In all my work with parents, the most shocking and upsetting stories I hear are those about teenage sons treating their mothers with contempt, and I am hearing more and more of those stories. And far too often I hear about physical violence and abuse: pushing, hitting, knocking to the ground, pinning down, grabbing by the throat.
The mothers coping with violence from teenage sons are not some breed apart; the ones I know of are intelligent, otherwise confident, funny, thoughtful, ‘normal’. They are not bad mothers, they are not doing things markedly differently to anyone else. They are generally single mums (like around 20% of us in the UK) and there is often a difficult or abusive ex in the background – not necessarily high on the scale, but disrespectful, not a good role model for a son. Sometimes there’s a history of more-or-less abusive relationships with men, starting with an alcoholic/bullying father.
But not always. One or all of those factors may tip the balance: genetic inheritance and/or learned behaviour in the son, past and present experience in abusive relationships for the mother; but it’s an underlying imbalance of power which is waiting to be exposed. In other words, it doesn’t happen the other way round, girls may exhibit the normal range of teenage careless disregard and disrespect but I don’t know of one dad who is suffering physical abuse from a daughter, or for whom this is a potential issue.
Which is why it makes me angry when I see prominent news stories which reinforce the normality of male violence towards women, and this has been quite a week for that. Another football club has been totally unashamed to publicly welcome a convicted and unrepentant rapist back into a high-profile and privileged position in society (and many powerful role-models in football have remained silent) and a young girl has been publicly accused by a judge of ‘grooming’ her adult male abuser.
These attitudes, though, don’t just spring fully-formed out of nowhere, they are just the highly visible eruptions from a sexist cultural background which hums along as a low-level reminder and reinforcer of accepted attitudes towards women. In this country we even put nearly-naked women in national newspapers! You couldn’t get a clearer daily reminder of women’s status and value in our society than that.
The first time I found my three boys, when they were very little, gazing at an up-skirt shot of a woman on the front of The Star, my instinctive, gut reaction was ‘How can they ever respect me as their mother, when they see how society views women?’ This was a light bulb moment for me, way before I called myself a feminist. Growing up during the sexist Seventies I was used to feeling disrespected by the Page 3 culture but this was the first time it hit me that this culture would also undermine me as a mother of boys.
I am lucky: I don’t really have any of those extra factors in my life which tip the balance; countering disrespectful media messages about women just gives me one more job that I really don’t need. But when those extra factors are present, the fact is that public culture is supportive of the underlying attitudes of the teenage sons, not the mothers’. For those teenage boys it’s far easier to go along with things than to challenge that culture and go against it. Recently we have seen that even privileged professional footballers have been unable to do that.
Society as a whole has some responsibility in raising the next generation of young men to respect women; the fact that we live in a country where so many people don’t even understand what the word ‘rape’ means should be a wake-up call to us all. Mothers of teenage sons can’t do it all on their own.