“Boys Will Be Boys”
I am on the playground with my young daughter. A boy, a stranger, knocks her over, leaving my child crying in the sand. The mother tells me, “Boys will be boys” and neglects to ask her son to apologize to my child.
We have all heard it: on the playground, in a teacher conference, in the faculty room. In my 20 years as a teacher, I have heard “boys will be boys” more times than I can count, most often during discussions of a boy’s behavior. But when we unpack this comment, we see that it perpetuates negative ideas about what we expect from our boys, particularly when it comes to aggression.
First, the phrase implies that boys are biologically wired to be violent, rough and tumble—and that they should be excused from any consequences for that behavior. When our culture buys into the idea that the “male sex” (not gender) is hardwired for violence, we can excuse behaviors that hurt others physically and emotionally.
Despite what ‘90s self-help books may say, when discussing sex (not gender), men are not from Mars, and women aren’t from Venus. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot has done extensive work to show that the brains of girls and boys are not all that different. Such biological essentialism argues that “boys will be boys” because their biology naturally leans toward violence and aggression. When such a belief is upheld in a classroom, it contributes to a toxic foundation to boys’ senses of self.
Second, this phrase—and the other two I address below—replicates the idea that there is only one way to be a boy. If we shift the discussion from sex (the biological elements) to gender (the psychic elements), we find the freedom to disrupt this one-size-fits-all way to be a boy.
Understanding how people identify allows us to define gender differently. If we think about gender as distinct from sex, as the way someone feels as opposed to something that is biological, we can no longer excuse negative behaviors in or out of the classroom with the line, “Boys will be boys.” As The Good Men Project reminds us, toxic masculinity is “a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression.” Let’s give boys more credit by deleting “boys will be boys” from our conversations.
This article is the second in a three-part series on toxic masculinity. Find parts one and three here:
Part One | What We Mean When We Say, “Toxic Masculinity”
Part Three | Toxic Masculinity Is Bad For Everyone: Why Teachers Must Disrupt Gender Norms Every Day
“He Does That Because He Likes You”
I am in junior high school. A boy snaps my bra in the hallway. When I inform the teacher, she tells me he did it because “he likes me,” and he doesn’t know any other way to tell me.
Toxic masculinity relies on notions that boys are incapable of expressing themselves through means other than violence. When we dismiss boys’ aggression as evidence of affection, as with “boys will be boys,” we sell all children short. To girls, the message is, “That violent act to which you did not consent means that he feels love for you.” And the message to boys is, “When you feel an emotion, you should express it through violence.”
This kind of thinking implies that it’s strange for boys to having feelings of love that are disconnected from feelings of violence. In a time when our country is coming to terms with the pervasiveness of sexual assault and sexual harassment, parents and educators must think carefully about what we tell our children.
When we tell our boys it’s normal to show that they like someone by hurting them, we don’t just excuse toxic masculinity—we encourage it. We are effectively not teaching our children what safe and consensual relationships look like at the moments when they are just starting to come of age sexually.
“Locker Room Talk”
I am an adult on a talk show discussing politics and sexual assault. A man tells me that grabbing women by their genitalia is “locker room talk.” I tell him that I have more faith in men than he must have.
For many secondary students, school is where they find themselves in a locker room for the first time. Because they are separated by sex and/or gender, locker rooms are often regarded as spaces where people can “let loose” and “be themselves.” For students, locker rooms can become places to study what it means to be one’s sex. (I wish I could say “gender,” but locker and bathroom laws still need to be legislated fairly in many states).
Because, as a woman, I am prohibited from the space of a men’s locker room, it becomes mysterious, something men can define. I can’t know what men say in men’s locker rooms. But I can know that when the phrase “locker room talk” is deployed to excuse aggressive sexual acts that do not involve consent, we as a culture are using a more advanced version of “boys will be boys.”
I respect the boys and men in my life too much to have such low expectations for them. Their biology does not demand that they become assaulters. And their biology does not necessitate that they speak about women in vulgar ways. Our constructed beliefs about masculinity teach them that, in order to “man up,” they must perform their masculinity in aggressive ways—or have their masculinity questioned.
The boys in our homes and classrooms deserve better, and we, as the adults in their lives, must work to dismantle the cultural messages and societal structures that promote toxic masculinity. We have a lot of work ahead, but we can begin one phrase at a time.
Clemens is the associate professor of non-Western literatures and director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.