Italian media outlet Fanpage.it recently released a PSA advocating against domestic violence, in which six boys between the ages of 7 and 11 were asked to slap a young girl “hard” on camera. The video went viral internationally, sparking dialogue surrounding the issue of domestic violence.
Though many have praised the boys’ reactions to the request, others have criticized the intentions of the PSA. Though the boys ultimately refused to slap the young girl, the real issue at hand is the perpetuation of damaging gender roles, internalized misogyny and a misplaced concern for consequences.
The video begins with an upbeat, bouncy melody playing in the background as an interviewer asks a group of six adorable young Italian boys a series of simple questions—what their names are, how old they are, what they want to be when they grow up.
Then, the interviewer introduces a young girl named Martina. The boys grin gap-toothed smiles and wiggle nervously as they greet her. The interviewer asks the boys to interact with Martina. He asks them what they like about her (“Just her hair, I swear!” one particularly shy boy declares), and—as she is a stranger—the boys comment on what is available to them: her physical appearance.
The presence of the interviewer poses a huge issue for the sentiment of the “experiment.” The boys look to him for direction, taking cues from him and looking to him as an authority figure. For example, when asked to caress Martina, each boy does so immediately—not asking Martina for permission first, indicating a Milgram-esque obedience to authority that many have found unsettling.
The interviewer’s presence may influence these young boys more than they realize and may cause some problems for the goal of the PSA, as it appears to absolve these boys of responsibility for their actions—a phenomenon that may perpetuate a dangerous mindset later on in life.
Furthermore, the additional three-second clip following the conclusion of the PSA features one of the young boys being asked to kiss Martina, to which the boy responds “Can I kiss her on the lips or the cheek?”
What is meant to be a humorous anecdote reveals the dangerous notion of the interviewer controlling the situation, and not Martina, who should have complete say over what strangers are allowed to do to her.
Instead of passing off this particular boy’s reaction as cute or innocent, his response should be used as a starting point to discuss the question of consent with young boys.
Even if someone in authority asks you to kiss a pretty girl, you are responsible to ask her if she would like to be kissed. Just as these boys wouldn’t slap a girl if a stranger with a camera asks them, they should also be taught not to caress or kiss a girl without her permission.
These boys’ responses may seem harmless enough, but when they grow up and go to college, this internalized misogyny has the remarkable likelihood to turn violent—or deadly.
According to a study led by Sarah R. Edwards of the University of North Dakota, nearly one-third of college men admit they would rape a woman if there were no consequences associated with their actions. Even more frightening, perhaps, is that only 13.6% will admit to this if the word rape is actually used in the survey.
So, when the interviewer is not present and the boys are not confronted with a beautiful, young stranger and instead are subject to their own emotions and the heat of the moment, it may be a bit more unlikely for them to refuse—especially if they cannot foresee any potential consequences or if they do not consider their actions to be rape.
With one in three women being victim of sexual assault in her lifetime, we must advocate for women to be viewed as human. It’s time to stop teaching our boys not to hit girls, but rather, not to use violence as a dehumanizing force—regardless of who’s watching.