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.

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.