The Double Life of Boy Culture

It has always concerned me how boys and men live a double life. I have also contributed to this by keeping the secrets of my guy friends since I was ten-years-old. My dual citizenship earned on sports teams with boys has enabled me to talk freely with guys throughout my life. To this day, I have been a trusted sister-like figure to many guys in need of support. I keep their secrets because the cost of being emotionally vulnerable for boys and men is too great. Our culture encourages boys to develop a public and private self. It is also accepted that what a guy says with his teammates and fraternity brothers is often very different than how he presents himself to women, professors, parents and others outside of his support network. As a college speaker represented by CAMPUSPEAK, I travel around the country talking about sex and healthy choices to and with college students. It is evident that there is still limited opportunity or demand for open discussion about the emotional expectations on young men in this culture and on most college campuses.

I am a mother and a former first-grade teacher. I am aware that by the time children start going to school, the rules of boy culture are clear. Boys are expected to keep their tears and emotions held tight unless the situation is really extreme. If crisis strikes and tears are unavoidable, it is understood that the boy in crisis should prepare for full abandonment. Only a few of the very brave and confident boys don’t suffer some level of social consequences if they reach out to support another guy who has been pushed over the emotional edge. Most boys and men are not fortunate enough to have one of those brave guys in their corner, therefore boys understand the risk of opening themselves up emotionally. These situations are the breeding ground of bystander behavior, which is proven to be a significant factor in keeping bullying and hazing alive. The social risk for boys to seek support is often too great for most boys and men.

In our culture, we spend a lot of time wagging our fingers at young men with disappointment, yet we don’t provide any exit ramps or clear guidance on how to pick a different road. College men often feel scolded, and yet they continue to behave in ways that reinforce the stereotypes that fuel the scolding. The guys who take the high road, follow their inner compass and are upstanding in the way they treat others are often overlooked. It is even worse when they are clumped in with whatever ruling stereotypes prevail in their group. After a while, the inspiration to do the right thing wanes.

The assumption that so many college guys are assholes has become an accepted idea. In reality, most groups and teams of men have only a few truly mean-spirited assholes. The majority of guys in a group either lay low as much as possible to survive (in some cases as bystanders) or align with some of the asshole behavior to fit in. The social power of the assholes inspires a good number of guys to follow them. While there is a lot of talk about holding the assholes accountable, it doesn’t happen that much.

My Asshole Ticket Theory is about the accepted currency we grant special people in our culture, particularly men. If a guy is handsome, athletic, smart and rich, he is granted a large stack of asshole tickets. The number of tickets correlates with just how special he is. Women, parents, college faculty and coaches usually accept the currency of asshole tickets. A guy can spend his tickets being rude, sexist, homophobic, obnoxious or even cruel, and we excuse him. We often hear people excuse men because everyone assumes they are young and will get over it by the time they are twenty-five. Half the time, a guy who continues to find these tickets accepted can’t believe he is getting the slack to spend them. It is scary for anyone to have boundaries that are not clear or a fence that moves, but human nature would inspire anyone to take what is offered so freely. When a guy runs out of tickets, if he is very special in all those categories, we give him a new stack.

A certain NFL quarterback who has gotten into repeated trouble these past few years is granted truckloads of tickets. After his last stint and a shortened suspension, his supply seemed to be diminished, but a couple more truckloads showed up. We wag our fingers and shake our heads, but we keep accepting the tickets. There is a couple of high profile NFL quarterbacks who are granted the most tickets based on their good looks and exceptional skills. They also happened to be articulate, intelligent and good-natured. The interesting thing is that they don’t use their asshole tickets. In fact, they seem to self-regulate regardless of the fact that most everyone around them can’t help themselves from accepting any behavior from these Big Guns. Tom Brady and Drew Brees are humble men in positions of power. What are the factors that make them forego the opportunity to use this power? My hope is that more young men recognize these two as role models and emulate their way of living in the world despite the slack offered to them.

Over the years, I have read a lot about boy culture. One book that remains to be one of my main guides is Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon, PH.D. and Michael Thompson, PH.D. I read it when I was a teacher and again recently as a mother. Kindlon and Thompson outline the role of nurture and nature in the lives of boys. Most importantly, the research and the interviews in this book make it clear that nurture is significant, and we can make a huge difference in the way we parent, teach and coach young men. It is nearly impossible for a boy to stay true to himself while navigating cultural expectations without active guidance about how to express emotions and how to feel adequate in this hyper-sexualized culture. If we are truly serious about having fewer assholes in the world, we need to face the fact that as a culture we are still accepting tickets and expecting assholes.

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