I recently spoke with a female relative (I’ll call her Sylvia), the mother of two teenage sons. The eldest just completed his first year of college. During our conversation, Sylvia mentioned she was not looking forward to him coming home for the summer, saying that “something” happens to sons as they grow older. She called him a “troll.” I looked up the word online.
“In Internet slang, a troll is a person who starts quarrels or upsets people on the Internet to distract and sow discord by posting inflammatory and digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses and normalizing tangential discussion, whether for the troll’s amusement or a specific gain” (Wikipedia).
I don’t believe Sylvia was referring to her son’s online activity specifically as she attempted to get hold of and describe her eldest son’s behavior. He provokes people. Stirs people and things up just “because.” I saw him do this to his younger brother—something that seemed particularly egregious to me since his brother falls somewhere on the autism spectrum disorder scale—high-functioning, to be sure, but on the spectrum nonetheless and, therefore, is not able to process social situations effectively. I’ve written about autism and its impact on our family.
Sylvia plans to speak with her eldest son when he arrives home from college and remind him that “trolling” is not acceptable behavior. She’s not sure he will hear her. This is part of that “something” she refers to regarding teen-aged sons. Deafness is a strand of that disrespectful thread that weaves itself through most of their verbal encounters. If he continues his provocative, disrespectful behavior, she will insist that he go live with his father for the summer.
I also have two sons. I recall the difficulty I had while they were in their teens and even beyond. Both didn’t behave identically towards me, however, I do remember conversations purposively veering off onto extraneous or tangential topics for sport—at least, that’s my take on it. I often felt “toyed with.” Interactions with my teenaged sons felt disrespectful, yet on the surface, the exchange remained intact. Like Sylvia, I also remember thinking that “something” had changed over time with these boys. As young children, they were open, loving, and eager to please. As they grew older, our interactions became more and more flavored with what seemed to me to be their need to come out “on top.” Rarely (if ever) did I encounter an exchange where I sensed a willingness to work together with me to solve a problem. (Of course, the story of their upbringing is much more complex than this one paragraph, but what I’ve expressed in this paragraph is one part of the complexity.)
My mother, Vera, also had two sons. She died in 1975 (59 years old) during the second wave of feminism, never identifying as a feminist, yet I’m convinced that had she lived longer, she probably would have. She had keen insight. More than once, she surprised me with her astute observations about gender inequality, flying in the face of her evangelical, fundamentalist community that insisted on (and enforced) women’s submission to men. I remember her talking about the difficulties of raising boys—especially her eldest. “When you tell your son to do something, he just can’t do it. He has to change the task even if it’s ever so slightly. Sons will come up against you just because you are a woman.”
I think we’ve yet to acknowledge the prevalence and virulence of misogyny in our societies. Mona Eltahawy (b. 1967), a feminist Egyptian-American journalist, wrote an article titled “Why Do They Hate Us?” making the case that hatred of women in Egypt (and by extension all patriarchal societies) is at the root of so much societal injustice, creating the conditions where misogyny seeps through all the cultural cracks, enabling laws and feeding social norms that undermine women everywhere. She writes about Egypt during the so-called Arab Spring: “An entire political and economic system — one that treats half of humanity like animals — must be destroyed…. Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes [men], our revolution has not even begun.”
My sense is that misogyny—something that all of us seem to absorb osmotically—creates the conditions that allow (even encourage) sons to so easily disrespect their mothers. Niobe Way, Professor of Applied Psychology at NYU, in her text, “Getting to the Root of the Problem,” says, “The patriarchy dehumanizes all humans by maintaining a hierarchical gender binary, which, according to Carol Gilligan, is ‘the DNA of the patriarchy.’ The gender binary asserts that, in essence, girls don’t think and boys don’t feel and that some of us, such as those who are Black, poor or Transgendered, don’t think OR feel.”
Niobe Way writes further: “In my studies of hundreds of boys throughout adolescence, I find that boys’ full humanity is still readily apparent during early adolescence. During this developmental period, boys speak openly about love, relationships, and wanting closer connections to male friends, mothers, grandmothers, and sisters. Then a shift occurs in their stories as they enter middle and late adolescence. Just when they are expected to become, in the name of manhood, only part human and thus not human at all, they begin to sound like gender stereotypes and the violent consequences of these gender stereotypes take hold.”
Niobe homes in on that elusive “something” that Vera, Sylvia, and I have experienced raising our sons.
My former colleague, the feminist scholar and activist Amina Wadud, has two sons and three daughters. After her children transformed into young adults, Amina noted, “My sons are good, Muslim men. My daughters, though, ‘get it.’”
Our sons need to “get it” as well.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.