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What Is a Boy?

Show this primer on sexism, respect, and so much more to the dudes in your life.

Many people believe that boys are genetically coded to fight and hustle each other for the most desirable girls in the village in order to spread their seed repeatedly. I’m no scientist, but I’ve read enough to know that this view (which is given perhaps its most nuanced, convincing defense in the book The Moral Animal) is in great dispute, to say the least. (Here’s a great piece by Tyler that talks about their experience with male hormones, and how that affected them.) Do you really want to buy into the idea that we’re all destined by natural selection to exist in a state of animalistic sexual manipulation and faithlessness? We can do better, guys.

I’ll never forget one summer many years ago, when, while sitting in a Miami hotel lobby with a group of work acquaintances (including a couple of women), I leered at a complete stranger in a bikini, and exclaimed, “Goddamn!” as she walked by. My female co-workers sneered in disgust and disbelief, and I had to agree with their reaction. I’d never even thought about catcalling a woman before, so why was I doing it now? The especially troubling part was that this moment coincided with a moment when I was really feeling myself for the first time as an adult—cool job, new girlfriend, all-expenses-paid business trip to South Beach. So, to celebrate, I guess, I decided to act like a depraved Wolf-Whistler of Wall Street, entitled to loudly assess a woman’s body in public. Somewhere, I’d apparently learned to associate livin’ large (at least my version) on South Beach with acting like a colossal douchebag.

I’ve got no interest in blaming the broken-down scapegoat that is “society” for dumb behavior like this—it’s important to accept responsibility for your own stupid decisions. But this d-bag impulse came from somewhere. It wasn’t just a result of having grown up in a conservative small town in the South (though that was a big part of it).

Because I never really talked to family or friends about sex, I learned about it mostly from movies, TV shows, and music, which generally showcased implausibly grandiose, romanticized adventures about crass, bros-before-hos, hit-it-and-quit-it scenarios. There were the sweeping escapades of film Lotharios, like those played by Tom Cruise and Sean Connery, who collected women like trophies as James Bond, and the musical hijinks of Led Zeppelin, N.W.A., and too many more to name. Porn also seeps into every part of our culture, and while it’s not inherently “bad” as a standalone thing, there’s plenty of it that makes sex between men and women look like a power game, and it’s not too difficult to guess who’s usually in power. After being fed these outrageous ideas about POSSESSION and POWER and PIMPS and GIRLS GONE WILD, till it’s no wonder that everyday life seems rather tame by comparison. I once wrote this in a diary years ago, and it hasn’t aged much:

You are not a pimp. You are not like a pimp. You are not up on “pimp game.” Pimps are psychotic abusive creeps who live off the grid and get arrested a lot. No matter what Ice-T says, they ain’t that smart. Snoop Dogg is not a pimp; he’s a legendary, millionaire rapper whose music has gotten more boring the more he’s talked about being a pimp.

To be blunt, no matter what the external world promises, the idea that you can possess women as a form of social currency, as a way to gain power, or to impress your friends, or as retribution for the time some girl dissed you in elementary school for trying to talk to her after band practice…anyone who seriously buys into that is probably a sad, lonely, injured person.

When straight teenage boys have feelings of powerlessness—due to a lack of opportunity or the information necessary to make decisions, sexual or otherwise—and want to lash out at a world that seems to be conspiring against them, one very strong tendency is to feel like you at least deserve the attention of girls whom you want to like you, comfort you, or love you. It should be self-evident why this is a flawed assumption. You’re skipping past the girl’s feelings, you’re asking for a yes/no answer to a complex question, and you’re actually setting yourself up for a variety of bad results, possibly including heartbreak or despair. Girls are not inanimate generators of self-respect; and sex, even with someone you love, will not magically solve your personal problems.

It’s normal to mess up. And it’s also normal to adapt and improve your behavior based on those mistakes. We’re all inclined, at one point or another, to play the blame game or go off the guilt-filled deep end, but, when that happens, it’s a way better choice to face the mirror, learn from your errors, and treat girls—and yourself—with more respect.

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31 Comments

  • emseely June 10th, 2014 7:39 PM

    THANK YOU.

  • sadierain June 10th, 2014 7:43 PM

    I absolutely loved this piece. It’s rare that an intelligent male perspective enters the conversation about feminism/sexism, and it was just beautiful and honest piece. <3<3

  • Laia June 10th, 2014 8:22 PM

    this is so great.

  • Naoms0111 June 10th, 2014 8:22 PM

    this was a really good article, i loved it

  • taratwinkle June 10th, 2014 8:37 PM

    Brilliant!!!

  • unicorninapartyhat June 10th, 2014 8:54 PM

    Thanks for writing this article. It was quite honest, which is something I don’t see often. As a girl, I don’t see how it would be so hard for guys to treat girls with respect, since we are human. But guys are also met with expectations of “manly”and “tough”, which are unrealistic. (Not that that’s an excuse to treat girls indecently.) Ew, patriarchy stinks. Also, platonic friendships are pretty great.

  • amelia3 June 10th, 2014 9:20 PM

    This is beautiful!

  • Spiderland June 10th, 2014 9:21 PM

    One of the best articles I have seen in a long time, thank you for making this Charles.

  • marineo June 10th, 2014 9:28 PM

    YAASS because what we need is MORE writing from the white male perspective YA DONE GOOD rookie wowwee

  • Ren June 10th, 2014 10:28 PM

    Man…just..well..Thank You. :)

  • FlaG June 11th, 2014 12:03 AM

    So, so, so well written. Thank you, Charles! Sharing on FB!

  • stoic June 11th, 2014 1:00 AM

    Thank you. Sending this to the men in my life, and some boys that I know.

  • ScarlettRed June 11th, 2014 1:59 AM

    Amazingly well written, balanced, honest and open perspective. Simply brilliant!

  • ghostgurl June 11th, 2014 6:36 AM

    Woah. This is just… wow. This is such an articulate, well-written piece, and it’s written in a manner that’s super easy to read, and very engaging. This addresses everything and isn’t aggressive or anything. This was captivating, and I’ll definitively be sharing this. Thank you!

  • lxmldrt June 11th, 2014 9:10 AM

    This happened in Argentina last month: A guy raped two girls because he didn’t wanna turn out as a “faggot” in front of some other totally random guys.

  • eibber June 11th, 2014 9:47 AM

    This is perfect!

  • Stephanie June 11th, 2014 12:34 PM

    Thank you so much for this!

  • June 11th, 2014 12:42 PM

    Sending this link to all of my guy friends and posting it on Twitter. Probably multiple times.

  • rhymeswithorange June 11th, 2014 4:11 PM

    Thank you! It is really great to hear about these issues from an articulate guy’s perspective.

  • eesmee June 11th, 2014 6:50 PM

    This is amazing, really interesting to get a considerate, non-judgmental-of-either-side male perspective on things, thank you Charles!

  • 3LL3NH June 12th, 2014 2:10 AM

    This is an absolutely incredible and necessary article. Thank you.

    Posted on Facebook, saying that I often have a hard time navigating the realities of sexism. This left me feeling like it’s starting to make sense.

  • Yurkusus June 12th, 2014 7:55 AM

    thank you!
    I find guys respond so much better when a man tells them this stuff than when I do :)

  • lizzo June 12th, 2014 4:54 PM

    I think given the subject matter, and the context of use (in paragraph and section discussing the relationship of boys to a female parent) the use of ‘motherfucker’ (“Shame can be a real motherfucker”) should perhaps be reconsidered, or at least examined.

    • Amy Rose June 12th, 2014 5:53 PM

      It was—that was a deliberate choice on the part of the writer!

  • Abby June 12th, 2014 5:49 PM

    Seriously every person in the world needs to read this. I wish I could give a copy to everyone and know they’d take it seriously. AMAZING. THANK YOU.

  • carolynmin June 12th, 2014 9:19 PM

    Bless this article a thousand times over.

  • Laurataur June 13th, 2014 5:31 AM

    Thank you so much for this, Charles! I really hope this gets more boys/men into Rookie. I love hearing from male feminists!

  • GorillazFangirl June 13th, 2014 12:32 PM

    So beautifully necessary that I sent the link to all my whatsapp contacts personally, that way I know they’re more likely to read it

  • zach_glass June 13th, 2014 12:40 PM

    As a boy, and a regular reader of Rookie, I really appreciate this kind of article. I’m from Paraguay and I’m using this to start discussions between my friends and family. It is hard to find these kind of thoughts in a well-articulated manner around here. Top-notch stuff.

  • lizabeth June 14th, 2014 3:14 PM

    So so good! Thank you for writing this. I wish everyone in the world would read this.

  • itsazooatthezoo June 19th, 2014 6:12 PM

    Excellent article! As the mother of two boys, I want to make sure they’re grow up to be good men. This helps me understand the male perspective a lot better. Thank you!!

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