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 chock-full of boys home from a soccer tournament when my nine-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.
My son: “What did you have for breakfast?”
Me: “Oatmeal and ketchup and rubber buns.”
My son: “No! Mom! Just say ketchup and rubber buns. Try again. What did you have for breakfast?”
Me: “Ketchup and rubber buns.”
“What did you have for lunch?” “What did you have for dinner?” Etc. etc. And then we got to the punchline:
My son: “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 car off the road. I kept driving—silent, hands gripping the wheel, looking straight ahead. It was a perfect autumn day. The sky was a brilliant blue, the late afternoon sun catching the full color of the orange and yellow leaves on the trees along the highway. It was a beautiful, perfect day outside, but inside I was angry. I was mortified. I was disappointed. And I was desperately struggling to think of what I should say to these boys.
Finally, as calmly as I could, I said, “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?” said one of my son’s teammates.
“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?” they yelled in unison.
“Sure. More than once. Usually at parties.”
“This is kind of making me feel sick,” said my 12-year-old son.
Finally, my nine-year-old said, “I remember you saying once 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 route just to avoid running past a construction site. When you are a 14-year-old girl and grown men are yelling things about your body and what sexual things they want to do to it, it doesn’t feel like they are just some idiots being rude. It feels downright threatening.
Good, I thought. Sometimes they actually listen to me.
“So what are you going to say the next time you hear someone tell a joke like that?” I asked.
“Stop, Mom! We get it, OK?”
Teachable moment: ended. I decided just to leave it there for the time being. I knew that these kids didn’t really mean any harm. They were just repeating what was—to them—only a silly play on words. But I couldn’t blow it off as “just a joke.” If you have ever experienced sexual assault, a “joke” like this is just not funny. The reality is that almost every woman I know has experienced inappropriate touching, sexual harassment, or sexual abuse. Female friends of all ages, ethnicities and occupations have shared their stories, from a student told by her professor that she could get a higher grade in exchange for a “favor” to women in the medical profession who had patients touch them inappropriately in the examination room. Even my own young daughter has already experienced it.
Not long after this Ketchup Joke incident, my sons’ little sister was touched inappropriately several times by a boy in her second grade class. The sad truth is that these are experiences that are all too common for girls and women throughout the world.
The Ketchup Joke was a call to action for me. My sons 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. Every day, children are exposed to an estimated 16,000 images through media that often portrays unhealthy and unrealistic stereotypes of both young men and women. Females are almost four times as likely as males to be shown in sexy attire. Kids are also powerfully influenced by their peers. While they’ve never heard their dad tell a joke like that at home, there’s no way to control what they hear from other kids. How can all this not impact the way that my sons view girls and women?
I know I can’t change the society that we live in. I cannot raise my sons—or my daughter—in a world where sexism and misogyny do not exist. Eliminating bias completely is not even really possible; whether we are conscious of it or not, we are all biased. It is part of our human nature. But I realized that day in the car that kids don’t learn through osmosis how to evaluate and analyze gender stereotypes. It’s great to have parents who model respect for women, but it’s not enough.
I realized that, in order to raise these boys to recognize the problem of sexism in our society, my husband and I would have to try our best to make them aware of the bias and sexism in the world around them. If we could help them start seeing it, then we could help them find other ways to address it.
Ever since the Ketchup Joke incident, I have been challenging my boys (and their sister) with honest conversations about gender and stereotypes. Every example I see in a TV show, commercial, music video, or advertisement becomes a teachable moment. We talk about gender-based violence in the news, whether it is the girls kidnapped in Nigeria or domestic violence by NFL players. I have tried to share with them my own firsthand experiences with being female in a sexist society, something which hasn’t always been comfortable for me.
My sons aren’t always excited to have these conversations, so I don’t push it. But I don’t give up, either. Raising boys not to be total jerks is a long-term process. But they seem to be independently commenting on stereotypes that they see in the media more. They’ve even called me out for saying something sexist on occasion—and they were correct. So I am hopeful.
Hopeful that their generation will move us closer to a world where men and women are treated with more respect and equality. And hopeful that each of my boys will one day be men who, instead of chuckling when they hear a sexist joke, will speak up and say, “I don’t think that joke is funny.”
Jennifer Prestholdt is a human rights lawyer, wife and mother of three.