On Sunday March 17, two high school boys were convicted in Steubenville Ohio of the crime of raping a 16-year-old girl. The crime was documented by their friend Evan Westlake. Westlake’s videos were circulated to friends and posted on Instagram and YouTube. When the two boys pleaded not guilty, the videos were among the evidence used to convict them. Mr. Westlake was granted immunity in return for cooperating as a witness for the state.
There is unfortunately nothing new about teenage boys sexually assaulting a teenage girl. What was bizarre about this case is how almost nobody involved early on – neither the teens, nor their friends who reposted the photos and the videos, nor the coaches who defended the boys – almost nobody seemed to have had any sense that the boys had done anything really wrong. The Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine described encountering “unbelievable casualness about rape and about sex. . . the belief that somehow there isn't anything wrong with any of this.” The boys, and their accomplices, seem to have been not so much immoral as amoral, lacking a moral sense.
Where did this come from?
The New York Times recently published a column by Lynn Messina, a regular contributor, in which she complained about her preschool teaching her 4-year-old son something about what it means to be a gentleman. Ms. Messina was upset that her preschool would dare to use the word “gentleman.” In Ms. Messina’s opinion, teaching girls and boys to be Ladies and Gentlemen is a “first lesson in sexism.” She admits that when she shares her concern with other parents, not all agree. “What’s the harm in teaching little boys to respect little girls?” they ask. I would ask the same question. If you fail to teach little boys to respect little girls, some years later you are likely to have teenage boys who do not respect teenage girls.
But Ms. Messina has no doubts. The very suggestion of Ladies and Gentleman for her implies a double standard of behavior which “offends me as a mom” but “it’s nothing compared with how much it infuriates me as a feminist.” Indeed. I have found that Ms. Messina’s position has become the accepted wisdom at many leading universities in the United States, where you will not find any suggestion of teaching students to be Ladies and Gentlemen. To be sure, these universities often require that students obtain explicit consent before engaging in any intimate or sexual act, but that requirement is grounded in legalistic notions of rights and torts, not in any moral vision.
Dr. Diane Halpern is a past President of the American Psychological Association and distinguished professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College. She and seven of her colleagues, all tenured professors, have created a web site to guide teachers and parents with regard to the proper raising and educating of children. On the Teachers page, there is a questionaire to help you determine whether you are doing the right thing in the classroom, or not. One of the questions is, How often do you refer to your students as "ladies and gentlemen"? The correct answer is "Never." The worst possible answer is "At least once a day", which results in 5 points off your score. These authors provide no citation, no source, no evidence whatsoever in support of their belief that no teacher should ever address her students as "ladies and gentlemen." No evidence is needed. Among much of the tenured professoriate, it is self-evident that only idiots and Republicans would want students to think of themselves as "ladies and gentlemen." Enlightened people no longer use such terms. Or so they believe.
In the past 12 years, I have visited more than 360 schools and I have met with thousands of students, mostly in grades K-12. I have conducted many group conversations with children and teenagers on this topic and related topics. I ask students, “What does it mean to be a gentleman?” One boy answered, “A gentleman is someone who goes to gentlemen’s clubs to watch women take their clothes off.” He was trying to get a laugh from his peers, but underneath the veneer one finds mere ignorance. They truly don’t know any answer that has any substance. When I press them for an answer, they offer mere descriptions of behavior rather than a way of being: “A gentleman wears a jacket and tie.” “A gentleman opens doors for ladies.” “A gentleman doesn’t use swear words.” That’s the best you can get at most schools. Not all, but most.
No boy is born a gentleman. Boys have to be taught. We used to teach them. We no longer do. And according to the most of the tenured professoriate, we no longer should. The result is, predictably, boys who have no idea of what it means to be a gentleman; boys whose sense of right and wrong is entirely about what’s right for me and what’s harmful to me. When the two boys in Ohio heard the judge pronounce the guilty verdict, one of the boys sobbed “My life is over.” Perhaps, but what about the victim? Does he still have no regret about what he did to her? Or does he merely regret being caught? The message some boys will take away from the verdict in the Ohio rape case may be merely, “Don’t take photos or video of anything you do with a girl, and don’t send texts about it.”
My concern here is not primarily about sexual assault, but about the loss of a moral sense. Rates of rape have declined in the United States over the past several decades. I don’t think that’s because young men today are more virtuous or more gentlemanly compared with those a generation or two ago. I don’t find Akon and Eminem to be more virtuous role models than Sam Cooke or The Beatles. A more plausible explanation is that young men who used to engage in sexual assault now satisfy those impulses through online pornography which is explicit and violent. The pop star John Mayer proudly told Rolling Stone magazine, “I am the new generation of masturbator,” by which he means that he prefers masturbation with online porn to having actual sex with actual women. Why? asked a reporter for Playboy. John Mayer answered that he prefers porn because “I'm more comfortable in my imagination than I am in actual human discovery.” John Mayer is young, handsome, and wealthy; but he makes no pretense of being a gentleman. Why should he? American culture no longer holds up the gentleman as an ideal which young men should seek to attain. On the contrary: the pimp, the convicted felon, and the gang member all enjoy a higher status as icons in American popular culture today than does the gentleman or the scholar.
My warning to Ms. Messina, to Professor Halpern, and to other critics of teaching girls and boys what it means to be Ladies and Gentlemen: be careful of what you wish for. The popular culture of young Americans today is quickly becoming a culture nearly devoid of Ladies and Gentleman. But what has replaced Ladies and Gentleman is not the neutered Virtuous Citizen which Ms. Messina and Dr. Halpern assume will be the result of gender-blind schooling, but rather a culture of Skanks and Pimps: of girls who think they have to get drunk in order to be cool, and boys who think that the best thing to do with an unconscious girl is to molest her.
Leonard Sax MD PhD is the author of Boys Adrift: the five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men (Basic Books).