Imagine, for a moment, that you come to visit my house. When you arrive, I invite you in, offer you a seat, and place a tray of delicious-looking cupcakes before you – some green and some gold. As I leave the room to answer the telephone, I say, “Don’t eat the green ones.”
What would you do? Please do not subvert my example by suggesting that you are banting or abstaining from sugar. Analogical cupcakes contain no unhealthy additives.
Perhaps, while you wait, you will eat a gold one. Perhaps you will play it safe and wait for me to return to explain the odd situation (why plate up cupcakes that should not be eaten?) I do hope that none of you will eat a cupcake without being curious, at least. Quite likely, if you do eat one, you will rationalize my statement – perhaps the green ones look good but are burnt. Perhaps the green ones are being saved for a special occasion. Perhaps the gold ones are the ones that contain poison.
This odd situation is why I cringe a little bit when I hear my son say, “Boys shouldn’t hit girls” – not because the statement is false, per se, but because the incompleteness of it creates more doubt than the instruction it pretends to give.
First, let us get out of the way the acknowledgement that the statement is a generalization. Obviously, there are situations in which it is perfectly acceptable to hit a woman. Self-defence, however unlikely, is one example. Another is when she asks for it. To clarify, being cheeky or disagreeable is not ‘asking for it’. Asking for it means, literally, asking for it: “Please hit me. With the blue crop. The safe word is ‘ravioli’”.
Unfortunately, the statement is broken even in its intended meaning. If boys should not hit girls, does it follow that boys can hit other boys, or that girls can hit boys, or girls other girls? A quick, informal survey amongst colleagues suggest the rule is a sub clause of the ‘no hitting of anybody by anybody’ rule (so, not like the cupcake example), in which case we have to wonder what makes the ‘boys not-hitting girls’ rule a special enough case to emphasize.
Here’s the rub…many will argue that it is a special case…nobody should hit anybody, but boys should especially not hit girls. Because boys should respect girls. Because big, strong boys should protect weak, delicate girls. Because boys are physically superior. Because boy are probably superior in other ways, too. Probably, girls should be grateful for the protection we afford them. In fact, girls should really leave all the important decisions to boys.
(My sexist emphasis is a deliberate exaggeration of the unconscious sexism the statement often represents – very few people will consciously follow the progression to its extreme, nevertheless, variations of it are common).
A better lesson
Perhaps, when we acknowledge that boys hurting girls is a legitimate problem in a way that girls hurting boys rarely is, then it is simply a case of not needing to mention the ‘girls-hitting-boys’ part of the rule. One good intention of the statement recognizes that – thanks to testosterone – men are on average bigger and bulkier than women are, and thus more likely to be capable of inflicting harm. Or that men are more likely to inflict harm.
Nevertheless, society would be better served by teaching children that we should not abuse our dominance (not just physical, but emotional and economic too) over other people, regardless of race, gender or sexual preference. Because even if the rule worked to eliminate violence against women, violence by bigger stronger men against smaller weaker men is a considerable problem.
Shouldn’t little girls be allowed to rough-house with little boys – or other little girls – if they wish? Should little boys have to endure physical bullying in order to become ‘manly’? Is it okay for a woman to beat the shit out of a physically inferior man? Is it acceptable to marginalise women economically as long as there’s no physical violence? Is it okay to physically assault a male immigrant? I hope these questions are all recognized as rhetorical.
What I tell my son: Don’t do things to people if they don’t like it – and there are girls who can kick your butt if you try.