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raising black men in the #metoo era

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Even before I became a parent, I knew that I wanted the sex talk I’d have with my own children to go a lot differently than the way mine went with my own parents. In fact, just having the sex talk would be an improvement over the vague warning I was given in my early teens: Just don’t get pregnant.

My parents were like many parents in the eighties who believed talking about sex would do nothing but encourage my curiosity. Most of the time, conversations about sex weren’t preventative, but more so an intervention (disguised by a whole lot of yelling and expletives) after I was caught with a boy in the house. What I know now as an adult, a sexual health professional, and a mother is that curiosity is probably going to happen regardless of whether I act like Ray Charles to the world of reproductive health or whether I hold my daughter’s hand and take her to the local Planned Parenthood. Most importantly, what I’ve realized is the sex talk is about so much more than trying to help my daughter prevent becoming pregnant. Along with condoms and contraception is an ongoing conversation about consent, boundaries and having agency over her own body. Although she’s only four, it’s a conversation I’ve already started in an age-appropriate way as I teach her proper names for anatomy and “good touch, bad touch.” Admittedly, even armed with almost 10 years as an advocate for women’s health and working in sex education, like most parents, I’m terrified.

Since my “sex talk” barely took place with my parents, I’ve grown up and out of a world of social media, sexting, revenge porn and free porn being available every and anywhere to anybody with a Wi-Fi connection. In addition to the digital era making parenting and protecting your child that much more complicated, the #MeToo era has unveiled literal boogeyman (at least allegedly) in the forms of headlines including prominent figures in Black culture such as Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson. So now, in addition to covering the basics of periods and how penises work, as well as how personal values and healthy relationships come into play, I find myself adding a talk about rape culture, misogyny, and separating celebrity from a person’s moral character while the culture is still making JELLO pudding jokes and stating that those “fast ass girls” messing with R. Kelly were able to give consent. It can be overwhelming for parents, especially when we find ourselves at the intersection where culture and sexuality meet and admitting that race does play a part on how certain stories are presented in the media.

I find myself contemplating how I will answer questions like, “Mommy, if R. Kelly was caught on tape violating those teenage girls, why are women bailing him out of jail?” When I struggle to make sense of these situations myself, it’s a challenge to think about forming a dialogue around if #MeToo means something different when it applies to people of color. Our history and other people’s privilege all play a part in why this dialogue might look a little different in black households, at least since we are at the beginning of a very long, and complicated community discussion. I also don’t think you can have an authentic conversation about these issues without realizing that culture plays a significant part.

There are cycles I hope to break for my daughter. I, like many of my counterparts, grew up in families where we were warned to keep family business between family, and that applied to substance abuse, sexual abuse and everything in between. Children weren’t allowed to ask questions or have boundaries or independent beliefs and were instructed to “stay in a child’s place.” Luckily, this was never an issue with my immediate family, but there are plenty of cousins, aunts and uncles who have been cut off simply as a way of quarantining my sister and I from the toxicity. But even with that my parents still give me the side-eye whenever my preschooler refers to her “vagina” since they come from a generation where women labeled their anatomy as “pocket books” and “cookie jars” to be polite.

It’s obvious that raising young black women in the #MeToo era will be filled with plenty of hard conversations, but with black men being judged in a court of law and a court of public opinion so frequently, I was curious as to my fellow mom friends are handling these conversations with their sons. Apart of a parents’ many jobs include building a child’s confidence and preparing them for the person you want them to be in the world when you are not around. With the prevalence of black men who have come under legal scrutiny (much of it way overdue) I was curious as to how mother of young black men are approaching conversations about toxic masculinity, tradition and representation.

One of my best friends has a 12-year-old son and almost every other week there’s a new revelation in the form of a penis pic or links to porn on his iPad that push her into a panic when it comes raising him to be self-aware, sexually educated, responsible and respectful. With the #MeToo era now comes additional questioning of toxic masculinity and how her sons will approach relationships and interactions with women not just as men but as men of color. I asked a few friends how they’re approaching these conversations with their sons and the challenges they may be encountering in their attempts to break cultural cycles. You can read their responses below:

In what ways (if any) has the #MeToo movement affected the way you approach parenting with your children? Do conversations differ between your children based on their gender?

I feel like it has definitely made me more open to having conversations with my children about respecting people’s personal space and people respecting their personal space. I’m making a point of explaining to my son the importance of consent, withdrawal of consent and getting consent at every stage of the encounter. At the same time I worry about him being accused of something he didn’t do. All of the lessons on respect, consent and boundaries still won’t protect him from accusations. In this day and age, accusations are enough to destroy someone’s whole life. (L.W., mother of a 12-year-old son and a 4-year-old son)

For me it has not affected the way I approach parenting. Having a son and daughter, and my son being the oldest I’ve always been conscious in teaching him boundaries and being respectful of a girl’s space. He knows “no” means leave her alone, regardless of the encounter. As for my daughter she’s taught to speak up, speak out and be clear with what she does and doesn’t want. Both my children know they don’t have to do anything that makes them uncomfortable. (K.R., mother of a 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter )

It has not affected the way I raise my black son, simply because I prepared him the right way, before he was even born, to raise him to be critically aware of consent, boundaries, toxic masculinity, sex vs. gender, hormonal changes, awareness, sexual health, limitless expression…and on and on. I don’t want him to be a victim or a victimizer, knowingly or otherwise. I refuse to drop the ball there. (S.B.)

What differences have you witnessed between messages young men receive from culture (news, entertainment, community) when you were a teenager in comparison to the messages young men receive today when it comes to consent culture, boundaries and gender roles?

I feel like back then since it wasn’t a #MeToo. There were a lot of excuses for guys (blaming the victim). Like, “If she wouldn’t have been so drunk and sloppy or dressed so provocatively…” It’s as if the woman provoked it or wanted in and that wasn’t OK. Today, I feel like people are more supportive. There’s more support for women. Men are quieter now just hoping they won’t be accused. Black women especially are starting to be more supported. It’s definitely a difference with how seriously Black women are taken now as opposed to when #MeToo initially only seemed to involve white women. I’ve talked to my son about the differences between dating white women and the black women. About how culturally it appears as though Black women are less likely to be taken seriously. (L.W.)

The differences I see today versus when I was a teen is that young men are “young men”earlier. They are being taught about things earlier and exposed to sex earlier. And, they are deemed men before they are even pre-teens. (K.R.)

What are some positive changes in parenting that you think will be inspired by #MeToo? What challenges do your foresee when it comes to conversations with your kids regarding gender roles, consent culture, etc..?

Communication, whether you have a daughter or a son. Teaching them about consent, both girls and boys. Teaching them to reject peer pressure. Honestly though, I just feel bad for my sons, because at the end of the day no one cares when a boy is pressured into sex or is raped. I hate having to talk to my sons about  double standards, but it’s not me, it’s the way of the world. My challenges are the the world is not fair and hoping he understands his place as a man and understanding that while I don’t think many girls lie about these things, some do. Some have regrets. Hoping he understands how complex these situations can sometimes be. (L.W.)

One positive change that comes from the #MeToo movement in parenting is we stop using the phrase “Boys will be boys” and start teaching our sons accountability for their behavior toward girls/young women. The challenges come when trying to express our children, boys and girls, the meaning of inappropriate touching, sexual assault, and harassment. I know for me I want both my son and daughter to properly learn the line of what’s going to far and flirting. (K.R.)

What are you teaching your son from the experiences of Bill Cosby, R. Kelly and even Terry Crews about avoiding being perpetrators of sexual assault/harassment/misconduct and defending themselves against those kinds of advances? Do you think the media treats men of color different from their white counterparts when it comes to these situations? In what ways are they treated differently?

I haven’t talked to him and that may be something I have to consider, mostly because it seems like everyone is guilty.

Hell, yes. It’s because of the color of your skin. It’s the reason why a black woman who is defending herself can’t get away with “stand your ground”, but George Zimmerman can. Race always plays a part especially for minorities, and we usually end up on the losing end. (L.W.)

I haven’t spoken to my son in detail on these things. But as he matures I’m going to teach my son that both he and his significant other should have verbal consent to any physical encounter he had with them, and that age matters when being in a relationship. Also, no one person should depict or control the other or how the relationship goes. With my son I’m currently teaching him, just because he is a boy doesn’t mean anything. If someone says something to him, or touches him in a way he does not like speak up. Yes, the media does treat men of color differently. It’s as if men of color should just get over it. Whereas their white counterparts have a more accepting platform to speak up, and “grieve” their experience. (K.R.)

What are behaviors you model as positive examples of consent, respect and equality?

I don’t have men treating me any type of way especially in front of my children. They can learn a lot from how I deal with men and carry myself. Watching how I communicate with men, I definitely feel like with them seeing a man respect me can help that. (L.W.)

My children see from their dad and I that our relationship is a partnership. We speak to each other with respect, and care. We ask each other what the other feels and our opinion on things.  We both do household chores, cooking, and taking responsibility for them as our children. There are no man or woman roles. (K.R.)

Toya Sharee is a sexual health expert who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackBoyJoy. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.

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