My son has been drawing rainbows lately. He started with long, arching bands across the top of the page, and then moved on to hearts, the spectral layers rendered in scratchy ink marks that radiate outward from the core.
Like most preschoolers, he loves colors; he refuses to name a favorite. Purple eyeglasses and hot pink rain boots are prized accessories. A few days ago he told me that pink is a girl’s color, and I corrected him, too sharply. “Who told you that? Colors belong to everybody.”
“I know, mom.” He sounded accepting, but slightly dejected, as if he already knows that our victories in this culture of hyper-masculinity will have to be internal ones.
When I heard about the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I shielded my son from the news. In a few years we'll discuss the evil that he already sense. For now, he wrestles with it in safe fantasies of super heroes and villains.
I scrolled through images of the shooter’s victims, shedding tears for other people’s children while mine slept in the next room, nestled in the cocoon of childhood. How could I explain such an act of hatred to him, when I could not understand it myself?
For me, raising a boy has been a joy-filled, humbling endeavor riddled with uncertainty and a dose of fear. After all, he will become a man someday, and I know that men are perpetrators of violence. Of course, I also know many men who are loving, compassionate fathers, friends, partners, citizens. But virtually all of the mass shooters in these crimes have been men. And every one of my friends who has been raped was raped by a man.
Rape was on my mind because the atrocity in Orlando came on the heels of news about another crime that had shaken me. The lax sentencing of the blonde, smiling boy who raped an unconscious woman on the Stanford campus and refused to accept culpability enraged and haunted me.
It enraged me because the story was not new, or unique, and the outcome should have changed by now. The letters the boy’s friends and relations submitted to the judge illustrated attitudes of privilege and entitlement that still pervade our culture and deny the sanctity of women’s bodies.
It haunted me because I don’t know how to make sure my son never, never feels entitled to touch a woman’s body without consent, the way that boy did. The widely released photo of the rapist’s polished face greeted me every time I opened my computer or glanced at a newspaper, and smiled mockingly at me when I closed my eyes at the end of each day.
I realized I had allowed the Stanford case to take over my psyche when I heard myself telling my husband, “You’re just like the Stanford rapist’s father!” because in a tired moment he displayed what seemed like excessive lenience toward our five-year-old.
“Are you seriously comparing me to the father of the Stanford rapist?”
“We have to set limits!”
I looked at his astonished face and relented. No. He is a good guy, the one I chose. I remember how I fell in love with him for his nurturing ways, for his expressiveness and humility. He will be a model for our son. He will not assert our son’s right to enjoy a steak over his need to be a kind, responsive human being.
Then as information about the Orlando shooter’s history became available, his possible motives did, too. He was a man who may have been struggling with his sexual preference while subscribing to an oppressive religious dogma. This man believed that his feelings of love were wrong, so he turned them to hate instead.
The privileges granted to men are often countered by a hefty dose of denial: denial of the right to express their emotions, or their love toward another person.
For now, the lessons I give my son are simple. Keep your hands to yourself. Keep your body safe. Use your words, and listen to your friends. No hitting. But how can I teach him to respect women in a culture that devalues them? Or to respect those who are different than him amid sometimes overwhelming intolerance? Or to accept and love himself, even if that self does not conform to the norms of a fearful society?
I have been looking at those rainbow hearts and thinking again about entitlement. Maybe the problems start with a culture that robs boys of their true entitlements. Rather than letting them believe they are entitled to a rib-eye steak, or to an elite education, or to another person’s body, we need to teach them these things: that they are entitled to feel fear, or pain, or joy, and to express those feelings safely and openly. They are entitled to cry. They are entitled to love whomever they love. And they are entitled to all the colors of the rainbow. These are the entitlements I want to teach my son, and that I hope will carry him into a kinder, gentler adulthood.