What we need to teach boys in this #MeToo moment

In this #MeToo moment, issues of consent and power raise deep, troubling questions about men.

Among the endless examples from celebrity circles: Minnie Driver, Matt Damon’s former girlfriend and co-star, tweeted the following after he made a weak effort to parse the subject of sexual violation: “God, God, seriously? Gosh it’s so interesting (profoundly unsurprising) how men with all these opinions about women’s differentiation between sexual misconduct, assault and rape reveal themselves to be utterly tone deaf and as a result, systemically part of the problem.”

More recently, a highly provocative account of a sexual encounter between Aziz Ansari and a 23-year old photographer has driven the conversation to still muddier waters.

Photo: Getty Images

Unpredictable consequences are likely to continue as women challenge attitudes of entitlement that can be largely taken for granted and can be invisible to men. And the ripple effects of rewriting the outdated rules between men and women are overdue.

One institution seems particularly ripe for disruption: boyhood. Because what New York University psychologist Niobe Way calls “false stories” about boys — that they must be strong, conquering, and unemotional — have been remarkably persistent in misleading families, schools, sports, and youth programs for generations.

And still, in spite of routine casualties and monumental social costs, boyhood (or at least its marketing) has remained unchanged for generations.

Boys have been steered away from connection, away from their hearts, and away from their own virtues and values. But boyhood has not been based on science or evidence, nor has its design really been about boys at all. Only now, because the world is changing, confronting boys with a set of opportunities and challenges radically different from any prior generation, boyhood is undergoing a seismic shift. And a revolution in understanding is afoot.

As a psychologist based at the University of Pennsylvania, I currently serve as a consultant to a boys’ high school outside of Philadelphia, where I lead an emotional literacy program for juniors and seniors. The program has become highly popular and receives strong administrative support. Every couple of weeks, 40 to 50 boys show up for 90-minute meetings — to practice listening and talking about highly personal matters, to rally behind whomever volunteers to share personal stories, and to basically be reminded of their humanity. Along with the school counselor, herself a mother of three sons, we address key topics each time: what it’s like to be male, the notion of brotherhood, relationships with parents, girls, sexuality, and more.

At the beginning of the year, as I presented the list of upcoming topics, one young man called out, “Dr. Reichert, last year you said we would do a meeting on porn, but you didn’t get to it. Can we be sure to do it this year?”

His openness struck me, and I was, as I often am at these meetings, amazed by the difference between these teen boys and myself and my friends at that age — and even from my now-adult sons when they were adolescents.

What I witness matches research in countries from around the world, which has begun to document many changes for boys: less homophobia, for example, and less willingness to sacrifice their health in contact sports or risk-taking. And while encouraging, the overall direction of these changes is still up in the air. What we need is a radical restructuring of boyhood — not Band-Aids, props, or mere reform.

And so, at our next meeting, we talked about porn. My embarrassment and cluelessness notwithstanding, all of the boys openly acknowledged the hold it has on them, how it “changes” them and infects their minds as they hook up with partners, and how their very concepts of attraction, bodies, and sexuality become dominated by stereotypic images.

What the boys reach for when they tackle topics like this is a reality beyond cultural clichés. They take tremendous comfort in the discovery that, like all the other boys in the room, they do not fit the stereotypes. They give one another permission to be individuals. And in their discussions about sexuality and relationships, they allow one another to care.

As I have been reading story after horrifying story of men so deluded in self-absorption and pumped up on “locker room” incitement that they mistreat their romantic partners — and lose any chance of loving connection with them — I was reminded of research on campus sexual assault by my colleague Michael Kimmel, a sociologist. He argues that not all colleges are “rape prone” but that different campus cultures breed varying levels of male sexual aggression. Other research on the topic has similarly found that the quality of boys’ relationships with their parents, particularly with their mothers, influences how they relate to women.

The point is that widespread problems like those described in #MeToo stories do not spontaneously arise from within boys themselves. No boy grows twisted and hurtful on his own. To carry the movement for equality into the trenches, and to ensure that boys can embrace girls and women with full respect, we must make sure that they themselves are treated as human. We must look more carefully at the boyhood we have built and face up to how it distorts male development.

Because what I see from the front lines is that boys are quite ready and eager for the chance to experience the “full development of their capacities,” the ethical standard we strive to meet in human development — including love, creativity, and connection.

Michael C. Reichert is a clinical psychologist, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives, and co-author of Reaching Boys Teaching Boys and I Can Learn From You: Boys as Relational Learners. His newest book, The New Boyhood: The Power of Connections to Build Good Men, will be published this year.

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