Out of the Mouths of Boys

[Mild trigger warning for language]

Since I started working schools, I feel like I’m constant Language Police duty. At my last school it was “no homo.” Here, it’s “That’s gay,” variations on the f-word (no, not the four letter one), and something I didn’t expect at all: rape analogies.

“Analogies” might not even be the right word. “Trivializing” might be more like it. As someone who reads about sexism and homophobia in gaming communities (and someone who’s too spatially challenged to play Halo on XBox Live, but has occasionally watched her more adept older brother play with strangers), I’m aware of rape (as in “You totally just got raped”) as a common term among certain groups of gamers.

So how does this get passed along from person to person? And more specifically, how do I get boys as young as fourteen in my library talking this way?

I had very limited success talking to a group of ninth graders about this a few months ago. I took a hard line and made it clear that I wouldn’t tolerate the language in my space. Mostly the guys were apologetic–it’s a very polite student body, and most of the kids I see get very freaked out about getting called out in any way. I haven’t heard anyone in this bunch talking this way again, but I still didn’t feel like I made much of an impression.

Then again today I had a group of mostly junior boys mixing their casual homophobia with their rape trivializing. And these are guys I see in the library just about every day. I like them. They’re good eggs. One of them asks me how I’m doing every morning, makes conversation, even reminded me to vote yesterday.

And yet.

So today I decided that when the lunch bell rang I’d ask them to stay for a minute, and I let them know that I was hearing things I didn’t appreciate. I made it clear that I’ve heard this from other people–I wanted to nip any “But everybody says that” arguments in the bud–and I tried to give them an explanation that might actually sink in, something a little deeper than “Don’t say that.”

“Rape is really serious, and it’s an issue that a lot of women have to deal with in their lives,” I said. “When you say something about it like it’s a joke or no big deal, you can alienate women around you without even realizing it.” I told them the same goes for homophobia. I let them know that I didn’t believe they were trying to be homophobic, that they were probably just using “gay” in place of frustrating or annoying, but that the people around them might hear that differently.

I also told them that I know some of the younger guys look up to them. They scoffed at that (and told me how “evil” and annoying the freshmen are), but I’m hoping the idea might make them think a little differently about things.

How do you handle weighty issues like these–ones that seem like no big deal if your social circle treats them like jokes–with teenage boys?

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6 Responses to Out of the Mouths of Boys

  1. Leslie says:

    I think you’re doing the right thing, and I applaud you for it. You may not get through to all of them (that haze of hormones and general teenage insanity makes for a pretty thick wall), but calling them on it gives them a chance to think more deeply about what “rape” really means, and whether they want to continue referring to it so flippantly. And you might really be getting through, even when it seems like they laugh it off to look cool in front of their peers.

    Now, I was just going to say, “god, I really don’t miss high school,” but I still hear this same crap as an adult, in professional settings. Maybe I can get a shiny Language Police badge or something for the office.

  2. Lazygal says:

    panda, I’m with you. At MPOW we’ve had to be very clear that political “hate” speech is inappropriate (eg, you can’t bash Bush OR Obama), and that all people are worthy of respect. It’s always bugged me that adults feel free to say things about Catholics or other Christian denominations that they would never say about Muslims or Jews.

    I have a friend who firmly believes in the First Amendment (and the Second). He’ll defend your right to free speech even if that speech is contrary to his beliefs. My version says that as long as you’re respecting the other person, disagree away. But the minute you use certain words (and we all know what those are) or comment on race/creed/gender/orientation, you don’t have the right to continue.

  3. pandanose says:

    Word, Lazygal. I try to make my actions as balanced as my collection–I bought Going Rogue in the same order as Ted Kennedy’s memoir!

  4. You’re doing the right thing. And it does sink in. My husband teaches school as well and feels like he’s on constant language policing. In addition to the ubiquitous homphobia, he has the casual use of racist terms to deal with as well. He doesn’t allow any of it and the kids get the message and pass it along.

    Later, kids have told him that he made his class a safe space for them and now that they are out of school and the town and the closet, they are grateful for that one hour a day when there were no put-downs.

  5. Katie says:

    GO YOU!!! It is really hard to call kids out on stuff, and it’s great that you’re doing it. I have a hard time explaining to kids why something isn’t right, without using words that totally lose them.

    I want to point out as well that both women and men experience rape, so that could be another way of getting them to understand that it’s inappropriate to use the word, not just that it affects women.

  6. […] “I tried to give them an explanation that might actually sink in, something a little deeper than ‘Don’t say that.'” Pandanose @ Little Lambs Eat Ivy reflects on discussing the importance of language with her students in Out of the Mouths of Boys. […]

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