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What Is a Boy?

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

I still cringe when I remember a scene that took place in a Miami hotel lobby many summers ago. I was sitting with group of work acquaintances (including a couple of women), and I visibly leered at a complete stranger in a bikini and exclaimed, “Goddamn!” as she walked by. My female co-workers sneered in disgust, and I had to agree with them. I’d never even thought about catcalling a woman before, so why was I doing it now? When I think about it, that was around the time that 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) 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 showcased grandiose, romanticized adventures about crass, bros-before-hos, hit-it-and-quit-it scenarios. I soaked in the exciting escapades of film Lotharios played by people like Tom Cruise and Sean Connery, who collected women like trophies, and the musical boasting 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, 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, to gain power, to impress your friends, or as retribution for the time some other girl dissed you in elementary school…anyone who buys into any of that is probably a sad, lonely, injured person.

When you’re a straight teenage boys who feels powerless and wants to lash out at a world that seems to be conspiring against you, one very popular reaction is to decide that the least you deserve is attention, comfort, and/or love from girls. It should be obvious 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. It’s also normal to adapt and improve your behavior based on past mistakes. We’re all inclined, at some 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.

III. WHY WE DON’T KNOW WHAT WE’RE DOING (AND WHY WE’RE DOING IT)

So, yeah, we need help! But where and how do we get it? How many of you have positive, communicative male role models? How many have been sold out, jerked around, or embarrassed by older men in your lives? If you raised your hand at that second question, consider the fact that all the men you know used to be boys, too, and they probably never thought about the way they were raised.

For boys in America (and most of the rest of the world), the toughening up starts early. You’re told that you need to be the independent master of your domain. You’re strongly encouraged to close yourself off from others and to value
traditionally “masculine” forms of power and success over being empathetic, honest, and communicative human beings. The clichés come fast and furious: “Be a man,” “Stop acting like a baby,” “Control your emotions,” “You’re a mama’s boy.” Even before elementary school, boys are discouraged from relying so much on their mothers, as if having a close relationship with a female parent is wrong. It’s not hard to see how this could get a boy’s relationship with the opposite sex off to a rather disorienting start. Shame can be a real motherfucker.

None of this is the fault of a certain set of musical artists, or movies, or our parents, or any one specific entity. These are all the results of a bigger societal problem, which is that we live in a patriarchy—a system in which men hold the majority of powerful social and professional positions that shape our society. It’s a totally shitty situation that hurts not only women, but everyone.

If you’re gay or bi (or you might be gay or bi), you probably don’t need me or anyone else telling you how harmful the pressure to be “manly” can be. In many groups of guys, the worst thing you can say to someone is that they’re…like you. If you’re not sure whether your friends will accept you as you really are, you might decide to secret away your feelings, or assume a personality other than your own to avoid suspicion. You might even laugh at homophobic or transphobic banter. What better way to wipe away any doubt of your heterosexuality than by attacking other kids for being or “acting” gay?

At its core, homophobia comes from sexism: If women weren’t seen as lesser, boys wouldn’t bully one another for being “feminine.” This is yet another way in which the patriarchy is such a bummer for everybody, of all genders and sexual preferences.

I’ve always had trouble with the idea that when guys get together, we’re supposed to play sports, watch sports, talk about sports, talk about cars, and talk about sex in the dumbest and “dirtiest” of ways—all the things we supposedly “can’t do” with women. When I was a teenager, hanging with the guys invariably made me feel awkward and out-of-sync. Mostly, I just shut down, saying as little as possible. Over time, I was able to develop a tight group of guy friends who hung out, talked on the phone, drove around listening to the radio, and played basketball together. None of us figured we had a shot to talk to girls outside of school, so we rarely talked about girls or sex, but when we did, it wasn’t as a way to prove our manhood or wield power over each other or other kids. That kind of power trip can seem cool in the abstract—we’re all tempted by the dream of being a suave asshole for just one day–but you usually just clown yourself.

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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!!