen hashtag. And although it’s clear that Rodger suffered from mental illnesses and was facilitated by easy access to guns, the guiding principles of his “manifesto” and the worldview that led him to target and kill young women are terrifyingly mainstream.
Sasha Weiss said it best in the New Yorker: The #YesAllWomen conversation demonstrates that “Rodger’s hate of women grew out of attitudes that are all around us. Perhaps more subtly, it suggests that he was influenced by a predominant cultural ethos that rewards sexual aggression, power, and wealth, and that reinforces traditional alpha masculinity and submissive femininity.”
Like many of the other women and men expressing their outrage through #YesAllWomen, I’ve been ruminating on the persistent belief that sexual aggression is a natural male condition for a long time. During my research for my graduate dissertation, which focused on sex ed in schools, I was flabbergasted at how often the question, “How do I say ‘no’ without hurting his feelings?” appeared in sex ed books and teen magazines alike. In college, I was perplexed at the number of programs designed to teach women how to defend themselves, walk in groups, and avoid date rape, and the lack of programs designed to teach young men to simply not sexually assault people. And as my career has developed, I continue to see how men who demonstrate aggression and volatility in the workplace are called passionate leaders, while women who do the same are called hysterical control-freaks.
But as I read through the insightful #YesAllWomen tweets, I thought not about my own past experiences with sexism, but about my son’s future. I blinked and he was 18 months —I’ll blink again and he’ll be 18. As a feminist and as a mother, how will I raise my son to embrace equality and to rebuff a hyper-masculine culture that celebrates violence and shrugs off misogyny?
So I turned to the experts—hitting the books and soliciting more experienced parents for their advice. Specifically, I wanted to know how parents can set the stage when their sons are very young—establishing a healthy foundation for an open mind that thinks critically about the stereotypes around him. He’s what I learned.