mohtersons

How Grown Men Talk to Their Moms About Sex, Race and #MeToo

My mother's white. I'm black. It changed our conversations about consent. So I asked men around the country about the tough talks they had with their moms — and what they learned

Pretty much any straight man alive these days feels like he’s been drawn into the #MeToo movement — whether he wants to be there or not. And if you’re being honest with yourself, you’ve likely asked some tough questions. This moment, in fact, demands that we question ourselves, our pasts, our socialized biases, our cultural attitudes, even our mothers. This movement requires us to have some uncomfortable conversations.

So that’s what I did: I talked with my mom about sex and consent, about what she taught me and didn’t teach me. Being my mother, she took it as a moment to clown on me. “I actually never thought about you having sex when you were a teenage boy,” my mother recalls, “because you were always socially slow. Immature.”

She laughs hard at the memory. I laugh, too, because she’s not lying. I was slow. That is, until I wasn’t. What my overworked single mother didn’t know was, once she fell exhausted into bed, I’d secretly sneak out on school nights to hook up with girls in darkened parks and half-constructed new homes — out there, where ideas of consent get tested.

“I never worried about you being unkind to girls,” she says. “I was always worried about girls taking advantage of you. It was so ingrained in you: how to treat women. It was the way I brought you up. Basically, you were taught all along to respect women — it was evident in how you treated your sister, how you treated me. I never had any complaints from girls about you, not ever.”

Again: “I worried about girls coming on to you,” she says with a typical mother’s protective bias. “Like, in fourth grade when girls started calling the house, and I’d ask you, ‘What’s this girl calling you for?’ And you’d be like, ‘Mom, I have no idea. I don’t know why she’s calling me.’” She laughs once more.

Moving past my early social ineptitude, I ask if she was ever worried when I left home and went off to college. “By the time you got to college, I never worried about you because I thought you could figure things out,” she responds. “Because college is when people have to figure things out for themselves.”

For men growing up in America, this seems to be a rather standard experience. Often, there’s no explicit conversation with our parents about consent. Instead it’s sort of implied. It gets suggested, but rarely discussed outright. It’s assumed to be part of respecting a partner, but there’s little actual instruction for how a guy should seek consent.

My mother was, and is, an ardent feminist. I was raised in a house full of women, and so, there was the expectation that I’d be fluent in respect and consent. But there was another complicating factor in our conversations about sex and consent: race.

My mother’s white. I’m black. I’m her biracial son. She raised me in a small college town in California, where I attended a predominantly white high school. Thus, she always cautioned me that if I were alone with a girl and I selfishly blundered ahead seeking satisfaction, if I acted without the girl’s full consent, she might later tell the story of what happened and claim I sexually assaulted her. As a black boy, I could never afford for there to be any misinterpretation. People who weren’t there would be more likely to believe her than me — especially if she were white.  

Today, I ask my mother if she remembers telling me to be careful about consent when I was alone with white girls.

“I don’t specifically remember that,” she answers, reaching back into her memory. “But I do know that we talked so much about how to treat girls, I assume that was a big part of it. You were surrounded by women; I figured you knew how to treat women. I never worried about you; I was more worried about girls mistreating you.”

Due to her fears of white girls mistreating her black son, my mother taught me to always seek the enthusiastic consent of my partners. This lesson was ultimately motivated by the ugly aspects of our society, but it also kept me from perpetuating any ugliness. This is, of course, not the ideal way to learn about consent.

My sister has a white son. Well, my nephew, who’s a quarter black, presents as white. Social expectations of him are very different than they were for me. I ask my mom if she plans to ever have similar conversations about consent with him, her grandson. “Oh yeah, I’ve already had that conversation with him,” she happily reports. “Because it’s so much in the media now, and I want him to be up on things that are in the media. So we’ve talked about it. He’s very strong about consent, the same way you were.”

Tougher still, I ask her if she was ever sexually assaulted, abused, harassed or mistreated.

“I only ever had one bad experience in my life, and that was in high school,” she confides. “But I was able to tell the guy right away, ‘Yeah, this isn’t gonna fly.’ I told him to get the hell away from me. I physically shoved him away. We were locked in the trunk of a car going into a drive-in movie. And I said, ‘Just because I’m in this trunk with you means NOTHING. Get the hell away from me.’”

“I guess in some way I’ve always had this vibe like: ‘You’re kidding, right?!?! Fuck off!’” my mother says, a proud defiance in her voice.

After I spoke with my mother, I wondered: What did other men learn from their mothers? What were they told about consent? Had they had conversations with them about #MeToo? And like me, had they ever asked her about her own experiences with mistreatment?

To answer these questions, I assembled a roundtable of three very different men:

  • Twentysomething Adam is a streetwear designer, originally from Boston, but who now lives in New York. He’s married, and to keep things interesting, he’s a practicing Muslim who was raised by a Catholic mother in a dual-faith household.
  • Thirtysomething Nick is originally from Wisconsin, but now lives in Chicago with his wife. A father of an infant daughter, he’s a middle-of-the-road Midwestern white guy who was raised by his feminist mother, her own work focused on ending domestic violence.
  • Twentysomething Chris is a writer from Tucson. Raised in Arizona, his take on America is deeply nuanced by his experience of race and the social expectations placed on young black men. He’s single, dating and has yet to father any children.

Have you discussed #MeToo with your mother?
Adam: Only in passing, not really getting into any of the details of news stories. I think I talked more with my mother about the Kavanaugh hearings. When we’re home, my grandmother spends time at our house. Eventually, inevitably, politics come up. She’s Italian-Catholic so she has her own set of beliefs. When the Kavanaugh hearing was happening, you can see how certain people — of an elderly age — are conflicted. They know that things like that happen. But then, if someone is on their side politically — in terms of something like abortion — they’re quick to believe them and what they say. It’s like, “Oh, he said he didn’t do it, so I guess he didn’t do it.” They think that just so we can have someone else who is pro-life in the government.

Chris: My mother and I have talked about it. She’s very much of the mindset — this might be like a lot of moms with an old-school type sense — she’s super-disappointed but not surprised by it. I think she thinks of Hollywood as a very disgusting, gross place where a lot of gross things happen. That’s just like the norm within Hollywood. They make it seem like abuse is acceptable there.

And so, when I talk with her about some of the stuff — like, when it seemed like different stories were coming out every couple weeks — she was like, “These people are just disgusting, and it’s just disappointing.” This whole thing just further drove that home for her.

We’ll talk about the treatment of women in general as well. We talk a lot about the mistreatment of black woman, specifically. We’ve talked about her experiences, too. We often talk about how tough it is for her as a black woman.

Nick: My mom and I often talk about current events and cultural shifts. So #MeToo has come up. Off the top of my head though, I’m having a hard time thinking of an exact conversation. I will say, in full disclosure, my mother was a director for the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence. When I was very young, she volunteered at domestic abuse shelters. My folks split up. She sort of worked her way up. She started by working at a shelter. Then she worked for the program. And now she’s retiring from the Wisconsin Coalition. She’s built an amazing career and done some incredible work in the space of domestic violence and sexual assault. That’s why I’m hesitant to speak on this subject too much. She’s the real expert.

Growing up with a mother who worked every day to end sexual assault and abuse, did your friends ever look to you for answers or advice about consent?
Nick: When I think of growing up, I think of being in high school, and that kind of stuff. And you know, back then, it just wasn’t something that was discussed all that much — at least, not with my friends. As I got older, it did start to come up. It sort of came up recently in a conversation. I think it’s a good thing that we’re all talking about it so openly.

Has your mother ever opened up to you about her experiences — has she ever mentioned how she experienced sexual harassment, assault or mistreatment?
Adam: No, never.

Nick: She never has. No.

Chris: She has not, no. But she has talked about work — about the respect given to her at work, the respect she gets versus a different employee at work. But we’ve never — or she’s never — mentioned anything to me in terms of assault or disrespect on a physical level.

Would you ever feel comfortable asking your mom if she’s experienced sexual assault, abuse, harassment or mistreatment?
Adam: Probably not. The household I grew up in — she wasn’t necessarily practicing religion, but her cultural stances and how she treated conversations were very much rooted in growing up conservative and Catholic. A lot of subjects aren’t outright discussed to this day. You won’t get in trouble for talking about them, it’s just that they’re uncomfortably taboo — if that makes sense. It’s the same growing up with my father. He’s Muslim. So, by nature, he’s a little more conservative. Between the two of them then, we never talked about those things growing up.

Chris: If I’m being honest, it would be an uncomfortable conversation. I think it would be uncomfortable for anyone, though. But yeah, I’ve never asked. It’s tough because there’s the chance that you get a response that you’re not expecting — that something did happen. My mom was married young to my dad, and I just feel like they were together, so I’ve never heard of anything. But at the same time, there’s never been a point in life where she would share that. My mom is pretty open. I think she’d be like, “What makes you ask that?” I think she’d answer it honestly. She might be a little uncomfortable, but I do think she’d answer.

Nick: That’s a whole ‘nother layer of understanding of the world and understanding mothers, daughters, wives and sisters. But it would be hard for me, honestly, to envision a scenario where I just bring it up with my mom — unless it was something that somehow came up in conversation. At that point, I wouldn’t mind pressing further, talking about that stuff. Because I feel like I have a very open relationship with my mom, and we can talk about just about anything.

Do you worry she might feel the question is invasive of her privacy?
Nick: No, she’d probably like it. I don’t know for sure, but she may find it enlightening that I’d view her not as my mother, but as a woman who grew up in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. That I see that she lived a life outside of the context of just a mother and provider.

Did your mother have The Talk with you?
Nick: I remember more my father doing that. She may have, here and there. But my father delivered the one conversation permanently ingrained in my head.

Chris: I never had that conversation with either of my parents. I just remember being put in sex-ed classes that they had to sign off on. So my assumption is that my mother was just like, “This is how he’ll learn” — i.e., through the public school system. But how babies are made was never discussed.

Adam: I definitely learned about it in school. (laughs) That’s just one of those things we never talked about.

Did your mother ever talk about consent with you, even if it was just passively, like, perhaps by referencing a scene in a movie or something?
Nick: I’m racking my brain, trying to think of talking about consent with my mom. I honestly can’t recall. This may just be because my memory is shot at this point in my life. (laughs) Perhaps it did happen, and I’m not remembering it. But I don’t remember a specific instance of her talking with me about consent. Instead, I feel like it was a million subtle nudges in a direction toward a more loving, mutual, equal partnership for relationships with women.

Either way, she got her point across. She did a really good job of instilling the whole idea of consent — what it’s like to be intimate with two people that are equals, and how to act as an adult male.

Adam: Consent never came up. But I do remember she’d tell me if I was caught talking to a girl, “You know that’s someone’s daughter, right?” She’d scare me. Just like, “You have sisters, too. How would you feel if someone was talking to your sisters?” It was more like a guilt type of thing.

Chris: I don’t know if there was ever a specific conversation. It was just as simple as respecting other people: Treat people how you want to be treated. Anytime I did something that involved another person, it would be, “You gotta consider how that would make you feel in return.” But also, it’s just knowing right and wrong. So I don’t think we ever had a talk about consent because it was like, “I taught you right from wrong, and I taught you how to treat people.” Be equally respectful to women was instilled. We never had a specific conversation though, like, “This is how consent works.”

What do you wish your mother would’ve taught you about consent from an early age?
Chris: It’s interesting from this conversation to realize, “We never really talked about sex-related stuff.” I never really talked to either of my parents about it. But it’s weird ‘cause somehow I just know to be respectful. So, I guess the short answer is: No, there’s nothing I wish I would’ve learned. I feel like my mom did teach me. Even if not directly, you know.

Adam: Man, I wish we would’ve had an open dialogue. I will say that what they did teach me about consent, indirectly, came down to alcohol. My mom drank casually — that is, social drinking — earlier in her life, but after she met my dad, she never drank out of respect to him and his religion. But they’d always talk to me about the wisdom in not drinking. And so, when those conversations would come up, they wouldn’t necessarily talk about sexual assault, but they would talk about how alcohol can make people do crazy things.

A lot of my dad’s religious point-of-view was about being alone with a girl, because in our religion, if you’re with a girl, you’re supposed to have someone with you, like a chaperone. So when I was getting ready to go into high school and college, he’d talk to me about parties and meeting girls. He actually did say at one point, “There are situations where you could be doing something wrong, or you might not realize that it’s something wrong. Or it could be consensual, but if anything ever did happen…”

Part of the wisdom of a chaperone — of not being alone with someone — is that nothing happens without someone else being a witness. Without them, it would be the woman’s word against yours. My dad would always say, “Why leave the window open if you don’t wanna get cold?” He would repeat that over and over, throughout my life, and that was one of the examples, where he would say the equivalent of “Don’t put yourself in that position. Even consensually, don’t do it.”

Adam, you’re not yet a father, but have you thought about what you plan to teach your son or daughter about seeking consent? Will you do what your family did?
Adam: I’d speak about sex openly, especially after all the conversations I’ve had with my wife. I’d work with her, and based on what she’s seen, experienced and what we were brought up in, have an open dialogue with our kids. These things are culturally taboo a lot of times, but they don’t have to be.

Final question: Has #MeToo forced you to look back at your own past at all?
Nick: I think that’s the point, and I think that’s good. Going back to what I said earlier, I really think my mom, through like a thousand subtle messages said to me, “This is what this means. This is what you should do. This is what you shouldn’t do.” So I have no instance that I look back on and think, Holy shit, I really crossed the line.

At the same time, there were lots of times when I was much younger that I was chasing romance, and I think there’s a line there, too. There’s romance, and then there’s going all out in a John Hughes movie kind of way. You show up with the boombox on your head, and you do what you can to win the girl, to get her to fall in love with you because you love her.

There’s just certain things you have to know. It’s about putting yourself in her shoes — trying to understand how people around you feel. Some people can walk into a room, say whatever they want and never realize that someone standing across from them was offended. Some people just don’t take the temperature of the people around them. But if you have the ability to relate to people in your vicinity — to understand how people feel, and how they perceive things — you can get a sense of when someone’s being charmed and when they’re legitimately pissed off and thinking, Get the fuck away from me.

Adam: #MeToo has made me reflect a lot on the culture, parts that I wasn’t really aware of. Now that I’m out of school and a different person from when I was in high school and college, you look back and think, Oh, I’m toxic masculinity, too. Like, that’s what those jokes meant, or that’s what these jokes were rooted in. It probably wasn’t cool at the time, either. Those things that we joked about are things you can’t tweet today.

Chris: The scariest thing is seeing people I know, like acquaintances, have such animosity toward the movement. I feel like if you don’t understand it, it’s because you don’t care to. If they have to argue with someone on Facebook about these incidents, then generally they’re stuck in their ways and they’re gonna take that horrifying mindset to the grave with them.

I feel like it does help to be a black dude. I’ve seen the way I’ve been treated in certain situations, and so, it’s extremely easy for me to understand why women are so fed up. I know what it’s like for people to not believe me, or to automatically treat me a certain way. That’s why I feel like being a woman of color in this country has gotta be both horrifying and exhausting. But I do think that as rough as this time is, it’ll be something people look back on historically as the moment when this behavior was exterminated.