Thursday, September 5, 2013

An Open Letter to My Son

Dear Son,

I know you don’t go on Facebook very often. And I know that, in fact, many kids think it’s lame, but if you ever decide to go on, or more likely go on the Internet, I thought I’d let you in on a little secret—people post some crazy stuff. I know you’re blown away by this revelation. But wait, there’s more! Some people who have adopted our culture of sexualizing females will post pictures of scantily clad women in the hopes of titillating men and yes, teenage boys like yourself.

Deep breath. I know you are freaking out right now or rolling your eyes. And I don’t want to make it worse, but there’s something far more sinister that I need you to understand. Some girls who have grown up in this culture, who have been told that sexualizing themselves gives them power over boys--because apparently you seeing a half-dressed girl means you lose all self-control and your mind to boot--might post “selfies.” Ah, you’ve heard of them. Good. These selfies sometimes, not always, mimic what these girls have seen, heard, been inundated with in books, movies, television, magazines, advertisements, the Internet, video games, and…you get the picture.

So what’s a boy to do about it? Well, the first thing you don’t do is blame the girl or shame her into thinking she came up with this game all on her own. That’s stupid. And you’re not stupid. You’re smart enough to realize that she is young, testing the waters of what it means to be female, and mimicking adults. Learning from adults is what kids do. That’s how you learned to walk.

But I want you to stop for a moment when you see these selfies, because everywhere you look on the Internet, television, movies, magazines, video games you have been told that you will react to these images in only one way—rabid, depraved lust. Once you see these images, you won’t ever be able to un-see them, to ever see the girl as anything but an object. Moreover, you have been told that this is not really you’re fault. It’s hers. Can you see the appeal in this? I think you can. It releases you from the idea that you are responsible for how you treat women, how you view them, and how you react to their attempts to navigate their way through this crazy, messed-up world. But here’s the ugly truth, that’s a lie too.

Reacting to beauty is something everyone does—boys and girls. But letting that reaction define how you perceive a person, letting that reaction then lead to the “societal think” that says you can relegate that person into a file marked “less than” or “an object” is something you must guard against.  I know you are a better person than that, but it’s not always easy to see when this is happening.

The truth is that male and female stereotypes create myths that sometimes lead people to a very bad place. A place where one sex is blamed while the other is excused and few people are looking at the bigger picture. It’s big picture time now. It’s time to think about why people, men and women, act in these ways. It’s time to pull yourself above the simple and overly accessible viewpoints of male and female, so you can reason out these ideas for yourself.

As you attempt this, if you’re ever in doubt about the sanctity of a person, the crazy notion that someone may not deserve your respect because of their own attempts at understanding their place in the world, remember your sisters, your mother, your aunts, your grandmothers—all of us have had to navigate these role-playing waters. Sometimes we’ve triumphed. Sometimes we’ve failed. And some things we’d really rather forget. That can’t be helped. We’ve lived in this society. As have your father, uncles, brothers, grandfathers, who grew up trying to understand what their own gender roles meant. And more importantly, how these gender roles may have infiltrated their own views of their place in the world, of women, and each other. Separating yourself from these ingrained ideas will not be easy. I guess you can see that.

It’s easier to play the game—that girl was asking for it, everyone knows men can’t control themselves when they see that stuff, he was a guy of course he’s going to sleep with her—all of those are lies that stifle who you are. These lies will try to demand your lifelong commitment—don’t give in to them. In the end, how much respect you show to any person, any woman, directly correlates to how much respect you deserve. Remember, the stifling untruths about female and male only have the power that we give them.

I know I’m asking a lot of you. I’m asking you to be different, to stand out as someone who doesn’t fit a mold, someone who thinks for himself and sees people, all people as worthwhile no matter who he or she is, what he or she does for a living, or where he or she comes from. But being different, my son, will free you, your future love, and your children. Isn’t that worth the extra effort?


  1. DIana,

    That was really well written.

    I've seen lots of articles about how women and girls need to take power and to be in control of their image. I haven't seen a lot from the other spectrum that hasn't been kind of negative towards men. I think growing up is hard, but has been hard for boys, too. There are so many examples of what not to do and it's nice to see a caring piece that offers a positive direction. Maybe it's out there but it I don't run across such articles in my daily life. Perhaps a lack of searching on my part.

    This piece is warm, with good advice that gives a lot of respect to men and boys, women and girls.

    Thanks for writing it.

    1. Thank you, Lori! I truly appreciate your support. I was a little nervous about opening up here, and bringing my son along for the ride, but it was one of those things that wouldn't let go until I wrote about it.

  2. Wow. Kinda wish someone had shared this perspective with me when I was younger. I think young men have a tendency to see young woman as self-assured and in control, when in reality they are probably just as nervous and uncertain as boys. It is a tough world to grow up in, and a little understanding and empathy between boys and girls during these years would go a long way. Teaching your boy (or girl) that he/she is not the only one trying to find a path through life is both simple and brilliant. Ennjoyed the post.

    Laura's friend--Steve.

    1. Thanks, Steve! I really appreciate the comment!

  3. Dear Diana,
    I completely agree with Anonymous-Steve. His comments reminded me of that movie AMERICAN BEAUTY, where a character played by Kevin Spacey is having a mid-life crisis, and the most horrifying aspect of that crisis is his crush on a teenaged girl who is a friend of his daughter's. The girl presents herself as very sexually confident and even aggressive, but at the last moment Kevin Spacey's character realizes all of that was an act, and underneath she is scared, naive, lost. Luckily the film shows him doing the right thing-not sleeping with her, wrapping her in a blanket, making her hot cocoa- but until we get to that moment where Spacey's character acts like a real adult we have many moments where he fantasizes about her, rose petals raining down on her, etc.
    Real life doesn't end so prettily. Think of that case where a teacher seduced a 14 year old student and got her pregnant. She committed suicide. The judge only gave the guy 30 days in jail (time served) because the girl projected a sexually confident persona.
    Girls can't figure out who they want to be, and what persona they want to project, alone. Neither can boys. They need better role models than what they have in the media. They need letters like yours. Bravo!

    1. Thanks, Alison! I love how articulate and smart you are!! You rock!

  4. Diana, you are my hero. I wish I could fast-forward 11 years so that I could show teenage Henry this beautiful letter. Wait, no, that's a terrible idea. I'll just save the letter and show him later, after that blink-of-an-eye that will be his childhood.

    1. Thanks, Allison! That means so much to me! Yes, don't fast-forward. Enjoy every moment with that beautiful boy. I love the pix of him! My new favorite is of you guys jumping off the picnic table.