The semester approaches. The students have all returned to our small town and the sun is out in Athens, Ohio, which means the students take their shirts off and stand around on their front lawns in their bathing suits. They blow up kiddie pools and fill them with water and rubber ducks, then they stand around some more, sometimes in the kiddie pool, drinking their alcohol and blasting their music.
We live in a pedestrian friendly town, so we walk by these students on our way to get ice cream or watch a dance performance on campus. My son, 10, watches them all very carefully. They’re like an alien species from a distant planet. And he knows that he will eventually visit this distant planet, and so he spends quite a bit of time wondering about himself in eight years. Sometimes he shares his thoughts; other times, I can see him having an intimate dialogue inside his head. I know enough to leave him alone at these moments, but other times, he wants to talk.
“The boys are able to be naked from the waist up, but the girls need to cover their breasts. Why is that?” Or, “Do the boys feel embarrassed to be without their shirts?” Or, “They’re all flirting and laughing. I wonder if they’ll all start kissing.”
My responses vary. There are moments I tell him to mind his own business and stop staring. There are other times that I laugh at what he imagines comes next: all 30 or so students suddenly starting to kiss, there, on the lawn, in their kiddie pools. He’d like to catch them all doing that, I’m sure.
What I understand is that he’s trying his best to figure out a few things about relationships and sexuality, and his models happen to be college students. Sometimes he joins me for Friday night Shabbat services where I work. He can be found playing music with the students or eating a meal with a group. He watches their interactions with one another. He reports back on what they’ve done or said.
Once, two students were in the kitchen washing dishes after Shabbat dinner and Zev came back to me and asked me when they were going to kiss, or if they had kissed. I asked him for more clarification–“What makes you wonder about their kissing?”
“Well, they’re standing close and they’re giggling a lot. And they just feel like they need to kiss.”
“Well,” I responded, “maybe they do need to kiss, but we need to give them some space and let them come to their own conclusions about when and if they should kiss.” He wasn’t totally satisfied with that answer.
His bris happened 10 years ago in the same building that he’s now witnessing love and romantic relationships. In fact, his entire Jewish experience, other than trips to Israel (with college students) and just a bit of Jewish summer camp (also surrounded by college students), have happened in this building. He’ll likely become bar mitzvah in this space, and eventually, he’ll go away and experience new Jewish communities that don’t have anything to do with his rabbi mom and professor dad. In the meantime, much of what he can observe, in the way of college student behavior, happens inside our Hillel building or around the streets of Athens.
Which leads me to the harder issues. Which we’ve just started getting to. I knew before the Steubenville cry that we needed to talk to him about rape. Of course that would happen, but something about the boys on the lawms without their shirts, combined with his own awakening curiosities about what actually happens, combined with our close proximity to Steubenville, meant that we initiated the conversation a bit earlier than we expected. So, on one of our walks around town, our 10-year-old got schooled on what happens on college campuses, right here on our own campus, in these spaces that we’re walking past that look happy and friendly. He now knows that these spaces turn ugly sometimes. See that boy with his shirt off, the one standing in the kiddie pool that’s laughing and smiling? Well, he might not be laughing at 3 a.m. after he’s had too many drinks. He might get really aggressive and really stupid and make the worst choice of his life.
It’s a solemn conversation. He doesn’t say much, and I can tell he’s confused. And I realize, in the context of our conversations, that his awakening sexuality is, in fact, linked to the act of rape. These two things are merged together for him, in part because of the close proximity of Steubenville, in part because of the emergence of naked bodies all over campus, and in part, because it seemed like the right conversation to have, for now.
These conversations are also linked to our Judaism and our Torah. Years ago, when I was in rabbinical school in Philadelphia, I went to a bris where there were lots of rabbis and students and prominent leaders in the Philadelphia Jewish community. The house was stuffed full of people. I stood in the back and listened very intently to what the presiding rabbi was saying and took notes like a good rabbinical student. She spoke directly to the baby and told him that he would need to use his penis in wise and wonderful ways, for it holds much power in the world. And I remember thinking: Oh my god, I can’t believe she’s saying that! And, Yes. Of course!
This conversation needs to start right now. This is where we begin telling stories of smart choices and power and respect. The rabbi went on to retell the midrash from Niddah 30b, the one where the baby learns everything in utero, but then the angels come along and wipe all that knowledge away, creating the vertical groove between the nose and the upper lip. We learn, in utero, not to rape. And we’re reminded of this first at the bris, and as parents, we need to reinforce this throughout a boy’s lifetime.
We’ve all been told that a loving and healthy sexual relationship isn’t the same thing as rape, but let’s be honest: the penis does what it does, and whether the sex is consensual or not, that penis is engaged in an action that is pretty consistent whether it’s a happy experience or a horrible experience. And he’s had questions about that. The mechanics of it all. The use of the penis. Where it goes and how it gets there. “But wait, mom. How does it actually get inside the vagina?” So we spend time talking about how it gets used properly, and how it gets used improperly. We talk about desire, and consent, and safety. It’s all wrapped up together. I know that one day, he’ll unwrap it all and make it his own in a healthy way. But for now, it’s my responsibility to teach him that he’s not allowed to be a rapist.
Unlike the US Attorney’s new program in West Virgina, I haven’t taught him about the implications of posting his violence on social media. Instead, I’ve made him repeat after me: I will never force myself upon a woman or a man. It simply isn’t a choice. I’ve gone so far as to tell him that if he rapes somebody, he’ll have to find a new family in prison and that he won’t get to hang out with us anymore. That almost made him cry.
Eventually, we’ll study the rape of Tamar and talk about guilt and jealousy. We’ll look at Jewish law and see how the rabbis approach sexual abuse. And we’ll have conversations about who he needs to be in college, about how I hope he’ll be the one that steps in. That I hope he’ll be the one that tells the asshole at the party to stop acting like such a creep. He’ll be the one, when he eventually visits the alien planet known as college, that will walk the girl home and help her inside and then leave or maybe pass out on the couch if he himself has had too much to drink. These will be the next rounds of conversations. Lest you think I’m acting like a know-it-all, let me tell you that we have no other choice but to have these types of hard conversations.
If I don’t, then I could be that crying mother at the police station saying to the officers: No. It can’t be–I raised him with values. We’re a nice family. He’s such a nice boy.