It’s hard to avoid a certain amount of negative stereotypes about the other sex in adolescence because of how many young people grow through childhood and into middle school primarily socializing with same-sex peers, socially separated in this regard.
Even if they have other-sex siblings, even if they go to a mixed sex school, these boys and girls grow up focused on their own sexual frame of reference because when boys mostly have boys for friends, and girls mostly have girls for friends, the other sex can seem distant, of low interest, and of little use.
Of course, when education is segregated (whether by sex, or race, or faith, or nationality, or income differences, for example) lack of contact with the “other kind” creates a fertile source of ignorance from which “we” can learn damaging stereotypes about “they.” Socialized apart, in the absence of meaningful interaction, “we” in one group comes to imagine and generalize about “they” in the other group, particularly how others are different from us in negative and inferior ways. Stereotypes are statements of ignorance that categorize people who share some similar, easily identifiable characteristic, grouping them as “they,” and overlooking the reality that there is more human diversity within groups than between them. The founding assumption of stereotypes is that “they” are all alike, when of course they are not, any more than “we” are.
By “developmental sexism” I refer to the process through which children and early adolescents come to adopt stereotypical understandings about the general nature and character of the other sex. The force of these stereotypes is that they are not simply descriptors, but can be used as powerful predictors as well. Proceeding on them in relation to members of the other sex can result in misunderstanding at least and mistreatment at most. Like propaganda telling you how to believe, stereotypes can convey a lot of misinformation about those you don’t otherwise know.
For example, if a young man entering high school believes “girls are all teases,” he may predict that when they say ‘no” they really mean “yes” and proceed as if she is simply playing hard to get. And if a young woman believes “guys are all hormones,” she may predict that any compliments are just sexual come-ons and proceed as if he is after one thing only. In both cases, the stereotype casts doubt on the other person’ sincerity and can get wrong what that person actually intends. She really means “no” and he truly appreciates something positive about her. Of course, to stereotype stereotypes as always off the mark obscures the reality that a stereotype can sometimes fit – an exception that gives stereotypes some of their lasting power. So, it may be that the girl was actually teasing or the boy was actually out for conquest.
How are these stereotypes learned? They can be culturally transmitted one generation to the next partly through family prejudices (“I was told most guys would rather play around than settle down.”) They can be taught through media portrayals (“I have seen how girls can be gold-diggers with guys.”) Then of course humor makes fun of sexual stereotypes all the time, ridiculing the extremes – jokes about how it’s hard to get girls to stop talking and how it’s hard to get guys to start, about how girls are moody and guys are unemotional, about how girls act sensitive and guys act tough, about how girls will pretend they don’t know and guys will pretend they do, about how girls take forever primping their appearance and guys don’t bother with how messy they look, about how girls will keep arguing and guys would rather give up, and so on. The problem with a parent laughing along when they hear their adolescent using a stereotype to make fun of some classmate of the other sex is that laughter provides a degree of acceptance through their positive audience response.
As described, it’s hard to avoid some developmental sexism growing up because damaging stereotypes are everywhere to be found and so many adolescents grow up socializing entirely in same-sex peer groups, having little interest or association with the other sexual kind except to think they’re an inferior sexual breed – girls and boys dismissing each other as “stupid” or “dumb” for being different. They have little use for each other until puberty (usually underway in middle school) when the journey to young womanhood and young manhood begins and to develop the womanly and manly sides of themselves they need each other’s company to grow. Here is where the accumulated sexual stereotypes can become obstacles to getting to know each other and to getting along, stereotypes that have become installed through negative contact learning, non-contact learning, and popular portrayal.
NEGATIVE CONTACT LEARNING can occur when a bad experience with a member of the other sex is sufficiently painful to want to avoid all risk of repetition. So after being jilted when his first serious girlfriend starts “messing around” with another guy, the rejected young man declares, “I’ll never trust another girl again. They’re all cheats!” Now he has stereotyped women in general to get his hurt and anger out. Or the young woman does the same. She thought she had found first love and honestly acted on it only to be told by friends about how the older student is boasting to friends about "scoring" with her. Feeling betrayed, she resolves “I’ll never trust another guy again!” In both cases, it’s like being bitten by one dog and then deciding to blame and beware the entire breed because “that’s how they all are!” The generalizing response can be hard to resist. One power of stereotypes is the poison of prejudice they can engender.
NON-CONTACT LEARNING occurs in a different way. Here stereotypes are developed not as a generalized response to a bad experience, but through opinions and perceptions from trusted informants about what the other sex is like and likes. Having only associated with same sex friends during childhood and early adolescence, never having had much interest in having a female friend as a boy or a male friend as a girl, members of the other sex represent an unknown. After puberty, however, part of proving yourself older is acting more manly or womanly by relating across sexual lines. But how will you find out what “they” are like and what they like so you know how to act?
If you’re an inexperienced male you listen to trusted male peers who sound more experienced and maybe you sort out that girls like aggressive acting guys because that’s how girls are. And if you’re an inexperienced female you listen to trusted female peers who date a lot and maybe you sort out that boys like flirtatious acting girls because that’s how boys are. In this way, sexual stereotypes may give you general information about how to proceed. In either case, what you are not likely to get is the advice that each member of the other sex is a different person and so you need to take the time to get to know them individually.
Or consider what POPULAR PORTRAYALS have to teach. There is the ever-present media, of course, presenting idealized stereotypes of how male and female should strive to look and be expected to act with each other, all this presented for sales and entertainment sake: male as social aggressor, female as social attractor, for example, so when they get together it’s hard to tell just who is seducing who. Or you can find stereotyped sexual models closer to home. Maybe as a student you’re impressed by playingfield portraits of male and female at Friday night high school football games – watching young men who bulk up and act tough playing a collision sport in front of pretty young women, all thinned down, in form fitting clothes, exercising their bodies to cheer the young men on. Each sex all costumed out, who’s supposed to be showing off for whom? Stereotypical models can be hard to shake.
So what are parents supposed to do in response to adolescent expressions developmental sexism that is more apparent in middle school when boys and girls, after years of separate socializing, become attracted to and needful of each other? I think if you hear your son or daughter speaking in stereotypes about the other sex, you might want to call them on it since that kind of thinking, talking, and acting does nobody any good in their relationship to each other now or later. Encourage them to approach each other on an individual and not a collective basis, as a person and not simply one of “them.”
And by way of prevention, it can really help if during the childhood and early adolescent years your son was able to have some good friends who were girls, and your daughter was able to have some good friends who were boys. When this kind of friendship has been established, it makes it harder to subscribe to and deal in the sexual stereotypes they will more frequently hear.
I welcome reader questions and suggestions for future blogs.
Next week’s entry: Building Blocks for Adult Happiness in Adolescence