As a man, I sometimes think I feel even more disturbed and disgusted by the alleged activities of Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby than many women are. It’s heinous things like that that gives the rest of us a bad name, and provides fodder for the type of statements that begin: “God, men are such…” And we’re not—at least not all of us.
As a father, though, I’m grateful for the light these cases have shone on what’s clearly a huge issue. They’ve given me a lot of opportunities for “teaching moments” and “talking points” with my three boys (ages 18, 15 and 12) about issues of consent and how to treat women.
It’s always been important to me to raise my sons to be the type of men who interact with women with respect, courtesy and as equals—gentlemen, in other words. It can be a trick, in the 21st century. We think we’ve come a long way in the past 50 years, but from where I’m sitting, my boys seem to be surrounded by stereotypical, sexist imagery in popular culture, and downright nastiness on the Internet and in social media.
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My attempt to be an antidote to it all is three-pronged. First, I try to model respectful behaviour toward women myself, especially their mother. They say kids learn with their eyes, not their ears—i.e. they watch, not listen. This is definitely true of teens (especially the “not listen” part). My wife, Pam, isn’t a hard one to treat respectfully—this is a woman I’m lucky even looked at me, let alone married me, so I bring her coffee in bed, hang on her every word, etc. But do I dial it up around my boys? Maybe. I also carefully monitor how they treat her, knowing that it’s probably an accurate predictor of how they will behave toward the other women in their lives.
The second prong of my Raising Gentlemen Project is the never-ending, exceedingly difficult attempt to come between them and the casual misogyny of the pop culture they’re bombarded with every day. I say “exceedingly difficult,” because it’s so hard to monitor it all. When I was 14, my father became fed up with how much TV my brother and sister and I were watching, so he locked the family set in the basement. But we have three TVs, five cellphones, two tablets and five computers. I can’t monitor it all, but I do what I can: I happened to be walking by when my boys were watching Orange is the New Black, which is how I found out how porn-y it is, and I immediately put it on the “please don’t watch” list. I don’t play video games, but I discovered from the news that part of the “game” of “Grand Theft Auto” is beating sex workers to death. No more of that.
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The third prong is keeping my sons aware of the news, and discussing it with them. The Jian Ghomeshi case, sadly, was helpful, because he didn’t appear to understand that any of the things he allegedly did were wrong, or that somehow his (however incorrect) argument that there was “consent” made it OK. I told my boys: “Forget consent: Never hit a woman.” They understood, and promised they wouldn’t. Not a complicated message.
Another sad teaching moment from the news recently is the well-known story of a teen given a conditional discharge on child pornography charges. He’d taken out his cellphone and recorded the alleged rape of an underage woman at a party in Halifax while she had her head out the window, vomiting. He later posted the video on social media. She was subsequently cyber-bullied, and wound up committing suicide.
It’s just a hunch, but I have a feeling that kid (17 at the time; 20 now) with the phone was surprised at how gravely his actions were viewed, and how serious the effects were.
“You do not want to be that guy,” I told my sons. “You do not want to be any of the men in that room. You see a woman being taken advantage of, a woman in distress—you help her.”
I want them to absorb and process the notion that being a gentleman is about more than just treating the women in their own lives well. It’s also about pushing back, speaking up and being brave when they’re in the vicinity of sexist boorishness in general. Of course, that might mean going against the herd, suffering at the hands of bullies and standing up against hostile forces on behalf of their principles. But that, to me, is a big part of what it means to be a man—of being a strong, but gentle, man.
Editor’s note: In the original posting of this story, our edit referred to “sex with an underage woman." We thought that we'd included details that made it clear the sex was not consensual, but several readers took us to task for not calling it rape. The family of the victim alleges this incident was rape; a police investigation led to child pornography charges, but sexual assault charges were never laid. Because of legal constraints that media outlets face when we cover incidents like this, we're obliged to be careful with our wording. We've updated the piece to call it an “alleged rape.”
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