Over the past two years we have been hearing a lot about men in the entertainment industry and politics who have sexually harassed women and teenagers over the past years. As a result, women are feeling strong enough to come forward and tell everyone about the secrets they have been ashamed of for years. What does this tell us about our society? Also what message have children and teenagers been receiving about sexual assault and rape over the last 20 years?
The nomination of Judge Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court has once again brought this issue out of the shadows. A woman has accused the Judge and a friend of sexually assaulting her at a party when they were teenagers. While this subject may be uncomfortable to discuss, it is still part of our society and we need to address it. The woman who accused the Judge has kept her secret for 36 years. She was afraid of how people may judge her or blame her. Also many women who have been victims of sexual assaults or rape often commit suicide because they feel so ashamed. The month of September is dedicated to suicide prevention so this gives us another reason to discuss this issue.
What this tells us about society is the old stereotype about how men should “act” is still a very big part of our society and we have continued to teach children the stereotype. This stereotype about what it takes to be “a man” was highlighted in the documentary, “The Mask You Live In.” The documentary discusses how the stereotype about what it takes to “be a man” impacts both boys and girls and discusses options for how to change the stereotype.
Basically the belief is “boys will be boys.” What this is telling boys is that to “be a man,” you must be sexually active. Also men do not need to worry about how they treat women sexually. The only thing men need to be concerned about is having sex. While this is the stereotype for men, girls are told they are not to be sexually active. If you think back to high school, a girl who was sexually active was considered to be “dirty.” However, the boys who were sexually active were considered, “men” and looked at in a positive manner. Another part of this stereotype is that women were not supposed to talk about sex. This was not “lady like.” Therefore, if they were sexually assaulted by a boy they could not say anything. If they did, they would be considered “bad girls” and looked at like prostitutes. So men had all the power and women had no power.
This stereotype hurts both boys and girls. It pressures boys to become sexually active even if the boy is not ready. Also it doesn’t allow boys to learn how to have healthy, mature relationships with girls. The stereotype also teaches girls to deny their sexual feelings and to look at themselves as just objects. They are not given the chance to develop self-esteem or to respect themselves and to insist that they be treated respectfully. This is not healthy for girls and it is not healthy for boys either.
Recently, a number of professionals who work with teenagers have been trying to change this stereotype. This was the point behind the documentary, “The Mask You Live In,” and such programs as Challenge Day and the program, Alive and Free. One of the goals of these programs is to teach boys that being sexually active does not make them a “man” and to respect girls. The other part of the goal is to teach girls it is normal for them to have sexual feelings, but they are not sex objects. No one has the right to force them to do anything sexual they do not want to. Also if someone does force them, a girl has the right to speak up without being labeled a prostitute.
Now that women are starting to speak up, it provides parents with an opportunity. It gives you the chance to speak to your teenager about sexual relationships. You can speak to your sons and daughters and educate them about what is appropriate and what in not appropriate. Also you can discuss with your teenager about what they think makes someone a man or a woman. You can help dispel this stereotype we have believed in for years.
As a society, it gives us the chance to support the women who are speaking up about past abuse they have experienced. It also gives us a chance to educate men that the old stereotype the learned is wrong. We can help re-educate men and for men who have been abusive provide them a chance to apologize and change their behavior.
I know this subject has upset many people. Women who have been sexually assaulted but have tried to deny it may be experiencing symptoms again as these feelings they buried re-emerge. Men who have sexually assaulted women may be experiencing feeling of guilt or fear of being exposed. However, instead of looking at this as a terrible situation. We can look at it as a chance to change a terrible situation that had existed in our society for years. It has also caused a great deal of harm to women and men. Yes men too. No one who has self-respect could abuse someone the way many women have been abused. Therefore, we have a chance to heal old wounds and prevent future ones from occurring. I encourage everyone use the opportunity we have been given.
Dr. Michael Rubino is a psychotherapist who specializes in treating teenagers and victims of sexual abuse. He has over 20 years of experience. For additional information about Dr. Rubino visit his website www.RubinoCounseling.com or follow him on Twitter @RubinoTherapy