Slugs and snails — how are our little boys?

Among the fabled tribes of Africa, the Masai tribe's warriors, the Casseria Engeri, were considered by all as the most fearsome of them all. How ironic, then, that their traditional greeting to one another was: "And how are the children?"

The Masai tribe placed the welfare of its entire tribe on the welfare of its children. As people passed one another, the question would be asked: "And how are the children?" If the answer was, "The children are well," that meant that the society was doing well.

The sad truth is that our little boys are not doing well. I remember the old saying as a child to the questions: What are little girls made of? What are little boys made of? Girls, of course, were made of "sugar and spice and everything nice" and boys were made of "slugs and snails and puppy dog tails."

Obviously, girls have come a long way from that mantra, shedding limiting stereotypes as they walked confidently into the 21st century. However, our little boys are not seen anymore as in that innocuous saying about puppy dog tails. Today boys are almost demonized in our society, seen as batterers and predators in training.

What messages have we given our little boys and our community? It seems that today our boys are condemned to a terrible stereotyping.

At the Children's Advocacy Center we serve all children. In 2006 we served 725 children, 486 girls and 239 boys. In 2007, we have already seen 83 little boys!

We hear a lot about our little girls, and we should. I don't want to minimize the numbers of violent criminals in our prison systems that are male. This is such a complex issue.

However, we do have many little boys who meet the same fate as our little girls, who are hit, punched, uncared for and sexually violated. We don't hear much about them or their families or what it's like to be a little boy who has been hurt.

Do you think that a 4-year-old boy who is sodomized by his trusted babysitter — usually a family member — is any less betrayed than his 4-year-old female cousin? All genders bleed when hurt. All children cry the same tears when betrayed. All children suffer at the hands of predators. In fact, the largest group seduced for sexual exploitation from the Internet today is boys, not girls.

We know that about one in three little girls and one in four or five boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18. But boys do not disclose as often as girls. In fact, every stereotype in our society makes it almost impossible for our little boys to tell anyone at all.

Boys face more shame and social stigma, keep more secrets, fear not being believed, or fear they will get no help. The truth is that there is incredible shame and social isolation, if a boy admits that he has been sexually violated. Most boys keep their painful secrets well into adulthood or they never tell anyone at all.

Another barrier placed on little boys by society says that if you are sexually abused, it "means" something quite different than if you are a little girl. Little boys ask their mothers: "Does what happened 'mean' that I am gay?"

Sexual ambivalence for little boys is not an issue for little girls. So why would any boy want to tell at all? Let's remember, too, that our baby boys cannot tell because they cannot speak.

Our boys are in crisis. We know that boys witness more violence than girls, are physically abused more often, report more physical assaults, stabbings and shootings, and are more likely to go to prison for violent crimes. Why have we turned our backs to them? The Children's Advocacy Center wants to be able to say that all our children are well — a solid indicator of the soul of our community.

It's time that we begin helping our little boys, who have been victimized too. It's time that half the human population is seen as "human" and not testosterone-poisoned predators or "baby batterers." It's time that we take better, more tender care of our little men, who will one day be adult men, who will father our children, teach, guide and nurture the next generation alongside the women.

Marlene Mish is executive director of the Children's Advocacy Center, with over 40 years experience working as a teacher, counselor, principal and child sex abuse advocate.

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