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Gender Identity

Do parents of boys view sexual violence differently to parents of girls?

November 15, 2017

In the time since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, we have heard quite a lot of “as the father of a daughter…”, implying it takes the birth of a daughter for men to truly appreciate all the discrimination, harassment and assault women seem to be on about. 

Now it seems the growing awareness of sexual assault on university campuses in the United States has seen the advent of “as the mother of a son…”, implying that the mother-son relationship may have the opposite effect on women.

Last week, The New York Times featured an article chronicling the rise of Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE), a movement of hundreds of mothers who have come together to defend sons they say have been wrongly accused of sexual assault. 

“In my generation, what these girls are going through was never considered assault,” one mother said. “It was considered, ‘I was stupid and I got embarrassed’.”

These women’s stories remind me of how the father of Stanford rapist Brock Turner last year wrote a letter to the judge imploring him to go gentle on his son for “20 minutes of action”, while his mother also penned a lengthy letter in which she wrote about her son’s “shattered dreams” and her own “broken heart”; but, amazingly, failed to mention the victim even once.   

While it may be tempting to mock, dismiss or even recoil in horror as some of the “as the father of” or “as the mother of” logic enters the public debate, as accounts from parents whose views and actions are clearly informed to some extent by the dynamic of their role as a parent, their gender and the gender of their child multiply, I wonder if there’s something to this?

Should we look more closely at what behavioral psychologists call cognitive dissonance (the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs or attitudes) and how that relates to mums and dads parenting sons and daughters – especially if we hope to more effectively engage parents as allies in the pursuit of gender equality and a world free of violence?

The short answer is yes.

This question about parents’ attitudes and beliefs and their potential to both influence and be influenced by their child gets to the very heart of the “how do you avoid raising a rapist” question.


And just so there’s no misunderstanding, I am in no way suggesting it is parents’, or particularly mothers’, sole responsibility to ensure their child does not become a perpetrator of sexual assault. When it comes to that, the cliche “it takes a village” is very, very true.

Research tells us perpetrators are “raised” or shaped by a number of factors: how egalitarian their home and their broader community is, the extent of victim blaming and excuses for perpetrators they encounter, and the prevalence of porn and porn-inspired culture.

But with all that in mind, parents are also important – both mothers and fathers.

The good news is that according to the National Community Attitudes Survey, parents in general tend to be less likely to hold what the experts call “violence supportive attitudes”.

The bad news is that according to research for The Line, a national respectful relationships education campaign managed by Our Watch, parents don’t always have the language or the confidence to bridge the gap between the “sex talk” (concentrating on biology, birth control and disease prevention), and the “respectful relationships” talk (encompassing so much more).

What’s more, messaging has been traditionally articulated by women and directed to girls, warning them of the dangers of boys.

If we want to effectively engage and support parents, we are missing a trick if we think of parents generically, rather than drilling down another level and looking at the more complex relationships between fathers, mothers, sons and daughters.

For fathers of daughters, the cognitive dissonance – that difference between the patriarchal ideas they may hold versus how they might want to their daughters to be treated – seems to have a beneficial effect.

Michael Flood, an associate professor at the Queensland University of Technology and an expert on violence against women, pointed to research showing fathers’ support for public policies designed to address gender equity increases when they have daughters only, and law firms with senior partners who had more daughters than sons hired more women partners.

The cognitive dissonance of mothers of sons – the beliefs they may have in favour of gender equality versus the knowledge that their sons benefit from the status quo – may be less beneficial, according to many feminist academics.

Dr Meagan Tyler, a research fellow at RMIT, said the FACE mothers made her think of second wave feminist writings, many of whom touched upon this issue.

In a chapter on feminist parenting in her book Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks wrote that women are often more likely to pass along patriarchal norms to their children because they are most likely to be primary carers, and they are likely to try to encourage their children to do the best they can under the existing system.

Reading more about the FACE mums, some of whom describe themselves as feminists, you can’t help but notice the extent to which their arguments – that the pendulum has swung too far the other way now, girls have all the power and it is the men who are the “real” victims of what they call a “witch hunt” – bear all the hallmarks of the kind of backlash arguments men’s rights activists put forward.

But this narrative prosecuted and normalised by women, and mothers at that, has proven particularly potent and less easily dismissed. That is reflected in the FACE group’s ability to successfully lobby US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to rescind Obama-era guidelines on campus sexual assault, saying they violated principles of fairness.

Yes, it’s tempting to roll your eyes when men start with the “as the father of a daughter”. And yes, the growing influence of the “as the mother of a son” movement is infuriating.

The advent of both, however, offer important clues about the opportunities and challenges of engaging parents as allies in the broader campaign to end violence. It’s time to take a closer look. 


*This article was originally published in The Age by Kristine Ziwica on November 6, 2017.


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