Boyhood Troubles

“The way we raise boys in our society not only reinforces masculine personality ideals but also encourages behavior that reflects those ideals. We valorize manhood and start, from the beginning of their lives, to transmit that valorization to our children. Children realize, early on, that if they are fortunate enough to be born with the legitimating penis, then they are likely to receive the rewards, rights, privileges, and entitlements that come along with it, although the amount of those rewards is premised on other social factors as well. On the other hand, if they are female, they realize that they are destined to help provide those rewards to their more privileged brothers. That is, children begin to incorporate these ideals into their own perceptions and behaviors that begin to “act out” the gender scripts that they have learned.

Moreover, as gendered parents and grandparents, we expect and encourage boys to pursue our cultural ideals of masculinity. From early in their youth, we teach them (through, for instance, toys and sports) to symbolically correlate competition, violence, power, and domination with masculinity. Finally, we actively insist on their separation from mothers (in effect, their separation from anything feminine that might sully their budding masculinity). In short, by defining masculinity as “anything not feminine” and by defining femininity in conjunction with the family and domesticity, we are, in effect, defining boys and men away from the family and outside it. When the proscription against feminine behavior is translated into behavior attenuated by [the] developmental stage, boys often end up in trouble–overactive and inattentive in school (the class clown), competitive and aggressive, even violent. Studies show that elementary school-aged boys are up to four times as likely as girls to be sent to child psychologists, twice as likely to be considered “learning disabled,” and much more likely (up to 10 times) to be diagnosed with emotional maladies such as attention deficit disorder (Kimmel, 2000, p. 160; Pollack, 1998). Studies also show that “problem behaviors” of adolescent boys (including school suspension, drinking, use of street drugs, police detainment, sexual activity, number of heterosexual partners, and forcing someone to have sex) are associated with traditional masculine ideology (Christopher & Speecher, 2000; Hearn, 1990; Pleck, Sonnenstein, & Ku, 1994; Schwartz & Rutter, 1998).

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Aggression has become a touchstone for American adolescent boys, and violence among them is epidemic. Kaufman (1998) noted that men construct their masculinity amid a triad of violence: men against women, men against men, and men against themselves. Hearn (1990) added another dimension to this triad, pointing out how men’s normalized, institutionalized power and violence (reflected, for example, in business, sports, and even the historical “social relations of paternity”) not only contribute to but also become child abuse and exploitation. Thus, men’s violence applies even to adolescent boys, and it results, at least in part, from their internalizing the masculine ideal and attempting to live up to its precepts; as Hearn (1990, p. 85) points out, the problem lies not in “dangerous men” but in the “state of ‘normal masculinity.’ Normal masculinity is evident in young men’s violence against women, which Kaufman (1998, p. 4) suggests represents both an individual “acting out” of power relations and an individual’s enactment of social power relations (sexism); it plays out in instances of rape (acquaintance and stranger) and sexual harassment, and it is perpetrated in all-male enclaves such as fraternities (Lefkowitz, 1997; Sanday, 1990) and athletic teams (Benedict, 1997). Research analyzing rape figures between 1979 and 1987 shows that youths 20 years old and younger accounted for 18% of single-offender and 30% of multiple-offender rapes (Kershner, 1996); the FBI reports, moreover, that adolescent males accounted for the greatest increase in arrested rape perpetrators in the United States during the early 1990s (Ingrassia, 1993; see also Kershner, 1996).

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Male youth violence against other males is extensive, creating battlefields out of city parks and school playgrounds. Gangs of all racial and ethnic groups flourish in urban areas as adolescent boys attempt to create “family” with tools honed to incorporate ideals of manhood. In 1997, it was estimated that there were 30,500 youth gangs and 815,896 gang members active in the United States (National Youth Gang Center, 1999). Among youth, teenaged boys tend to be both the most frequent perpetrators of violent crimes and, as a group, the most frequent victims of such crimes. Although preteen boys and girls are equally as likely to be homicide victims, once children reach their teen years, boys are significantly more likely than girls to be murdered (Snyder & Sickmund, 1999). They are also more murderous than young women, representing 93% of known juvenile homicide offenders between 1980 and 1997. During the same time period fewer than 10 juvenile homicide offenders per year were age 10 or younger, and 88% of these offenders were also male (Snyder & Sickmund, 1999, pp. 53-54).

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Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two shooters of the Columbine High School massacre killing 15 people and injuring 24

Of late, young men’s violence has spilled over into more traditionally “safe,” institutionalized space. In the United States, the school shootings of the 1990s (carried out overwhelmingly by boys, most of whom were from “good” [i.e., unbroken] homes) further attest to the lack of fit between how boys are learning to be men and the men that society wants. Disturbingly, a number of these rampages were orchestrated by boys who were seen by their peers not as bullies (the masculine ideal) but as bullied (the feminine counterpart), thus highlighting the desperate actions sometimes undertaken by young men to prove their “normal” masculinity against the public threat of being viewed as feminine.

Men’s violence against themselves also can manifest itself in adolescence. One of the ways men do violence against themselves is by “stuffing” their emotions, in pursuit of a traditionally masculine ideal that reflects dread of feminine hyperemotionality. Young men are encouraged to avoid displays of emotion, as are young boys; we even tend to “see” male newborns as less emotional than their female counterparts, reading onto them the expectations of masculine non-emotionality.  As boys grow up, they “often fail to learn the language with which they could describe their feelings, and without language it is hard for anyone to make sense of what he feels” (Phillips, 1994, p. 67). One articulation of this problem is the preponderance of suicide committed by male adolescents. In 1996, for example, 2,119 suicides in the United States involved youth under the age of 19, 80% of whom were male (Snyder & Sickmund, 1999, p. 24). Male youth suicide is a trend that extends beyond the United States: A Finnish study of adolescent males who committed suicide, for instance, showed that, compared with those with psychiatric disorders, those suicides with no diagnosable psychiatric disorders (that is, the “normal” boys) came from less disturbed families, were less antisocial, and used health care and social services less often (Marttunen et al., 1998, p. 669). Moreover, they had communicated intent to commit suicide for the first time shortly before actually taking their own lives, suggesting a lack of emotional communication to those who might otherwise have provided help to them (Marttunen et al., 1998).”

Adams, Michele and Scott Coltrane. 2005. “Boys and Men in Families: The Domestic Production of Gender, Power, and Privilege.” Pp. 230-248 in Handbook of Studies on Men & Masculinities, edited by M. S. Kimmel, J. Hearn, and R. W. Connell. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. [This excerpt from the section titled “Boyhood Troubles”, pp. 236-238. References posted below in the order they appear above:]

Kimmel, M. S. (2000) The gendered society. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pollack, W. (1998). Real boys: Rescuing our sons from the myths of boyhood. New York: Henry Holt and Company. [Chapter One here. Review of book here.]

Christopher, F. S. & Sprecher, S. (2000). Sexuality in marriage, dating, and other relationships: A decade review. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62(4), 999-1017.

Hearn, J. (1990). “Child abuse” and men’s violence. In The Violence Against Children Study Group, Taking child abuse seriously: Contemporary issues in child protection theory and practice (pp. 63-85). London: Unwin Hyman.

Pleck, J. H., Sonenstein, F. L., & Ku, L. C. (1994). Problem behaviors and masculinity ideology in adolescent males. In R. D. Ketterlinus & M. E. Lamb (Eds.), Adolescent problem behaviors: Issues and research (pp. 165-186). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Schwartz, P., & Rutter, V. (1998). The gender of sexuality. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Kaufman, M. (1998). The construction of masculinity and the triad of men’s violence. In M. S. Kimmel & M. A. Messner (Eds.), Men’s lives (pp. 4-17). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Lefkowitz, B. (1997). Our guys: The Glen Ridge rape and the secret life of the perfect suburb. Berkeley: University of California Press. [Book review here.]

Sanday, P. R. (1990). Fraternity gang rape: Sex, brotherhood, and privilege on campus. New York: New York University Press. [Book review here.]

Benedict, J. (1997). Public heroes, private felons: Athletes and crimes against women. Boston: Northeastern University Press. [Book review here.]

Kershner, R. (1996). Adolescent attitudes about rape. Adolescence, 31(121), 29-33.

Ingrassia, M., with Annin, P., Bibble, N. A., & Miller, S. (1993, July 19). Life means nothing. Newsweek, pp. 16-17.

National Youth Gang Center. (1999). 1997 National youth gang survey. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Snyder, H. N., & Sickmund, M. (1999). Juvenile offenders and victims: 1999 national report. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Phillips, A. (1994). The trouble with boys: A wise and sympathetic guide to the risky business of missing sons. New York: Basic Books.

Marttunen, M. J., Henriksson, M. M., Isometsa, E. T.,  Heikkinen, M. E., Aro, H. M., & Lonnqvist, J. K. (1998). Completed suicide among adolescents with no diagnosable psychiatric disorder. Adolescence, 33(131), 669-681.

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