STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Dads can teach sons to prevent sexual assault. Here's how to start.

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For this story, I have two hats. One is my reporter hat. The other is my dad hat.

I like the daddy hat.  

But I do still have this reporter hat over here. And I’ve been thinking a lot lately with my reporter hat about my beautiful, perfect little boy. Because, the truth is, he is at risk.

And I’ve been thinking about this risk because of what’s been in the news lately – about how men talk and act toward women. And what’s considered normal for those things.
In particular, how normal it is for men to try to push themselves on someone who doesn’t want it.

"More than a quarter of men report that they’ve done something like this, at least once," says Antonia Abbey, a psychology professor at Wayne State University, and one of the leading experts in the country on perpetrators of sexual violence. 

"It is more common, much more common than I think people realize," she says. "So we do talk about it as an epidemic. So it isn’t just that there are a few bad guys out there, and if we caught them, it would end."

Not that every man who objectifies a woman is going to assault a woman. But it's a risk factor for men who think in those terms.

Rather, Abbey says the way public health experts study sexual violence includes a spectrum of behavior. At one end are sociopaths: truly violent, dangerous people. But on the other end of the spectrum are people who do things that are much more mundane, but still harmful. Things like unwanted touching, coercion and even the kind of talk that many people simply classify as “normal guy talk.”

And there’s a connection between all those kinds of behaviors. Not that every man who objectifies a woman is going to assault a woman.

But it’s a risk factor for men who think in those terms.

"When you talk about it in a public health way, we can kind of understand it," Abbey says. "We can be exposed to cold germs, but that doesn’t mean we catch a cold every time we’re exposed, right? So we can have these risk factors, but it doesn’t mean we’re inevitably going to act this way. It just means we need more protections in our life to make it less likely that we do."

Protecting and preventing bad things--that’s where my dad hat comes back in.

I do it all the time when it comes to telling my son to eat his vegetables, brush his teeth and cover his mouth when he coughs. 

Parents can be just as proactive when it comes to teaching kids about sexual boundaries. 

The Centers for Disease Control lists on its website almost 30 risk factors for becoming a perpetrator of sexual violence, along with "protective factors," including: 

  • Parental use of reasoning to resolve family conflict
  • Emotional health and connectedness
  • Academic achievement
  • Empathy and concern for how one’s actions affect others

For more detail, the CDC also offers a technical paper on effective strategies for preventing sexual violence.

Some of these strategies are beyond a parent’s control. Some don’t really come into play until later in life. (For example, alcohol use is a huge factor in sexual assault, but my toddler son doesn't even know what alcohol is yet.)

But Antonia Abbey says there are things parents can do even when their boys are young. She says these children are always looking for cues on how to behave. So it matters how they see their fathers treating other people. It matters if they learn to get away with using physical force to get what they want. 

And it matters how they learn to think about themselves as men. 

"We just have to keep working on ways that [boys] see this broader image of who they're supposed to be. And I do think fathers can matter a lot there."

"Young people read these messages in society: who are the popular guys, who are the movie stars?" Abbey says. "And they kind of internalize in this into 'Who am I supposed to be?' And we just have to keep working on ways that they see this broader image of who they're supposed to be. And I do think fathers can matter a lot there." 

"Hyper-masculinity" and "adherence to traditional gender role norms" are actually listed among the risk factors for perpetrating sexual violence. But so are poor parental relationships, "particularly with fathers."

It turns out, part of helping sons to prevent sexual assault can also be to help build them up, and love them. To give them a stronger sense of themselves, to inoculate them against the peer pressure that will tell them to be or act a certain way toward women. 

So those of us with a dad hat, we have a big role to play.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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