By Deborah M. Roffman
Sunday, February 5, 2006
Three of my seventh-grade students asked the other week if we might view a recent episode of the Fox TV cartoon show "Family Guy" in our human sexuality class. It's about reproduction, they said, and besides, it's funny. Not having seen it, I said I'd have to check it out.
Well, there must be something wrong with my sense of humor, because most of the episode made me want to alternately scream and cry.
It centers on Stewie, a sexist, foul-mouthed preschooler who hates his mother, fantasizes killing her off in violent ways, and wants to prevent his parents from making a new baby -- until he realizes that he might get to have a sibling as nasty as he is. Then he starts encouraging his parents' lovemaking. At one point he peers into their room and tells his Dad to "Give it to her good, old man." When his father leaves the bed he orders him to "Come here this instant you fat [expletive] and do her!"
Of course I know that this is farce, but I announced the next day that no, we wouldn't be taking class time to view the episode, titled "Emission Impossible." When I asked my students why they thought that was, they guessed: The language? The women dressed like "bimbos"? The implied sexual acts? The mistreatment of the mother?
Nope, nope, nope, I replied. I didn't love any of that, either, but it was the less obvious images and messages that got my attention, the ones that kids your age are less likely to notice. It's not so much that the boy is always being bad -- sometimes that sort of thing can seem so outrageous it's funny. It's the underlying assumption in the show, and often in our society, that boys, by nature, are bad.
I said I thought the "boys will be bad" message of the show was a terribly disrespectful one, and I wouldn't use my classroom in any way to reinforce it. It was a good moment: Recognizing for the first time the irony that maybe it was they who were really being demeaned, some of the boys got mad, even indignant.
You can hear and see evidence of this longstanding folk "wisdom" about boys almost everywhere, from the gender-typed assumptions people make about young boys to the resigned attitude or blind eye adults so often turn to disrespectful or insensitive male behavior. Two years ago, when Justin Timberlake grabbed at Janet Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl halftime, he got a free pass while she was excoriated. As the mother of two sons and teacher of thousands of boys, the reaction to that incident made me furious, but perhaps not for the reason you may think: I understood it paradoxically as a twisted kind of compliment to women and a hidden and powerful indictment of men. Is the female in such instances the only one from whom we think we can expect responsible behavior?
That incident and so many others explain why, no matter how demeaning today's culture may seem toward girls and women, I've always understood it to be fundamentally more disrespectful of boys and men -- a point that escapes many of us because we typically think of men as always having the upper hand.
Consider, though, what "boys will be boys" thinking implies about the true nature of boys. I often ask groups of adults or students what inherent traits or characteristics the expression implies. The answers typically are astonishingly negative: Boys are messy, immature and selfish; hormone-driven and insensitive; irresponsible and trouble-making; rebellious, rude, aggressive and disrespectful -- even violent, predatory and animal-like.
Is this a window into what we truly think, at least unconsciously, of the male of the species? Is it possible that deep inside we really think they simply can't be expected to do any better than this? How else to explain the very low bar we continue to set for their behavior, particularly when it comes to girls, women and sex? At a talk I gave recently, a woman in the audience asked, only half in jest: "Is it okay to instruct my daughters that when it comes to sex, teenage boys are animals?" Do we stop to think how easily these kinds of remarks can become self-fulfilling prophecies, or permission-giving of the worst kind?
Thanks to popular culture, unfortunately, it only gets worse. Not too long ago, I confiscated a hat from a student's head that read, "I'm a Pimp." This once-derogatory term is a complimentary handle these days for boys whom girls consider "hot." I asked the boy whether he would wear a hat that said "I'm a Rapist." Totally offended, he looked at me as if I had three heads. "Duh," I said. "Do you have any idea what real pimps do to keep their 'girls' in line?" Yet the term -- like "slut" for girls -- has been glamorized and legitimized by TV, movies and popular music to such an extent that kids now bandy it about freely.
Just as fish don't know they're in water, young people today, who've been swimming all their formative years in the cesspool that is American popular culture, are often maddeningly incapable of seeing how none of this is in their social, sexual or personal best interest.
Adults I work with tend to be a lot less clueless. They are sick and tired of watching the advertising and entertainment industries shamelessly pimp the increasingly naked bodies of American women and girls to sell everything from Internet service to floor tiles (I've got the ads to prove it).
Yet from my perspective, these same adults aren't nearly as clued in about how destructive these ubiquitous images and messages can be for boys. It too often takes patient coaching for them to see "boys will be boys" for what it is -- an insidious and long-neglected character issue: People who think of and treat others as objects, in any way, are not kind, decent people. It's bad enough that boys are being trained by the culture to think that behaving in these ways is "cool"; it's outrageous and much more disturbing that many of the immediate adults in their lives can't see it, and may even buy into it.
The "boys will be bad" stereotype no doubt derives from a time when men were the exclusively entitled gender: Many did behave badly, simply because they could. (Interestingly, that's pretty much how Bill Clinton in hindsight ultimately explained his poor behavior in the Lewinsky affair.) For today's boys, however, the low expectations set for them socially and sexually have less to do with any real entitlement than with the blinders we wear to these antiquated and degrading gender myths.
I think, too, that the staying power of these myths has to do with the fact that as stereotypes go, they can be remarkably invisible. I've long asked students to bring in print advertisements using sex to sell products or showing people as sex objects. No surprise that in the vast majority of ads I receive, women are the focus, not men.
And yet, as I try to teach my students, there's always at least one invisible man present -- looking at the advertisement. The messages being delivered to and/or about him are equally if not more powerful.
In one of my least favorite examples, a magazine ad for a video game (brought to me by a sixth-grade boy) depicts a highly sexualized woman with a dominatrix air brandishing a weapon. The heading reads: "Bet you'd like to get your hands on these!," meaning her breasts, er, the game controllers. And the man or boy not in the picture but looking on? The ad implies that he's just another low-life guy who lives and breathes to ogle and grab every large-breasted woman he sees.
Many boys I've talked with are pretty savvy about the permission-giving that "boys will be bad" affords and use it to their advantage in their relationships with adults. "Well, they really don't expect as much from us as they do from girls," said one 10th-grade boy. "It makes it easier to get away with a lot of stuff."
Others play it sexually to their advantage, knowing that in a system where boys are expected to want sex but not necessarily to be responsible about it, the girl will probably face the consequences if anything happens. As long as girls can still be called sluts, the sexual double standard -- and its lack of accountability for boys -- will rule.
Most boys I know are grateful when they finally get clued in to all this. A fifth-grade boy once told me that the worst insult anyone could possibly give him would be to call him a girl. When I walked him through what he seemed to be saying-- that girls are inferior to him -- he was suddenly ashamed that he could have thought such a thing. "I'm a better person than that," he said.
Just as we've adjusted the bar for girls in academics and athletics, we need to let boys know that, in the sexual and social arenas, we've been shortchanging them by setting the bar so low. We need to explain why the notion that "boys will be boys" embodies a bogus and ultimately corrupting set of expectations that are unacceptable.
We'll know we've succeeded when girls and boys better recognize sexual and social mistreatment and become angry and personally offended whenever anyone dares use the word slut against any girl, call any boy a pimp, or suggest that anyone reduce themselves or others to a sexual object.
We'll also know when boys call one another more often on disrespectful behavior, instead of being congratulatory, because they will have the self-respect and confidence that comes with being held to and holding yourself to high standards.
Deborah Roffman teaches human sexuality education in Baltimore-area independent schools and is the author of "Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense About Sex" (Perseus Books).