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Published Date: September 8, 2016

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The Release of Brock Turner and “Boys Will Be Boys”

Anne Voskamp recently wrote this on her blog:

“When the prevailing thinking is boys will be boys—girls will be garbage.”

When I was growing up, I definitely heard the phrase, “boys will be boys.” Not in my house—I grew up one of three daughters. But it was a cultural message that I internalized at a young age. Usually, “boys will be boys” was used to excuse excessive rough housing, “playful” or “well-intended” violence, or the destruction of toys or furniture.

Before I could name the system that made negative, hurtful behavior a positive expression of masculinity, I wondered why grownups (mostly Christians) didn’t seem overly concerned when a boy shoved his crush on the playground or tugged her ponytail in line. I knew I couldn’t push my friends or pull classmates’ hair without serious consequences, but it seemed that boys played by different rules.  

It only occurred to me in my adult years that those cute little boys, in their “playful” aggression, were benefitting from the same system that allowed a convicted rapist to serve three months for sexual assault.

We’ve constructed a system of leniency in response to male aggression and it begins in the home, the school, and the church. It starts when we laugh at the little boy who pushes his crush on the playground. It’s cute, we think. But it’s no longer cute.

Last week, rapist Brock Turner was released from jail after serving three months of a six month sentence for sexual assault. I’m not sure if Turner pushed his crushes on the playground or pulled their ponytails. But I do know that Turner sexually violated a woman and went to prison for a laughable three months. It wasn’t cute. But the sentence he received implied that it was. Just a mistake. Boys will be boys. He didn’t know.

But I think he did know. I think Turner knew that he could depend on a system of leniency, as he likely had for much of his life. From the letter his father wrote in his defense to the judge’s decision, this case has stated, “boys will be boys—girls will be garbage.” And tragically, the church often makes that same statement. In fact, I have friends who experienced just such an attitude toward rape/sexual abuse in their churches.

We don’t seem to understand that “boys will be boys” demands a trade-off. It exacts a price from girls and women. If we allow and encourage little boys to be aggressive toward others without consequences, we ask little girls to compensate. We feed the monster of rape culture.

Christian apathy toward rape culture is part of a broader cultural and global problem. The church’s refusal to directly engage rape culture is creating the very structures that women learn to anticipate and fear—structures that prioritize male needs/desires and downplay female trauma.

We need to do something, because the price of “boys will be boys” is far too high.

Reject “Boys Will Be Boys”

Some of those cute little boys who were told “boys will be boys” when they pulled their classmates’ ponytails will grow into men who see boundaries as negotiable and consent as optional. Let them not be the sons of the church.

When the world encourages Christians to dismiss and enable toxic masculinity, we should remember the Bible’s message of holding others, including little boys, accountable.

It’s our job as the church to say “Boys will not be boys at the expense of girls and women.” We need to teach boys that aggressive, violent, and entitled behavior isn’t cute or playful.

When little boys act out, we should help them examine their behavior and its impact on others, and then help them find healthier outlets for what they’re feeling. And we should unequivocally reject the privileged system of “boys will be boys” in our churches and Christian communities and promote empathy, self-awareness, and accountability.

Legitimize the Problem

The church is not above rape culture.

A quick search of under the category “Sexual Abuse” demonstrates that rape culture is alive and well in the church. Additionally, stories of sexual assault on Christian college campuses indicate that it’s not just a “secular” problem. It’s not just “the world” that has a rape culture problem. So does the church.

If we don’t name the problem, then we inhibit our capacity to address it. If rape culture is a secular, external problem, then we don’t need to do the hard, internal work of dismantling the “boys will be boys” mentality that enables entitled, aggressive masculinity.

We must hear the words “rape culture” from the pulpit. We must hear about consent in Christian schools, colleges, and university. We can’t afford to be apathetic, because the church is not above rape culture.

Use Victim-Supportive Language

A perpetrator and a victim do not have equal needs and they do not deserve equal consideration. We should not “play devil’s advocate,” attempt to avoid taking sides when a crime is committed, or call for forgiveness from traumatized victims when we think enough time has passed. We as the church do not get to make that call.

What is more, we should explicitly avoid the typical pattern of leniency in response to male violence that says, “boys will be boys.” At the 2016 T4G conference, Al Mohler welcomed CJ Mahaney, accused of covering up sexual abuse at Sovereign Grace Ministries, to the stage as a speaker. Mohler then went on to make a casual joke about the controversy that might follow googling Mahaney.

The attitude of these men tells us that the “boys will be boys” club is alive and well. Mohler alluded to the scandal with an almost playful tone, as if the accusations against Mahaney were silly and baseless. In doing so, he undermined the victims and reinforced a system that eschews accountability from privileged males.

When we talk about victims, particularly around young people, we should set a standard that says that female victims are to be believed, cared for, empowered, and protected. The church should not victim-blame, make excuses for perpetrators, or undermine survivors. Every time we talk about rape culture or sexual assault, it should be with a desire to better serve victims.

“Boys will be boys” is a dangerous mentality that fosters aggression and entitlement in men. It’s time the church confronted it.

See “Breaking the Silence: The Implications of Rape Culture for the Body of Christ” for more on this topic, its root in religious patriarchy, and its relevance to the church.

See “Reframing Biblical Masculinity” for an exploration of godly, healthy masculinity.

This is a forum for conversation and learning. Please keep dialogue constructive and engage respectfully with those who have different perspectives. We reserve the right to edit or delete comments that are offensive, off-topic, or attacking. We also encourage you to share our articles on Facebook and Twitter. We need your help to spread the message of gender equality.