One of the most alienating messages that schools send to boys is the idea that they are inherently dangerous and predatory. This is especially true in the area of sexual harassment, our next topic in The War on Male Students. After a few decades of one-sided reforms and increasingly punitive reforms to education policy, schools now face fines, investigations, or lawsuits if female students suffer any kind of discomfort which can be defined under the broad umbrella of harassment. Schools are hypervigilant toward any kind of misbehavior on the part of boys, to the extent that boys who exhibit quasi-offensive behavior (or behavior that would be inoffensive or non-threatening to most people) are being labeled as predatory - labels they inevitably internalize – and being punished for it. I'll give numerous examples.
In North Carolina in 2011, a 9 year-old boy suspended for sexual harassment for telling not the teacher, but a fellow student that he thought his teacher was “cute." Article here.
When the world first heard of the concept of sexual harassment, they were sold the idea that sexual harassment was defined by exploitation and an abuse of power by employers or fellow employees. But sexual harassment today is not really about employers who require employees to perform sexual favors before they are promoted. It has been broadened far beyond its original and once widely-supported framework, and has moved into criminalizing many forms of trivial behavior that many consider non-threatening.
In another story out of North Carolina, a 14 year-old Middle School student was suspended for hugging teacher. According to this CBS article: “Ryan Blackmon, an eighth grade student at Bladenboro Middle School, was suspended when he hugged his teacher after she broke up a potential fight between himself and another student.” “I said, ‘Thank you,’ after she got done,” Blackmon told the station.
“I went to hug her, then she just snatched me up by the arm and drug me to the other teacher and said that I needed to be written up, and that something serious had happened.” Blackmon’s parents have filed a police report against the teacher and the school after a mark was left on the boy’s arm from where the teacher grabbed him.
“I don’t understand how she could feel threatened if I was showing my gratitude, but she could have told me politely to tell me to move away,” he told the station.
And in Denver, Colorado, a 6 year-old boy was suspended for singing “I’m sexy and I know it.” Article here.
Are these boys who are subjected to such heavy-handed treatment more likely or less likely to develop into socially well-adjusted young men? Are they going to be able to carry on their studies in an environment where they are now labeled as predatory? It isn’t just the parents of these suspended kids who should be angry. We should all be angry at how the school system treats our kids. Because if they think it’s ok to treat other kids this way, they’ll think it’s ok to treat our kids this way. And until a group of concerned citizens rises up and campaigns for positive structural change in our school systems, they are going to keep doing it.
Another 6 year-old boy suspended for sexual harassment. Article here. According to USA today, “In BROCKTON, Mass. (AP) — A 6-year-old boy is getting a lesson on the meaning of sexual harassment long before he'll be able to spell it. The first-grader was suspended for three days for sexual harassment after he put two fingers inside a classmate's waistband, school officials told his mother, Berthena Dorinvil. The boy told her he only touched the girl's shirt after the girl touched him.”
"The connotation is you're getting some kind of sexual gratification, or wanting sexual gratification, or are putting pressure on for some kind of sexual gratification, when a 6-year-old doesn't have that capacity," said E. Christopher Murray, a civil rights attorney who has handled school discipline cases.
“The boy's mother called the Jan. 30 suspension from Downey Elementary School outrageous. She said she can't even explain to her son what he did wrong because he's too young to understand. ‘He doesn't know those things,’ she told The Enterprise of Brockton. ‘He's only 6 years old.’”
And what of the accusation that the girl first touched him? If schools are so committed to investigating and rooting out sexual harassment, why do we not hear the results of this part of the “investigation? Of course, I use the word “investigation” loosely, assuming schools are actually objectively searching for facts, rather than going with whatever stories are the most expedient.
Yet another 6 year-old boy suspended, this time for kissing a girl on the cheek. Article here. According to the Associated Press: “A 6-year-old boy who kissed a girl on the cheek was suspended last week on the grounds of sexual harassment. Jackie Prevette said the school overreacted to an innocent peck on the cheek by banishing her son, Johnathan Prevette, to a room apart from his classmates. Johnathan said that the girl asked him to kiss her and that he was expressing friendship.
I agree, with a slight correction: it’s no wonder we have all these boys with behavior problems. I followed up a bit on Johnathan Prevette. When searching for his name under Google images, it turned up a link to his mother Jackie’s Myspace page, which contained a link to Johnathan’s own page. The case happened in 1996. He is now 22 years old, and on MySpace he goes by the name J-Perv. It would appear that he has indeed internalized the label of a sexual predator publicly imposed upon him by the school.
In page 54 of War on Boys, a dissenting Feminist professor named Christina Hoff-Sommers cites two stories where boys are accused of sexual harassment: “A mother in Worcester, Massachusetts, who came to pick up her son was told he had been reprimanded and made to sit in the ‘time out chair’ for having hugged another child. ‘He's a toucher,’ she was told. ‘We are not going to put up with it.’ That little boy was three years old.
And later, “A nine year-old boy already had a reputation as a potential harasser: he had been caught drawing a picture of a naked woman in art class (following a school trip to the National Gallery of Art). When he was accused of deliberately rubbing up against a girl in the cafeteria line, school officials notified the police. The boy was charged with aggravated sexual battery, and was handcuffed and fingerprinted. The family's lawyer, Kenneth Rosenau, said, ‘A 9 year-old bumps into a girl in the lunch line while reaching for an apple and all of a sudden you've got World War III declared against a fourth grader.’”
If anyone is familiar with the National Gallery of Art, they know that visitors will inevitably come across a painting of a nude or semi-nude figure. Consider the Renaissance artist Titian, who is known for his famous painting “Sacred and Profane Love,” which presents us with two women at a well, one dressed in fine clothing, the other mostly naked. The viewer is left to inquire: which one is sacred, and which one profane? Some may be tempted to say that the naked woman is profane; that she is dressed in a provocative and wanton manner, unrefined by the principles of our finer society, as is the well-dressed woman. Others may say that the naked woman is the embodiment of sacred love; for the reason that true beauty is not a form camouflaged by the at best imperfect accoutrements of humankind, but one drawn by the timeless and almighty hand of nature, or of God.
So which is which? Titian does not give us an answer. What he does do, by presenting is with a duality of forms and two unattached labels, is provoke us to reflect upon our fundamental conceptualizations of morality. Like much Renaissance artistry involving nudes, it is far from a pornographic depiction of flesh; the painting of Titian says, “What is beauty and love?” By his nude statuary, Michelangelo compels us to ask, “What is noble?,” and his painting invites us to ask, “what is spiritual?”
If Titian had been a schoolboy today, he would have been told that the underlying moral, philosophical and spiritual themes in his work are irrelevant; that it does not matter how he intended his work, and all that matters is how it is received. And in our school system there exists no shortage of people who choose or are trained to see pathology among men and boys where it does not exist either because it validates their social and political worldview.
Now here’s one where I do believe what the boys did was wrong, and that it deserves punishment. But their receiving punishment in and of itself is not what I will address here. According to Komo news: “MCMINNVILLE, Ore. - Two 13-year-old boys facing sexual harassment charges in a case that has drawn national attention will go to trial, a judge decided on Wednesday. The boys are accused of spanking girls' bottoms and poking at their breasts at Patton Middle School.”
Now I do believe that these boys should have been disciplined in some form, because I view what they did was wrong. And after reviewing a lot of the coverage and seeing them on video, I think it quite possible that at the time of the offense, they were being little punks. What I and many others do not agree with was the degree of the charges which district attorney Bradley Berry brought before the court. As Susan Goldsmith reports in The Oregonian, “Berry said he was inundated with calls and e-mails from readers who complained that charging the boys with 10 counts of sex abuse and harassment was an overreaction, as their parents maintain. Lawyers for the boys say each count could bring a year in confinement and mandatory registration as sex offenders.” “The boys' families said they were furious…’It makes us angry that they can overcharge and make us think this could happen,’ said Tracie Mashburn, Cory's mother.”
Unfortunately, this is often how the justice system works works. Prosecutors don’t bring charges based on what they think is morally right or wrong; they bring charges based on what they think they can get away with. If there is a lot of public hysteria about a given issue, such as sex abuse, they can often get away with a lot. But this time they didn’t get so lucky. But there’s more to this case than just the overcharging of two 13 year-old boys. Buried at the end of the archived news article by Susan Goldsmith, she, “Confidential court records and police reports obtained by The Oregonian showed that other Patton students - boys and girls - were also slapping bottoms. Two female victims later recanted, saying they were friends of the boys and felt pressured to make false statements against them.” ABC news reports the same here: “But police reports filed with the court said other students, both boys and girls, slapped each other on the bottom. ‘It's like a handshake we do,’ one girl said, according to the police report.”
There are so many questions about this case that no one covering it seems to be asking. If slapping someone on the rear is felony sexual assault, why were the girls not arrested also? Why weren’t they charged with felony offenses, and threatened to be forced to register as sex offenders? If what the boys did was such a serious offense, why did the school not also regard the false accusations of those crimes as serious offenses? Why were the girls who made false accusations of felony offenses not arrested for potentially ruining the lives of the young men? Who pressured the young girls to make false accusations against the boys? Was it a teacher? Was it an administrator? If they are false accusers as the article says, why does the media still refer to them as victims?
In another case, a 14 year-old boy with down syndrome is suspended for sexual harassment for hugging a bus driver. Article here.
You know, I shouldn’t even have to argue whether this is wrong. I hope we all can see that it is wrong without me having to make a case. I truly believe that for me to argue whether this is wrong would be to give the actions by these school administrations more legitimacy than they actually deserve.
But more importantly, why is it wrong, and what should change? It is wrong because it does not take into account the mental state of the person accused. As we all know, when it comes to sexual harassment, it doesn’t matter what your intent of the person accused is; all that matters is what the accuser “feels.” In the vast majority of crimes, prosecutors are required to prove two things: one is mens rea, which is Latin for a “guilty mind,” which refers to a state of mental culpability, and often described as “motive.” The other is an actus reus, which is Latin for a “guilty act.” So for example: let’s say someone forgets their suitcase at the luggage station at an airport, and you, being a good Samaritan, pick it up to deliver it to them. If we did not take into account your mental state at the time you picked up the suitcase, which we could likely verified by your actions before and after you picked it up, you could be guilty of stealing their suitcase – especially if we left it up to someone’s feelings, rather than the weighing the objective facts of the matter.
We need to change our perspective on sexual harassment. We need to understand that while everyone has a responsibility to not act or speak in inappropriate ways that may cause offense, we all also have a responsibility to not place inappropriate constructions upon the words and actions of those others, and to avoid to deliberate choice to read sexual content into the words and actions of others where no such content exists. When we eliminate consideration of the mental state of the person accused, it turns justice on its head and short-circuits the rights of the accused. That is now exactly what is happening in a great many cases of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment, which long ago was narrowly defined, now encompasses a wide variety of behaviors.
This is not just a social or political issue. This is a due process issue, which means that it is a civil rights issue. I’ll be talking about this more in the future. I hope this post was informative.