What My Younger Brother Made Me Realize

October 25, 2016

By Tal Newfield

*** (Throughout this post, I talk about how my personal experience growing up with a younger brother has shaped my perception of our society’s approach to sexual violence. I identify as a cisgender woman, and my brother identifies as a cisgender man, so yes: this post does not do much to break the gender binary, especially as it relates to sexual violence. The following is a quote from an article from feministing.com. Please keep these words in mind as you read my post (full article will be linked below): "This is part of how the gender binary works. It sets up two boxes: one for the people in power – men – and one for the people to oppress – women. Anyone who doesn’t fit our culture’s narrow definitions for man or woman, and anyone who isn’t a man or a woman, falls outside, where it’s difficult to even make people recognize our humanity, let alone our experiences of oppression. There’s a ton of problems with this setup, not the least of which is painting women broadly as victims and men as perpetrators. Another way gendered violence functions is by erasing the many people whose experiences of sexual violence don’t fit this model – survivors who are men (cis or trans), trans women, genderqueer, two spirit, or in some other way gender non-conforming, intersex folks, and survivors of crimes perpetrated by atypical attackers, like survivors of queer relationship violence… We absolutely must continue highlighting the gendered nature of sexual violence. But it’s vital to do so in a way that doesn’t leave people out.”) ***

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Last week, I decided to pay my family a visit and go home for the weekend. I love my family (which includes my wonderful dog) more than anything in the world, so going home is always something that I really look forward to. One of the things that I love most about coming home, are those first few hours of being back, because my family and I always just end up sitting together and catching up on everything that we've been doing lately. We also like to drink tea and eat cookies/cake/yummy foods while we do this, so yeah, it’s v cute.

Anyway, last week, updates from my life included telling my family about a presentation that I had given during a BCC meeting. I told them that in this presentation, I talked about the definition of affirmative consent, provided information regarding sexual violence resources, and discussed the difference between sexual violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. My parents both seemed very impressed, telling me how they think that BCC is so important and amazing, and how they always love to hear about the work that we do (shameless plug?). Then, my mom looked at me and said, “Why don’t you show your brother this presentation? I want you to talk to him about this stuff.” I replied with, “yeah, definitely,” and we started talking about something else. But to be honest, I haven’t really been able to stop thinking about this moment ever since.

I am five years older than my [adorable] little brother, who is currently 16 years old. Throughout the years, as we've both grown older, I have continued to notice more and more ways in which we were raised differently. These differences are very slight and subtle, and I probably would not even notice them or think about them as much as I do if it weren’t for all of the feminist think pieces that I frequently stumble upon. Nevertheless, these differences are very real, and their implications are extremely powerful.

Growing up, for instance, my parents always encouraged my older sister and I to sign up for the “all-girls self defense classes" that were held at our local community center. We never actually ended up going, and neither did my brother. But that’s probably because this class was only open to “girls” anyway… When I was 16, my best friend and I went to a sporting goods store so that I could buy some pepper spray and a pocket knife. When I showed my parents what I bought, they told me that they were proud of me for “being smart”. My brother is 16 right now, and he owns neither pepper spray nor a knife. At the age of 13, my brother and his friends went to the same annual radio concert that my parents were hesitant about letting me go to just a few years earlier, when I was 16. As a 19 year old college freshman, I once briefly mentioned to my mom that my friends and I had taken an Uber somewhere. She stopped me, and *gently* suggested that she would prefer it if I avoided using Uber, because she didn’t think that it was safe for me to do so. And yet, I knew that she let my 14 year old brother use Uber quite regularly (and yes, she still felt a bit uneasy about letting my brother use it… Just not for the same reasons). I could go on, but I think it's time I made my point.

My brother and I grew up in the same home, and yet, we were raised in two different worlds. My brother was never told - and will likely never be told - any of the following: “You need to be safe! When you dress that way, some people read it as an invitation”; “Never go out alone, never walk alone at night”; “Never drink from an open beverage”. It should come as no surprise, however, that these are all things that I have heard/have been told more times than I can count. And that’s because, while I grew up in a world that tried to teach me not to get raped, my brother didn’t. See, I grew up in a world where "it is a young woman’s responsibility to safeguard herself from rape, assault, harassment, stalking and abuse because boys will be boys and some of them just can’t help themselves.” Which begs the question, "When will we stop placing the onus on our daughters to not get raped, and start insisting that our sons stop raping others?” Additionally, "At what point do we recognize that our sons could be potential victims too?” These are all questions that lead to one very crucial concern: why are we not having critical conversations about sexual violence with young boys and men?

And finally, why did I feel so surprised, thrilled, proud, understood, validated, relieved, and loved, when my mother asked me to share a presentation about sexual violence, with my 16 year old brother.

We can do better. We must do better.

Please see the links below for articles that I quoted in this post.

Oh and one last thing… I love my family <3 Thank you for always being willing to listen and to grow when it comes to these conversations, and for doing your part to shift the dialogue surrounding sexual violence.

  1. http://feministing.com/2013/01/31/the-dangers-of-a-gender-essentialist-approach-to-sexual-violence/

  2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carina-kolodny/the-conversation-you-must-have-with-your-sons_b_3764489.html

  3. http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/08/talking-sexual-violence-sons/