At some level, I've known since before my oldest son was born that this moment would come. But when it did, it took me utterly and completely off guard. I was driving a car full of boys home from a soccer tournament last week when my 9-year-old son piped up from the back,
"Hey mom! I've got a funny joke. I'll ask you a question and you say, 'Ketchup and rubber buns'". "I've heard this one," chuckled my 12-year-old son. Snickers all around from the soccer players. Apparently, I was the only one who didn't know what was coming next.
"What did you have for breakfast?" "Oatmeal and ketchup and rubber buns."
"No! Mom! Just say ketchup and rubber buns."
"What did you have for breakfast?" "Ketchup and rubber buns."
"What did you have for lunch?" "What did you have for dinner?" Etc. etc. And then we get to the punchline:
"What do you do when you see a hot chick? You catch up and rub her buns!" Peals of laughter from the boys.
To my very great credit, I did not run the station wagon off the road and into the ditch. I kept driving - silent, hands gripping the wheel, looking straight ahead. It was a perfect autumn day. The sky was brilliant blue and the afternoon sun was catching the full color of the orange and yellow leaves on the trees along the highway. It was a beautiful, perfect day but inside I was angry. I was mortified. I was disappointed. I was desperately struggling to think of what I should say.
Every once in a while, though, it is helpful to have gone to law school. "I don't think that joke is funny. You know, if you actually ran after a woman and touched her in an offensive way like that, it would be called "assault and battery". It is a crime. You could be arrested."
"You could be arrested for THAT?" "Yes. Plus, the woman could also sue you."
"Also, I've actually had that happen to me. How do you think it feels to have a stranger grab your butt?"
"WHAT? That actually happened to YOU?"
"Sure. More than once. Usually at parties."
"That's kind of making me feel sick," said the 12-year-old.
The 9-year-old said thoughtfully: "I remember you saying that you didn't like running past construction sites because the construction workers whistled and yelled things at you."
I didn't remember telling them that, but it's true. When I was a teenager, I used to go way off my normal running routes just to avoid running past a construction site. Good, they were listening.
"So what are you going to say the next time you hear someone tell a joke like that?" "Stop, Mom! We get it, ok?"
Teachable moment - ended. I decided just to leave it there - for now. These are intelligent boys, good kids who love and respect their mom and their sister, their grandmothers, their female friends and teachers. But they, like other young Americans, are deeply impacted by the culture that they live in. Children are exposed to an estimated 16,000 images every day. They are powerfully influenced by their peers (I know they didn't hear THAT joke at home). How can that not impact the way that they view girls and women? And isn't it only going to get worse as they move through middle and high school?
The Ketchup Joke was a call to action for me. I need to do more to raise these boys to recognize the problem and, hopefully one day, to speak up when they hear someone tell a sexist joke. Thankfully, there are a lot of resources out there - research, organizations, websites. The Advocates for Human Rights has developed a Challenge the Media workshop and resource list. And I know that other parents have successfully managed to raise their sons not to be total jerks, but to be men who respect and treat women as equals.
I'll report back periodically on what I have found. In the meantime, I would welcome hearing about what others have learned. But first, I've got a date with my sons. We are going to see Miss Representation.