In early March, in a courtroom in Idaho, a 19-year-old man alleged to have co-ordinated the sexual assault of one of his football teammates was sentenced after pleading guilty to a charge of felony injury to a child.
The child in question was an intellectually disabled 17-year-old African American boy who, as one of only two black students at the small-town school, had been subjected to months of racially motivated bullying prior to the attack. During the assault, John R.K. Howard and his two accomplices forced their victim to sing a song that incorporated racist, hateful imagery of black men being lynched. The trio then anally raped the young man with a coathanger, inflicting what he later recalled as “pain that I have never felt [taking] over my body”. He has since been left “sleepless and suicidal”, according to his mother.
For orchestrating this crime, Howard was sentenced to three years’ probation and 300 hours of community service. In his sentencing remarks, district judge Randy J. Stoker stated the attack was not, in his opinion, racially or sexually motivated.
The case bears striking similarities to other cases involving young men whose connection to institutional privilege (particularly that bestowed by membership of a sporting team or community and compounded by factors like race and class) provides a shield from appropriate consequences for their actions.
Less than a year after the attack on John Doe in Dietrich, Idaho, Brock Turner was sentenced to a paltry six months in the Santa Clara county jail following his convictions on three felony charges, including sexual penetration of an unconscious person with a foreign object. He was released after serving only half of that sentence.
Much was made of the character testimonies offered in support of Turner during the trial, the most memorable of which came from his father. Dan Turner did not offer sympathy to his son’s victim, nor did he condemn his son’s actions. Instead, he argued that his son had “never been violent to anyone, including his actions [that night]” and that jail time would be “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20-plus years of life”.
It is almost certainly true that had Howard or Turner been black men, their treatment by the justice system would have been very different.
But there is a prevailing belief that this kind of behaviour – which is not to say this behaviour specifically – is part and parcel of what it means to be a man. It isn’t assault to violate a teammate: it’s rough-housing. And if a girl drinks too much and puts herself into precarious situations, can a boy really be blamed for taking advantage? What did she expect? Boys will be boys, after all.
Hubert Shaw, a resident of Dietrich, said as much after Howard and his two unnamed accomplices were arrested following the coathanger rape. “They’re 15-, 16-, 17-year-old boys who are doing what boys do … I would guarantee that those boys had no criminal intent to do anything or any harm to anyone. Boys are boys and sometimes they get carried away.”
I spent a long time trying to figure out what it is about this kind of sexual criminality that seems so excusable when perpetrated by a particular kind of person, before I realised that that answer is something else entirely.
In their minds, the stories we hear of alcohol-fuelled rapes or pack assaults involving groups of male friends or people who have previously engaged in sexual contact with each other cannot be rape as they know it, because only “evil people” commit that kind of crime. These other things? They’re just boys going too far, boys losing control, boys making mistakes.
Boys being boys.
Why are people so content to accept this explanation for behaviour that harms others, and to do so even when it crosses over into criminal territory?
Why is this excuse considered reasonable to anyone? As the mother of a boy, I do not believe that he is unable to control his impulses or distinguish between right and wrong. And as a citizen of the world, I do not accept that this is the best we can offer to boys and men.
Why are people so content to accept this explanation for behaviour that harms others, and to do so even when it crosses over into criminal territory? Why is the perceived freedom of boys to exert their power over space, bodies and entitlement considered so much more important than the dignity and humanity of those harmed in this process – including the boys and men unable or unwilling to collude in this power?
Raising Brock Turner to believe his entitlement was paramount and unwavering put in motion a terrible set of actions that has irrevocably changed one woman’s life forever. He is a rapist. But maybe he was also a victim somewhere along the way, too. Because there is harm also done to the boys who are socialised by their families, friends, communities and culture to believe these things in the first place, and to do so unconditionally and without challenge.
Similarly, there is no forgiving the horrifying racism and desire to humiliate that underpinned the sexual assault of John Doe. But we are all born as (mostly) blank slates before the socialisation into our immediate environment begins to warp and change us.
And we are giving boys no chance to be better if we maintain that behaviour which results in other people being hurt is not only a fundamental part of boys just being themselves, but the failure of others to “take a joke”.
And yet, it is feminism that is blamed for the demonisation of men and not a broader society that demands nothing more from them. It isn’t feminism that argues men are basically depraved beings who can’t help themselves. It’s phrases like “boys will be boys” that do that, and it’s attitudes that hold women to account for men’s bad behaviour that really drive it home.
These are just some of the issues I’ll be covering in my new book, Boys Will Be Boys, to be published by Allen & Unwin in late 2018. Boys can and will be many things, but what we have to immediately stop accepting and teaching is that masculinity itself as an excuse for behaviour that harms other people. We can all be better than that. And we should all strive to be.
BOYS WILL BE BOYS: An exploration of power, patriarchy and the toxic bonds of brotherhood (Allen & Unwin, 2018).