I Do Want my Grandsons to say “me too” to ending sexual harassment and standing up for women.
I love my weekly calls with my grandson Ethan, a Rabbi at the Park Synagogue in Manhattan. When we spoke a couple of weeks ago, I opened the topic by asking for advice for an upcoming meeting I had planned with a local high school. “How can I ask the High School what they are doing about sexual harassment at school?” I asked my grandson. He shared that this topic was on his mind as well. In fact, he said he was working on a sermon triggered by the revelations and accusations in the news about sexual harassment by Harvey Weinstein.
I was very interested. My fellow grandpas in my weekly “men’s group meet-up” had been asking me, “how do we talk to our grandkids about this?” Indeed. Especially when we ourselves are finding this to be new territory. Especially when we came from a generation that propagated this behavior, even if we didn’t in our own personal and professional lives.
As a Rabbi, the framing of a topic for Ethan is always the Torah and how it applies to life today. For him that led to a comparison of Noah and Abraham. Both are deemed righteous men. But Ethan made the distinction that Noah, while righteous in his own behavior, did not turn outward to address the underlying issue and to look to change societal behavior. It was Abraham who not only behaved righteously in his own actions but went beyond to question core values. Abraham also tried to change what should be good and right in the world.
His sermon ultimately was published in the Forward: How Can Men Help End Rape Culture? By Emulating Abraham.
How to get started with difficult conversations
Ethan shared that he began thinking about the subject by discussing it with women close to him. I thought to do the same. I talked to my granddaughter Katie and her boyfriend. “Why do women dress provocatively if they don’t want attention?” I asked her. She answered sternly. “Woman have a right to dress any way they want to.” I asked what, if anything, they had been taught in high school. Lance shared that it was mostly about abstinence, which he didn’t think was a worthwhile approach.
I also spoke to my daughter, who is the COO at a Los Angeles based social-service agency. She often feels the impulse to hug people when congratulating them on a job well done, to convey her deep gratitude and appreciation. “I always ask permission,” she says,” before hugging anyone.
Another friend said that for her son, 16, she has three key messages: 1. When you are ready, practice Safe Sex; 2. No means No (and if someone is incapacitated and can’t respond on their own, that’s a No as well) and 3. That sex is okay when two people are old enough to prepare to avoid and/or accept the consequences, and when it’s consensual and honest (no lying to get sex!). On the other hand, she said that if she had a daughter there would be one more lesson… “don’t put yourself in vulnerable situations, like going alone to a man’s room at 2 am or drinking too much while out.”
The question about respect when related to sexual harassment seemed to be caught in the “sex” part. But maybe that’s where it starts (but how do you have conversations that have the word sex in them without it being sexual harassment?). And for us older folks, there are big Generational differences. My parents never told me anything. It just wasn’t something you talked about. But if you can’t talk about something, if you can’t name it, then you can never fix it.
The big difference is healthy relationships which are consensual and mutually respectful, and unwanted sexual harassment. With harassment, it’s unwanted and there’s often a power imbalance. But there’s a connection. Preventing harassment starts with respect for yourself and respect for the other person.
Luckily, the conversations about sex and being the boss of one’s own body continue to grow. It’s often in response to big news stories like the Harvey Weinstein Sexual Harassment scandal. Kids today are told at very young ages about “stranger danger” and what constitutes “appropriate touch,” possibly as a result of more and more news coverage of child abuse cases. Pre-pubescent adolescents are having conversations with their parents and doctors earlier now that the HPV vaccine is becoming more common.
My question is what is taught when and where? How are young people, both boys and girls, taught about healthy relationships? The aforementioned mother of the 16 years son said “it has to start at home. I don’t want the school to be teaching my son values that may not match our own. But, at least it starts a conversation. In our case, our son brought the learning home so that we could talk about it together as a family.”
And, while she said wouldn’t assign a role or have direction or expectation around how a grandparent could help, she welcomes knowing that there is a broad circle of loving people from whom her son might get advice. Developmentally, for teens his age, peers have surpassed family as the main source of advice. If her son does turn to parents or grandparents she would want that door to be open. “It was closed doors and a hush-hush culture that allowed sexual harassment and rape culture to continue for so long in the first place.”
So maybe just the fact that I am asking is a start. I am asking at my local school. I am asking at my synagogue. And I am asking my family. How can we all be better? How can we teach respect and healthy relationships?
I am starting with me, my family, my community.