It is early on a weekday morning and my 8-year-old comes into our room and jumps in bed with me and with our two year old who has been sleeping next to me. We move over to make room for her and we hug each other. We cuddle each other. We tickle. We roll over each other. We make “sandwiches” where one child is the “cheese” and the other child and I are the “bread”. There are horsey rides and human sculptures. There are squishy group hugs. Despite my desperate desires for more personal space and more sleep, this is the “hug time” that my daughters treasure and that I am sure I will miss when it ends. (We have already lost my 13 year old, who, understandably and typically for her age, wants to sleep and needs the physical disctance. She still cuddles and tickles with the younger ones, just not at “hug time” with me).
But this weekend as I was engagingly our usual wild and unselfconscious hugging, tickling and playing, I thought to myself, “If I had sons instead of daughters would I be doing this exactly the way I am? Would my eight year old son be here in the same very physical way?” And the fact that I could not quickly and easily say “Yes, of course” stopped me cold.
Those of you who know me or my blog know how hard I work to reduce the effects that gender stereotypes have on how I interact with the world in general and especially how I interact with my children. But I couldn’t honestly and quickly say yes to my own question.
In the wake of the recent Jian Ghomeshi scandal (a famous CBC radio host is accused of physical and sexual assault of numerous women), I have had a lot of conversations with people about how our culture enables sexual assault. People mentioned the pervasive cultural objectionable of women and the linking of sexuality to violence. We focus on how bad it is for boys to grow up in this culture of violent pornography and the constant social messages they get about women, sexuality and consent, and rape culture . The local paper had an essay by Gabor Maté on the problem of narcissistic male rage where he writes
We live in a society steeped in male narcissism, one in which aggression towards women is deeply entrenched in the collective male psyche. Nor is male sexual predation confined to a few “sick” individuals: that we see it portrayed, relentlessly and voyeuristically, in movies, TV shows, and advertising is beyond obvious, except for those mired in denial.
Ghomeshi’s reported behaviours arise from a misogynistic culture that degrades and confuses people of all genders. Few men enact extreme hostility, but few are those who do not harbour anti-feminine aggression somewhere in their psyche.
When we are talking about confusing physical affection with aggression, of getting physical affection wrong, I can’t help wondering, how many boys who aren’t very small get “hug time”? How many real, unperfunctory, unselfconscious hugs does a boy get in week?
And what does that do to them?