Raising boys into non-violent men

How do we prevent our sons from becoming rapists?

Media headlines lately have been dominated by violence – young men’s violence against other men outside pubs and in the street, and men’s sexual assaults of women. Most boys and men do not use violence. But a minority do. The confronting truth is, some of the boys growing up right now will force or pressure a girl or woman into sex.

What shapes this violence, and how can we prevent it? I will focus on boys’ and men’s violence against girls and women, especially sexual assault, although the problem of boys’ and men’s violence against other boys and men is just as serious.

Sexual violence is a serious social problem in Australia. Adrian Bayley’s rape and murder of Jill Meagher in Melbourne in 2012 brought the issue to public attention, but this was the tip of the iceberg. According to a recent national survey, about one in six women (17%) in Australia– just under 1.5 million women – has experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. In the last year, about one per cent of women – 87,800 women – experienced sexual assault. Younger women are at greater risk than older women. These are victims, but what about perpetrators? Various studies find that anywhere from 15 to 25 per cent of males have forced or pressured a girl or woman into sex or tried to do so.

How can we stop our sons from becoming one of these men? How do we stop them from hurting someone? To answer this, we need to know: What makes a rapist?

What makes a rapist?

Put a thousand 16-year-old guys in a room, find out some things about them, and we can predict which ones are more likely to commit acts of sexual violence. The causes of men’s sexual violence against women are complex, but the research shows consistent factors linked to this. Again, most boys and men do not use violence. Most treat the women and girls in their lives with respect and care. But among the boys and men who do assault women, there are some consistent risk factors.

Boys and young men are more likely to force or pressure a girl into sex if they have sexist and sexually hostile attitudes – they see girls as sexual objects, they see females as less important or less valuable than males, and they feel entitled to see how far they can push things with a girl. In a large Australian study of young people aged 12 to 20, about one in seven guys (14%) agreed that “It’s okay for a boy to make a girl have sex with him if she has flirted with him or led him on.”

Power inequalities in relationships matter too. Young men are more likely to rape a young woman if they’re in a relationship where they dominate her and they are exerting power over her in other ways: putting her down, being controlling and jealous, and putting their own needs first.

To know something about each of those thousand guys in a room, it’s also useful to know something about their mates. Research in sport, male residential colleges on campus, and the military tells us that men are more likely to commit rape if they have male friends who see rape and violence as okay. Some men have peers who also accept and perpetrate violence against women.

The contexts in which boys and men live make a difference. Males are more likely to commit rape if they live or work in contexts which are male-dominated and gender-segregated and with strong male bonding, high alcohol consumption, use of pornography, and sexist norms. That’s why rates of violence against women are higher on some campuses and in some institutions than others.

Some of the media boys and men consume is implicated in violence. TV, movies, and computer games often portray women only as sexual objects, put men’s voices and lives at centre stage, and condone or even celebrate violence as entertaining and legitimate. Pornography use is increasingly common among young men, and here callous and hostile images of women are routine. In a wide range of media, boys learn that real men are tough, dominant, and aggressive.

Finally, the character of our communities is influential. Rates of men’s violence against women are higher in communities emphasising traditional gender codes, male dominance in families, and male honour. They are higher too in societies with high levels of other forms of violence, high rates of poverty and disadvantage, or weak laws and policies on violence against women.


The good news is that sexual violence can be reduced and prevented. Education programs among children and youth can have a positive impact on their attitudes and behaviours, especially if they are substantial and well-designed. They can reduce males’ and females’ support for rape myths and lower actual rates of perpetration and victimisation. For example, a six-lesson program for 13-16-year-olds, developed by CASA House in Melbourne, has been shown to have a positive impact on young people’s knowledge, awareness of and ability to discuss issues related to sexual assault.

Communication and social marketing campaigns can change attitudes and behaviours, again if done well. For example, a media campaign by Men Can Stop Rape built around the slogan “My strength is not for hurting” has shown success in encouraging norms of sexual consent among young men. Institutions and workplaces can help to build a respectful, gender-equal culture. Law and policy change is necessary too, including a robust commitment to addressing the gender inequalities which underpin violence against women.

The White Ribbon Foundation, a national violence prevention organisation, is making a leading contribution to the work in Australia. One of its most important contributions is a focus on men and boys. The international White Ribbon Campaign rests on the fundamental belief that men and boys can and do play positive roles in ending violence against women. As I outline in the White Ribbon report Men Speak Up (2011), there are a whole range of steps men can take in their everyday lives to help rid our communities of rape and domestic violence. Some involve how we parent boys, so I turn to this now.

Raising good men

Two points first. One, it is not fair to lump parents with sole responsibility for raising non-violent boys. At the same time, although this is a community responsibility, parents have vital roles to play. Two, nor is it fair that most rape prevention efforts have focused on girls and young women. Girls are constantly told to protect themselves, to guard their drinks, and so on. Yes, increasing girls’ self-protective skills and resistance to violence is important. But it is just as important, if not more so, to nurture non-violence among boys.

The challenge is to raise our sons in such a way that pressuring or forcing someone into sex is unthinkable. And given this, the challenge is to find alternatives for them to the toxic messages about masculinity and sexuality which are part of our culture.

With younger boys, teach them about bodily respect and integrity – about when and how it is appropriate to touch others or to be touched. Encourage non-violent and respectful behaviour – to boys’ siblings, friends, and others. ‘Walk the walk’ by being a good role model, including in how you discipline children and how you relate to the other adults around them. Avoid harsh and violent parenting.

With older boys, talk about sex, consent, rape, and healthy relationships. Challenge the dangerous myths that ‘real’ men are violent or dominating. Teach boys that men can be tender and loving. Help boys to be critical of the sexist and violence-supportive messages in media – like the ideas that women are responsible for their sexual victimisation or that men have uncontrollable sexual desires.

Both mothers and fathers can foster non-violence and gender equality among boys and young men. And fathers and other men can play important roles in nurturing respectful men rather than macho men. In doing this, we are teaching our sons the essential tools of being a good human being.

First published in Child magazine, March 2014.

NOTE: Also see XY's collections of materials on raising feminist sons.