Not my Nigel: On mothers, sons, responsibility, and denial

After reading a piece, published back in 1989 by Sonia Johnson called “Rearing Nice Sons Can’t Change the World“, I started thinking about mothers, sons, male privilege and what’s sometimes referred to as the ‘Not my Nigel‘ defense. In the article, Johnson points out that, while we love to wax poetic about the very important role mothers play in this world, they are relatively powerless in terms of effecting change on a systematic level and, therefore, have little influence over whether or not their sons turn out to be entitled misogynists. She writes:

Patriarchy tells mothers unctuously that we are very important and have much influence, but its behavior speaks louder than its words. Of all persons in patriarchal society, mothers have been set up to have least credibility.

My own experience witnessing the sometimes abhorrent behaviour of some the sons of progressive women I know shows that regardless of their own anti-sexist values, patriarchy is more powerful than mothers.

While I know for certain that there are many wonderful sons out there, because I know feminist men and they had to come from somewhere, I also know many men whose behaviour doesn’t nearly reflect their upbringing or their mother’s values. Men who, though raised by progressive women, are addicted to pornography, who buy women, who make racist and sexist jokes, or who simply belittle and silence or behave in other, more subtly oppressive ways (gaslighting, marginalizing women’s issues, etc.).

Johnson points out that, despite women’s best efforts, their sons are still male and that being male in a patriarchal world means that a certain level of privilege exists as soon as that baby is born and there is little any individual can do, on their own, to alter institutionalized power and privilege. As such, she argues that there is no amount of feminist child-rearing that will change the world.

While it certainly isn’t my intent to blame mothers for raising sexist sons, as it’s clear that mothers may have little control over the level to which their sons decide to make use of the privilege they are born with, I do question the level to which mothers hold their sons accountable for their oppressive behaviour and wonder when women will break free from the desperate (and common) ‘Not my Nigel’ response.

I while back I wrote a post inspired by an interaction I had with a supposedly ‘open-minded’, ‘nice guy’ who engaged in some pretty classic gaslighting when I called him out on his sexist comments. “Chill out, dear” he said. “Don’t be so closed-minded.” The post explored the sexist behaviour of men who considered themselves, or were considered by others to be ‘New Age Dudes’ – a caricature I created based on a number of interactions I’d had with men who displayed this ‘nice guy’ persona while simultaneously objectifying and/or silencing women.

After I wrote the post, the mother of the man who inspired me to write the post stopped speaking to me (this was, let’s say, a family friend of sorts). She was livid. She told others that I was unstable, angry, out-of-control, etc. (you all know the deal — women who get angry are crazy!) Her son, she said, would “give anyone the shirt off his back”. She talked to everyone but me about how terrible I was to have dared speak ill of her son. He was ‘nice’, after all. I was, of course, an evil witch.

I don’t know that, had this woman refused to defend her son’s misogynist behaviour, it would have made any difference in terms of his behaviour. I know many mothers who have progressive values and still end up with sons who frequent strip clubs, buy sex from prostituted women, and consume pornography, just like this ‘nice guy’. Obviously this isn’t the fault or the responsibility of the mother. In the end, men are responsible for their own misogynistic behaviour. But if mothers are going to continue to excuse this behaviour, simply because these are their sons and they are committed to denial when it comes to their own family’s complicity in sexism, all the while attacking the women who do take a risk (and as many of you know, calling men out on their behaviour, especially when they are men who are close to you, is extremely risky, as it is very likely that the response will be harsh and that we will be abandoned, rather than supported, by those around us), I can’t help but feel like there is some responsibility in that.

“But he’s a nice guy” is one of the most common ways we excuse abusers and rapists, as noted by in his post on Ms. Magazine’s blog: “Nice Guys” Contribute to Rape Culture. It isn’t, of course, only mothers who make these excuses for their sons — it comes from men and women alike.

Atherton-Zeman goes on to say that “men accused of rape and abuse are often vigorously defended” and that we have to acknowledge that sometimes these ‘nice guys’ also commit rape. As feminists have been pointing out for years, he notes: “Rapists and batterers often present quite well in public, while committing violence in private.”

We can’t continue to perpetuate this idea that sexist men, men who make use of their privileged position in this world in ways that hurt women, are obvious villains. They aren’t. They’re just regular guys. Your professors, your bosses, your husbands, your classmates, your doctors, and yes, your sons.

A good friend of mine was sexually assaulted by her chiropractor about eight years ago. She came forward with a number of other women (I interviewed her about her experience last year; you can hear that interview here) and the man was consequently charged. Because this happened in a small community, many people knew the chiropractor on a personal level and/or had been seeing him for some time and trusted him. Even after he was charged, many refused to believe the women’s stories, one woman saying to me, when I brought it up: “Not MY Peter!” – implying that no, of course, he would never do such a thing. He was her friend, after all! This chiropractor was a ‘nice guy’.

Why are we so unwilling, as women, to believe or acknowledge that the men who are close to us in our lives may well be part of the problem?

Another friend, a woman who is unwavering in her feminism, has recently become distraught over her son’s growing interest in the Men’s Rights Movement, a frighteningly misogynist group of men who seem to believe that feminism is out to get them. She is lost, she doesn’t know what to do, she is worried she can no longer have a relationship with her son if he continues to pursue this ideology and, of course, she wonders how a son of hers could have gone down such a troubling path.

She is far from being in denial about her son’s complicity in perpetuating patriarchy, but at the same time her unwillingness to ‘Not my Nigel’ her son is causing her an incredible amount of pain and strife.

So while I can understand how difficult it might be, as a mother (and actually, perhaps I can’t quite understand, having never been a mother myself), to acknowledge the fact that your son might well be part of the problem, are we really doing those men (and ourselves) any good by protecting them?

Your son may very well treat you with love and kindness. He may be generous and compassionate. He might help you around the house, he might love his dog, he might agree with all of your progressive politics (except for, of course, the woman-stuff, because we all know how unimportant women are in the grand scheme of things). But none of those behaviours guarantee that he treats all other women with respect, and knowing the way that masculinity is framed in our culture and the imagery and messages men and boys are exposed to constantly, throughout their lives, it’s not surprising that he would grow up with this sense of entitlement and lack of respect for women.

I don’t blame mothers, sisters, or friends for wanting so badly not to believe the truth about some of the men they know and love. I imagine that, particularly for mothers, it would be so difficult, so painful, and so unbearable, to know that your son, who came from you, who you raised is now, as an adult male, exerting his male privilege despite all your best efforts — but the end result of this denial is that we throw women under the bus. Protecting our men from the evil women who call them out on their oppressive behaviour (even if they behave like ‘nice’ guys in other parts of their lives) isn’t doing anyone any good and it works to silence women.

I’m not saying that mothers need to reject or disown their sons upon discovering that he frequents strip clubs or pays women for blow jobs; I imagine that would be an impossible or heartbreaking thing to do (hell, I have male friends who still watch porn, luckily they seem more interested in undoing their addiction then defending it) — who knows, maybe the realization could be an opportunity to educate — but refusing to believe, protecting and coddling, making excuses, or attacking the women who out them doesn’t help anyone. It works against women and it works against your sons,  who will continue to believe that objectifying or exploiting women is perfectly normal and harmless.

My friend who was assaulted has been ‘Not my Nigelled’ so many times in her community that she now feels completely isolated and ostracized. The mother of the man who told me to “chill out, dear” refuses to speak to me and has done her best to ostracize me as well, working to turn family and friends against me. Numerous women stopped speaking to me after I outed an abusive man in a small community. I imagine that many of us have been rejected, attacked, or ostracized for attempting to address this kind of behaviour.

So here’s the thing. It’s not your fault that your son was born male in a patriarchal world. It’s not your fault that he doesn’t respect women or women’s voices, that he was exposed to porn early on (boys are commonly exposed to pornography early in their teens, sometimes when they are even younger), it isn’t your fault that prostitution is normalized and that men learn that masculinity means being entitled to access women’s bodies and that women exist to fulfill male desire, it isn’t even necessarily your fault if your son becomes abusive. While women certainly shouldn’t stop trying to raise feminist sons, the sad truth is that your values don’t always stick. That just because you aren’t sexist yourself doesn’t mean your son won’t be.

I’m guessing that a lot of the ‘Not my Nigelling’ that comes from mothers happens because they do blame themselves or have a fear of being blamed. That happens a lot in our culture. We love to blame mothers for all sorts of things while simultaneously devaluing them.

Katha Pollitt reminded us of this a couple of months ago in her article about attachment parenting, writing:

Women are so eager to blame themselves and one another about, well, everything—weight, looks, clothes, sexual behavior (you haven’t lived till you’ve heard a seventh-grade girl refer to another as a “ho”), marriages and, of course, baybeez, every wrinkle of whose behavior is directly attributable to their mothers’ having made some small but fatal mistake.

I, like, Pollitt, don’t want to fall into the trap of blaming women for their own oppression. I want to hold men accountable. But I also want women to support one another.

I know that people love their families no matter what. But I think that you can love someone and acknowledge the truth at the same time. In fact, I think that if we are going to love the men in our lives, we have no choice but to start confronting the reality that many of these men are part of the problem.


Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.