Boys will be boys is a meaningless statement at best. At worst, boys will be boys is an excuse for aggressive behavior. And for young men, the aggression can include sexual harassment and assault.
Boys will be men. Girls will be women. In addition to their biological trajectory, parents, family, educators, clergy, and others will help boys and girls become the men and women that respect or do not respect sexual boundaries. Boys will be sexually active men.
Sex education is important but it is not enough. Awareness of sexual attraction is of course important to inhibiting harmful acts. But adolescents also need to learn strategies for inhibiting forms of sexual expression that harm or offend others.
It’s no secret why men, rather than women, make headlines for sexual harassment and assault. In case you haven’t noticed, adolescent males and young men have a powerful sex-drive. That’s biology at work. That’s not an excuse for wrongful behavior. But it is important for all humans to recognize that young heterosexual males are biologically driven to have sex with females. They are intent on having sex. Testosterone is a primary driver of sexual desire.
Moral bumper stickers aren’t going to help much when a young man sees a sexually attractive young woman. Sexual self-control is not easy for young men, which is why societies have provided external controls for millennia.
Sexual Self-Control and Social Barriers
We have a dilemma in western cultures because we have removed many external barriers to sexual expression in order to be fair to women. But we have not replaced those barriers with working control strategies that are fair to women.
In the 1930s and 1940s many of the world’s men went to war. Formal and informal arrangements were made by governments to meet young men’s sexual desires by providing men with prostitutes and brothels. To fight the battle of disease, some governments (e.g., USA) supplied men with condoms. Thus, they could continue to enjoy sanctioned sexual expression when away from home for years.
Meanwhile, back on the home front, millions of women left the home for the factory and the office, which were previously a man’s world. This movement of women into the workforce was at a time when western women had only recently secured the right to vote and a few were rising to powerful positions in all areas of society.
Following World War II, western cultures were on a path to learn how men and women could be educated together, work together, serve together, and even worship together. Appropriate boundaries on this path have not been fully established.
When men and women were segregated, men did not have to learn how to treat women respectfully in schools, at work, or in church. Segregation works for men to the extent women are not available at school, work, or elsewhere when sexual desire prompts the quest for sex. But segregation of the sexes is an immoral method of placing barriers around male sexual desire.
As an aside, let us not forget that women have sexual desire as well. Segregation placed limits on their access to attractive males. The removal of barriers at school, work, church, and elsewhere provided opportunities to interact with possible sexual partners.
In male dominated cultures, men pursue attractive mates and women vary their attractiveness to select desirable mates and repel others. Of course, this process does not always work well thus magazines for young men and women provide constant advice on attraction.
And let us not forget that segregation never works for those who are attracted to those of the same sex. Men and women who experience same-sex attraction are, and were, forced by cultures to live close together in residential schools, college dorms, hospitals, and military bases. Only recently are people becoming aware that some people find both men and women sexually attractive.
Recognizing their problem with sexual self-control, some men attempted to cope with temptation by keeping their wives close and refusing to be alone with other women. Understandably, this barrier interferes with a woman’s access to discussions when career-improving events may take place. It also interferes with developing important social relationships and mentoring.
Continual Sexual Harassment Training
Harassment training needs to be a part of the culture. And sexual harassment training needs to be age-appropriate and evidence-based. Children, teens, and adults must learn to respect others’ boundaries. At a minimum, they must learn by presentations, reading materials, and quality videos what behavior is unacceptable and the negative consequences for violating the boundaries. Adults need to know the impact on others following unwanted sexual behavior (talk and touch). And we need research to identify the most important components of training programs.
Sex-education and Self-Control
Sex education must include values. Sex education should include values that underscore the importance of respectful interactions with others. Students need to learn perspective-taking to encourage the development of empathy. This means that older students must learn the harm done when people are badgered into sexual activity. Sex education should also include information about acceptable sexual expression within the value system of the local subculture. Understanding what consent means is critical to a culture of respect. For many, appropriate sexual expression includes masturbation.
Sex education is never value-free. Sex education separated from values of respect for oneself and others leaves learners with the impression that sex is divorced from morality. Nothing is further from the truth. Sex and morality must be combined because sex and morality both have to do with relationships in which one or more persons can be hurt.
Parents are always accountable for the behavior of young children but they should not be blamed for the misbehavior of teens and adult children. I’m defending parents because they are too easily blamed for the misdeeds of their teens and adult children. Consider many examples of parents who have raised more than one child to find some children grow up to be responsible adults and others do not. So, parenting is not the sole answer to the problem of disrespectful and harmful sexual behavior.
That said, parenting matters. Parenting is a factor. Parents teach children to respect the boundaries of others by the language they use about sex and others, the behavior they model, the movies they watch, the way they treat other adults to whom they are sexually attracted, and how they react to news reports of sexual misconduct. Parents teach their children about one-one relationships when they enjoy time together. Everyday, parents are teaching their children something about respect toward other human beings.
Sexual harassment and assault represent severe violations of respect for others. Parents are in a position to constantly guide children toward respectful behavior toward siblings, relatives, friends, and others. The work of parents is hindered or helped by the actions of grandparents, teachers, and others. Parents are not alone when it comes to parenting and child discipline.
Individuals with sexual self-control difficulties should consider psychotherapy with an experienced provider. Talking with a supportive therapist may make an offender feel better but it won’t provide skills of attentional control, boundary setting, habit training, and other strategies of acceptable sexual expression.
As I have written elsewhere, sexual desire varies for individuals based on their age, time of day, health, and environmental stimuli among other factors. At the extremes, some men have strong sexual desire, often linked to high levels of testosterone. These men often have difficulty with aggression in other areas of life. When aggressiveness is harnessed, they may rise to the top in government, business, sports, and the military. The damage to self and others is obvious when aggression, including sexual aggression, is poorly controlled.
Policies and Laws
Policies and laws are a type of external barrier. Whether we are talking about a parent’s rules for their home, school policies, military regulations, or a nations’ laws, human beings need rules. It is a paradox that freedom only works when one person does not exercise their liberty to the extent of restricting the liberty of another. The best rules and policies clearly define the limits of acceptable behavior and state the consequences for violating the rules.
When it comes to sexual harassment and assault, all decision-makers must consider specific types of behavior. Not all behavior requires loss of employment, expulsion from school, or dehumanizing condemnation, or incarceration. Let us be clear about the differences between offensive words, jokes, touching, and all the other ways one person can sexually harass another.
Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration
I have written about this topic elsewhere. Here I only comment on a few points relevant to solving the sexual harassment problem.
Forgiveness can help victims gain relief from the intrusive memories of the past—especially when news stories bring similar scenes to mind. Forgiveness does not mean any victim is obligated to speak in favor of an offender. Forgiveness helps victims become survivors with a forward focus in life.
Reconciliation is a two-person decision. Reconciling with a person who sexually abused another may not be safe. Trust is the key ingredient in reconciliation. Trust depends on verifiable changes in behavior—words are not enough.
Restoring someone who has been guilty of sexual harassment or sexual assault to a former position requires wisdom. Apologies and repentance are not enough. Even sincere people can re-offend. The decision to restore a person needs to be an individual decision considering the risk of harm and the likelihood of re-offending. The decision is not easy. Some people change and some do not.
You might guess after reading this post that I have concerns about father/daughter and mother/son dates. It's simple really, dates are culturally defined as romantic events. Parents tell their children they need to be a certain age before they date and they set rules for dating. When parents use the language of dates for their one-to-one time with their children, they violate the usual way we use language about an event that is highly emotionally charged with powerful forces of attraction. And we know dating is a way of finding life partners. Dating, marriage, and sex are about very different relationships than parent-child relationships.
By all means, spend quality time with each child. But use another word for parent-child "together time," "memory time" and so forth.
Read more about sexuality, morality, and Christian cultures in A House Divided available from the publisher PICKWICK and other stores e.g., AMAZON GOOGLE