Thirteen Reasons Why, a video series based on a best-selling teen novel, is the story of a 17 year old Girl, Hannah who commits suicide and leaves 13 tapes for each of the people who contributed to her decision to commit suicide. This is the sixth in a series of blogs that identify issues raised in each episode with some ideas about how parents can address them with their teenager.
Courtney is terrified she will be outed (i.e., revealed to be a lesbian) and so she makes up a story that Hannah wanted her to join a 3-some which she refused. Hannah has to deal with guys putting their hands on her and talking in suggestive ways and girls looking at her like she is an immoral person. Respecting the boundaries of another person and gay shaming are two issues raised in this episode.
One important life task is maintaining and respecting personal boundaries. In this episode teenage girls are confronted with boys intruding in their personal space. There are a parallel set of issues guys confront (but are often not allowed to even acknowledge) involving “rough housing.” Most of these behaviors will fit within either dominance-plays or a form of entitlement where someone assumes they get to determine what someone else should be upset.
Respecting Other’s Boundaries. For girls, dignity and respect violations are most frequently about the sexualization (and objectification) of their bodies. This is both from another’s gaze (e.g., leered at, stared at, being checked out, staring at body parts, etc.) and by being touched (e.g., grabbed, fondled, pressed up against, hugged, “resting” arms or hands on their shoulder or waist, etc.). Inexperienced, naïve and sexually charged teenage (heterosexual) boys just don’t get this. Then, when a girl reacts to this boundary violation they may think she is over reacting. It is important to educate your son about how to recognize when they have sexual energy that is spilling over into their interactions. They need to learn how to channel it so that it doesn’t make someone feel uncomfortable. They need to be taught about how to be aware that staring at another person’s sexual parts is rude and disrespectful. Talk to your son about how he can still appreciate an attractive person without making it obvious he is ogling them. Boys need help appreciating that expressing their appreciation of a girl’s sexual attractiveness (or just their attractiveness) is not always considered by the recipient of his attention as the compliment they intend. Your son may need some training in how to compliment someone.
While an argument can be made that girls should just “deal with it,” a person of honor and integrity doesn’t assume that other people should have to accommodate actions that make them uncomfortable. And, it is only a “compliment” if the other person feels complimented, regardless of how you “meant it.” You only grab the butt of someone who actually wants you to. You only leer at someone when you know for sure it is welcome. And you better be damn sure it is wanted.
Requiring Others to Respect Your Boundaries. Help your daughter develop some responses that get the message across without being hostile or confrontational (at first). This would be saying things like “Dude, move that hand. That’s not cool.” “Whoa! This ain’t yours to touch.” “Stop that. It kind of creeps me out.” “You have got to quit looking at me like that. It is kind of creepy.” “Hey. We do NOT have that kind of friendship.” Also, there are nonverbal responses. For someone who is leering at a distance, mouthing “I don’t think so” or giving a sarcastic, “weirded out” face (non-verbally signaling they think it is stupid and creepy) while shaking your head “no.”
It is actually important for teenage girls to not put too much energy into these rebuffs. Even though the guy is being a creep and insensitive, if the reaction is too intense, it is easy for the girl’s reactions to be used against her. (It shouldn’t be this way but it is.) So her initial responses to unwanted attention need to be done quietly but firmly without drawing too much attention to the situation. Ironically, you should try to protect the dignity of the stupid guy. (Note: these strategies are for your run of the mill insensitive, sexualized actions of an inexperienced teenage boy. Determined sexual harassment, threats and aggressive actions require more direct confrontation. This will be covered in a later column in this series.)
Guess what? Guys also regularly encounter instances of boundary violations resulting in disrespect and indignities. Some of them are even sexual. It is even more overt and aggressive than the forms girls most often encounter and doesn’t often have the kind of support for recognizing them as inappropriate. (This doesn’t make guys more of a victim than girls. It’s a difference in gendered behavior that is ALSO worthy of recognition.)
It has become a common practice for people, mostly guys, to “crotch shot” their buddies (i.e., suddenly hit them hard in the testicles). Interestingly, girls sometimes participate in this “game.” Guys have always engaged in physical intimidation and dominance plays like making the other person flinch, actually throwing a punch to the arm, gut, leg, etc. and “rough housing” by suddenly putting someone in a head lock or wrestling them to the ground. Then there are tests of toughness by creating pain that only stops when the person cries out or submits (e.g., gripping the upper leg or arm or back of the neck and shoulder). Finally, with gym shorts, baggy pants and boxer shorts in fashion, pants-ing is popular (i.e., coming up behind a person and yanking their clothes, often with underwear, down to their ankles).
Responses to these “playful” aggression often have to be a combination of saying something and learning a few defensive moves. As was the case for girls, it is better to say something in a more personal way. Have your son catch the guy in a private moment and say something directly to him. “Dude, you’ve got to stop doing something to me every time you see me. It’s F’d up so cut it out?” “Man, I’m tired of fighting you off every time you come around. It’s getting old.” And then have him be vigilant. Not jumpy and skittish, just vigilant. There are times when it is more likely to happen than not which will allow him to head it off.
More physical attempts at dominance may require some simple release skills you and your kid can practice together.
Breaking a choke Hold. Thes video has several techniques for breaking a choke hold from the front and from the rear. Have your kid pay attention to the release moves, not the counter attack parts (like striking in the groin and biting). They should be able to release the grip while still being “playful.” Responding too aggressively by punching them afterwards when the other person is “just joking” can be seen as an over reaction.
Deflecting a punch. This video shows how to tap the punch off to the side. Again, this is not for times when your kid is having to defend themselves in a fight. So only have then practice and use the deflecting part of this technique (though throwing some fake return punches like the guy does in the video can “playfully” highlight that your kid could punch the other guy if they wanted). This technique can also be done from the side (for an arm punch).
Practicing stoicism. Causing pain to get a reaction from the other person is an exercise in mild humiliation. Have your kid practice not reacting to the pain, keeping a blank face and just looking at the guy. Also practice how to break someone’s grip. Grabbing any of the individual fingers (the weakest part of the grip) and pulling works in most cases.
Pants-ing. Wear briefs instead of boxers. Tighten the pants at the waist. And try to turn it back on him “Dude, you’ve got to stop trying to see my butt!”
All of the actions discussed above technically constitute harassment and sexual harassment. The school administration must address harassment, especially sexual harassment, when it is reported so your kid could also file a complaint. This should be carefully thought through because while complaints can interrupt the behavior, it can also have significant social fallout. But it is a helpful option when direct efforts to resolve the boundary violations aren’t being effective.
As a final note, not all teens are upset by these violations of dignity and respect. The key to human interactions where you move into the space of another person is obtaining consent. Is the other person alright with it? Do you know for sure? If they are OK with it, it can be a form of bonding, playful (healthy) teasing and even seduction. If there is a question, don’t do it. That’s just being civil.
One category of rumor-mongering focuses on speculating about a person’s sexual preference, especially when they may have a same sex sexual attraction, i.e., being gay. (Here, gay will be used to refer to both males and females with a same sex sexual attraction). An even more specific instance of this is outing someone (i.e., forcing them “out of the closet” by revealing their sexual interest). The use of “gay” as an insult and the range of other references to same sex sexual attraction (e.g., faggot, queer, lesbo, dyke and a host of even more graphic, crude descriptors) are still common ways teens insult each other. There are a number of reasons your kid should not gay shame.
Character. People of Character do not insult other people (or use terms that are demeaning, degrading or insulting to people). People with Character live by the values they cherish. Knowingly insulting, degrading or demeaning people is wrong. Character doesn’t require that you agree with other people, it requires you to treat people in ways that are consistent with your values, which should include politeness, decency and respect.
Politeness (versus offensiveness). The values of inclusion and equality are written into the founding documents of our democracy. They require the citizens of this great multicultural country to treat each other with civility. It is impolite to use words or phrases you know insult or offend other people. Being polite doesn’t lose you anything of importance and it doesn’t diminish you in any way. By the way, this is not a free speech issue. Free speech is a concept embedded in our constitution that limits the power of the government to suppress or deny the free and unencumbered expression of ideas, thoughts and actions by its citizens. We are talking about how we treat each other, not how our government treats us. The government is not allowed to require us to be polite (short of slander, defamation or libel). YOU are allowed to require your kid to be polite. It is how we are able to get along with each other in this pluralistic country even when we don’t agree with each other. Require your kid to be polite. The best rationale is the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you (regardless of how they do unto you).
Decency (versus obscenity). Having a sense of decency is another of those values that are violated by talking about someone’s personal life or qualities. Everyone should be treated with dignity and allowed their privacy, including revealing whether they are gay or not (or that their parents are divorcing or that they are sexually active or whatever).
Empathy (versus cruelty). When you use slurs or insult a person because of their lifestyle, qualities or preferences, it reflects a lack of empathy for other’s feelings. It is a slippery slope to justify being insensitive and cruel to one person but expecting your kid to have empathy for someone else (including you). Empathy is the basis of love and compassion and as such should be automatically and indiscriminately applied to every person. It is indeed important to “walk a mile in their shoes” before you judge and condemn (or be cruel).
Joking (vs insulting) “I was just joking. Can’t you take a joke?” It is worth saying a few words about humor and insults. Some of the most gut-laughingly funny humor is insulting, dirty and mean (as we say in the south). Saying “don’t laugh at that” won’t work. Helping your teen appreciate that the more insulting the joke, the greater the obligation of the joke teller to be sensitive to those around them who might be insulted or hurt by the joke. If you don’t care whether it hurts other’s feelings then you are not telling jokes, you are simply insulting people without the guts to do it to their face. (And insulting someone to their face is just wrong.)
Notice that the reasons teens should not insult people says nothing about whether they agree, support or accept someone’s lifestyle or choices. It is about how you treat people and a recognition that they have a right to live their own lives.
So what can you suggest your teen do when someone insults them or someone they are around says something insulting? Say something to the person who is doing the insulting.
- “Drop it.”
- “Dude, quit saying that. That’s not right.”
- “Don’t use that word.”
- “That’s not funny.”
- “You know it’s pretty insulting to say that?”
- “Hey, stop being a jerk. Cut it out.”
Your kid can also approach the person who was insulted and offer some support.
- “Hey, don’t pay attention to him. He’s a class A jerk.”
- “Not everyone thinks that. Just wanted you to know.”
- “I hope you don’t think everything feels that way. I don’t.”
- “I think you’re OK. Don’t let them get you down.”
Teens make mistakes due to impulsivity, immaturity, insensitivity, ignorance and intentional cruelty. Boundary violations and gay shaming are just two of the many ways your adolescent’s bad judgement can lead to trouble. It won’t be the last so be sure to address it but also take it in stride.
Note to reader: The teenagers represented in this series are upper middle and higher income, suburban teenagers. The ideas and strategies discussed in this blog are intended for kids in these social networks. They will not necessarily be effective or even appropriate for teenagers experiencing these issues in other socio-economic and cultural communities.
The next column is based on Episode 6: Side 3B and will address boredom and consent.