Body Autonomy for Boys

Disclaimer: Just like “Save the Whales” doesn’t mean other species are expendable, this blog post highlights challenges that some boys face. Of course most of the content of this blog applies to everyone else as well.

“Boys will be boys.”

In some contexts that’s true. I remember reading about a mother whose three-year-old twin boys triumphantly carried the lid of the toilet tank through the house, then accidentally dropped it. Using the phrase “Boys will be boys” in this instance is meant as a half-amused, half-annoyed acknowledgement that yes, sometimes boys will break the toilet. But all too often there is a more damaging use of this phrase.

Many of us have read about the harm caused by using “Boys will be boys” as a way of excusing misconduct towards girls. I’m not going to delve into the ramifications of that in this blog. Others have covered that ground better than I have. But I do want to take one aspect of the issue and apply it to boys. Yes, “Boys will be boys” has been used to dismiss female body autonomy, but the phrase also dismisses a boy’s right to body autonomy too.

Body autonomy is the right for a person to govern what happens to their body without external influence or coercion. This is an important concept for all children to be taught and to understand.

Shalon Nienow, MD

When we hear about body autonomy it’s usually in the context of girls, women, abortion and/or sexual assault. Sometimes boys get a brief mention when sexual assault is addressed. That is a disservice to boys and I very much hope someone has written about the issue. My own focus in this blog is non-consensual rough play and bullying.

Did you catch the term “non-consensual?”

Some boys don’t like horseplay. They have the right to stand up for themselves if someone tries to force it on them.

If you’re having unkind thoughts about that, stop right there. A penchant for or a dislike of rough play has absolutely nothing to do with gender, gender expression, or sexuality. If you think for one instant that anyone who doesn’t fit your idea of “normal” is worthless, is “other,” and deserves to be made fun of, beaten, or even killed… You’re not going to like what I say next.

All too often, parents, school officials, coaches, etc. attempt to downplay bullying by calling it “horseplay,” and often summarize their views by saying, “Boys will be boys.” This is an egregious denial of the victim’s right to body autonomy. Boys have the right to go about their day without their body being pummelled, shoved, and/or struck with various objects. If you believe all that is harmless, you might as well say to boys, “You have no right to your own body.” Not only that, you’re teaching boys that it’s OK to violate someone else’s rights.

I have participated in a number of self defense seminars as a supplement to my base art (karate) and so I can learn how to teach such seminars. One of these classes was open to anyone, the rest were for women only. That’s fine, I understand women need a safe space to learn. But I think children, particularly boys, need these seminars too. I’m not dismissing the needs of girls, rather I’m acknowledging that boys are more likely to experience the dismissal of their right to protect themselves. Boys need a place where their rights are supported.

Everyone knows karate is a system for learning self defense. Most of us karateka (people who study karate) know or have been taught the value of kihon, kata, and kumite as tools for learning self defense. In the dojo some of us teach or have been taught self defense techniques that aren’t part of the dojo’s curriculum. That’s all well and good, but let’s dive a little deeper. Most everyone knows karate builds self confidence, and when bullies see the positive changes they often (but not always) go hunting for easier victims. Deeper still… Karateka learn self control. In a schoolyard situation, self control is key.

I believe my job as a sensei is to teach not only the techniques, but also the correct application of techniques along with a good helping of self-control on the side. Allow me to illustrate this with an anecdote from my own life…

I was working in a kitchen when a man put his arm around my waist and pressed in close while reaching for something on a shelf above me. He could have asked for the item or waited for me to complete my task. I gave him a very light elbow to the stomach. I could have doubled him over, but in that context all he needed was a bit of a warning. His wife gave him worse (verbally).

This kind of self control is incredibly difficult in the context of physical harassment at school. “He threw a rock at me,” is often just one of hundreds of things that the boy has endured up until the point where he finally complained to someone. After all, he’s been taught all his life…

“Boys will be boys.”

“Just be more like the other boys.”

“Turn the other cheek.”

“You sissy!”

“Try to be friends with them.”

“It’s not that bad.”

“No fighting. Zero tolerance.”

The underlying message behind all of this, of course, is that the boy has no right to body autonomy and, in the case of zero tolerance, no right to defend himself.

Do you see how damaging this is?

Often there comes a breaking point, especially when a child knows the adults either can’t or won’t help him assert his rights. The dojo (karate school) is a safe place to explore those big emotions. Those big emotions will come up in the dojo even when one is in a good place in life. Part of learning self control is learning how to work with and through emotions. More importantly, being able to choose to fight is empowering. If one doesn’t know how to fight, there is no choice to fight or not to fight. There is only fear and anger if one can’t fight. It’s even more empowering when one knows the appropriate degree of violence to employ in any given situation.

If he’s being bullied, getting your boy into karate classes can be a great move. A good dojo is a community where your boy will be respected. That’s a welcome change for someone whose soul is battered from constant harassment. Sensei(s) usually recognize everyone’s right to body autonomy because fundamentally, karate is self defense. Whether a sensei explicitly teaches it or not, your boy will start to realize his right to body autonomy. He will be more confident in standing up for himself, whether that be verbally with a school principal or physically with someone who tries to force him into rough play.

In closing, I would like to acknowledge that not all boys can, or even want to join a dojo. Perhaps a self defense seminar geared towards boys would be a good alternative. Of course even a seminar might not be feasible or desirable for some boys. But all boys can benefit from society ridding itself of the systemic dismissal of boys’ rights to body autonomy. I believe my responsibility as a sensei, as a karateka, is to be an ally. That means standing up for victims, even to the point of verbal or physical intervention if appropriate.

“Karate stands on the side of justice.”

Gichin Funakoshi

Author: Joelle White

I began training in Karate in June of 2014 after a 27 year hiatus.

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