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Why the ‘boys will be boys’ justification of sexual violence doesn’t fly

September 27, 2018

Why the ‘boys will be boys’ justification of sexual violence doesn’t fly

CLEVELAND, Ohio — A high school football player is accused of sexually assaulting a teenaged girl at an alcohol-fueled party.  

It’s not hard to see the parallels between the sexual assault accusations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the 2012 Steubenville rape case. Three decades apart, there is one central difference: Kavanaugh has denied the allegations, and has never been criminally charged. In the Steubenville case, two star football players were convicted of raping a girl, and sentenced to prison. 

But amid the outrage in both cases, there has been a chorus of “boys will be boys,” the excuse of youth, of teenage brains that can’t control themselves and the victim shaming that accompanies that perception. 

Observers have rationalized Kavanaugh’s actions against Christine Blasey Ford, if true, as youthful indiscretions. In the 2012 Steubenville case, local sports forums justified sexual violence as “how boys are,” said Alexandria Goddard, a blogger who helped bring national attention to Steubenville, where the Big Red football team are town heroes. “It was almost as though the behavior was just accepted.” 

The “boys will be boys” perception remains widespread, even in the era of #MeToo, Cleveland Rape Crisis Center President Sondra Miller said.  

“I think from a very early age we are socializing boys to think that it’s absolutely normal for them to hurt other people,” Miller said. “We tend to excuse that behavior and even suggest that boys need to exert power over girls in order to show how manly they are.” 

The attitude is problematic on all levels: It assumes the worst of men and boys. It normalizes rape. It minimizes the trauma sexual violence has on victims. 

But the attitude persists even in the 21st century because no one wants to believe their brother, son or friend is guilty of sexual assault.   

“I think it is really hard for us to accept that people we know love and trust are capable of horrific behaviors like sexual violence,” Miller said. 

To help change the attitude, parents need to start talking to their children about consent, and healthy relationships in age-appropriate ways, she said. We need to hold men and boys to a higher standard. About 98 percent of sexual violence is committed by men, Miller said. But 98 percent of men that we know would never condone sexual violence.  

Miller said she believes ‘the boys will be boys’ mentality has decreased over the last couple of decades. But it remains a big part of our culture. 

“I believe the generation that is in their teen years right now will be able to make a radical shift in our culture. We see young people who are just not willing to ignore the problem and they are the first ones to stand up and speak out when they see something.” 

The #MeToo movement has helped hold men accountable for sexual violence, said Bob Fitzsimmons, the attorney who represented the Steubenville victim and her family. 

“I think it’s held men accountable. It goes as high as whether you’re a football player playing in a high school,” said Fitzsimmons said. “Or whether you’re a judge in a federal bench that’s going to be considered for the highest court in our country. It’s put these people and their conduct under scrutiny and I think everybody knows now that when these things happen it’s not going to be swept under the rug the way it used to be.” 

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