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If you tell men that women are children, they will treat them like children

Good morning good people!  I hope you all had a wonderful 4th of July, if it is a holiday you celebrate!  I hope you didn’t catch on fire in the heat!  And I hope that you watched Germany trounce Argentina on Saturday, because it sets up a salivating Germany versus Spain semi-final in the World Cup!

I did have a good 4th, and I did watch the Germany vs. Argentina game, and I did melt in the heat, but what is catching my attention this morning is a wonderful article from the font of cultural wisdom known as Men’s Health: 25 Secrets She Wished You Knew.  It’s a really good thing that Men’s Health has taken on the incredibly difficult task of teaching me, a normal human, how to understand the confusing and alien mind of a human female.  If it weren’t for this article, I wouldn’t know that I should approach women in my life as if they were mewling pre-pubescents, forever incapable of using language to communicate with me and the outside world.  I wouldn’t know things like secret #2, “Women speak a different dialect than men. For example, “I’m fine” means “I’m so not fine,” just as “No dessert for me” means “I’ll be polishing off yours.”  Or maybe secret #5, “Always tell me when I look hot; never tell me when I don’t. And don’t forget: I need 20 compliments to offset one thoughtless remark.”  This lets me know that women are, much like young children, attention-hogs who must be placated at all times.  It helps me a lot, as a rational, thinking human, to know that these rules apply universally to all women, too.  It sure is a good thing we don’t trust them with important things, like governance or war, amiright?

To cut the Tuesday morning snark a little bit, though, I can’t really blame Men’s Health that much.  I mean, I can pick at the article and dislike it and find every single flaw there is with it from a reasonable-person perspective (and there are many), but they are just parroting a long-standing cultural view of women.  Amongst my favorite words to use when I need to impress people with both my vocabulary and also the breadth of my reading is infantilization, and the second definition there is really the kicker - “To treat or condescend to as if still a young child.”

A lot of the workshops the CAPS volunteers do for BARCC focus on respecting boundaries - the lines of behavior each of us set up to make it through the world.  Everyone’s boundaries are different, and the same person can have very, very different boundaries depending on the type of behavior or activity in which they are engaging.  I’m really comfortable speaking in public; I’ve been doing it a long time, I have what I’d like to think are decent skills, and pretty much the only situation where I don’t feel OK talking is when I don’t know if my audience speaks the same language I do.  Conversely, I hate singing.  I have a terrible singing voice, and going to things like Karaoke make me exceptionally uncomfortable.  I know that friends who don’t know me well enough to know that I don’t really like it will pressure me to do so, and I’ll get really anxious to the point where my body reacts physically.  It’s not traumatizing, but it does make me deeply uncomfortable.

One of our missions in CAPS is to find ways to help make people more cognizant of boundaries, and to respect them more.  Thanks to the work of researchers and academics, we know a lot more about how predators operate.  While stranger rape does happen for sure, more rape and sexual assault is committed by someone a survivor knows, by a factor of pretty close to 3:1.  We know that most predators test their intended victims by purposefully violating their boundaries and seeing how they react.  They deliberately target people who cannot easily enforce their boundaries.  Our goal in CAPS is to help everyone recognize when someone is crossing boundaries, and give people the necessary skills to step in and stop that type of behavior.  The thought process is that if (most) predators can’t test the boundaries of their victims because everyone else surrounding them constantly steps in to prevent it, then eventually, the predator won’t have access to anyone to victimize.

This is a good idea.  I like the work I do in CAPS, and I think it’s effective.  Teaching people how to enforce their boundaries, though, often assumes that we’re in situations where there is at least some tacit approval for us having boundaries in the first place.  This type of training is great when aimed at groups of peers: high school students, college students, generally adults, too.  It’s less effective when we’re trying to train groups where there is no assumption that either one subset of the group is allowed to have boundaries, or that the other subset needs to pay attention to them.  The best example of this type of relationship?  Parents and their children.

This type of relationship is not completely without boundaries, of course - there are many lines that parents cannot cross with their children.  But in most cases, if a child does not want to do something, or is uncomfortable about doing it, or feels hesitant, a parent can make the kid do it anyway and there is general social approval for that type of parenting.  A father who makes his son or daughter try out for, say, a little league team, even if the kid hates it, is not generally going to be shunned socially by other parents or friends.  This is what a parent is supposed to do, sometimes - show their children that life is often unpleasant and we have to do things we don’t want to.  Part of the reason that parents get social backing to (occasionally) cross their children’s boundaries is that we, as a culture, generally recognize that adults are more aware of their world than children are.  I hated telephones as a kid - I had a couple of bad experiences accidentally hanging up on people, and they came to represent scary, unknown things for me.  My dad forced me to answer phones at his office for a summer as a 14 year old, partly because I needed a job, but partly because he knew I was going to need to learn how to use a phone proficiently as a life skill.  I hated it, but I eventually came to understand his decision (although my friends might still question whether I have truly changed my opinion on phones; the truth is, I still sort of hate them).  It was more important for my dad to help me develop life skills than it was to shelter me from feeling anxious and miserable.  He crossed my boundary there in a benevolent way, the way that parents are SUPPOSED to every now and again.

Here’s where this gets tricky, though.  There is no shortage of pop culture, media, old fables, and general social messages that tell us that same thing…about women.  While I could link up a thousand and one miserable articles, I feel like a basic jaunt through Sociological Images or, if you have a particularly thick skin,, would give you MORE than enough examples of the types of messages our culture provides about how women are basically children: they never say what they mean, they are fickle, confused, ruled by emotion, completely unable to concentrate on important tasks (or any tasks aside from picking out shoes, hurr hurr) and need constant attention or else they pout.  Of course, these messages are always provided as an absolute: ALL women act this way, no exceptions!  We expect kids to act this way.  We expect children to throw temper tantrums, to lie when they steal a cookie, to be easily distracted.  But culture tells men that women are the same way.

As a straight man, I was the prime recipient for most of this messaging: from Maxim and other lad-mags, when I was young enough for them to seem sexy; from the vast majority of dude-focused TV and movies, and from the men in my life.  Even I’ve repeated some of those tropes at times, when I was in a space where I felt like I had the social support to say it, and when I had an ax to grind against some particular woman who I felt had wronged me (yes, I’ll turn in my feminist card now).

So, what happens when we live in a culture that tells us that it’s ok to transgress on the boundaries of children (for their own good!), and then tells men that women are, essentially children?  BARCC training can help us recognize that boundaries are important and that they shouldn’t be violated, but that training has to push back against a lot of social expectations that position men as the adults of society, and women as the kids.  I think this idea can be easily summed up by the pro-rape slogan, “no means yes.” In what kind of 1984 hellhole does that make any sense at all?  The answer is simple: in a culture that thinks that half of the adult population is, in fact, not adult, it makes perfect sense.  If women aren’t capable of using that sophisticated adult language that real humans use, if women aren’t even really capable of understanding the repercussions of their actions, and if they lie all the time anyway, like children, then why wouldn’t no mean yes?

I do have hope, though.  In that article linked above, Amanda Hess cites a study from Yale Law professor Dan Kahan that found that men and women with a more egalitarian world view didn’t treat women like children.  Hooray!

And now, only because I got into an argument with someone this weekend about who wrote the song for the new Kia Soul commercial (which I got wrong; I thought it was Tribe Called Quest, they thought it was De La Soul), here’s Black Sheep’s 1991 classic “The Choice is Yours” (check the second verse for a mildly anti-DV message!)

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Posted by Dave

Dave has volunteered with BARCC since 2007 and works in higher education administration. He also facilitates a men's pro-feminist group, is a STARZ member of Socializing for Justice, a Yelp Elite '10 member, and sits on the advisory council of the Boston Medical Center's domestic violence prevention board. He got involved with BARCC to further his understanding of feminism and gender justice, and also to get the chance to show his speaking skills far and wide. He lives in Allston, where the music is.

1 Comment

  1. Not to disagree with anything you said here, but to flesh out a point, one reason why parents intrude on the "privacy" of their children is because parents are literally and legally responsible for their children's actions. This underscores your main point, as men have not been legally responsible for women's actions in quite some time.

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