Every October, I write about Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Usually I cite shocking statistics about the prevalence of domestic violence (one in four women experience it) or how costly it is to the community. This year I want to concentrate on domestic violence as a learned activity. Boys who grow up in households where the father or other male figure abuses the mom grow up to become abusers themselves. Girls who watch their mothers being abused learn how to become victims.
All of us have heard and read about the comments one candidate made about his right to kiss, grab, paw at, and violate women who are attractive to him. The effect this abhorrent attitude may have on the children watching him threatens the work we do to prevent domestic violence from repeating itself generation after generation.
Many boys watching/listening to the candidate are looking for role models who demonstrate what it is like to be a man. They hear his boasts. They admire his power. They want to be like him, so that they can do what he does. Like watching the abusive male figure in their home, they learn that it’s OK to kiss, grab, and grope a woman if they have enough power to do so. They learn to be abusers.
Girls hear and see this powerful man and learn from his boasts that men can do anything they want to women. They come to believe themselves weak and vulnerable. They worry that they have to steel themselves for such assaults. The lesson they take away is that they can never be as powerful as the men who violate them. They learn to be victims.
Some have excused the remarks by saying “boys will be boys” or this is only “locker room banter.” But the comments did not occur in a locker room and they were much more than banter. Men whose livelihood has taken them inside numerous locker rooms agree. For example,
Dean Obeidallah: “I’ve heard men boast about sexual conquests in locker rooms, but I never heard bragging about assaulting women. . . . since that is what kissing or touching women without their consent is.”
Jake Tapper has agreed: “I have been in locker rooms. I have been a member of a fraternity. I have never heard any man, ever, brag about being able to maul women because they can get away with it—never.”
If we accept or dismiss them as normal boy talk, we perpetuate the message to boys that it’s OK to humiliate women and to girls that this is how they can expect to be treated.
As Michelle Obama argued, “to dismiss this as everyday locker-room talk is an insult to decent men everywhere. . . . Strong men—men who are truly role models—don’t need to put down women to make themselves feel powerful. . . . The men in my life do not talk about women like this.”
To become good men, respectful bosses, loving husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, boys need positive role models who do not engage in this kind of “locker room banter,” and girls will learn that they will be successful due to their ability, education, determination, and creativity.
For all of us who are horrified by domestic violence, who want to support abused women by making comfort scarves for them, who want to end the cycle of domestic violence by making hats for the children, we have the responsibility to argue against the idea that “locker-room banter” is OK. That sexual assault on women is OK. That women are inferior to men. We have to support gender equality in the work place, equal pay for equal work, education for all. We have to do whatever it takes to help women and children live a life free of abuse.
At the shelters to which we donate our comfort scarves, the women suffer from low self-esteem. Their partners have exerted power over them to such an extent that their only choice is to flee their abusive environment. Receiving a comfort scarf helps them feel they have some worth and value as a human being, that they are not doomed to living as a victim of abuse. Keep knitting!