In wilderness therapy, we often address the topic of healthy relationships and how male students view and treat the women in their lives. In the field, we are able to witness students’ attitudes and behaviors toward women through their stories from home, their words, and their daily interactions with female staff. How does Open Sky approach these issues in the wilderness? How can we help parents to address these issues at home?
Before diving into Open Sky’s approach, it is important first to understand what misogyny is and how it plays out in society. According to sociologist Allan G. Johnson, “Misogyny…is a central part of sexist prejudice and ideology and, as such, is an important basis for the oppression of females in male-dominated societies. Misogyny is manifested in many different ways, from jokes to pornography to violence to the self-contempt women may be taught to feel toward their bodies.”
Misogyny can show up in many different ways during wilderness therapy. It may be directed toward a female field guide or displayed in the way the student describes a relationship that he has at home with a girlfriend, a friend, or his mother. Adolescent boys typically learn these behaviors from role models, peers or what they see in media.
In the field, the boys may disregard what a female staff member says, make inappropriate sexual comments, expect gender roles that society has influenced, and devalue what a female has to say.
Open Sky field guides model healthy relationships and the behaviors that we expect from students. They do this in the way that they treat students, their co-guides, and the primary therapist in their group. The male and female guides work to model respect for one another and appreciation when someone shares his or her feelings. They honor the skills each guide brings to the group. The guides are constantly an example of what it is like to have a relationship with the opposite sex that is based on respect, trust, and appreciation for what each individual has to offer. The students in the field often look up to the guides, so the guides’ actions can have a powerful effect on the students in the group.
As a clinical therapist, I address these issues in the group setting, individually with the guides, and in session with each of my students. We define and talk about what a healthy relationship looks like to them, how they build relationships in the field with their peers and guides, and what their relationships look like at home. If there is disrespect in the field towards a female guide, towards me, or towards anyone else in the group, we confront it head-on. It is important to talk about these behaviors when they occur in order to shed light on a pattern that a student may not be aware of. They may view their words or behaviors as “normal” or accepted in their peer group at home; as a way to help them to fit in and be “cool.”
In addition to modeling our core values, we also have important conversations with the students about the human pattern of sacrificing these values to meet certain needs. After we sacrifice a value, we may typically feel depressed or sad because we are not living in a way that is congruent with our thoughts and beliefs. For example, a student may make a degrading comment to a female staff member or disregard her instructions unless a male staff enforces them. We then have conversations around which values they are sacrificing in order to meet a need. In this instance, perhaps they are sacrificing their value of respect for all people to meet their desire for power and control or freedom and fun. Inspiring people to learn and live in a way that honors values is a component of our mission at Open Sky, and evident in these conversations.
At Open Sky, we teach and encourage students to engage in healthy relationships. The phrase “boys will be boys” implies that boys have an excuse to act in a degrading way towards women; that they do not need to be accountable for their actions. We empower young men to have control over their emotions and hold them responsible for what they say and do. Developing these expectations prepares them to continue more positive patterns of behavior after they leave Open Sky.
Modeling healthy patterns and relationships at home is invaluable, so we create a path in the wilderness that parents can follow at home. We work with parents to hold boundaries and challenge their son to think about how he is treating others. The importance of talking about these issues, whether it is at home or in the woods, is essential to helping boys to recognize when they are disrespecting someone, to understand the foundation of this behavior and to be challenged to value and respect all people.
Johnson, Allan G (2000). “The Blackwell dictionary of sociology: A user’s guide to sociological language.” ISBN 978-0-631-21681-0. Retrieved November 21, 2011., (“ideology” in all small capitals in original).