5 Things We Should Stop Telling Our Boys if We Want to Raise Feminist Men

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boy sitting on rail

By Alexa Hassink
Originally posted on Ditch the Label

Recently, a Facebook post went viral, comparing a Boys’ Life magazine cover to a Girls’ Life cover side by side. On the left, Girls’ Life features a young girl in full makeup surrounded by headlines like, “Wake up pretty!” while on the right, Boys’ Life leads with, “Explore your Future,” and an illustrative collage featuring a laptop, beaker, microphone, and more. For as much progress as we think we’ve made in shattering stereotypes for our youth, this real-time snapshot of the messages we’re sending girls and boys puts a lot into perspective.

In the U.S. media, and in many other countries around the world, the messages girls’ receive – that they should value their looks over their intellect – can impact girls’ self-image and self-esteem, as well as how boys, men, and society view them, their worth, and their potential.

Of course, these messages go far deeper than the media: they enter our schools, our homes, and our workplaces. And, the pathways we define for our youth greatly depend on the child’s race and class as well – with minority, and lower-income youth often not represented at all, treated as an after thought, or worse, a threat.

“Gender inequality is a global phenomenon.”

The specific messages may differ around the world, but gender inequality is a global phenomenon. We’ve made great progress in some areas, but have a long way to go in others. While an additional quarter billion women entered the labor force between 2006 and 2015 globally, women’s annual pay only now equals what men were earning a decade ago. Women make up only about 23 percent of all national parliamentarians, and, troublingly, about 1 in 3 women continues to experience violence from a male partner during her lifetime. These statistics break down further when looking at intersections with race, class, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

The messages we’re sending boys often serve to maintain and exacerbate these long-standing inequalities. The media continues to send harmful messages about what it means to be a man, through which some men are rewarded (in their communities, peer groups, or otherwise) for making money, being tough and dominant. In fact, from the moment we declare, “It’s a boy!”, we too often send boys and young men gendered messages about how to succeed in this world – with violence if necessary.

These messages not only impact boys’ and men’s health and well-being (including through high rates of depression, suicide, and substance abuse), they also impact the way boys are raised to relate to girls, and how men are expected to treat women.

“About 1 in 3 women continues to experience violence from a male partner during her lifetime.”

While we’ve made progress to encourage our daughters to combat these messages, pursue STEM professions, athletics, and positions of leadership, we have a long way to go. We haven’t fully embraced that to re-balance these deep inequalities and to close the political, economic, and social gaps that girls and women face, we need to take a hard look at how we’re raising both our girls and our boys.

If we want to create a more equal world that gives everyone more freedom, connection, and opportunity, here are a few things we need to stop telling our boys (and why):

1. Be a man.

What we’re really saying: In the most innocent of interpretations, we’re saying: “Fall in line. Stand tall. Pretend it doesn’t bother you.” This phrase has a lot packed into it, however, and it can go much further. It can also imply: “Start a fight. Defend your honor. Use violence to get your way.”
Why we shouldn’t: We should encourage boys to connect and empathize with others, to consider the consequences of their actions, to build healthy relationships, and to express their emotions in healthy ways, rather than ignoring or repressing them. When we tell boys that there’s only one way to be a man, we may be unintentionally reinforcing harmful ideas that being a man is more important than simply being human, which can have long-lasting consequences. As long as we encourage respect and empathy, boys should be able to define their own identities, which can help to create a more accepting world for everyone.

2. Don’t cry.

What we’re really saying: “You look weak. You can handle this on your own. You don’t need help.”
Why we shouldn’t: When we say, “don’t cry,” we’re shutting down an emotional response and a call for help, and of course natural human expression; we’re telling boys they need to hide “un-masculine” (or human) emotions such as pain, fear, and sadness. Boys and men are often less likely to seek mental health services or help in general than girls and women are, and less likely to be invited into the health system. This can have harmful consequences. Feeling that they shouldn’t seek help or show emotion, can lead some boys to depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse. This sets up the potential for their isolation and loneliness as they grow into men.

3. Come on, go for it.

What we’re really saying: “Take a risk. What are you afraid of? Don’t think about the consequences.”
Why we shouldn’t: While in the best case “going for it” can be positive, like taking initiative, a leadership position, or standing up for what’s right, in other cases – there might be needless risk involved, leading to physical or psychological harm or negative consequences to themselves, or those around them. The way we define manhood and masculinity can increase men’s likelihood of dying earlier than women. In fact, globally, young men under 25 are three times more likely than young women to die of a traffic-related injury. When we encourage boys and young men to “just go for it,” we’re sometimes asking them to take risks that can harm their own and others, like practicing unsafe sex, over-using alcohol and addictive substances, or using violence to solve conflicts.

4. You need to get laid.

What we’re really saying: “Your worth is tied to how many sexual partners you have. Don’t worry about connection, love, or having a relationship.”
Why we shouldn’t: When we say this, we are turning sex into conquest and a contest, rather than a way to connect with another person in an intimate, caring way. And most of the time, this mainstream message to “get laid” focuses only on heterosexual encounters. Even though many boys report questioning the traditional sexual “scripts” they’re given, and longing for intimate contact and connection, in many countries, a sizeable portion of teenage boys have engaged in risky sexual behavior in the past year; these risks, including having unprotected sex, can negatively affect the health of boys and their partners. We need to make sure that when we talk about sex, we’re not just talking about getting it, we’re talking about relating to another person, which involves much more: consent, respect, contraception/protection, and communication.

“The way we define manhood and masculinity can increase men’s likelihood of dying earlier than women.”

5. Don’t be a girl or gay.

What we’re really saying: “You’ve violated the contract of manhood. You’re not being strong enough. You care too much.”
Why we shouldn’t: When we treat being a girl or being gay as an insult we’re first of all assuming that girls and women as well as gay or queer boys and men are not as valuable as heterosexual, traditionally masculine men. We’re policing a strict division of the world, and enforcing heterosexual, stereotypical forms of manhood. We’re saying that being a girl, or not identifying (or presenting) as heterosexual is unworthy or undesirable, which furthers misogynistic ideals, promotes homophobic bullying, and limits boys’ range of emotional expression. We need to teach boys that valuing all human traits and forms of expression, orientations, and identities creates solidarity and promotes healthy development from youth into adulthood.

Changing stereotypes and portrayals of what it means to be a man, and using the media for good, is a crucial strategy to re-shape the way we raise both boys and girls, and the way we think about gender equality.

To build a truly gender-equitable future, we must also ensure that policies and programs support this change: We need to make sure boys and girls receive comprehensive sexuality education and services (which define consent and promote respect and solidarity), and that violence-prevention programming is implemented in schools and in communities. This programming should move beyond surface-level solutions by working to redefine gender norms and address other cross-cutting inequalities, such as those based on ethnicity, social class, and sexual orientation, at their roots.

Learn more about how we can engage adolescent boys and young men as supporters of gender equality here, and join the conversation online using #AboutBoys.

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