Boys' Violence

[Excerpt below is from Chapter 5 of War and Gender]

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War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System
      and Vice Versa

Joshua S. Goldstein
(Cambridge University Press, September 2001)

Photo, peace sculpture
Peace Sculpture, National Children's Museum

Toughening up boys

Cultures produce male warriors by toughening up boys from an early age, in addition to the means discussed in the previous sections which apply more to adolescents and young men (at or near the age for war participation). Cultures reproduce – through the socialization of children – adult gender roles suited to the nearly universal need of societies to be prepared for the possibility of war.

Although boys on average are more prone to more rough-and-tumble play, they are not innately “tougher” than girls. They do not have fewer emotions or attachments, or feel less pain. It is obvious from the huge effort that most cultures make to mold “tough” boys that this is not an easy or natural task. When we raise boys within contemporary gender norms, especially when we push boys to toughen up, we pass along authorized forms of masculinity suited to the war system. I will focus mainly on how contemporary US culture does this, because it has received a wave of interest recently. As shown earlier (see pp. 264–65), various cultures use a range of methods to toughen up boys.

Attention to boys Boys, not girls, are the main issue in the reproduction of gendered war roles. They are the ones who must be made over, at a steep price in emotional capabilities, into something unnatural, a “man.” Boys are also the main enforcers of gender segregation in middle childhood. Boys are the recipients of most of the adult efforts to enforce appropriate gendered behaviors as well. Although US girls may now wear pants or dresses, and play with trucks or dolls, boys may not wear dresses or play with dolls. Teachers and parents “seem far less ambivalent about encouraging androgyny in their young daughters than in their sons.” In short, boys are the primary focus of gender-molding in children, presumably because boys are the ones who may need to fight wars some day.97

In the late 1990s, a wave of interest in boys emerged in both research and popular books. This interest grew out of the work in the 1970s and 1980s on girls, which argued that schools and society were ill-serving girls’ needs. Now scholars and activists are applying the same approach to boys, portraying boys as an endangered or victimized group. The portrayal of boys as victims does not sit well with some feminists. Other feminists, however, find it “such a relief” to have gender include males as well as females.98

Boys’ advocates – the “boys’ movement” – point to statistics showing higher male rates of infant mortality, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, school suspensions, arrests, schizophrenia, teen suicide, and both committing and receiving violence. Some trace boys’ current troubles to the changing adult social context, in which traditional male skills in dominance and physical strength matter less than understanding emotional depth and complexity.99

Psychologist William Pollack argues that many boys experience problems as a result of separating too early from their mothers’ care. Although infant boys are actually more fragile than girls, parents think of them as tougher, and pay less attention to them. Pollack also argues that psychologists may overlook boys’ depression because it differs from the feminine depression that clinicians focus on. The oppression of boys, in Pollack’s view, is the source of their desire to dominate, so “[r]ecognizing boys’ pain is the way to change society.” Shame is central to the “toughening-up process.” Little boys with anxiety about separating from their mothers “are made to feel ashamed of their feelings … [especially] of weakness, vulnerability, fear, and despair … The use of shame to ‘control’ boys is pervasive … Boys are made to feel shame over and over … to be disciplined, toughened up … be independent, keep the emotions in check. A boy is told that ‘big boys don’t cry.’”100

Gender changes in US society may have created a mixed message for boys (a “double standard of masculinity”): they are expected both to fulfill traditional toughness standards, and to be adept at handling relationships and feelings. “It’s an impossible assignment for any boy.” Pollack’s “Listening to Boys’ Voices” project is studying several hundred young and adolescent boys. He argues that society places boys in a “gender straitjacket” by judging them against nineteenth-century standards of masculinity which “simply have no relevance to today’s world.” Boys unnecessarily lose connections with family as they mask their emotions and, through shame and fear of vulnerability, become “‘hardened,’ just as society thinks [they] should be.” Pollack wants to “help boys break out of society’s gender straitjackets, express a wide range of their true feelings, and function more successfully as confident, open, and caring young men in a difficult world.” Adults can try to eliminate their own boy stereotypes, learn to communicate better with boys, and help prepare boys for situations that might trigger vulnerability and fear, such as a doctor visit.101

Kindlon and Thompson’s Raising Cain elaborates in detail the ways that contemporary US “culture conspires to limit and undermine [boys’] emotional life,” dooming them to “emotional ignorance and isolation.” Boys are “born with the potential for a full range of emotional experience,” but toughened up by harsh discipline, rigid expectations, and the threat of rejection. Emotionally illiterate, boys meet adolescence knowing only the “socially acceptable … ‘manly’ responses of anger, aggression, and emotional withdrawal.” These problems underlie young males’ violence (among various other negative outcomes): “boys who turn violent … lack sufficient psychological resources to control their emotional reactions.” Kindlon and Thompson ignore the role of war in society’s treatment of boys. In truth, the problems they describe extend far beyond contemporary US culture and connect with a need to produce potential warriors.102

Philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers, however, argues that the entire “myth of the emotionally repressed boy” lacks any empirical foundation in research, and wrongly “attribut[es] pathology to normal boys” who actually “do not need to be ‘rescued’ from their masculinity.” Sommers particularly criticizes Pollack’s claim that the violent crimes of a few boys reflect a larger pattern affecting all boys. She advocates reversing feminism’s “war against boys” (which tries to feminize them), and instead teaching boys traditional “manly virtues” and the “military ethic,” which she calls “noble and constructive.” In my view, “normal” boys in a world at war do suffer psychological harm, but no more so in the “double standard” America that Pollack decries than in other times and places (indeed probably less so today than historically, as Sommers argues).103

97 Thorne 1993, ambivalent 169.

98 Kindlon and Thompson 1999; Rosenfeld 1998; Goldberg 1998a, relief A14; Faludi 1999; Sommers 2000.

99 Goldberg 1998a; Rosenfeld 1998; Lewin 1998b.

100 Pollack 1998, xxi–xxiii, process 11–12, 20–51; Gerzon 1982, 162; Rosenfeld 1998, pain A17.

101 Pollack 1998, double 147, impossible 13; Betcher and Pollack 1993.

102 Kindlon and Thompson 1999, life xv, isolation 3, born 10, harsh 53–57, 14–15, withdrawal 5, reactions 220.

103 Sommers 2000, myth 137; empirical 140–47; pathology 139, 14; rescued 15; claim 138–57; virtues-noble 136–37; today 135.

To book website:
War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System
      and Vice Versa

Joshua S. Goldstein
(Cambridge University Press, September 2001)