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'To Raise A Boy' Author On Addressing Sexual Violence Against Boys


Over the last few years, the #MeToo movement has helped ignite a much-needed public discussion about consent and sexual assault and boundaries around sexual behavior in general. And much of that discussion has focused on the experiences of women and girls. And that makes sense because statistically, they are most often the victims of sexual violence. But some argue that we need to talk more about men and boys. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 in 4 men have said that they have experienced sexual violence during their lifetime.

So why don't we talk about this more? To help us answer that question and better understand this issue, we've called Emma Brown. She is an investigative reporter at The Washington Post and the author of the new book "To Raise a Boy: Classrooms, Locker Rooms, Bedrooms, And The Hidden Struggles Of American Boyhood." An excerpt of the book focused on sexual violence against boys was recently featured in The Washington Post. And Emma Brown is with us now.

Emma, thanks so much for being with us.

EMMA BROWN: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: And first, I need to say that some of what we will be talking about in this segment may be disturbing for some listeners, and it will include an account of a sexual assault. And with that being said, I was wondering, did you start out to write about sexual violence against boys? Or was it that you were interested in writing about boyhood in general and this became a part of it that you just couldn't ignore?

BROWN: This book started because I was at home on maternity leave with my son when the first Harvey Weinstein stories broke. And I was scrolling through those stories on my phone and then the flood of stories after that that rocketed across the media. And I was wondering, how am I going to raise my son to be different? And I didn't have any instinct. I mean, with my daughter, who's older, I had strong instincts about how to parent her, to deal with the world as it deals with girls. But I didn't have those instincts for my son because I had never been a boy. And so I kind of set out to find out what it's like to be a boy in America right now and how we can do better for boys. And learning about the extent of sexual victimization of boys was one of the most shocking and really profoundly transformative part of this research for me.

MARTIN: Well, in the excerpted piece, you asked the reader what they think they know about boys and sexual violence, saying you yourself - you said, quote, "I thought I knew that boys are victims only rarely, and I automatically equated child sexual abuse with adults preying on kids." But you were wrong on both counts. Could you tell us more about that?

BROWN: Absolutely. I mean, it is really hard to measure how often boys are sexually assaulted or abused. But there's one well-known survey that suggests it could be as many as 1 in 6 boys, which is just a jaw-dropping number. And as you said at the top of this segment, it's 1 in 4 men who say during the course of their lives they've been the victim of some kind of sexual violence. And so it's just so much more widespread than we think.

And also, you hear sexual abuse of boys, and I think many people's minds automatically jump to the Catholic Church or Boy Scouts, scandals of men preying on younger boys, when, in fact, the data shows us it's often children preying on one another, hurting one another, and sometimes older women who are abusing younger boys. So the extent and nature of this problem was just something I had never been forced to think about.

MARTIN: Don't you think in part it's because it's kind of hiding in plain sight? I mean, in recent years, for example, a number of celebrities - males - have come out and spoken about these experiences. But they've not described it as a trauma. They've described it as, like, a thing that happened, right? Or they've described it as almost like a rite of passage. And I guess I'm just wondering is - it's not like these stories are new, but I'm just wondering, why do you think it is we just don't seem to focus on it as a problem or something that is systemic enough that it requires our attention?

BROWN: I think we have deeply ingrained ideas about what it means to be a boy. And admitting that you have been victimized is the exact opposite of what we tell boys they should be. We tell them they should be strong and tough and not show weakness. And being sexually victimized is the opposite of all of those things. So I think that makes it really difficult for boys to see what's happened to them as a trauma, or as a sexual trauma. And it also makes it so hard for adults to even recognize sometimes that what's happened to a boy is a sexual assault.

You know, there's a boy I wrote about in Oklahoma who was sexually assaulted in his music class in middle school. So two football players who were on his team held him down, and a third one stuck his thumb into the boy's rectum in front of the entire class. The boy was totally humiliated and went to go tell the principal. And, you know, later, the principal said, if the same thing had happened to a girl, I would have seen that as sexual assault. But because it was a boy, I saw it as horseplay. And then when that happens, we don't give boys the support that they need to deal with that trauma.

MARTIN: What happened to the boy in that case?

BROWN: That boy - his parents really went to bat for him, and they insisted that what had happened to him be treated as a sexual assault. There was a criminal investigation. There was a civil lawsuit. And the family moved away to a different community. And the parents told me that their son, when he left this school - you know, after he reported this initial sexual assault, he was mercilessly bullied, and he was assaulted twice more, he said. And was - his parents sort of described the light going out in his eyes after all of this trauma at his school. When they moved away, they said the light turned back on. They heard him giggle again. He got counseling, and he's doing much better now.

MARTIN: One of the things that you say in the piece that I think might get a lot of people's attention is you say that you can't solve the problem of violence against girls and women without also addressing violence against men and boys. Could you talk more about that?

BROWN: Absolutely. I mean, we all need support to thrive. And when boys are hurt, when they are sexually assaulted and they don't get the help that they need to heal from that trauma, they can be more likely then to abuse somebody else or assault somebody else. And so when we talk about violence against women, we can't talk about it separately from violence against men. I don't think that they are two separate problems. I think they are intertwined in really important ways.

MARTIN: What do you think it would take to shift this?

BROWN: I think that there's a couple of important things to think about. I mean, if we're talking specifically about sports, I think we - our coaches need support to help build healthy cultures on teams. And they need expectation from all of us that their job is not just to win but to build healthy cultures on their teams. And I know that's possible because I met coaches who are doing that work in the course of researching my book. And I know that there are others that I haven't met out there.

I think in terms of the broader question of victimization of boys, we have to tell our boys what we tell our girls from the time they're young, which is that their bodies are sacred. They have a right to decide who touches them and when and how and that if somebody violates them, they should tell us. They should tell somebody who can help them.

MARTIN: That was Emma Brown. She's an investigative reporter at The Washington Post. She's the author of the new book "To Raise A Boy: Classrooms, Locker Rooms, Bedrooms, And The Hidden Struggles Of American Boyhood." We're specifically talking about an excerpt that appeared that focuses on sexual violence against boys, which appeared in The Washington Post and which you can read online.

Emma Brown, thank you so much for being with us.

BROWN: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF WARPAINT SONG, "THE STALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.