How I'm teaching my sons to not talk about women

Yazeed Daher as Nassim and Sam Reid as his teacher, Ray, in The Hunting.
Yazeed Daher as Nassim and Sam Reid as his teacher, Ray, in The Hunting. Photo: SBS

"Slut” can be a very versatile word for boys. As a horny teenage boy, finding a “slutty” girl can feel like the very reason you were put on this good earth – unless that girl is just not into you. Then watch how quickly the word “slut” can be twisted to be used to ridicule and to shame. It is a word that is used to drive traffic to countless porn sites with the salacious promise of a world full of loose women, but no self-respecting man would want to date a slut, or, worse still, marry one.

Note, too, that a boy slut is a ladies’ man, a player or an all-round hero. A girl slut is, well, just a slut.

I am no expert on toxic masculinity, primarily because I make it a practice to avoid toxic men. But I went to an all-boys school and I have heard the full gamut of teen boy talk. From sluts and whores to Prawns (tasty body, rough head) and Butterfaces (a girl with a good body, all “but her face”).

More commonly women are reduced to a roaming parade of body parts – hot arses, great tits and long legs – primarily designed for male titillation. At public urinals – an often frightening window into the male psyche – I have had to listen to how “I would tap that” or that “I wouldn’t kick her out of bed”, though such chivalry always turns on how useful said woman is at fulfilling her primary role as concubine. No lavatory lothario has kept a woman in his boudoir to discuss how they should work together to solve the gender pay gap.

A boy slut is a ladies’ man, a player or an all-round hero.

In the new SBS series The Hunting, the world “slut” features so often it should get its own mention in the end credits. This is a story of how intimate photos of high school girls are swapped like trading cards on the internet where they are ranked and commented on. It is a story that has been ripped from the headlines and is a parent’s nightmare, no matter which gender you are raising.

I am the parent of two young boys, one of which has just entered the swirling pool of hormones that is high school, the prime age for a cautionary tale like The Hunting.

While I admire the “sticks and stones” approach to being called names it is unrealistic to suggest that people, and teenagers in particular, are not hurt by slurs. Words do have power. Language is one of the most powerful tools we have: we can use it to motivate, amuse and inspire, but also to debase, shame and spread hate. It is a slippery slope from using dehumanising language to violence.

So where does this language come from?

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I am not teaching my kids to be ashamed of their dicks, but I am teaching them not to be one.

Having watched my two boys argue whose cold is worse or who has the largest number of baked beans, competition plays a role. This can take the form of exaggerated sexual experience or one-upmanship when it comes to sexualising women. Like actors auditioning for a role, some young men are simply exploring how far they can take things. I see it in my own boys when they use me as a sounding board around taboo topics like swearing and drugs or when they innately turn to check my reaction to a risqué joke on TV. But with an audience of purely peers the feedback on such a performance can often be unhelpful – one message teenage boys get early on is to not make waves, ‘bros before hos’ after all.

But mostly I think that teenage-boy misogyny is fuelled by fear. Those most likely to label young girls as sluts are least likely to have close female friends. The boy in the playground boasting of his sexual conquests generally goes home alone. And the vast majority of their peers tacitly support such poisonous posturing with the tyranny of silence. Forge healthy relationships with the opposite sex early on and you are far less likely to speak of them as something other.

As unpopular as it may be I blame the parents. It is a long and exhaustive road raising a good human, there are the constant questions, the modelling of good behaviour, the relentless testing of any theory you put forward by a probing teen mind. In The Hunting, Richard Roxburgh’s strip-club going lawyer is hardly providing a good role model. As a parent, excusing bad behaviour with “boys will be boys” is really just saying “I can’t be bothered”.

I teach them to listen to others, or “to read the room”, checking to see that their words are not having a negative effect, even if that is not their purpose.

So I teach my kids respect for women. Not by reminding them that any woman they may objectify is someone’s mother, daughter or sister, defining them by their relationship to another male or person. Simply by reminding my kids they are someone; someone with feelings, someone who can be hurt, or made to feel bad.

One of the most powerful scenes in The Hunting comes when a teacher asks a group of boys what they do to avoid sexual violence. The boys don’t do anything; they don’t have to. When the girls are asked the same question there is an outpouring of strategies from carrying keys in fists to having Triple O on speed dial.

The boys in the class look genuinely surprised. Young men are not born misogynists any more than they are born racist or bigoted. I am not teaching my kids to be ashamed of their dicks, but I am teaching them not to be one.

Parents and teachers looking for more information can visit the eSafety Commissioner websiteand SBS Learn.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault/abuse or family violence, call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au In an emergency call 000.

The Hunting premieres on Thursday, 1 August at 8:30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand, and airs over four weeks.

This article was originally published on SBS Voices.