Last week I saw dozens of people linking to a post written as an open letter to teen girls from the mom of several boys. Almost as quickly as that post went viral, the backlash hit. It seems like the post struck a nerve some feeling like it expressed their very own thoughts, and others feeling like the message was problematic.
I am in the latter camp, and my first reaction was to write a snarky post . . . my own open letter back . . . maybe some satire to skewer what I felt to be a condescending and sanctimonious tone. But I thought better of it, because the more I thought about this mom and her need to write something like this, the more I felt for her.
When I really look at this post and the message behind it, I actually feel sad. I feel sad for this mom and sad for her boys. I think the attitude in this post reflects a lot of fear . . . fear of her boys growing older, fear of their sexuality, fear of their autonomy, fear of their potential. While we may land in different places, I get that fear. I think a lot of parents do. I desperately want my kids to have a healthy sex life as adults. But when I think of the possibility of one of my kids having a sloppy makeout session behind the portables or looking at porn or being pressured to have sex, I kind of want to curl up into a fetal position. But hiding my head in the sand about the fact that my children are sexual beings does not benefit me, nor does it benefit my kids.
Mrs. Hall and I probably have a lot in common. We probably have anxiety about the potential problems and heartache that could result from early sexual behavior. We probably want our kids to grow up into respectful adults. We probably want them to be respected, too. We want to be involved parents and we want to be cautious of their online life. We want our kids to become moral, upright citizens of the world.
But Mrs. Hall and I have very different approaches for how to get there. She seems to think she can best help her sons with their sexuality by externalizing the problem. She puts the responsibility of their thought life on their female friends. She blames the girls for any potential objectification. For example:
Did you know that once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can’t ever un-see it? You don’t want the Hall boys to only think of you in this sexual way, do you?
Whether or not boys are capable of only thinking of a girl in a sexual way after seeing her in a bathing suit or pjs is a problem to address WITH THE BOYS. Granted, parents of girls should be having discussions about how they present themselves online. But parents of boys should be having discussions with their boys about their own behavior, and how they will conduct themselves in a world that screams to girls that they need to be sexy.
There is a lot of pressure on girls to be sexy. Our culture tells us in overt and covert ways that sex sells, that being sexy = power, that the shape of our bodies communicates our worth. Its not the least bit surprising that girls feel tempted to express themselves this way, and this is a worthwhile conversation to have with our girls. However, I dont think the context of this conversation should be about boys. It should be about self-empowerment. Because no girl is responsible if a boy can ONLY look at her in a sexual way. And the dangerous message that Mrs. Hall is sending her own sons is that they are powerless to the objectification of women if certain modesty conditions are not met.
The irony here is that Mrs. Hall is objectifying these girls. She is rejecting them if they have stepped outside of he code of behavior which involves only one trait: modesty. Shes not asking about their other qualities. Shes not looking at context. She states that they get only one chance. And she is teaching her sons that they have two options when confronted with a sexually attractive girl: objectify or reject. Im afraid this practice is only reinforcing the idea that boys could not possibly view someone who looks sexy without objectifying them. She isnt teaching her sons to respect women. She is teaching them that only certain woman are deserving of respect.
Our world is bombarded with sexual imagery. Unless we have our boys walking around in blindfolds, they are going to see it. Its on billboard and commercials. Its on magazines at the checkout aisle and at the gas station. And yes, its on instagram and Facebook. Our goal shouldnt be to have sons who never have to deal with this our goal should be to have sons who are equipped to deal with sexualized images. Because they will.
I think it is vital that we teach our boys that there is a difference between finding someone sexually attractive vs. reducing another person to a sexual object. We would do well to teach our boys that one does not have to lead to the other. (We would also do well to reassure our children that sexual attraction is TOTALLY NORMAL).
Speaking of sexual attraction being totally normal, something else really bothered me in Mrs. Halls post. She said:
We hope to raise men with a strong moral compass, and men of integrity dont linger over pictures of scantily clad high-school girls.
Im going to ignore the age specifics here, since shes referring to her boys who are in high school. But I want to point out that many men of integrity DO linger over pictures of scantily-clad women. The fact that Mrs. Hall thinks these things are mutually exclusive is not going to prepare her sons well, either. In my counseling practice Ive seen MANY men of integrity who struggle with looking at pornography. Ive seen pastors of mega-churches, Christian authors, elders, church leaders with this problem . . . Ive seen great husbands and exemplary dads who struggle with their impulses as it relates to sexual imagery. And Ive also seen that most of these people had families that shared a pattern of behavior:
- They were taught to be ashamed of their sexual feelings
- Their parents emphasized female bodies as forbidden fruit
- They were taught all-or-nothing thinking in relation to sexuality (i.e. Good men dont even like this stuff)
- Their families lived in denial about adolescent sexual behavior
- Their families never normalized sexual feelings
- Their families held the reigns too tight, failing to equip them for life in the real world
These kinds of parental behaviors often lead to the very thing the parents are trying to avoid, because when we pair shame with normal sexual attraction, over and over, we are telling our boys (and girls) that there is something wrong with them. Weve got to normalize sexual feelings and within that, teach self-control and respect. Our kids need to learn to do this in the context of the real world. Because one of these days they wont have mom around to block the accounts of their friends.
We cant control how others dress. We can try to help our own daughters make good choices. But when it comes to our sons we need to focus on teaching our boys to manage their own thoughts. Thats their job and no one elses. Trying to protect them from seeing real-life friends dressed in objectionable ways simply leaves them with under-developed self control and a mentality that blames women for their impulses.