The Common Good

Men and Boys Behaving Badly: Where Are Their Fathers?

It’s a constant story line involving powerful men in politics, sports, business, and even religion: they behave with utter disregard for the dignity and humanity of women, using and abusing them at will, and somehow believe that — as men — they are entitled to do so. These men seem to think that the ordinary rules of decent behavior do not apply to them. We have a never-ending avalanche of disgusting stories about men cheating on their spouses and the mothers of their children, abandoning old wives for new ones, practicing serial philandering as a way of life, sexually harassing and assaulting women, physically abusing them, and even committing rape.

Men and fathers have to take responsibility for how we teach our sons to treat women. Photo courtesy Dubova/

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And now we have the boys, high school football players from Steubenville, Ohio. As a father of two boys, one now a high school athlete, and as a Little League baseball coach, I was especially fixed on this very sad and brutal story of a 16-year-old girl being sexually assaulted by two high school football players after she had passed out from drinking too much. When the girl woke up the next morning, she was horrified to see herself naked all over social media with Tweets everywhere about her and what had happened, from the boys who assaulted her and those who watched. The boys’ lawyers pleaded that she didn’t say no; but the judge concluded that when you assault a girl who is unconscious, and can’t say no, it’s called rape.

What made all this even worse was the astounding media coverage that talked more about those “poor young boys” who were sentenced to a juvenile detention facility and branded as sexual offenders, than about the young girl whose life was turned upside down by this assault. And once again, it was the girl who was to blame, the media coverage subtly suggested, for being at the party, getting drunk, and going with the boys.

The judge made the right decision. Rape is rape.

We should hope it sends a clear signal to boys everywhere about what consent is and what rape is and, even more clearly, that boys and men must be responsible for their behavior.

As the dad of two boys, I was horrified by this story. I don’t know these boys or their families, but I have to seriously ask, if they have fathers, whether their fathers had ever talked to their sons about the respect they should have for the dignity and equality of women. I had a talk with my son, the high school baseball player, about all this, and about what attitudes were among other young athletes. We talked about the terrible behavior of the Steubenville boys, but also the many boys who watched and tweeted and did nothing to stop the assault. That point needed to be stressed much more than it was in the media coverage. What had the dads of those who saw all this happen — yet laughed, took pictures, and tweeted about it — had to say to their sons about respecting women?

I believe the continuing daily violence against women, by men and boys around the globe, is the most hidden and underestimated injustice in the world today. And there are at least two answers to it. First the criminal justice system must be absolutely clear and dependably harsh in its treatment of men who violate women. We have a long way to go on police and legal procedures until women can feel safe in their homes, work place, churches, and our society.

But second, we have to take responsibility as men and as fathers to speak and act against other men who behave badly toward women. The way to stop sexual assault and rape is for men to stop assaulting and raping women. And teaching respect and love for women, by fathers to their sons, is absolutely fundamental for woman to be safe.

In all these horrible situations, women generally speak out in defense of their daughters, mothers, sisters, nieces. They deal with — and push back against — the degrading abuse the male culture dishes out. But they can’t — and shouldn’t have to — do it alone.

What has been missing from this too-often repeated narrative is the condemnation of the attitudes of men or boys behaving badly from other men, especially men who are in positions of power, authority, and influence — and especially fathers.

While the primary blame lies with the perpetrators, we should look next at the other men who say nothing. It’s time for other men to hold accountable the men who abuse women. Those who abuse, cheat, assault, and rape are not real men. They distort and destroy any sense of healthy manhood. It’s time to tell our sons that they must never act like these abusers and perpetrators and to make sure to raise our own sons to respect, love, and be faithful to women.

Other men and boys must condemn the bad behavior, not only as immoral and sometimes criminal, but also as the worst examples of what and who we are supposed to be. We need to establish a firm principle: the abuse of women by men will no longer be tolerated by other men. The voices of more men need to make that perfectly clear. For boys, for young athletes, and for fathers, Steubenville should become a wake-up call. 

Jim Wallis is CEO of Sojourners. His forthcoming book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, is set to release in April. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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