A while back, I wrote a post to my daughter about our failure as a society to make our women and girls safe in their bodies. A friend wrote to me and asked if I would write one to my son. She wanted to share it with her son and while the gist is the same, the angle is different. I said yes, started a draft, and then life caught up with me. The other day out of nowhere, another friend found my post to my daughter and shared it. Some of those who read it then went on to share it themselves. Interesting, I thought. Cool. Perhaps I should write that post to my son. Just as I was about to take a nap, I saw a tweet from someone I respect saying, “Group of university kitchen workers loudly commenting on the bodies of every female student that walks by. Ugh.” Since then I’ve seen several other tweets from others about rape, seeing women as something more than physical objects to be used for pleasure and discarded, and feminist men. Okay, Universe, I hear you.
To my little man,
You’ve had to do a lot of growing up lately. In the past year you went from being my only baby and toddler to being my oldest child and on the verge of kindergarten. The other night you asked me if you were going to die and I answered you honestly. That is a lot to absorb. But, you’re strong and you’re smart and I know you can handle what I’m about to throw at you, so here goes. And know that I am here to help you along the way.
As a preliminary matter, I want you to know that your sexual orientation is not 100% clear to us. Whoever you are is whoever you will be and both your father and I will love you no matter what. We will not reject you if you find out it is a man who makes your heart sing. (It breaks my heart that something like that even needs to be said.) But, since statistically speaking, odds are that you will be heterosexual, I will assume for the purposes of this letter only that you are. Of course, the rules of respect don’t change just because of gender, so what I say below goes for any person you encounter.
You have been born into a very privileged position. You are a white man in what is, at least for now, a white man’s world. In a lot of countries, as kids start entering elementary school, the girls are separated from the boys. They are no longer free to wear whatever clothes they want. They must cover themselves entirely. Our country does things a little differently. Here, the boys are the ones separated out. They are told that showing emotion is girly. And by “girly”, they mean bad. That is a lie on both counts. It is also the start of an insidious indoctrination that tells you that women are less-than, that we are not be treated with equal respect, and, worst, that we can’t be trusted. (Some people like to even go back to the beginning of the Bible for this one. I call bullshit and we can talk about that more later.)
If this stays a white-man’s-good-old-boy-club, you’ll likely have access to some of the best jobs. You’ll get offers and money and things women who are just as qualified simply won’t. It looks good for you on paper. But make no mistake, this system risks shattering you as much as it does any female (I’m not even going to address race issues here because that’s a whole other letter unto itself). See, you get those things at the expense of access to your innermost self. You can have them, but you can’t have your feelings or your intuition or a strong faith that women know what they’re talking about. It can be a hard choice for many, but at least you live in a time where you realize it’s a choice. And, so I am here, as your mother and as a woman, asking you to ignore what you will be told about women (things you will know in your gut not to be true) and to risk your access to an elite club to take up the fight with us.
Taking up the fight means more, though, than legislation mandating equal pay (though this is necessary) and outlawing all kinds of violence against women regardless of the woman’s marital status (vital in the truest sense of the word). It means more than ensuring equal access to jobs and education. It means seeing us as people and treating us with all of the rights and respect white men, hell all men, demand for themselves.
Very soon, much sooner than I’d like, your peers will start pointing out budding breasts on young girls. Even before this, there will be the “show me yours and I’ll show you mine” game. These start innocently enough I suppose, satisfying a mutual curiosity about each other, especially as the physical differences between the sexes becomes more pronounced. Then the rock tumbles downhill and it goes from noticing the onset of puberty and growth of breasts to commenting on the presence (or absence) of breasts with friends, to saying what you’d like to do with those breasts. The sense of ownership over a woman’s body that comes with the latter is the root of much evil. And don’t let people who say it’s “natural” to talk about women that way persuade you otherwise. To speak about a woman in terms of butt, breasts, thighs is to speak of her the way a butcher speaks about a cow. I cannot say it any more simply than that. When men see us as body parts designed to please them, they sever us from our spirit and souls and intellect. We are meat on a counter. Don’t you ever treat a woman as meat on a counter.
It’s another slippery slope from verbal carving to physical cleaving. I know. I’ve been on that butcher’s block. And more women than I care to think about have. We’ve all got different stories, some more violent and horrific than others, but all leaving scars. All tracing back to the basic idea that when a woman says no to sex, she doesn’t know what she really wants. Either that or she simply doesn’t get a say.
Based on what I know of you so far, you’d be horrified at the latter idea, the idea that you can simply take sex from a woman without asking and without any regard to her feelings. Most men consider themselves good men and feel that way. But I wonder how many men have taken sex when their partner was too intoxicated to resist or who were into it until the very end and then equivocated, so it wasn’t clear if it was consensual or not. I remember a man I dated before your father who told me a story about a woman he slept with who was so drunk she could barely speak. Apparently she was still somehow able to consent to being with him. He was handsome, so very handsome. He looked a dead ringer for a young Sean Connery. One of my friends called him a “panty dropper” (gross, I know, especially coming from your mother, but bear with me). By his account, this woman was fat and essentially lucky to have sex with him. Upon entry, she vomited and that’s why he quit. I forget now why he told me this story. I vomited shortly thereafter. What I should have done was leave him, But it took me several more months to do that. I, too, operated under the illusion I was lucky to be with him. Despite what he demanded of me. Despite the way he left me hollow inside.
Something tells me that if this man read this letter to you, he would be horrified. He would consider this representation unjust. He’s not a misogynist or a rapist. He’s simply a man who made a bad choice at a party. Mark my words, he was both a misogynist and a rapist. Just because he wouldn’t see himself that way doesn’t mean he wasn’t one. And it doesn’t matter if the woman is pretty or plain, fat or thin, she doesn’t deserve to have anyone, no matter how attractive, decide he’s going to gift her with his presence when she isn’t even aware of where, and possibly who, she is.
Which brings me back to the point referenced above, women are more than the sum of our body parts or how attractive we are to men. We are more than a menstrual cycle that apparently bewilders and horrifies some men, but is the only way life is possible. We are more than tears and talking. We are complete, whole beings who do not need a man to provide for us or validate us. Only, we, too, have forgotten that because society is constantly telling us otherwise. We need you to say, “No, not necessary,” when we think we need you to complete or fulfill us. We need you to say, “You are beautiful as you are.” We need you to believe that it is what is inside of us that matters. It’s not that you are stronger or know better. It’s that you live outside of it in many ways and it is often easier to see what is outside of you than what is in.
You will encounter some broken women on your journey. Women who have only known pain and who don’t remember their rightful place. Women who expect you treat them poorly. Women who will tolerate infidelity and put-downs, or worse. Don’t do it. Terrible behavior on your part, even if accepted by your partner, diminishes you. And like your sister, your place is as the brightest star in the sky or as the sun in the daytime. Shine. And be kind. A broken woman isn’t irreparably damaged. She just needs some help putting herself back together. Do no harm and help her to shine, too.
Perhaps it is unfair to say, don’t do these things because they are wrong, and if we come to you wounded and demanding that you do these things, you still must not do them even if it makes us angry. No matter. You must do what is right and that may not always seem fair to you. It may be a confusing or difficult path at times, but I am here for you.
You will get a lot of pressure to act in accordance with what society expects of you. And it expects so much, beautiful boy. Finding your own path can be tough, but I have seen so many good men recently that I know you won’t be alone. Many will have gone before you and I hope that most of your generation joins you.
Know that what I have said here is just as much for you as it is for your female counterparts. I want to see that sweet soul make it through life intact. I love you immeasurably and I am proud of you.