Boys Become Men: Efforts To End Sexism Must Start With Them

There have been a growing number of reports about many prominent men’s appalling and oppressive behavior toward women and girls — groping, rape, exposing themselves, making uninvited and unwanted sexual advances, telling sexist jokes, making sexual remarks, etc.

The breaking of the silence by courageous women is beneficial for everyone. I have been disturbed, however, by the lack of attention in the media to either the roots of the problem or what needs to be done to stop it. It is not enough to expose or punish celebrities and politicians who are, or have been, sexual predators. Women have endured sexual harassment and abuse from “ordinary” men, as well as men in powerful positions, for a long time. As a father and grandfather, as a husband, a friend of many women, as an educator and peace activist, I want us to change what happens to young boys so they do not grow up feeling that it is OK to demean and harass females, or, who, at the extreme, become sexual predators, rapists, and even killers. Since war plays an important role in boys’ development, I decided to write about this issue.

What I think sexism is
Sexism is the mistreatment of females by societal institutions and by men.  Sexual harassment, abuse, and rape are not the only forms of sexism. Sexism, like all forms of oppression, can be blatant or subtle, personal or institutionalized, conscious or unconscious. It is important to understand that sexism is more than prejudiced behavior (believing that women are not as intelligent as men, for example), individual acts that hurt women (such as insults, harassment, rape) and stereotyping (generalizing about women). Sexism is the systematic mistreatment that women face, or wake up afraid that they might face, every day in the workplace, in the media, and in their life. Some examples are: men dominating discussions, not doing their share of housework and childcare, males thinking that they are smarter or more important than females, and women not receiving equal pay for equal work, or equal access to promotions and leadership.

Men are conditioned from childhood to behave in sexist ways and to be silent about the oppression of women by other men and by institutions. But no boy is born sexist, a rapist, or a sexual predator. What happens to young males to cause them to act in such oppressive ways? What changes are necessary so that all men will respect all women completely?

Let me be very clear. I am not writing this to make excuses for men’s sexist behavior. And I am not saying that young girls are not mistreated. From infancy on, females experience sexism throughout their lives. I am saying that in order to eliminate sexism it will be necessary to examine and change some of the ways young boys are treated, what they observe older males doing, and what they are rewarded for.

I do not mean this post to be a comprehensive analysis of the situation. My writing is informed by my own life as a male, and by listening to many men and women talk about their lives. My perspective is influenced, of course, by being a white Jewish heterosexual middle class male, born in 1941 and raised in the U.S.A.

Here are some of the ways I am aware of that adults and institutions contribute to males developing sexist attitudes and behaviors.

Emotions: Sadness and fear
Males and females both have a full range of emotions. Both have their emotions repressed, but in different ways. Males are usually not allowed to show sadness and fear. Young males hear very early that “big boys don’t cry”. And when they cry, they are often sent to their rooms, ridiculed, or told “don’t be a sissy”[1]. Sometimes they are threatened with, “If you don’t stop crying, I will give you something to cry about.” And that threat may be followed by beatings. I learned very early that my parents did not want to see me crying. In a previous post there was a link to Rosey Grier, a famous professional football player singing It’s alright to cry. You might want to listen to it again.

In my group of boy playmates there was a boy who once showed that he was afraid. Our group called him “Chickie” (meaning he was a chicken or coward) for years after the incident and sometimes physically attacked him. He joined the Navy immediately after graduating from high school and was very proud when he came home in his uniform. I also felt very proud of him and deeply regretted our childhood attacks.

All humans inherently want to be close to other humans — to play and communicate with them.

Three young boys playing in a mud after the rain , East Java , Indonesia

Most boys of my generation, however,  were not allowed to be close to other boys and men as they got older. I remember when I was about 4 years old my father stopped kissing me good night. It was confusing, but I just accepted it as part of growing up. About the same time, my boy pals and I stopped putting our arms around each other or holding hands when walking. There were clear messages that to be close to males was wrong. Now I understand that this was caused by the anti-gay oppression prevalent in the society.

Our society, gives boys the message that physical and emotional closeness is possible only in competitive team sports, war, and sex — mostly through sex. One result is that men often look to sex as a way of feeling close — or feeling anything. For heterosexual males, females often are seen as sexual objects rather than interesting intelligent human beings. The sexualization of women[2] is promoted by the advertising, clothing, cosmetic, entertainment and pornography industries.

Men and women
Young children (both male and female) usually look to their mothers when they get hurt or feel bad. This is natural since we develop inside our mothers and often are nursed by them.  And mothers or other women are usually the primary child care person. I believe that this and not being allowed to be close to other boys and men leads men to seek relief from women when they are feeling bad.  Often they just want someone to listen to them, but sometimes they act this out in inappropriate sexual ways.

Also, many males feel bad about themselves. In order to feel better they may compete for money, grades, status, and of course having attractive women (sometimes referred to as “trophy women”) as dates, partners, or spouses.   Predatory behavior originates in these feelings and the desperation of feeling powerless and wanting to exert control.

Young boys are often influenced by secretiveness around sex and being told it is forbidden. They may be confused by seeing or hearing adults having sexual intercourse, or by seeing older males act abusively to women and girls. This can lead, for example, to acting in obsessive ways around women, staring at women’s’ bodies, trying to touch them sneakily, whistling at them, and making obnoxious remarks. Males often turn to pornography.  Older boys often introduce younger boys to some of these practices, causing the younger ones to believe that this is what it means to be a man.

And then there is war.
War has been pervasive throughout human history. My reading in this area leads me to the conclusion that every human being has ancestors who were deeply affected by war — who either had people close to them die or be severely injured in a war, or who were fearful of being killed. The prevalence of war has deeply affected our cultural values, including how families raise children. In order to condition males to be willing (or even eager) to go to war and to kill or be killed, belief systems and behavior patterns must be installed on them while they are young. Boys must be conditioned to believe that there is no greater honor than dying for your country. The Roman poet Horace (65–8 BC) wrote “It is sweet and fitting to die for your country.” Boys must be conditioned to accept pain in order to be tough enough to fight in wars. Even if young boys in some parts of today’s world are not as exposed to this conditioning as previously, their feelings and behaviors are affected by the cultural values that have been passed down from generation to generation.

In addition, the military is a major source of harmful sexual behavior. In many countries the military distributes pornography to their soldiers, uses ‘comfort women” (women usually captured from the enemy who are forced to provide sex to soldiers), and condones rape. Not too long ago soldiers were allowed to take women from conquered tribes or nations as concubines or wives. Evidence for this even appears in the Old Testament: “if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife.” (Deuteronomy 21:13) Military officers on the victorious side in a war often give soldiers permission to rape (or look the other way when their men rape) the women of conquered nations — or even allied nations that have been occupied. I was shocked to read that some U.S. soldiers in France raped French women at the end of WWII.

Here’s what we can do
Make significant changes in how young males are treated.

  • Allow boys to cry and have tantrums as long as they do not hurt themselves or others. I remember my youngest son’s first tantrum. He was trying to put on his shoes and could not. He erupted in a tantrum — yelling, crying, and banging his shoes on the floor. I looked on in amazement. He then abruptly started laughing. After a few minutes, he picked up his shoes, walked over to me, and asked me to help him.
  • Throughout their growing up years, hug your sons frequently and tell them how much you love them and how good they are.
  • Treat your sons and daughters equally, encourage them all to pursue sports, art and intellectual activities, and require them to do the same type and amount of chores around the house.
  • Don’t overemphasize athletic prowess at the expense of other interests and talents;  communicate that we love the boys in our life unconditionally, regardless of athletic talent. Don’t criticize them when they are daydreaming, distracted or make mistakes on the athletic field.
  • Eliminate circumcision of infants. It is sexual abuse. If boys choose to be circumcised for religious reasons, they can make that choice when they are adults.

It is also necessary for adult males to change their behavior

  • Give up fascination with, or addiction to, competitive sports —  especially violent sports such as boxing and tackle (North American) football. You can encourage your sons to pursue a variety of non-violent interests.
  • Model being completely respectful of the women in your lives. Refuse to tell sexist jokes or make comments about women’s bodies. If you are present when a sexist joke or demeaning sexual comment is made, interrupt it by saying, “I don’t see how that is funny” or “I don’t like to hear things like that.”
  • Decide to not act in sexist ways. Don’t deny, excuse, defend, or attempt to trivialize sexist behavior when women point it out.
  • Give up the need to always be right in discussions with women and commit yourself to listening more than you talk.
  • Don’t blame women for provoking sexual feelings by their appearance or dress. They are your feelings. You do not have to act them out. .

These changes will not be easily or quickly made, but we can do it! We are all in this together. We need to be allies, men and women, men and men, women and women, knowing that we will make mistakes, but continually working together and supporting one another. We can create the society that we want and deserve.

Reflection. Pair up with a friend and each take a roughly equal amount of time to talk about the following, or write in a journal:
How did you experience boys and girls being treated differently when you were young? What happened when you cried or showed that you were scared? What feelings did you have about soldiers or becoming a soldier?

Reflections for men paired with men. How do you still act in sexist ways? How would you like to change?

I want to appreciate and acknowledge the generous contribution of Terri to this article. We have been married for almost 40 years. She is an extraordinary editor. She has been a tremendous help to me both in understanding sexism and in improving my writing.

 [1] A sexist term for someone regarded as cowardly.

[2] Valuing them only because of her sexual appeal or sexual behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics

12 thoughts on “Boys Become Men: Efforts To End Sexism Must Start With Them

  1. Forwarding to social media groups. Much needed thoughts & actions here in this article as there is a lot of societal dampening of the conversation & confusion happening right now, thank you.

  2. Dear Julian thank you for writting this extraordinary articol i will talk to the men in my village at the coffee shops and i will take it in to my sessions thank you again for writting i also want to thank you the editor too love Theodoros

  3. Thanks for writing this Julian and thanks Terri for the learning and editing – I appreciate just how long a job it is to write something as thoughtful as this, especially on a topic that is quite ‘hot’ right now. Your thinking mirrors mine in that, unless we pay attention to the way boys and men are damaged when being raised, we won’t be able to do much about cleaning up sexism.

    I’ll be sharing this widely.

    Love to you and trusting that you are safe from the wildfires just now. I was fascinated recently to see that P. A. Yeomans, one of my heroes who developed the keyline design system for water retention landscapes and soil building, did so partly to make sure that wildfires could not get a hold in his dryland farms in Australia – some great clues for California in this 1950’s and onwards work …

    • Andrew: Thanks for writing and for the kind words. The fires here have not gotten to close to our home — 15 miles or so. We did not have to evacuate, but the smoke had been awful. I hope your life is going well.

  4. Hello Julian,
    I love the clarity of this article. I can share this with my friends and loved ones and they will be exposed to a bigger picture of what is going on with men and boys that explains but does not excuse their sexist behavior. I like how you show their struggles in the context of them being set up in our oppressive society to be the oppressors of woman. I see we are all in this together and it is not a they vs us struggle. Thanks for putting this out there for us.

    Love, Wende

  5. Thank you Julian
    I have been so happy to be able to share this with friends and contacts – including a young male colleague who is working with other young people who are associated with or involved with gang activity in London. We were working on producing workshop materials about social media and conflict, and he said to me ‘there is nothing that explores these issues for young men’. He was interested to read what you have written.

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