Raising respectful boys

Op-ed: Contrary to popular opinion, the female body is not public property.

Two male middle school students, ages 11 and 12, were charged last month with sexual battery for pinning an 11-year-old girl to the ground on a Virginia school bus and repeatedly groping her chest and buttocks for a 10- to 12-minute period that was caught on video.

In a statement, a Fairfax County schools spokesperson said "appropriate disciplinary action was taken against the students involved."

But what about the parents? What's their penalty for raising these boys to believe it was OK to put their hands on that girl's body in any manner, much less a violent and sexual one? And why aren't these children unique? Male teens in South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts have also been charged with assaulting girls on school buses, and I remember routinely getting my rear end pinched in high school (and nearly brawling with one boy who pulled the same move on my little sister).

We all know the lack of respect is not just a child's offense, either. Women get the once over by male colleagues at the office and catcalled by strangers on the street — as if our simply being out in public is an invitation for physical appraisal. Sportscaster Erin Andrews didn't even have to be out to have her privacy violated: A man secretly filmed her naked in her hotel room and distributed the recording online, which hotel lawyers then had the gall to suggest was no big deal because it seems to have benefited her career. (A jury awarded her $55 million in damages in a civil suit this month.)

Raising a girl, I keep a running list in my head of all that I'll eventually have to warn her about, and unwanted advances and opinions on her appearance — however "harmless" — are near the top. (I cut my hair to my shoulders once years ago, and a male co-worker told me it was a mistake because "a woman's hair is her glory." This belief said more about him than me.)

We have a sick obsession with the female body. Various religions recommend we cover most of it up out of modesty, as if our knees and elbows and hair are somehow inherently immodest. The western fashion world prefers to bare it, but with all the realism airbrushed or Spanxed away. And everyone feels entitled to comment on it — even other women. We often greet each other with a compliment on our looks, perhaps to make up for those who tear down our appearance when they don't like our words (see any number of tweets mentioning Hillary Clinton).

But contrary to popular opinion, the female body is not public property. And while women and girls have to deal with the consequences of that perverse perception — through rape, body shaming, hypersexualized youth, pregnancy regulation, sexual harassment, personal insult and so on — it is not a problem of their making. Let me be clear: This is not a female problem; it's a male problem. And that brings me back to parents.

For those raising boys, what lessons are you teaching them about girls — or letting them pick up from media? Are they reading books with strong female characters? Watching shows with (fully clothed) female heroes? Seeing the same parental expectations for their sisters as themselves? Parents of girls routinely fret over the messages their daughters are getting, but are we concerned enough about the messages boys are getting about girls?

They see Monster High fashion dolls and Kim Kardashian body emojis and beauty pageants on TV. They see Disney princesses with little to say (and wear) and how their mom's job is often valued less in the home than their dad's. And they see porn — all over the Internet.

So it's hard to place all the blame on the Virginia boys for forcibly taking what much of the world tells them is theirs. Maybe no one ever talked to them about attraction and puberty and personal boundaries. Maybe no one ever told them that girls are people too.

Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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