First, I should clarify that I do not think it is acceptable for boys to hit girls, but the admonishment to “never hit a girl” has two problems. 1. It gives tacit permission to hit other boys. 2. It tells boys they have no right to complain when someone hits them. Under this one maxim, boys are certified as aggressors and negated as victims of violence.
If parents and teachers simply told boys not to hit, it would go against everything masculinity represents, unfortunately, in our culture. Fathers would worry that their sons would never toughen up, “grow a pair,” or be able to attract mates. Surely, they say, if boys don’t enter the rough and tumble world of male aggression they will all grow up to be homosexual. Rather, they really mean they will grow up to be “feminine” (I use the quotation marks to show that I do not believe any particular traits are feminine or masculine, but these words are used in stereotypical fashion), which is the real fear. Misogynists assume feminine boys are gay without understanding the difference between orientation and identity or the simple human spectrum of personality traits. It is misogyny that drives the rage against non-conforming boys. It is hatred of who they are more that what they do.
To avoid recriminations, boys with take and give punches and other forms of violence on a regular basis as practice for adulthood. The boy who grows up in this environment isn’t shamed for being violent. Rather, he is shamed when he is passive. If you are a boy who has been told he must never hit girls, when someone hits you, the aggressor has done nothing wrong. In fact, if you don’t hit back, you have done something wrong. You are lacking. Violence is an obligation of masculinity.
If you fail to stand your ground, you will be reprimanded for letting some bully push you around. You will likely be put in self-defense classes. You will likely be told you must toughen up and learn to take care of yourself. While a girl in your position might be given the opportunity to learn self-defense, her status as victim protects her from similar shaming. Violence may be an option of femininity, but it is not an obligation. Boys are denied the status of victim. Boys are told they can only be bullied if they don’t stand up for themselves.
And if a girl hits a boy, the boy is in a double bind. The shame of being hurt by a girl is far greater than the shame of being hurt by a boy, but the opportunity of self-defense or retaliation is taken away. The boy will face shaming such as: “How could you let that happen? She’s just a girl. Don’t hit her! She’s just a girl. Be a man! Just walk it off!” We wonder how adult men become victims of domestic violence, but this pattern is carried into adulthood. The man who is physically assaulted by a woman is rarely recognized as the victim he is. A woman half his size (of course, not every man is married to a woman half his size) couldn’t possibly hurt him. Surely, a grown man can take care of himself? If he strikes back, he earns the label of abuser for himself. His explanations are unlikely to be believed.
In addition to teaching boys that they are acceptable victims of male-on-male violence and that aggression against other boys is expected, it does little to protect the physical integrity of girls and women. Some time back, a video PSA against domestic violence went viral. The video shows boys standing in front of a passive girl as a man off-camera tells them to touch her and caress her. The boys do not hesitate to touch her until the man tells them to to hit her. All the boys refuse, inspiring tears and celebrations around the world. At the end of the video, a boy is told to kiss her. He asks only, “On the mouth or the cheek?” The message, it would seem, is that girls, passive and beautiful beings that they are, should never be hit but should also never have agency over their bodies. They boys say they are against violence, but they appear to have no concept of consent. They are willing to touch her body without her invitation but with the approval of an adult male. Before venturing a kiss, the boy asks the man, not the girl, how to proceed. I find the message of the PSA disturbing.
We could instead teach boys and girls to respect the bodies of all others. Sure, teach the children self-defense techniques but teach them also that aggression is an assault on the bodily integrity of another. Furthermore, this aggression can come in the form of a slap, a kick, or a kiss. We can teach children to respect all bodies and that touching others requires consent, and we can begin by showing respect for the bodies of children. It is not all right to hit girls because it is not all right to hit people. And, as the video below shows, it is not all right to hit animals, either.