“Boys Will Be Boys,” But Not Me

My high school feminism class after delivering our mic drop assembly for International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in late November 2017 (photo credit: Jonathan Hodge)

I decided to take Ileana Jiménez’s high school feminism class for a couple of reasons. I didn’t really have a good understanding of feminism, but I wanted to learn more. I wanted to learn what role men and boys could play in feminism and how I could be a feminist.  I thought about the women in my life, like my sister and my mother, and how I see them treated differently and unfairly by society just because they are women. I knew there was a need for feminism but I never really knew how I could make a difference.

Something that surprised me after taking this insightful and immersive class, is the cycle of toxic masculinity that our culture raises boys in from the time we are children and grow into men. There are many different factors that go into raising boys like this, but the ones that I found most prevalent are the ways that we are raised by our parents who also do not have an accurate education on gender. Our parents and by extension, we as boys and young men are not provided an education on sex, sexuality, and healthy masculinity. This void of knowledge is filled instead by the media, including pornography, which creates inaccurate ideas and stereotypes about being a man, and especially a man of color.

It seems that the answer lies first in how parents raise boys. From the time that boys are born, there is gender inequality perpetuated in everything from toys, clothing, music, books, etc. Parents put boys in blue bedrooms with monster trucks and action figures. They are also shown movies and TV shows that perpetuate hyper-masculinization, violence, and sexualization of girls and women. 

Our larger society also has a terrible lack of positive male role models to teach young boys properly about masculinity. We often fail to recognize the effect that fathers have on their sons. If a father is a misogynist he will teach his son that in order to be successful he must have a lot of money and dominate women. His son will likely internalize these messages and believe that this is the way to be a man.

Boys are taught that they must lock down their emotions, as any showing of emotion is a sign of weakness. We are told that “crying is for girls.” By the time that boys reach about five or six years old, “they are pretty much taught that it is not ok to cry,” says Tony Porter in the film The Mask You Live In. Porter is the founder of Call to Men, which educates men on respectful manhood.

It is very common that in American culture, parents make their boys cut their hair short, lower their voice, and play more sports since this is how boys are expected to act. But instead of boys helping one another and communicating with each other, we distance ourselves because once again, we are taught that to show emotion is weak. We compete against each other for who can be the most masculine, because as poet Guante says, ”why fight to remove our chains, when we can simply compare their lengths.”

Rather than working together to help overcome these chains of toxic masculinity, we instead strengthen these chains in order to dominate each other. We base our level of masculinity based on irrelevant factors such as strength and size rather than things that are actually important to the development of our character. We are taught to associate sexual conquest with masculinity so whoever has more sex is viewed as more manly. An example of how we use this to keep boys down is the saying: “You have a dick don’t you?” Phrases like this are dehumanizing and are designed to keep boys silent. 

Already placed at a disadvantage in understanding healthy masculinity and sexuality, boys then go to school where they are given an inadequate sex education. Only 22 states in this country require any type of sex education be taught in public schools. Of these schools, many still teach abstinence until marriage with little to no education provided about abortion, contraceptives, and consent. Only thirteen states require that the information provided be medically accurate. Public schools in many states are actually prohibited from teaching about condoms and giving demonstrations about how to use one properly. Many schools are prohibited from portraying homosexuality positively as well.

Sex and HIV education in America, (photo credit: The Huffington Post)

It is striking that 27 states in America require that any state-funded school providing sex-ed must teach an abstinence-only program. These programs teach students to abstain from all sex outside of marriage. These laws also require schools to teach that any sex out of wedlock will lead to harmful psychological and physical effects. Abstinence education has been proven unsuccessful. Of those who have received abstinence only sex education, by the time they are age 18, 70% of all girls and 62% of all boys have participated in vaginal intercourse without ever actually having received education about safe sex.

In public school, I was never taught about sex, as our sexual education consisted of nothing more than the “horrors” of puberty. I was not taught about consent until I reached the end of eighth grade when our teacher showed us a video comparing consent to offering someone a cup of tea.

It was not until I reached high school that I received any form of comprehensive education about sexuality, intercourse, contraceptives, and STIs. But by then it was too late.  By then, my ideas and understanding of sex and sexuality had already been given to me. Luckily my parents and sister taught me about sex, safety, and sexuality. Even with this though, inaccurate information about sex and what it means to be a man and especially a Black man had already seeped in whether it be from the things I watched on TV or saw around me.

Since kids are not receiving adequate information from schools, the only information that they receive is through the media. So from a young age, the only view that most children are given is through a media that we already know perpetuates sexual violence through sexist and harmful lyrics, movie plots, advertisements and TV shows. The media pressures men into thinking they need to be buff, strong, athletic, etc. This sets men up for failure because this has nothing to do with what masculinity actually is.

When I was younger, my ideas of masculinity were mostly shaped by the music I listened to. The music taught me that it was cool to have multiple baby mommas and that in order to have no worries, I had to be that nigga down the block flippin’ dope and fuckin’ mad bitches. I also believed that as a Black man, the only way that I could be economically successful in the future was to be a rapper, an athlete, or a criminal selling drugs.

Because of this, I wanted to find how the media affect boys as a whole and how it shapes them. In my search for answers about the toxic masculinity that is created, I watched a film called The Mask You Live In, and I learned some troubling statistics:

  • The average boy spends 40 hours a week watching television and movies, 15 hours a week playing video games, and 2 hours watching porn
  • 99 percent of boys play video games; 90 percent of games rated appropriate for children over 10 contain violence; and 50 percent of parents don’t monitor ratings
  • 35 percent of male college students indicated some likelihood of raping if they knew they could get away with it

This demonstrates how multi-media is able to shape the minds of young boys, with over 57 hours spent on average every week on T.V., video games, and porn. That is more than the time that is spent in school. I decided to consider what other ways the media affects us in ways that we may not notice, and I realized that ads also play crucial role in the way boys think. A lot of the time, we see companies not only advertising their product, but also the type of masculinity that will come with it.

Advertisement for Belvedere Vodka, (photo credit: Belvedere Vodka)

I recently noticed this advertisement for Belvedere Vodka. In this ad, we see a white male smirking and grabbing a white young female who is visibly distraught. The tagline reads, “Unlike some people, Belvedere always goes down smoothly,” which implies that he is trying to or will force her to perform oral sex on him.  Not only is this company using sexual violence to sell its product, but it is also promoting rape culture, making it seem like there is a cool aspect to sexually assaulting a woman and that somehow by drinking Belvedere vodka, you will have a smooth time as a guy. We know what this translates into. In the majority of college rapes, offenders use alcohol to subdue their victims.

Another problem that the media creates is the hypersexualization of girls and women through the media. This teaches young girls that they need to be sexy in order to be appreciated by boys and society. It also instills the idea in boys that females are sexual objects that are here just for the satisfaction of men.

One of the largest aspects of media that has an effect on boys and young men is pornography. 93 percent of boys are exposed to online pornography at some point before they reach 18. Without proper sex education, porn creates a misconception of what sex is. This is problematic because pornography commonly depicts a correlation between sex and violence. For example, 39 percent of boys have viewed bondage online, and 18 percent of boys have viewed rape online. Porn also objectifies women’s bodies and makes it seem as though women’s bodies only exist to please and pleasure men.

Technology has made the viewing of pornography even easier for today’s youth. In the early 90’s, the only way to access pornography was to go to an adult movie store with an ID that indicated that you were over 18. Now, young boys see online pornography at the age of 5 or 6 for free. 

 an author on Everyday Feminism explores a possible solution to the problems that pornography creates in his article: “What Does Feminist Porn Look Like.” He addresses the fact that women are abused, humiliated, and used for the pleasure of men in a way that is normalized and leads to women only being viewed as “objects of desire” for men. He writes that feminist porn portrays characters as equals, showing both parties or all parties consenting, and also includes information about safe sex, pleasure, and equality.

The benefit of this is that it creates a positive image around sex and pleasure without demeaning women and objectifying their bodies. By changing the way that sex is viewed, we can change the way that young males view and think about sex.

Even in the news, we see young men like Brock Turner, a Stanford student who raped a young woman on Stanford’s campus and received almost no jail time even after being found guilty for sexual assault of an unconscious person. In this case, we see a wealthy white male athlete found guilty of rape and the judge sentenced him to only six months of jail time because he did not believe the boy should be punished for this “mistake.” His father’s defense was that his son “should not go to jail or have his life ruined for 20 minutes of action.” Turner’s case actually perpetuates the message to college men that rape is acceptable.

The reason that boys and young men like Brock Turner are able to do what they do and often go unpunished is because of the rape culture that we are living in. Rape culture normalizes and even silences sexual violence. In our society, rape is constantly normalized and even profited off of (i.e. in movies etc). We constantly make excuses for rapists by saying that it wasn’t his fault oby victim blaming. We point fingers at the way a woman or girl is dressed, how much alcohol they drank, and how many sexual partners they have had. We hear phrases such as “she was asking for it,” ignoring the fact that it was the other person who decided to rape her.

Rape culture is what allowed a Yale fraternity to go in front of a sorority and begin chanting “no means yes, yes means anal.” Turning consent into a joke normalizes rape culture by teaching that sexual violence is ok.

These men who are committing these acts of sexual assault are being protected by the colleges that they attend. When colleges blame rape on victims, it creates a space where sexual assault can occur more and more.  The so-called “punishments” are also quite weak such as a semester suspension, suspension over summer break, suspension for a day, a $75 dollar fine, a $25 dollar fine, a warning, a paper assignment to reflect on their actions, and community service.

Many college males, especially athletes who are even more protected by schools, have learned that they actually will get away with it. From 2002-2013, at Dartmouth, Stanford, University of North Carolina, and University of Virginia, there were a total of 755 accusations of sexual assault, only four of those accused were actually expelled. Because of this, college rapists on average commit 6 or more assaults. I found these statistics insane but not very surprising because this class had already taught me the way men use their power and privilege in order to silence women.

I have learned a lot this trimester in my high school feminism class. Reading documents such as the Combahee River Collective Statement, meeting with feminist activists such as Barbara Smith, and having meaningful discussions with my class are just some of the things that we have done that have reshaped the way that I view the world that I live in. I now see everything that goes around me through a feminist lens. This can be seen whenever I listen to music and watch T.V. I notice the messages, though sometimes subtle, that are sent to viewers.

I wish I could continue in this class for the rest of the year but I will continue to research and grow my knowledge outside of the class.

The most notable way that this class has affected me is with my nephew. After taking this course, I have begun noticing all of the different things  that are affecting my nephew as he is growing up, whether it be from the people around me or the music he is already listening to. I want to make sure that my nephew is able to grow up in a place where he has positive male role models and a proper understanding of masculinity and sex. I try to do my best with teaching him what is right and not perpetuating the things he sees. I will continue to do so because anything less than that is unacceptable.


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