Updated at 9:30 p.m. ET on December 20, 2019.
I knew nothing about Cole before meeting him; he was just a name on a list of boys at a private school outside Boston who had volunteered to talk with me (or perhaps had had their arm twisted a bit by a counselor). The afternoon of our first interview, I was running late. As I rushed down a hallway at the school, I noticed a boy sitting outside the library, waiting—it had to be him. He was staring impassively ahead, both feet planted on the floor, hands resting loosely on his thighs.
My first reaction was Oh no.
It was totally unfair, a scarlet letter of personal bias. Cole would later describe himself to me as a “typical tall white athlete” guy, and that is exactly what I saw. At 18, he stood more than 6 feet tall, with broad shoulders and short-clipped hair. His neck was so thick that it seemed to merge into his jawline, and he was planning to enter a military academy for college the following fall. His friends were “the jock group,” he’d tell me. “They’re what you’d expect, I guess. Let’s leave it at that.” If I had closed my eyes and described the boy I imagined would never open up to me, it would have been him.
But Cole surprised me. He pulled up a picture on his phone of his girlfriend, whom he’d been dating for the past 18 months, describing her proudly as “way smarter than I am,” a feminist, and a bedrock of emotional support. He also confided how he’d worried four years earlier, during his first weeks as a freshman on a scholarship at a new school, that he wouldn’t know how to act with other guys, wouldn’t be able to make friends. “I could talk to girls platonically,” he said. “That was easy. But being around guys was different. I needed to be a ‘bro,’ and I didn’t know how to do that.”
Whenever Cole uttered the word bro, he shifted his weight to take up more space, rocking back in his chair, and spoke from low in his throat, like he’d inhaled a lungful of weed. He grinned when I pointed that out. “Yeah,” he said, “that’s part of it: seeming relaxed and never intrusive, yet somehow bringing out that aggression on the sports field. Because a ‘bro’ ”—he rocked back again—“is always, always an athlete.”
Cole eventually found his people on the crew team, but it wasn’t a smooth fit at first. He recalled an incident two years prior when a senior was bragging in the locker room about how he’d convinced one of Cole’s female classmates—a young sophomore, Cole emphasized—that they were an item, then started hooking up with other girls behind her back. And the guy wasn’t shy about sharing the details. Cole and a friend of his, another sophomore, told him to knock it off. “I started to explain why it wasn’t appropriate,” Cole said, “but he just laughed.”
The next day, a second senior started talking about “getting back at” a “bitch” who’d dumped him. Cole’s friend spoke up again, but this time Cole stayed silent. “And as I continued to step back” and the other sophomore “continued to step up, you could tell that the guys on the team stopped liking him as much. They stopped listening to him, too. It’s almost as if he spent all his social currency” trying to get them to stop making sexist jokes. “Meanwhile, I was sitting there”—Cole thumped his chest—“too afraid to spend any of mine, and I just had buckets left.
“I don’t know what to do,” he continued earnestly. “Once I’m in the military, and I’m a part of that culture, I don’t want to have to choose between my own dignity and my relationship with others I’m serving with. But …” He looked me in the eye. “How do I make it so I don’t have to choose?”
I’ve spent two years talking with boys across America—more than 100 of them between the ages of 16 and 21—about masculinity, sex, and love: about the forces, seen and unseen, that shape them as men. Though I spoke with boys of all races and ethnicities, I stuck to those who were in college or college-bound, because like it or not, they’re the ones most likely to set cultural norms. Nearly every guy I interviewed held relatively egalitarian views about girls, at least their role in the public sphere. They considered their female classmates to be smart and competent, entitled to their place on the athletic field and in school leadership, deserving of their admission to college and of professional opportunities. They all had female friends; most had gay male friends as well. That was a huge shift from what you might have seen 50, 40, maybe even 20 years ago. They could also easily reel off the excesses of masculinity. They’d seen the headlines about mass shootings, domestic violence, sexual harassment, campus rape, presidential Twitter tantrums, and Supreme Court confirmation hearings. A Big Ten football player I interviewed bandied about the term toxic masculinity. “Everyone knows what that is,” he said, when I seemed surprised.
Yet when asked to describe the attributes of “the ideal guy,” those same boys appeared to be harking back to 1955. Dominance. Aggression. Rugged good looks (with an emphasis on height). Sexual prowess. Stoicism. Athleticism. Wealth (at least some day). It’s not that all of these qualities, properly channeled, are bad. But while a 2018 national survey of more than 1,000 10-to-19-year-olds commissione
Feminism may have provided girls with a powerful alternative to conventional femininity, and a language with which to express the myriad problems-that-have-no-name, but there have been no credible equivalents for boys. Quite the contrary: The definition of masculinity seems to be in some respects contracting. When asked what traits society values most in boys, only 2 percent of male respondents in the PerryUndem survey said honesty and morality, and only 8 percent said leadership skills—traits that are, of course, admirable in anyone but have traditionally been considered masculine. When I asked my subjects, as I always did, what they liked about being a boy, most of them drew a blank. “Huh,” mused Josh, a college sophomore at Washington State. (All the teenagers I spoke with are identified by pseudonyms.) “That’s interesting. I never really thought about that. You hear a lot more about what is wrong with guys.”
While following the conventional script may still bring social and professional rewards to boys and men, research shows that those who rigidly adhere to certain masculine norms are not only more likely to harass and bully others but to themselves be victims of verbal or physical violence. They’re more prone to binge-drinking, risky sexual behavior, and getting in car accidents. They are also less happy than other guys, with higher depression rates and fewer friends in whom they can confide.
It wasn’t always thus. According to Andrew Smiler, a psychologist who has studied the history of Western masculinity, the ideal late-19th-century man was compassionate, a caretaker, but such qualities lost favor as paid labor moved from homes to factories during industrialization. In fact, the Boy Scouts, whose creed urges its members to be loyal, friendly, courteous, and kind, was founded in 1910 in part to counter that dehumanizing trend. Smiler attributes further distortions in masculinity to a century-long backlash against women’s rights. During World War I, women proved that they could keep the economy humming on their own, and soon afterward they secured the vote. Instead of embracing gender equality, he says, the country’s leaders “doubled down” on the inalienable male right to power, emphasizing men’s supposedly more logical and less emotional nature as a prerequisite for leadership.
Then, during the second half of the 20th century, traditional paths to manhood—early marriage, breadwinning—began to close, along with the positive traits associated with them. Today many parents are unsure of how to raise a boy, what sort of masculinity to encourage in their sons. But as I learned from talking with boys themselves, the culture of adolescence, which fuses hyperrationality with domination, sexual conquest, and a glorification of male violence, fills the void.
For Cole, as for many boys, this stunted masculinity is a yardstick against which all choices, even those seemingly irrelevant to male identity, are measured. When he had a choice, he would team up with girls on school projects, to avoid the possibility of appearing subordinate to another guy. “With a girl, it feels safer to talk and ask questions, to work together or to admit that I did something wrong and want help,” Cole said. During his junior year, he briefly suggested to his crew teammates that they go vegan for a while, just to show that athletes could. “And everybody was like, ‘Cole, that is the dumbest idea ever. We’d be the slowest in any race.’ That’s somewhat true—we do need protein. We do need fats and salts and carbs that we get from meat. But another reason they all thought it was stupid is because being vegans would make us pussies.”
LEARNING TO “MAN UP”
There is no difference between the sexes’ need for connection in infancy, nor between their capacity for empathy—there’s actually some evidence that male infants are more expressive than females. Yet, from the get-go, boys are relegated to an impoverished emotional landscape. In a classic study, adults shown a video of an infant startled by a jack-in-the-box were more likely to presume the baby was “angry” if they were first told the child was male. Mothers of young children have repeatedly been found to talk more to their girls and to employ a broader, richer emotional vocabulary with them; with their sons, again, they tend to linger on anger. As for fathers, they speak with less emotional nuance than mothers regardless of their child’s sex. Despite that, according to Judy Y. Chu, a human-biology lecturer at Stanford who conducted a study of boys from pre-K through first grade, little boys have a keen understanding of emotions and a desire for close relationships. But by age 5 or 6, they’ve learned to knock that stuff off, at least in public: to disconnect from feelings of weakness, reject friendships with girls (or take them underground, outside of school), and become more hierarchical in their behavior.
By adolescence, says the Harvard psychologist William Pollack, boys become “shame-phobic,” convinced that peers will lose respect for them if they discuss their personal problems. My conversations bore this out. Boys routinely confided that they felt denied—by male peers, girlfriends, the media, teachers, coaches, and especially their fathers—the full spectrum of human expression. Cole, for instance, spent most of his childhood with his mother, grandmother, and sister—his parents split up when he was 10 and his dad, who was in the military, was often away. Cole spoke of his mom with unbridled love and respect. His father was another matter. “He’s a nice guy,” Cole said—caring and involved, even after the divorce—“but I can’t be myself around him. I feel like I need to keep everything that’s in here”—Cole tapped his chest again—“behind a wall, where he can’t see it. It’s a taboo—like, not as bad as incest, but …”
Rob, an 18-year-old from New Jersey in his freshman year at a North Carolina college, said his father would tell him to “man up” when he was struggling in school or with baseball. “That’s why I never talk to anybody about my problems.” He’d always think, If you can’t handle this on your own, then you aren’t a man; you aren’t trying hard enough. Other boys also pointed to their fathers as the chief of the gender police, though in a less obvious way. “It’s not like my dad is some alcoholic, emotionally unavailable asshole with a pulse,” said a college sophomore in Southern California. “He’s a normal, loving, charismatic guy who’s not at all intimidating.” But “there’s a block there. There’s a hesitation, even though I don’t like to admit that. A hesitation to talk about … anything, really. We learn to confide in nobody. You sort of train yourself not to feel.”
I met Rob about four months after he’d broken up with his high-school girlfriend. The two had dated for more than three years—“I really did love her,” he said—and although their colleges were far apart, they’d decided to try to stay together. Then, a few weeks into freshman year, Rob heard from a friend that she was cheating on him. “So I cut her off,” he said, snapping his fingers. “I stopped talking to her and forgot about her completely.” Only … not really. Although he didn’t use the word, Rob became depressed. The excitement he’d felt about leaving home, starting college, and rushing a fraternity all drained away, and, as the semester wore on, it didn’t come back.
When I asked whom he talked to during that time, he shrugged. If he had told his friends he was “hung up” on a girl, “they’d be like, ‘Stop being a bitch.’ ” Rob looked glum. The only person with whom he had been able to drop his guard was his girlfriend, but that was no longer an option.
Girlfriends, mothers, and in some cases sisters were the most common confidants of the boys I met. While it’s wonderful to know they have someone to talk to—and I’m sure mothers, in particular, savor the role—teaching boys that women are responsible for emotional labor, for processing men’s emotional lives in ways that would be emasculating for them to do themselves, comes at a price for both sexes. Among other things, that dependence can leave men unable to identify or express their own emotions, and ill-equipped to form caring, lasting adult relationships.
By Thanksgiving break, Rob was so distraught that he had what he called a “mental breakdown” one night while chatting in the kitchen with his mom. “I was so stressed out,” he said. “Classes. The thing with my girlfriend.” He couldn’t describe what that “breakdown” felt like (though he did say it “scared the crap” out of his mom, who immediately demanded, “Tell me everything”). All he could say definitively was that he didn’t cry. “Never,” he insisted. “I don’t cry, ever.”
I paid close attention when boys mentioned crying—doing it, not doing it, wanting to do it, not being able to do it. For most, it was a rare and humiliating event—a dangerous crack in a carefully constructed edifice. A college sophomore in Chicago told me that he hadn’t been able to cry when his parents divorced. “I really wanted to,” he said. “I needed to cry.” His solution: He streamed three movies about the Holocaust over the weekend. That worked.
As someone who, by virtue of my sex, has always had permission to weep, I didn’t initially understand this. Only after multiple interviews did I realize that when boys confided in me about crying—or, even more so, when they teared up right in front of me—they were taking a risk, trusting me with something private and precious: evidence of vulnerability, or a desire for it. Or, as with Rob, an inability to acknowledge any human frailty that was so poignant, it made me want to, well, cry.
While my interview subjects struggled when I asked what they liked about being a boy, the most frequent response was sports. They recalled their early days on the playing field with almost romantic warmth. But I was struck by how many had dropped athletics they’d enjoyed because they couldn’t stand the Lord of the Flies mentality of teammates or coaches. Perhaps the most extreme example was Ethan, a kid from the Bay Area who had been recruited by a small liberal-arts college in New England to play lacrosse. He said he’d expected to encounter the East Coast “ ‘lax bro’ culture,” but he’d underestimated its intensity. “It was all about sex” and bragging about hooking up, and even the coaches endorsed victim-blaming, Ethan told me. “They weren’t like that in class or around other people; it was a super-liberal school. But once you got them in the locker room …” He shook his head. “It was one of the most jarring experiences of my life.”
As a freshman, Ethan didn’t feel he could challenge his older teammates, especially without support from the coaches. So he quit the team; not only that, he transferred. “If I’d stayed, there would’ve been a lot of pressure on me to play, a lot of resentment, and I would’ve run into those guys all the time. This way I didn’t really have to explain anything.” At his new school, Ethan didn’t play lacrosse, or anything else.
What the longtime sportswriter Robert Lipsyte calls “jock culture” (or what the boys I talked with more often referred to as “bro culture”) is the dark underbelly of male-dominated enclaves, whether or not they formally involve athletics: all-boys’ schools, fraternity houses, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the military. Even as such groups promote bonding, even as they preach honor, pride, and integrity, they tend to condition young men to treat anyone who is not “on the team” as the enemy (the only women who ordinarily make the cut are blood relatives— bros before hos!), justifying any hostility toward them. Loyalty is paramount, and masculinity is habitually established through misogynist language and homophobia.
As a senior in high school, Cole was made captain of the crew team. He relished being part of a unit, a band of brothers. When he raced, he imagined pulling each stroke for the guy in front of him, for the guy behind him—never for himself alone. But not everyone could muster such higher purpose. “Crew demands you push yourself to a threshold of pain and keep yourself there,” Cole said. “And it’s hard to find something to motivate you to do that other than anger and aggression.”
I asked him about how his teammates talked in the locker room. That question always made these young men squirm. They’d rather talk about looking at porn, erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation—anything else. Cole cut his eyes to the side, shifted in his seat, and sighed deeply. “Okay,” he finally said, “so here’s my best shot: We definitely say fuck a lot; fuckin’ can go anywhere in a sentence. And we call each other pussies, bitches. We never say the N-word, though. That’s going too far.”
“What about fag?” I asked.
“No,” he said, shaking his head firmly.
“So why can’t you say fag or the N-word but you can say pussy and bitch? Aren’t those just as offensive?”
“One of my friends said we probably shouldn’t say those words anymore either, but what would we replace them with? We couldn’t think of anything that bites as much.”
“Yeah. It’s like … for some reason pussy just works. When someone calls me a pussy—‘Don’t be a pussy! Come on! Fuckin’ go! Pull! Pull! Pull!’—it just flows. If someone said, ‘Come on, Cole, don’t be weak! Be tough! Pull! Pull! Pull!,’ it just wouldn’t get inside my head the same way. I don’t know why that is.” He paused. “Well,” he said, “maybe I do. Maybe I just try not to dig too deeply.”
Although losing ground in more progressive circles, like the one Cole runs in, fag remained pervasive in the language of the boys I interviewed—including those who insisted that they would never use the word in reference to an actual homosexual. Fag has become less a comment on a boy’s sexuality, says the University of Oregon sociology professor C. J. Pascoe, than a referendum on his manhood. It can be used to mock anything, she told me, even something as random as a guy “dropping the meat out of his sandwich.” (Perhaps oddest to me, Pascoe found that one of the more common reasons boys get tagged with fag is for acting romantically with a girl. That’s seen as heterosexual in the “wrong” way, which explains why one high-school junior told me that having a girlfriend was “gay.”) That fluidity, the elusiveness of the word’s definition, only intensifies its power, much like slut for girls.
Recently, Pascoe turned her attention to no homo, a phrase that gained traction in the 1990s. She sifted through more than 1,000 tweets, primarily by young men, that included the phrase. Most were expressing a positive emotion, sometimes as innocuous as “I love chocolate ice cream, #nohomo” or “I loved the movie The Day After Tomorrow, #nohomo.” “A lot of times they were saying things like ‘I miss you’ to a friend or ‘We should hang out soon,’ ” she said. “Just normal expressions of joy or connection.” No homo is a form of inoculation against insults from other guys, Pascoe concluded, a “shield that allows boys to be fully human.”
Just because some young men now draw the line at referring to someone who is openly gay as a fag doesn’t mean, by the way, that gay men (or men with traits that read as gay) are suddenly safe. If anything, the gay guys I met were more conscious of the rules of manhood than their straight peers were. They had to be—and because of that, they were like spies in the house of hypermasculinity.
Mateo, 17, attended the same Boston-area high school as Cole, also on a scholarship, but the two could not have presented more differently. Mateo, whose father is Salvadoran, was slim and tan, with an animated expression and a tendency to wave his arms as he spoke. Where Cole sat straight and still, Mateo crossed his legs at the knee and swung his foot, propping his chin on one hand.
This was Mateo’s second private high school. The oldest of six children, he had been identified as academically gifted and encouraged by an eighth-grade teacher to apply to an all-boys prep school for his freshman year. When he arrived, he discovered that his classmates were nearly all white, athletic, affluent, and, as far as he could tell, straight. Mateo—Latino and gay, the son of a janitor—was none of those things. He felt immediately conscious of how he held himself, of how he sat, and especially of the pitch of his voice. He tried lowering it, but that felt unnatural, so he withdrew from conversation altogether. He changed the way he walked as well, to avoid being targeted as “girly.” “One of my only friends there was gay too,” he said, “and he was a lot more outward about it. He just got destroyed.”
Guys who identify as straight but aren’t athletic, or are involved in the arts, or have a lot of female friends, all risk having their masculinity impugned. What has changed for this generation, though, is that some young men, particularly if they grew up around LGBTQ people, don’t rise to the bait. “I don’t mind when people mistake me for being gay,” said Luke, a high-school senior from New York City. “It’s more of an annoyance than anything, because I want people to believe me when I say I’m straight.” The way he described himself did, indeed, tick every stereotypical box. “I’m a very thin person,” he said. “I like clothing. I care about my appearance in maybe a more delicate way. I’m very in touch with my sensitive side. So when people think I’m gay?” He shrugged. “It can feel like more of a compliment. Like, ‘Oh, you like the way I dress? Thank you! ’ ”
One of Luke’s friends, who was labeled “the faggot frosh” in ninth grade, is not so philosophical. “He treats everything as a test of his masculinity,” Luke told me. “Like, once when I was wearing red pants, I heard him say to other people, ‘He looks like such a faggot.’ I didn’t care, and maybe in that situation no one was really harmed, but when you apply that attitude to whole populations, you end up with Donald Trump as president.”
W’s AND L’s
Sexual conquest—or perhaps more specifically, bragging about your experiences to other boys—is, arguably, the most crucial aspect of toxic masculinity. Nate, who attended a public high school in the Bay Area, knew this well. At a party held near the beginning of his junior year of high school, he sank deep into the couch, trying to look chill. Kids were doing shots and smoking weed. Some were Juuling. Nate didn’t drink much himself and never got high. He wasn’t morally opposed to it; he just didn’t like the feeling of being out of control.
At 16, reputation meant everything to Nate, and certain things could cement your status. “The whole goal of going to a party is to hook up with girls and then tell your guys about it,” he said. And there’s this “race for experience,” because if you get behind, by the time you do hook up with a girl “she’ll have hit it with, like, five guys already. Then she’s going to know how to do things” you don’t—and that’s a problem, if she tells people “you’ve got floppy lips” or “don’t know how to get her bra off.”
A lanky boy with dark, liquid eyes and curly hair that resisted all attempts at taming, Nate put himself in the middle of his school’s social hierarchy: friends with both the “popular” and “lower” kids. Still, he’d hooked up with only three girls since ninth grade—kissing, getting under their shirts—but none had wanted a repeat. That left him worried about his skills. He is afraid of intimacy, he told me sincerely. “It’s a huge self-esteem suck.”
It would probably be more accurate to say that Nate was afraid of having drunken sexual interactions with a girl he did not know or trust. But it was all about credentialing. “Guys need to prove themselves to their guys,” Nate said. To do that, “they’re going to be dominating.” They’re going to “push.” Because the girl is just there “as a means for him to get off and to brag.”
Before the start of this school year, Nate’s “dry spell” had seemed to be ending. He’d been in a relationship with a girl that lasted a full two weeks, until other guys told him she was “slutty”—their word, he hastened to add, not his. Although any hookup is marginally better than none, Nate said, you only truly earn points for getting sexual with the right kind of girl. “If you hook up with a girl below your status, it’s an ‘L,’ ” he explained. “A loss. Like, a bad move.” So he stopped talking to the girl, which was too bad. He’d really liked her.
After a short trip to the kitchen to watch his friend Kyle stand on a table and drunkenly try to pour Sprite from a can into a shot glass, Nate returned to the couch, starting to relax as people swirled around him. Suddenly Nicole, the party’s host and a senior, plopped onto his lap, handing him a shot of vodka. Nate was impressed, if a little confused. Usually, if a girl wanted to hook up with you, there were texts and Snapchats, and if you said yes, it was on; everyone would be anticipating it, and expecting a postmortem.
Nate thought Nicole was “pretty hot”—she had a great body, he said—though he’d never been especially interested in her before this moment. Still, he knew that hooking up with her would be a “W.” A big one. He glanced around the room subtly, wanting to make sure, without appearing to care, that everyone who mattered—everyone “relevant”—saw what was going down. A couple of guys gave him little nods. One winked. Another slapped him on the shoulder. Nate feigned nonchalance. Meanwhile, he told me, “I was just trying not to pop a boner.”
Nicole took Nate’s hand and led him to an empty bedroom. He got through the inevitable, cringey moments when you actually have to talk to your partner, then, finally, they started kissing. In his anxiety, Nate bit Nicole’s lip. Hard. “I was thinking, Oh God! What do I do now?” But he kept going. He took off her top and undid her bra. He took off his own shirt. Then she took off her pants. “And that,” he said, “was the first time I ever saw a vagina. I did not know what to do with it.” He recalled that his friends had said girls go crazy if you stick your fingers up there and make the “come here” motion, so he tried it, but Nicole just lay there. He didn’t ask what might feel better to her, because that would have been admitting ignorance.
After a few more agonizing minutes, Nicole announced that she wanted to see what was going on upstairs, and left, Nate trailing behind. A friend handed him a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Another high-fived him. A third said, “Dude, you hit that!” Maybe the hookup hadn’t been a disaster after all: He still had bragging rights.
Then he heard a senior, a guy Nate considered kind of a friend, loudly ask Nicole, “Why would you hook up with Nate?”
She giggled. “Oh, I was drunk!” she said. “I was so drunk!”
They were calling him an “L.”
By Monday morning, Nicole had spread the word that Nate was bad at hooking up: that he’d bit her lip, that he didn’t know how to finger a girl. That his nails were ragged. “The stereotype is that guys go into gory detail,” Nate said, but “it’s the other way around.” Guys will brag, but they’re not specific. Girls will go into “what his penis looked like,” every single thing he did.
Nate said he felt “completely emasculated,” so mortified that he told his mom he was sick and stayed home from school the next day. “I was basically crying,” he said. “I was like, Shit! I fucked up.”
No question, gossip about poor “performance” can destroy a guy’s reputation almost as surely as being called a “slut” or a “prude” can destroy a girl’s. As a result, the boys I talked with were concerned with female satisfaction during a hookup; they just didn’t typically define it as the girl having an orgasm. They believed it to be a function of their own endurance and, to a lesser extent, penis size. A college freshman in Los Angeles recalled a high-school classmate who’d had sex with a girl who told everyone he’d ejaculated really quickly: “He got the nickname Second Sam. That basically scared the crap out of all the other guys.” A college senior in Boston recounted how he would glance at the clock when he started penetration. “I’d think, I have to last five minutes, minimum,” he said. “And once I could do that, I’d think, I need to get to double digits. I don’t know if it’s necessarily about your partner’s enjoyment. It’s more about getting beyond the point where you’d be embarrassed, maintaining your pride. It turns sex into a task—one I enjoy to a certain degree, but one where you’re monitoring your performance rather than living in the moment.”
Eventually, Nate decided that he had to take a stand, if only to make returning to school bearable. He texted Nicole and said, “ ‘I’m sorry that you didn’t enjoy it, [but] I would never roast you. Why are you doing this?’ ” She felt “really bad,” he said. “She stopped telling people, but it took me until the next semester to recover.”
HOW MISOGYNY BECOMES “HILARIOUS”
No matter how often I heard it, the brutal language that even a conscientious young man like Nate used to describe sexual contact—you hit that!—always unnerved me. In mixed-sex groups, teenagers may talk about hooking up (already impersonal), but when guys are on their own, they nail, they pound, they bang, they smash, they hammer. They tap that ass, they tear her up. It can be hard to tell whether they have engaged in an intimate act or just returned from a construction site.
It’s not like I imagined boys would gush about making sweet, sweet love to the ladies, but why was their language so weaponized ? The answer, I came to believe, was that locker-room talk isn’t about sex at all, which is why guys were ashamed to discuss it openly with me. The (often clearly exaggerated) stories boys tell are really about power: using aggression toward women to connect and to validate one another as heterosexual, or to claim top spots in the adolescent sexual hierarchy. Dismissing that as “banter” denies the ways that language can desensitize—abrade boys’ ability to see girls as people deserving of respect and dignity in sexual encounters.
For evidence, look no further than the scandals that keep popping up at the country’s top colleges: Harvard, Amherst, Columbia, Yale (the scene of an especially notorious 2010 fraternity chant, “No means yes; yes means anal”). Most recently, in the spring of 2019, at the politically progressive Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, two fraternities disbanded after student-run publications released more than 100 pages of “minutes” from house meetings a few years earlier that included, among other things, jokes about a “rape attic” and the acquiring of roofies, “finger blasting” a member’s 10-year-old sister, and vomiting on women during sex.
When called out, boys typically claim that they thought they were just being “funny.” And in a way that makes sense—when left unexamined, such “humor” may seem like an extension of the gross-out comedy of childhood. Little boys are famous for their fart jokes, booger jokes, poop jokes. It’s how they test boundaries, understand the human body, gain a little cred among their peers. But, as can happen with sports, their glee in that can both enable and camouflage sexism. The boy who, at age 10, asks his friends the difference between a dead baby and a bowling ball may or may not find it equally uproarious, at 16, to share what a woman and a bowling ball have in common (you can Google it). He may or may not post ever-escalating “jokes” about women, or African Americans, or homosexuals, or disabled people on a group Snapchat. He may or may not send “funny” texts to friends about “girls who need to be raped,” or think it’s hysterical to surprise a buddy with a meme in which a woman is being gagged by a penis, her mascara mixed with her tears. He may or may not, at 18, scrawl the names of his hookups on a wall in his all-male dorm, as part of a year-long competition to see who can “pull” the most. Perfectly nice, bright, polite boys I interviewed had done one or another of these things.
How does that happen? I talked with a 15-year-old from the East Coast who had been among a group of boys suspended from school for posting more than 100 racist and sexist “jokes” about classmates on a group Finsta (a secondary, or “fake,” Instagram account that is in many cases more genuine than a “Rinsta,” or “real” account).“The Finsta became very competitive,” he said. “You wanted to make your friends laugh, but when you’re not face-to-face,” you can’t tell whether you’ll get a reaction, “so you go one step beyond.” It was “that combination of competitiveness and that … disconnect that triggered it to get worse and worse.”
At the most disturbing end of the continuum, “funny” and “hilarious” become a defense against charges of sexual harassment or assault. To cite just one example, a boy from Steubenville, Ohio, was captured on video joking about the repeated violation of an unconscious girl at a party by a couple of high-school football players. “She is so raped,” he said, laughing. “They raped her quicker than Mike Tyson.” When someone off camera suggested that rape wasn’t funny, he retorted, “It isn’t funny—it’s hilarious!”
“Hilarious” is another way, under the pretext of horseplay or group bonding, that boys learn to disregard others’ feelings as well as their own. “Hilarious” is a haven, offering distance when something is inappropriate, confusing, depressing, unnerving, or horrifying; when something defies boys’ ethics. It allows them to subvert a more compassionate response that could be read as unmasculine—and makes sexism and misogyny feel transgressive rather than supportive of an age-old status quo. Boys may know when something is wrong; they may even know that true manhood—or maybe just common decency—compels them to speak up. Yet, too often, they fear that if they do, they’ll be marginalized or, worse, themselves become the target of derision from other boys. Masculinity, then, becomes not only about what boys do say, but about what they don’t—or won’t, or can’t—say, even when they wish they could. The psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, the authors of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, have pointed out that silence in the face of cruelty or sexism is how too many boys become men. Charis Denison, a sex educator in the Bay Area, puts it another way: “At one time or another, every young man will get a letter of admission to ‘dick school.’ The question is, will he drop out, graduate, or go for an advanced degree?”
Midway through Cole’s freshman year in military college, I FaceTimed him to see how he’d resolved the conflict between his personal values and those of the culture in which he found himself. As he’d expected, most of his classmates were male, and he said there was a lot of what passed for friendly ribbing: giving one another “love taps” on the back of the head; blocking one another’s paths, then pretending to pick a fight; grabbing one another’s asses; pretending to lean in for a kiss. Giving someone a hard time, Cole said, was always “easy humor,” but it could spiral into something more troubling pretty quickly. When one of his dorm mates joked to another, “I’m going to piss on you in your sleep,” for instance, the other boy shot back, “If you do, I’ll fucking rape you.” For better or worse, Cole said, that sort of comment no longer rattled him.
Although he had been adamantly against the epithet fag when we met, Cole found himself using it, reasoning, as other boys did, that it was “more like ‘You suck’ or ‘You’re lame.’ ” However, at least one of his friends had revealed himself to be legitimately homophobic, declaring that being gay was un-American (“I didn’t know that about him until after we became friends,” Cole insisted). And Cole had not met a single openly LGBTQ student at the school. He certainly wouldn’t want to be out in this environment if he were gay. Nor, he said, would he want to be Asian—the two Asian American boys in his dorm were ostracized and treated like foreigners; both seemed miserable.
“I do feel kind of like a cop-out for letting all the little things slide,” Cole said. “It’s a cop-out to not fight the good fight. But, you know, there was that thing I tried sophomore year … It just didn’t work. I could be a social-justice warrior here, but I don’t think anyone would listen to me. And I’d have no friends.”
The #MeToo movement has created an opportunity, a mandate not only to discuss sexual violence but to engage young men in authentic, long-overdue conversations about gender and intimacy. I don’t want to suggest that this is easy. Back in the early 1990s, when I began writing about how girls’ confidence drops during adolescence, parents would privately tell me that they were afraid to raise outspoken daughters, girls who stood up for themselves and their rights, because they might be excluded by peers and called “bossy” (or worse). Although there is still much work to be done, things are different for young women today. Now it’s time to rethink assumptions about how we raise boys. That will require models of manhood that are neither ashamed nor regressive, and that emphasize emotional flexibility—a hallmark of mental health. Stoicism is valuable sometimes, as is free expression; toughness and tenderness can coexist in one human. In the right context, physical aggression is fun, satisfying, even thrilling. If your response to all of this is Obviously, I’d say: Sure, but it’s a mistake to underestimate the strength and durability of the cultural machinery at work on adolescent boys. Real change will require a sustained, collective effort on the part of fathers, mothers, teachers, coaches. (A study of 2,000 male high-school athletes found significantly reduced rates of dating violence and a greater likelihood of intervening to stop other boys’ abusive conduct among those who participated in weekly coach-led discussions about consent, personal responsibility, and respectful behavior.)
We have to purposefully and repeatedly broaden the masculine repertoire for dealing with disappointment, anger, desire. We have to say not just what we don’t want from boys but what we do want from them. Instructing them to “respect women” and to “not get anyone pregnant” isn’t enough. As one college sophomore told me, “That’s kind of like telling someone who’s learning to drive not to run over any little old ladies and then handing him the car keys. Well, of course you think you’re not going to run over an old lady. But you still don’t know how to drive.” By staying quiet, we leave many boys in a state of confusion—or worse, push them into a defensive crouch, primed to display their manhood in the one way that is definitely on offer: by being a dick.
During our first conversation, Cole had told me that he’d decided to join the military after learning in high-school history class about the My Lai massacre—the infamous 1968 slaughter by U.S. troops of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians along with the mass rape of girls as young as 10. “I want to be able to be in the same position as someone like that commanding officer and not order people to do something like that,” he’d said. I’d been impressed. Given that noble goal, was a single failure to call out sexism a reason to stop trying? I understood that the personal cost might be greater than the impact. I also understood that, developmentally, adolescents want and need to feel a strong sense of belonging. But if Cole didn’t practice standing up, if he didn’t figure out a way to assert his values and find others who shared them, who was he?
“I knew you were going to ask me something like that,” he said. “I don’t know. In this hyper-masculine culture where you call guys ‘pussies’ and ‘bitches’ and ‘maggots’—”
“Did you say ‘maggots,’ or ‘faggots?’ ” I interrupted.
“Maggots. Like worms. So you’re equating maggots to women and to women’s body parts to convince young men like me that we’re strong. To go up against that, to convince people that we don’t need to put others down to lift ourselves up … I don’t know. I would need to be some sort of superman.” Cole fell silent.
“Maybe the best I can do is to just be a decent guy,” he continued. “The best I can do is lead by example.” He paused again, furrowed his brow, then added, “I really hope that will make a difference.”
This article is adapted from Peggy Orenstein’s book Boys & Sex.
* This article has been updated to reflect that the organization Plan International USA commissioned the 2018 survey of 10-to-19-year-olds conducted by the polling firm PerryUndem.