Of "Dudes" and "Sluts:" The Context of Sexual Aggression

What's making Millennial men so angry?

Posted Mar 05, 2012

  "He's a boy athlete...stupid, unthoughtful, loud, clumsy, intoxicated." This is how the defense attorney in the Huguely murder trial described his client in his closing argument.  (He might have added "frat boy," but didn't.) As reported in The Washington Post, juror Ian Glomski, an assistant professor of microbiology at the UVA Medical School, remarked on this characterization: "I found some of the things were offensive. [The attorney] was basically saying that boys will be boys." The idiom is a tautology, of course—what could boys be except boys? Turnips? Shar-Peis?—but carries with it not just a lot of assumptions about male behavior (rude, insolent, rowdy, immature, troublemaking) but forgiveness as well since "boys" just can't help themselves. In short, it's the testosterone, stupid.

The first time the phrase really made an impression on me was over twenty years ago, when I and another mother were watching a preschool class of Millennials through a two-way mirror. The little girls — all neat and tidy — were sitting in chairs, working on their letters. The tousled little boys were garnering all the teachers' attention; they hovered over the boys, intent and ever-vigilant to restore order when necessary. The other mother's remark (and yes, she was the mother of a son) was prompted by a boy knocking over the tower of wood blocks her son had built. And her son immediately whacking the offender over the head with one of the fallen blocks. (Yes, there was blood and a timeout, however brief.) The last time the phrase registered was in a conversation with a Dean at my daughter's college when, for four years running, I complained about the inequity of assessing all the residents of a coed-dorm for damage done. Fixtures used as target practice for flying beer bottles, doors taken off hinges, holes punched in walls, toilets stuffed with tee shirts and—the piece de résistance—the dead squirrel in the microwave weren't things I could see girls doing. "In fairness, everyone will be charged," the Dean said. I understood the explanation as the "boys will be boys" principle in fiscal action.

But the myth of testosterone—the a + b = c equation that underlines the tautology—is just a fiction no matter how often we hear the phrase and, moreover, masculine behavior is a cultural construct. Boys are no more likely to be violent because of testosterone than girls will necessarily become loving mothers by virtue of their estrogen. No one has argued that more brilliantly or cogently than William Pollack in his book Real Boys, which details the emotional straitjacket imposed on American men by what he calls "the Boy Code." 

The Boy Code has four parts. First is what Pollack calls the "sturdy oak"-—which tells boys that showing pain or grief or needing help are weaknesses. The "don't cry" injunction is simply the icing on the manhood cake. The second is "Give 'em Hell"—this is the stance that boys are by nature macho and potentially violent. This "boys will be boys" posture pushes boys to dare each other, engage in risky behaviors to prove their masculinity and, sometimes, offers them impunity. Third is the "Big Wheel"—the imperative to achieve status, dominance and power as proof of their masculinity. Finally, there's "No Sissy Stuff"—the part of the code that tells boys that dependence, warmth, and empathy aren't masculine.

Real Boys was published fourteen years ago, but the Boy Code is well and thriving today, and its influence clear in many parts of Planet Millennial. This isn't entirely surprising. It's worth saying too that aspects of Millennial life—the use of technology to duck the face-to-face conversation; the text message that allows young men to cultivate emotional detachment; the ability to engage in intimidating or faux-macho behavior when you're hiding behind a screen; the hook-up culture that seems tailor-made for the "Big Wheel" view of masculinity—make it easier to be the "dude" the Boy Code wants you to be. Then there are activities rampant among Millennial men—playing violent video games, for example, or watching pornography—that reinforce attitudes and behaviors explicitly or implicitly sanctioned by the Boy Code.

The trouble is that while the Boy Code worked fine—for guys, at least—in the real Mad Men era and up through the 1970s, it's not working too well now. Not all Millennial males were raised by the Boy Code tenets, but many were. They're in the unlucky position of having one foot in the brave new world of the coed twenty-first century and another firmly rooted in the past. Most important, this brand of masculinity is proved by men to other men, and there aren't too many all-male bastions left.

In my first post, I suggested that what we're seeing between men and women is in part a turf war and here's more grist for the mill. As Michael Kimmel notes in Guyland—one of the best and earliest explorations of the "failure to launch" phenomenon among young men—"women have entered every single arena once completely dominated by men. In the last three decades of the twentieth century, virtually every all male college went coed, the military integrated, as did police stations and firehouses, and every single profession and occupation." His point is simple: "Where once there were so many places where men could validate their masculinity, proving it in the eyes of other men, there are today fewer and fewer places where they aren't also competing with women."

There are a few places left, most notably the playing field and the fraternity house and, in that context, it's not surprising that the worst behaviors associated with the Boy Code—including sexual aggression—often emanate from one arena or the other or, in George Huguely's case, both. I hadn't fully appreciated that many fraternities historically have been associated with what Professor Nicholas Syrett, the author of  The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities, has called "organized hostility toward women." His point of view as a historian is valuable; as he tells me in an email, "there is a strong connection between organized hostility toward women and women's achievements, though it can often be a difficult one to prove categorically." He  says that "organized hostility" exists in both schools that went from being all male to being coeducational in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries (Michigan) as well as colleges which were established as coed from the beginning (Stanford, Cornell). He points out that "women have been regularly outperforming men academically since they were admitted to college."

I ask him whether the competition between men and women has ramped up the behavior of fraternities and his answer is illuminating: "I do think that men compete with each other to prove manhood, but I think that, at least from the 1920s onward, they have used women to prove that manhood: through dating and/or sexual successes, particularly. ...I do think that many fraternity men (though certainly not all) have had a difficult time taking women seriously as academic peers and simultaneously as people they might be interested in sexually or romantically. One way of addressing this problem is to categorize women: some are for dating, some for sex. Another, taken by some fraternity men, has been to put women students in their place by refusing to see them as academic or campus peers and consigning them to the roles of outlets for sex only. That's where a lot of the really public displays probably come from, what we saw at Yale and other campuses."

Dr. Syrett is referring, of course, to reported events at Yale—the 2008 incident of Zeta Psi pledges holding signs that read "We Love Yale Sluts" in front of the Women's Center; the 2009 "Preseason Scouting Report" which targeted 53 female freshman with photos, names, hometown and residential colleges, and rated their desirability in terms of "sobriety, five beers, ten beers, or blackout;" the 2010 incident of pledges chanting "No means yes. Yes means anal" on campus—which, along with a slow-to-respond attitude toward sexual harassment and assault landed the university in Title IX hot water. (510.4 million dollars a year worth of it, to be precise.) It's worth noting that Yale went coed in 1969, after 267 years as a male bastion. Needless to say, for Yale, the University of Virginia (which went coed after 150 years), and other schools, the DOE's threat proved to be inspirational, and they are revamping both their rules and attitudes.

That said, it's unhelpful from a cultural point of view, that educational institutions have to be pried away from the "boys will be boys" point of view. What if, instead, they focused on teaching those young men, raised on the Boy Code, new lessons? Reading the Report to the President and Fellows of Yale University Advisory Committee on Campus Climate (9/15/2011), I agree with the committee that the hookup culture "can blur boundaries of what consent means, and it leaves young adults uncertain of how to address problematic behavior, develop their own standards of contact, and navigate a confusing social scene that floats on too much alcohol..." But I would remind them that as educators—the meaning "to lead out" is in the root—their job isn't to affirm the status quo of the Boy Code. In addition, for all the ambiguity of the hook-up scene, there's nothing ambiguous about "No means yes." Yale's new report on complaints of sexual misconduct, from July to December 2011, notes that 13 sexual assaults and 11 incidents of sexual harassment were reported by undergraduates, some of these stemming from incidents several years past. Given under-reporting, no one at Yale (or anywhere else, for the matter), actually knows how many incidents there really are but a Yale spokesperson told me that the hope is that, with clearer guidelines and better responsiveness, more victims will come forward and that later reports—in six months and a year—will confirm that.

When I went to the University of Pennsylvania forty years ago, there was a poster I often saw in fraternity houses that read "When Better Women are made, Penn Men will make them." The difference between now and then is that it was universally acknowledged that the girls at the College for Women were by and large smarter and more diligent than their male peers. More important, back then, not a single guy on campus ever spent a nanosecond worrying about whether he might lose a slot in law or med school or a job or a promotion to one of those smarter women living in the then all-girls dorm, Hill Hall. The young men who share those floors with women now don't have that luxury.

That said, it's never too late to teach anyone anything. As a group, we have to address the context of sexual aggression, and dismantle the cultural tropes that facilitate it.