Boys Are In Trouble (And We’re All Paying the Price)
Men appear to be the cause of most of the world’s problems. Is there something inherently wrong with the male of the species? A closer look suggests otherwise — and that it’s time for some changes.
Recently, I looked over the daily news reports on several of my favorite Internet news sites. Men belonging to one ethnic group in an African nation were murdering people who belonged to a different group, raping their women, burning their homes and driving tens of thousands of them into neighboring countries. In Iraq, young Americans — mostly men — were killing people and being killed. Members of Congress were voting in new laws that gave bigger tax breaks to wealthy corporations and rolling back restraints on dumping toxic chemicals into our air and water. A serial murderer was finally captured.
What’s the one factor almost all of this bad behavior seems to have in common? Men. Men commit most of the crimes and seem to cause most of the violence we hear about. The people in governments around the world who use their power to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else are almost entirely men. The people starting wars, fighting in wars, and dying in wars are mostly men. And when it comes to interacting with women, it almost always seems to be men who are responsible for abuse, rape, and other forms of mistreatment.
A casual observer might well conclude that there is something fundamentally bad about men. Clearly there is a problem, and it’s a problem that now threatens the very future of our planet, thanks to our growing ability to easily kill huge numbers of people and despoil the environment at an astounding rate. Many people believe that the source of this problem is something ingrained in men — perhaps a genetic or hormonal condition that can’t be altered.
In reality, this conclusion about the source of the problem is the result of casual observation, not careful thought. And unfortunately, if you buy into this belief, you are unwittingly helping to perpetuate it.
Just for a moment, let’s assume that a tendency to violence and crime is not the “natural state” of a man. Assume that there is nothing innately wrong with men (or, for that matter, human beings). Think of it this way: Plenty of men in the world do not kill others, or rape or mistreat women, or commit crimes. In fact, most of the people who have fought — even given their lives — for peace and justice have also been men. If violence, crime and hatred were ingrained and unchangeable, there wouldn’t be any sensitive, non-violent, respectful men walking around.
If you can suspend, just for a few minutes, the idea that men are inevitably going to produce violence, crime and war, you’ll discover a world of evidence that men are involved in these behaviors for reasons that have very little to do with genetics or hormones — reasons that can be altered or eliminated.
But they can only be altered or eliminated if people see them for what they are.
Cause and Effect
For centuries the “acceptable” behavior and attitudes of both sexes have been largely dictated by time-honored stereotypes — “rules” about how men and women are supposed to behave. These stereotypes tend to remain unquestioned, and challenging them has often been seen as grounds for punishment or exclusion from society.
In America, this began to change during the 20th Century. The women’s movement that became a political force in the nineteen-sixties caused many people to realize that stereotypes can be very unhealthy, and made it much clearer to most Americans that serious misconceptions are often built into cultural “ideals” about male and female behavior. As a result, many more people realize that much of women’s past “stereotypical” and “culturally acceptable” behavior was the result of repressive ideas taught to girls as they were growing up.
Unfortunately, the same type of reasoning about the impact of childhood treatment hasn’t been extended to men. Because men are not seen as victims of the system in the way women have been, our culture has assumed that men are doing just fine, thank you. (This idea, unfortunately, was perpetuated by the women’s movement, which often equated men’s better pay and political dominance with men being “better off.”) Even though most of the world’s problems stem from male behavior, few people have asked whether something might be seriously wrong with the way men are raised.
Behaving “Like a Man”
For a long time our society has accepted the idea that boys must be raised to be tough, “independent” and successful. But if you take a close look at the lives of most boys you’ll find a very disturbing picture. Most boys are caught in a cultural and psychological trap — a situation that undercuts self-respect, fosters violence and wreaks havoc on emotional and psychological health.
Ironically, the kinds of grownup male behavior that cause the most pain and destruction on this planet — everything from rape to war-mongering — are all logical extensions of the kind of behavior we normally expect from boys. Almost from the moment they’re born, boys are pressured to “behave like a man.” This means many things:
- It means having the physical strength to beat up other kids — or at least to keep yourself from getting beat up. (If you happen to not be that strong, or you’re unwilling to fight…well, you’re in for a rough childhood.)
- It means pretending that you’re not afraid or in pain.
- It means avoiding doing anything that (according to the stereotypes) only a girl would do — no matter what price you pay for not doing it.
- It means taking revenge.
- It means not asking for help.
- It means taking reckless chances that put yourself and others at risk.
- It means drinking alcohol.
- It means succeeding at any cost, and taking full responsibility for any “failures.”
- It means not touching other boys except in limited, acceptable ways, and once you pass puberty, having sex as soon as possible, with as many girls as possible.
- It means not doing too well in school! Studies have shown that the more a boy behaves like a “real man,” the worse he does in school. In a culture such as ours that pressures boys to live up to that “ideal,” it should be no surprise that we have such high rates of illiteracy and so many school dropouts.
- It means treating other boys who fail to act “like men” as badly as possible, lest you be considered one of them and receive the same treatment. In other words, boys learn that there are basically two groups — the bullies and the targets. Even well-meaning kids learn to torment other “weaker” kids, just to stay out of the target group themselves. Boys who would otherwise not get caught up in the “game” are pushed into being tormentors for their own self-preservation.
The Price of “Failure”
Of course, girls are also subjected to traditional expectations that can damage their mental health and prevent them from developing their full potential in life. But there’s a very crucial difference between the “rules” for girls and the “rules” for boys: the price a child pays for breaking the rules.
If a girl fails to act “like a girl,” she may be labeled a tomboy, but there’s no great stigma attached to that. On the other hand, a boy learns early that his entire physical and psychological well-being depends on his “behaving like a man.” (Note the difference in terminology.)
When a boy fails to behave “like a man” he faces humiliation from his peers, often including a semi-permanent label such as “sissy” or “fag.” (Under the right conditions, these can become self-fulfilling prophecies.) At home, he’s likely to face alarm — and possibly punishment — from his parents. In short, he becomes a social outcast, subject to mistreatment by other kids and adults — including being tormented and physically beaten.
Being unable or unwilling to live up to these culturally accepted standards means being an outcast, a target — a failure as a human being. Powerful persuasion, indeed, and “lessons” that are ingrained for a lifetime.
Make no mistake — this is nothing less than culturally-condoned child abuse.
When Boys Grow Up
Being pressured into learning behavior such as this is unpleasant, and highly self-destructive — not to mention harmful to those around you! But the real problem occurs when these boys grow up, because the behavior they’ve learned as boys tends to stay with them as adults. Unfortunately, the same behaviors that help to prevent humiliation and beatings when you’re a boy backfire when you carry them into adulthood:
- Being a bully gets you respect as a boy. As an adult, it makes enemies, destroys marriages and starts wars.
- Not admitting that you’re in pain keeps you from being abused as a boy. As an adult it leads to poor communication, resentment, anger and violence.
- Repressing emotions keeps you from being a target as a boy. As an adult it leads to emotional explosions, ulcers and nervous breakdowns.
- Taking revenge is considered a “manly” thing to do as a boy. As an adult it justifies crime, hatred and war.
- Boys who learn to see the world in terms of bullies and targets are likely to base their adult views on the same kind of thinking.
- Boys who win respect by being abusive and violent will grow up to be abusive, violent men.
- Boys who drink or take drugs to win the approval and admiration of their friends are likely to grow up to be alcoholics and drug abusers.
- Boys who learn they must succeed at any cost grow up to be men who see their self-worth in the same terms, pushing themselves and others into unethical choices and early heart attacks.
- Teenagers who sleep with lots of women to prove to themselves and their friends that they’re “okay” create unwanted children, spread sexually transmitted diseases and grow up to be husbands who cheat on their wives.
- Boys who learn to treat girls as inferior beings to avoid being tormented themselves grow up to be men who treat women the same way.
Because all of this is tied in to being acceptable — and because boys learn they’ll pay a high price for not being acceptable — many men spend their lives in a constant struggle to “prove their masculinity,” with disastrous results for all of us.
The Anger Factor
In addition to all of this, boys subjected to this kind of abuse grow up to be angry men. They’re angry because the behavior they were pressured to learn as a child doesn’t lead to happiness and fulfillment, as our society promises.
Quite the opposite.
To make matters worse, our culture still sees the macho male role as normal and healthy, which leaves the anger and resentment these men feel unfocused. They can’t see any clear reason why they should be angry, so they don’t know how to deal with it. And then this unfocussed anger ends up becoming yet another part of the accepted idea of how men “are.”
A lot of that anger and resentment, unfortunately, gets aimed at women. If you think about it, this isn’t surprising, for several reasons:
- At some level, many men resent women because they know that women’s behavior and expectations have helped to create and perpetuate this situation. But because the situation with men is still “invisible” in our culture, it’s very hard for most men and women to grasp the reasons for such resentment — much less to do anything about it.
- Second, many men resent being blamed for women’s problems. At a gut level they know that they were expected to treat women a certain way. Now they find themselves being labeled cruel or tyrannical or power-hungry for behaving that way.
- Third — and most important — boys are very much aware that most girls aren’t subjected to humiliation and physical abuse for just being who they are. A boy who has been tormented for crying, beaten up for not being athletic enough or humiliated for being too good in school is bound to feel some jealousy or resentment toward girls who behave the same way but don’t suffer for it. And someone who feels jealous or resentful will be twice as angry when a woman who “had it easy” suddenly accuses him of making life hard for women!
The “accuracy” of any of these feelings or observations doesn’t make any difference. The important point to remember is that the resentment, jealousy and anger many men feel toward women exist for a reason. In other words, the phenomenon of “men who hate women” is simply another one of the logical results of our ideas about how boys and men should behave.
The Deafening Sound of Silence
An obvious question to ask at this point is: If there really is something wrong with the way boys are raised, why haven’t we heard about it? Very few men or boys complain about the way they’re raised or treated. That’s because they have very good reasons not to recognize the problem, and if they do recognize it, to avoid saying anything:
- First, like the female stereotype, “macho” behavior is a time-honored cultural convention, defining how men should behave and what women should expect from them. To suddenly question guidelines that both sexes have followed all their lives can be very threatening. (Just look at the resistance the women’s movement encountered — from both men and women!) Everybody prefers to avoid change, even if the current situation is problematic.
- Second, most people have accepted the idea that men “have it better” than women. So there seems little reason to question the way men are raised. In fact complaining under these circumstances makes a man (or boy) sound like a “whiner”…and a fool.
- Third, and most important, boys seldom say anything negative about the way they’ve been treated because the very act of questioning the male “ideal” can lead to persecution by peers and parents. The threat of rejection by friends and family — and even physical beatings — is so real that boys not only learn to stifle any complaints, they learn to accept their treatment as “right.”
In this situation, most boys’ thought process goes something like this: “If there’s a problem here, it must be my problem. And if I admit there’s a problem I’ll live to regret it. So…there’s no problem here.”
Given these conditions, it’s no wonder the male stereotype has remained relatively unchallenged.
Truth and Consequences
What are the consequences for all of us? Rapists are trying to prove to themselves — and their friends — that they are “real men.” So are teenagers who drink and drive. So are international terrorists. So are the men in corporate America who are having heart attacks and getting ulcers. So are bullies. So are kids who drop out of school. So are men who harass women or beat their wives. So are heads of state when they talk of vengeance, take what they want from other countries by force, or push their own populations into poverty while enriching themselves and their backers.
- Does this sound like normal, healthy behavior?
- Should we accept that this behavior is “natural” for men when there is such intense pressure placed on boys and men to behave this way?
- Can we blame violent behavior on genetics or hormones when a boy knows he’ll be humiliated for being non-violent?
- Can we blame men’s “loose” sexual behavior on hormones when men have been taught that their status — and masculinity — are measured by how many women they’ve taken to bed?
- Can we blame the fact that men die 10 years earlier than women on male genes, when men’s bodies heal just as fast or faster than women’s under normal circumstances?
All of these realities — the behavior and the results of it — are intimately connected with the way we expect boys and men to act. And all of us — women just as much as men — pressure boys and men to live up to these expectations. They’re learned from parents, from peers, from television, from popular music, from school, and from religion.
We all live with the problems that result from this — the crime, the intolerance, the wars — but most of these problems have seemed more or less insoluble, because the real cause has been invisible. The cause is a cultural system of beliefs about how men — and women — are supposed to act. A system that has long been accepted as healthy, normal and desirable.
Ending the Cycle of Abuse
It’s time for a change. Indeed, if the world is going to survive this nuclear era we must stop raising men in a way that produces and encourages such destructive behavior. But how do we go about changing a system that’s so firmly imbedded in the minds and behavior of so many men and women — especially when many of them still believe that these expectations and the resulting behavior are healthy and normal?
Here are three steps that anyone can take to help change things for the better:
Step 1: Don’t try to do anything about this until you’re really convinced that a change is necessary. Start by getting a clear sense of the problem:
- Talk to the men you know; ask them about their experiences and feelings. (But be forewarned: Most men are reluctant to talk about these issues and may even defend abuse that they were subjected to.)
- If you’re a boy or a man, think about your own experience. How have these expectations affected your life and the lives of those around you?
- Notice the way you react to “male” behavior in boys and men. What kind of behavior are you encouraging?
- Watch the way parents treat their male children.
- Do a little reading. Three excellent books that clarify the problem and what can be done about it are:
— Why Men Are the Way They Are, by Warren Farrell
— Real Boys, by William Pollack
— The Hazards of Being Male, by Herb Goldberg.
Step 2: Once you get a clear, first-hand sense of the “male myth” and its consequences, withdraw your support from the system.
- Stop giving approval to destructive behavior in boys and men.
- Don’t support movies, magazines or television shows that tell the audience to be a hero by living up to macho “ideals” that eat away at the individual and wreak havoc on society.
- Stop rewarding the boys and men you know — directly or indirectly — for being “independent” (not asking for help when they need it), “strong” (taking what they want by force, being vengeful, being pushy, hiding all feelings of pain, weakness or exhaustion) or a success (at any cost).
- Try thinking of the men you know as human beings instead of “men,” and reward them for being humane — to themselves and others.
- Don’t attack the system — attacking things tends to make them stronger. Just withdraw your support.
Step 3: Start working to educate others about this problem. In the long run, the only way to change the system is to make sure that everyone sees it for what it is.
- Get your friends thinking about these issues.
- Work towards getting a sex-role education course in your local school. Such a course would help kids to see peer pressure for what it is and learn ways to deal with it. It would also help teachers to see the ways in which they unintentionally support destructive stereotypes.
- Let the media know that you want to see films and TV shows that are real — that show the actual consequences of this “idealized” male behavior, and that present constructive alternatives.
We’re All Paying the Price
When men are confronted with a situation they must react to, they have been taught to consider two questions:
What’s the right thing to do?
Will I still be considered a “real man” if I do it?
This is no way to choose your path in life, and it is certainly no way to run the world.
The old system gave us guidelines for acceptable behavior, but those guidelines have cost us dearly. The time has come for all of us to change our ideas about how “real men” are supposed to behave.
© 2005 by Christopher Kent. All right reserved.