Saturday, March 21, 2009

Disappointing girls and disappointing boys

by Josh Franklin

We've written recently about the unfortunately high degree of support for Chris Brown, and the perpetrators of sexual violence in general, among teenagers. In this New York Times piece, we hear testimony that victim blaming is alive and well at high schools all over. It's upsetting that so many young people feel this way, and since it's important to understand why these attitudes persist in order to change them, it's understandable that commentators tend to break down reactions to the incident along gender lines. However, I think the way it's being done is problematic.

The essence of this widespread treatment of gender is given in this reaction:

Boys who condone Mr. Brown’s behavior disappoint, but don’t shock Marcyliena Morgan, executive director of Harvard’s hip-hop archive. “But it’s the girls!” she said. “Where have we gone wrong here?”

The NYT article goes on to discuss girls' reactions in depth, which is admirable. But it worries me that the sentiment that boys are expected to sympathize with perpetrators of sexual violence is so often expressed. That victim-blaming boys don't shock us (but victim-blaming girls do) entails two problematic ideas. The first is one of normalcy: boys are expected to grow up with sympathetic attitudes towards sexual violence. The second is one of normativity: girls ought to care about relationship violence, whereas boys don't have to, since it's a 'women's issue'.

Granted, there are all kinds of cultural reasons why boys are likely to sympathize with the perpetrators of sexual violence, and so I suppose victim-blaming behavior is somewhat normal. But it's an impermanent kind of normalcy, the kind that we can and ought to change. The casual and unquestioning treatment of gender difference in reactions to relationship violence seems to imply that boys' behavior is disappointing by nature. This is an unfortunate implication, because it stands in the way of real progress against sexual violence, something that matters for everyone.

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