When he noticed the naked little girl at the beach didn’t look quite like he did and asked why, they answered his questions in simple phrases painted in black and white, pink and blue, and tradition. And he learned that boys and girls were different.
When one of the neighbor kids painted his nails, they got angry. That wasn’t something boys did. And he learned that there were different rules for boys and girls, and that breaking those made people upset.
When he was handed down a pink bike from his cousin, they replaced it with a blue one, because they didn’t want him to be mocked for having a “girly” bike. And he learned that being girly was something to be mocked.
When he cried, they told him to be a man. And he learned that crying, and being not a man, was something less.
When he was being picked on at school, they told him to stand up for himself. They did not tell him how, but they showed him stories with heroes who used fists and weapons to beat the bad guy into submission. And he learned that strength and force were good.
When he tried to be his own hero, they told him he hit like a girl. And he learned that girls were weak, and as a result, bad.
When he got home, they shook their heads because boys will be boys. And he learned that violence and aggression are expected of men.
When he hung out with the adult men in the family and listened to them talk around beers and grills and whatever game happened to be on the TV, they spoke of women’s bodies in the same way they spoke about the cuts of meat sizzling before them. And he learned that women were for men and their tastes.
When he started joining sports teams himself, they bypassed curse words and skipped straight to associating anything worthy of criticism with girls, because you wouldn’t get in trouble for that. And he learned that deriding women as a whole was acceptable and manly.
When he moved up to the older leagues, the comments came with a little more bite. Qualities perceived as “girly” were now categorized as “gay” and “wrong” and something to be avoided at all costs. And he learned homophobia, or a fear of men who he associated with womanly.
When he looked at billboards and magazine ads, they showed him women’s body parts and bodies, altered to be impossible without a face to remind you of their personhood. And he learned to view them as objects.
When he looked at billbords and magazine ads, they showed him men with rippling, photoshopped muscles that didn’t reflect what he saw in the mirror. And he learned to quietly loathe this body that these objects could never desire.
When he watched television and movies (the ones with the heroes), they always got the girl. And he learned to associate manliness with female attention he wasn’t sure he’d get.
When he watched television and movies (the ones with heroes in costumes and not), they always got the girl, even if she didn’t seem all that interested or willing at first. And he learned that “no” was sexy.
When he watched television and movies, they didn’t need superpowers because they always basically knew whether a girl was interested in having sex based on how little she was wearing. And he learned that attire could mean consent.
When he saw the older boys talk about women outside the silver screen, they talked about all they would do to the women in their fantasies if given the opportunity, never once entertaining the idea of consent. And he learned that women were essentially for use.
When he took that sex ed class, they told him how to protect his penis from STDs and his future from young fatherhood, but they only taught his female classmates to be careful about rape. And he learned that consent wasn’t his concern, but theirs.
When he and his friends started getting into video games, they gave him a world where he could be as violent and cruel as he liked without repercussion. He could even rape a hooker, if he felt like it. And he learned that sexual violence could be entertainment.
When he and his friends flipped on a comedy program, they laughed uproariously as the comedian threatened to rape someone who had interrupted him. And he learned that sexual violence could be downright hilarious.
When he started attending parties, they told him that drunk girls were the easiest, and that’s where he should start. And he learned that consent was really optional.
When he lost his virginity, they congratulated him and asked him for a play-by-play of the carnal details, as they would with each hookup to come. And he learned that sex was about him and the act, not her.
When he started dating, they would reference his girlfriend as a ball and chain, deride any show of emotion, and encourage him to man up by shutting her down. And he learned emotional cruelty was masculine.
When he first experienced heartbreak, they skipped past the culprit and jumped to her gender. And he learned that deriding women as a whole was still acceptable and manly.
When he repeated a crack about women belonging in the kitchen and bedroom in front of some of his more progressive friends, they rolled their eyes or sighed or laughed. And he learned that, really, it’s not that big a deal.
When he listened to one of his female friends lament the harassment she had been experiencing to their social circle, they dismissed her as a hyperbolic exception to the rule, insisting that #NotAllMen were that bad instead of actually hearing her. And he learned that it’s ok to act like it’s really not a big deal at all, too.
It’s funny how that all changes when you hear the words, “It’s a girl…”
He thought of the lessons he had been taught, and how different they were from the lessons he would now have to pass on to her. He thought of all the cruel and “manly” things she would see and hear in her life, and how she would be told to celebrate that dehumanization in the name of masculinity. He thought of how she would have to fight to be seen as more than a punchline about cup size in the office, and how she would spend her life shouldering the weight of projected responsibility for the words and choices of the men in her life. He thought of how one day, she would tell of her frustrations to a man who would dismiss her concerns until they were wrapped up in a pink delivery blanket in his arms because suffering is only valid if he can touch it… no matter how loudly we yell #YesAllWomen.
And he cried.
Well, maybe not.
Maybe he had a little boy, and learned nothing at all. Because hey – boys don’t cry, right?
The question now: are we learning?
* * * * * * *
If your comment sounds something like, “Well, not ALL men…”
Well, I’m not publishing it. Not all men are misogynists? Well, no shit, Sherlock. Not all men are misogynists, but all women are victimized by those who are. THAT is why this conversation needs to take place.
The point of this piece isn’t to say, “This is EXACTLY HOW IT HAPPENS EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.” It’s to get us to reflect on how our choices, behavior, and words influence the world around us, what that can mean, and how we can do better.
If you have something more productive than the obvious to state, then please feel free to join the conversation.