The war on boys: Sex, media and violence

Published: Saturday, Oct. 10 2015 12:14 a.m. MDT

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) 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.

Eduardo Granados takes a yoga class at the Boys & Girls Club in Midvale on Wednesday, February 1, 2012.  (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Eduardo Granados takes a yoga class at the Boys & Girls Club in Midvale on Wednesday, February 1, 2012. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

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.

"Pop culture doesn't allow boys to not want sex all the time," says Karen Rayne, a consultant, teacher and author of "Unhushed." "There are plenty of boys who don't. ... We demand that girls be able to say no. We are not giving boys a lesson in how to listen to themselves and say no, as well."

Brashich agrees. "It is critical that we interact with teenage boys with the assumption that they want high-quality, mutually satisfying and emotionally supportive romantic relationships," she says. "Teenage boys are much more likely to live up to our assumptions and expectations of them than to put their own personal expectations far higher than those we set. ... We need to teach teenage boys how to engage respectfully by respecting them. Forget all the statistics about teenage boys when you meet an actual teenage boy. There will be one individual standing in front of you. Maybe he is average. Maybe he is not. Regardless, the only way to know is to get to know him."

All lit up

Girls have always matured faster than boys. What was once a six-month difference in maturity around age 13 is now as much as two years' difference, a gulf instead of a gap.

Some researchers think the "why" centers on industrial chemicals called phthalates, found in lots of products. They believe they leach into public water from plastics, mimicking estrogen and speeding female puberty while retarding male puberty.

"The data is scarily convincing," says Farrell, who adds that tests in different rivers and lakes repeatedly find evidence of phthalates. Some male small-mouth bass now produce eggs instead of sperm.

Today, boys are one factor in a complicated equation. To the maturity gap add girls who may be becoming more sexualized and more sexually aggressive, as well as boys who are unsure of how to approach girls or who have been rejected — or who aren't yet up to the chase. That boy may veer to pornography in lieu of dealing with real girls. It's there, online, and never says "I don't want you."

"It's available to boys your daughters are interested in. And he's choosing between rejection by your daughter or free porn…," says Farrell.

Porn and video games both send blood to the nucleus accumbens, the brain's reward center. It lights up and blood is actually directed away from the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, where motivation and real-life goals reside.

As the complexity of video games has mushroomed, the games have become harder for boys to quit by adopting addictive characteristics akin to gambling, says Daniel Kindlon, co-author of "Raising Cain." "Obviously, a lot of the shooting games are marketed to boys much more strongly (than to girls). I think that's a big obstacle in front of boys — there's this temptation that wasn't there before that's primarily directed at them. The way it's set up, it's a hard thing to stop doing because there are these kind of incremental rewards, where you're getting a little better each time. That really sucks you in, kind of like a slot machine."

Lots of research has been done on boys and video games, says Sarah M. Coyne, assistant professor of human development at Brigham Young University. With extremely violent games, one of the messages is to be violent and aggressive, she notes.

While "violent play" doesn't portend violent outcomes, violent video games definitely desensitize, Kindlon says.

When boys become involved with video games or porn, Farrell notes, "soon they are addicted, then unmotivated to be either sexual or productive in real life. They are motivated to play football online, but not to play in real life. ... We are standing on the brink of being a far less productive country and women do not fall in love with nonproductive men."

The message of male dominance and aggression also pervades TV and movies, music, ads and other media. In popular action-adventure films, men are hyper-masculine. Coyne says studies document a moderate effect with video games, but aggressive behavior may increase and empathy decrease. It is "definitely not the case" that it's just a game, with no harm. "Be smart as a parent and know what they're playing, know when to talk to them about it."

Terri and Scott David of Sandy, Utah, sat down with their boys, Teagan, 15, and Dallin, 12, and agreed on time limits for all electronics, not just games. It's too easy, she says, to let media take over lives.

"We have purposely curtailed the use of video games in our home," says David Bench of Mission Viejo, Calif., who has sons 21, 20 and 17. "In fact, certain video games we never even bought so we never had them in the house — Call of Duty and that kind of stuff, (because) I'd say video games are probably right up there as the No. 1 way for boys to be exposed to violence."

"Desensitization is a real risk of playing very violent video games for long periods of time," said Caroline Knorr, parenting editor of the nonprofit advocacy group Common Sense Media. "The more (violence) they see, the less it impacts them — it's like they need more of it to get that same sort of visceral rush of adrenaline."

Her organization takes seriously the American Academy of Pediatrics statements about media effects on kids. In 2009, they said that violence in TV, movies, games and music can directly cause real-life aggression. They found the connection between violence, on-screen and in games, and real-life aggression nearly as strong as the health association between smoking and lung cancer.

Mixed messages

Boys need not be violent and aggressive to prove masculinity, says Coyne. "A real man in our society can take care of family, be a good father, be compassionate and kind." But boys get mixed messages. When they're hurt, they're told to stop crying, "don't be a sissy."

That starts young. A little boy who wants to play with dolls — all he's really doing is practicing parenting — is told to stop, laments David Derezotes, a social work professor who co-teaches a men's issue class at the University of Utah. And roles have changed. Couples used to marry to form families and be more stable financially but now the focus is intimacy, he says. Divorce is up. Life has changed in every aspect. Expectations of a "warrior" have changed. And "even though we want young men to be successful, we don't agree on what success is. The men we most admire are football coaches, the shamans and leaders of the 21st century. Do we hear about men who are great dads, who are cooperative?" There are no news stories, he says, about folks who bypass a promotion to teach or to care for their kids.

Kindlon expresses naked disdain for the way males are portrayed in the media because he believes those archetypes can eventually take a crushing toll on boys and men. "The images of men on TV and in the movies are still pretty bad," he says. "There's stoicism — not asking for help when they need it — or feeling they have to do things alone. One of the biggest public health issues with men especially, is that they don't ask for help when either they're psychologically in need or even sometimes physically in need; they don't go see their doctors enough. To have that reinforced as a piece of manliness by the media is unhealthy for men and boys."

Knocking heads together

The question of when proper boy behavior crosses into violence is vexing. On the one hand, the child psychologist and co-author of "Raising Cain," Michael Thompson, asserts that a moderate amount of rough and tumble play is precisely what nature intended for boys.

"The biggest misunderstanding of boys is a misunderstanding of their play," he said. "Boys are hard-wired for wrestling.... Elementary school teachers especially are always looking at boy-play and seeing 'violent play,' so they're constantly interfering with boys' play. But nobody's getting hurt. It's that they're shooting each other with their index finger or they're playing hunt-and-chase games or rough and tumble games."

It's also clear, though, that excessive violence delivered through an artificial medium like video games or television can cause inordinate and inappropriate aggression.

Because boys police each other, Bob Dunn, director of the South Valley Boys and Girls Clubs, says they try to identify boys who are leaders and help those boys make the right choices. Other boys follow the example.

Much to do

It's not an unmeetable challenge, Farrell says, and the commission's research bears that out.

Simple changes like offering single-sex classes in certain subjects already makes a difference in hundreds of classrooms. A Rutgers study documented that boys and girls handle stress differently; they can be taught gender-tailored approaches. Prevention programs can reduce costs and incarcerations. Parenting programs can model ways to engage boys and use their unique capabilities and energies, teach what's healthy or unhealthy at different developmental stages, help absent fathers reintegrate into children's lives. Excluding boys from being gentle lest they appear "soft" can change. Youths can be channeled to opportunities for training in growing employment fields. Communications skills can be enhanced.

The Midvale Boys and Girls Club is teaching boys to focus better by encouraging them to use not-traditionally-male tools like yoga.

"Statistics can overwhelm our compassion," says the commission report, but "violent teenagers were once baby boys and, at that point, were far more capable of accepting guidance and rejecting negative influence."

In other words: change is possible.

Before girls got a helping hand, the commissioners say, girls rowed the family boat only on the right side, raising children, and the boys only on the left, raising money. Girls have broader options now.

"If our daughters try to exercise their newfound ability to row from the left, and our sons also row only from the left, the boat goes in circles."

Watch: Bruce Lindsay Sunday edition looks at the War on Boys

Email: lois@desnews.com, jaskar@desnews.com

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