III. WHY WE DON’T KNOW WHAT WE’RE DOING (AND WHY WE’RE DOING IT)
So, yeah, we need help! But from whom, and where? How many of us have/had strong, positive communicative male role models as teenage boys? Why, conversely, have so many of the older men in our lives sold us out, jerked us around, or embarrassed us for being human? Part of the reason is that these men are just boys who got older and never thought about the way they were raised.
The problem is, when you grow up as a boy in America, you’re actively encouraged to close yourself off from others. The overarching message is that boys need to be independent masters of their domain, so the toughening up and disciplinary process starts early. The clichés come fast and furious—“Be a man,” “Stop acting like a baby,” “Control your emotions,” “You’re a mama’s boy.” Boys are pushed, even before elementary school, to not rely 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. Men close themselves off because they’re taught to value the traditionally “masculine” forms of power and success over being empathetic, honest, and communicative human beings.
If you’re gay or your sexual and/or gender identity is in flux, these messages might be even more hurtful. In many groups of guys, the worst kind of insult is to say someone is like you. You have no idea if your friends will accept you as who you really are, so you might decide to actively secret away your feelings, or assume a personality other than your own to avoid suspicion, or even laugh at homophobic banter. Boys are taught that “toughness” and “manhood” equal heterosexuality, and to exhibit “feminine” qualities as a boy is “gay.” What better way to wipe away any doubt of your heterosexuality than by bashing other kids and punishing them for being or “acting” gay? At its core, homophobia also comes from sexism: If women weren’t seen as lesser, boys wouldn’t bully one another for being “feminine.” So boys’ homophobic ridiculing or policing of each other’s masculinity is YET ANOTHER WAY that 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 did develop a tight group of guy friends during my high school years. We hung out, talked on the phone, drove around listening to the radio, and played basketball, constantly. For me, our group was a refuge from the consistent hive of misgivings I felt about male friendship. None of us figured we had a shot to meet or talk to girls outside of school, but we never acted like we were entitled to, either. We goofed on each other, but never pushed it to a test of each other’s toughness/masculinity—there was no serious towel-snapping, literally or metaphorically.
Looking back, those guys were a godsend. In high school, EVERYONE is worried, to some degree, about how to be a boy/man, or a girl/woman, and all the how-to bullshit we’ve been taught tends to pit us against one another, both within our group of friends and when we interact with the opposite sex. In my group, 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.
High school doesn’t have to be a hormonally apocalyptic cock-fighting pit where panic dictates every moment if you make your own rules. Your parents and peers and cultural factors certainly play a role in how your attitudes toward gender develop, but using that as an excuse for your behavior doesn’t cut it. Doing and saying things to hurt other people does not empower you. When kids try to push you into scenarios that seem hurtful, be aware that you’re being pushed, and stop, at least long enough to mentally push back for a second and figure out what you’re agreeing to. One non-negotiable scenario: If you see another guy acting shady, creepy, or aggressive with a girl, it’s your responsibility as a human being to speak up or get help. If you’re looking for a solid way to prove your manhood, not allowing a guy to be predatory with a girl is a pretty damn good starting point. Especially if that guy is you.
IV. ENTER THE FRIENDZONE
One of the most ruinous and sad relationship-based myths of all is that straight men and straight women cannot be platonic friends. Dudes who believe this are essentially saying, “I am such a helpless beast that I can’t control my urge to constantly paw women in a sexual manner, so I’m eliminating half the species from my friend pool.” Or, in caveman terms, since that’s apparently how they see themselves: “SEE GIRL, SHE HOT, ONLY TALK TO GIRL IF SHE HAVE SEX ME. BURP. FART.” That mindset isn’t a result of any genetic code—it’s actually just being a jerk. If we can’t beat that cop-out, then we might as well just download porn in our parents’ basements or carpool to the dinner buffet at the strip club for the rest of our sad, deprived lives. Stop! Turn back now! There’s another way, my dude!
I’ve had crushes on female friends, sure, but the crush isn’t the issue. It’s how you react to it. And as you meet more people in different situations, you will be awash in crushes, some stronger than others, but you have to remember that they are just crushes. If you tried to develop a sexual relationship with every girl/woman you had a crush on, you’d be a social pariah and a generally gross person. Crushes are a natural, vital part of life. I mean, we obviously love and care about our friends, and that can lead to another level of attraction—though it doesn’t always.