National Edition

The war on boys: Sex, media and violence

Published: Sunday, Feb. 19 2012 11:00 p.m. MST

Teenagers play football after school at the Boys & Girls Club in Midvale. Some say boys are getting mixed messages about rough play.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

This is the second story in a two-part series. Read part one here.

SALT LAKE CITY — In the middle of a crowd of kids waiting for the bus in front of a westside middle school, one of the girls drops her book bag and two boys scramble to grab it, nearly bumping heads. She's 14 going on 17, all makeup-enhanced eyes and curled hair and dazzling smile. The boys are more like 14 going on 12, gangly and haphazardly dressed — and eager to get her attention.

They are the prize in the war on boys.

Recently, dozens of experts shared research on what's happening to boys in America: The're doing worse in school, they have fewer male role models because of the rise in fatherless homes and the lack of men in the classroom. They are more likely to get involved in crime or become depressed than girls. Research shows girls develop faster and are being sexualized sooner, while the maturity gap between the genders is growing. Boys have more substance abuse and mental health issues and a suicide rate that's five times that of girls between ages 15 and 19. They are not as healthy, their employment prospects seem to be dwindling and their delinquency rates outpace girls' three-fold. A self-formed commission of experts, academics and policymakers wants the president to create a White House Council on Boys and Men, similar to one that targets wellbeing of girls and women. It would identify areas where males struggle and offer solutions.

It's not just a good idea, says advocate Warren Farrell, author of "Why Men Are the Way They Are" and a dozen other bestsellers on family and societal dynamics. Boys need it. In a year of heavy and often contentious politicking, it's also not a Republican or a Democrat issue, he says. It's about America's children — and they belong to all of us.

The future is being shaped by what happens in this battle for boy wellbeing. Farrell is worried.

Girls and boys

In the battle of the sexes, adolescent boys are outgunned.

While boys are emotionally and sexually behind girls, girls are being taught by pop culture the power of their physical appeal. "They are following a script of how they are supposed to look, act, which ways will get them attention," says Audrey D. Brashich, mother of two small boys and author of "All Made Up." "Boys are watching, thinking this is what I should start to expect and want for myself...."

The images, often photoshopped, unrealistic and "toxic," as Brashich describes them, can set girls up to be sexualized and victimized. They encourage boys to have shallow expectations, chase a false ideal and treat females disrespectfully or worse. But when both genders follow that all-pervasive script, "we get up in arms and are so surprised that a boy sexualizes a girl," says body-image activist Brashich.

A fraternity at the University of Vermont recently made headlines when members compared notes on which celebrity they'd like to sexually assault. "On the one hand, that's shocking and horrible. But there are so many rape jokes in our culture, how can we be surprised?" Brashich asks.

A documentary called The Bro Code, produced by the Media Education Foundation, details how violence and sexuality have co-mingled. From video games to TV and film and music, even when violence isn't overt, there are overtones of disrespect to women, of aggression as a kind of macho goal.

"I don't understand how boys can end up having a proper relationship with women if they have been raised that way," says Brashich. "They have no concept of what a woman is."

But they want her. Or think they are supposed to.

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