Amid Kavanaugh Allegations, Rethinking The Common Refrain 'Boys Will Be Boys'09:42
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Allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have ignited a debate on how boys should behave. (StockSnap/Pixabay)MoreCloseclosemore
Allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have ignited a debate on how boys should behave. (StockSnap/Pixabay)

The allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have ignited a national debate about what constitutes acceptable behavior by boys.

Here & Now's Robin Young speaks with University of Northern Colorado sociology professor Cliff Leek (@Cliff_Leek), president of the American Men's Studies Association and author of the forthcoming book "Boy oh Boy," a collection of 30 coming-of-age stories from successful male figures.

"The sorts of things and behaviors that we reinforce as manly to boys are not what we expect from good men," says Leek, who argues that justifying misbehavior by saying "boys will be boys" spreads confusion about how boys and young men should act. "To even take it a step further, it almost frames it as if to imply that those behaviors are actually what make boys boys."

Interview Highlights

On the common justification for boys' misbehavior "boys will be boys," and its negative side effects

"This national dialogue around this phrase 'boys will be boys,' and using that to excuse negative behavior from boys and young men, is certainly not something new. But what I've always found interesting about it is that we never use that phrase 'boys will be boys' to discuss positive things that boys do. It's almost exclusively used to write off or explain away when boys misbehave, so it's actually reinforcing the idea that that sort of misbehavior, including serious offenses, are what we should expect from boys, and to even take it a step further, it almost frames it as if to imply that those behaviors are actually what make boys boys."

"Even though we have this ideal of what makes a good man, the sorts of things and behaviors that we reinforce as manly to boys are not what we expect from good men."

Cliff Leek

On how justifications like this spread confusion about how a good boy or man should act

"I did an activity in my sociology of gender class just yesterday where I asked my students to tell me stories about the best men that they know, and we created a whole list of traits that describe those men. We got, you know, honest, caring, fatherly — all that sort of thing.

"Then I asked students when we hear things like, 'Be a man,' or, 'Grow a pair,' or 'Man up,' what sort of behaviors are we trying to get boys to engage in? And it's never the same things that we get on the list of what makes a good man. It's always to shut down boys' emotions, to get them to take unhealthy risks. Even though we have this ideal of what makes a good man, the sorts of things and behaviors that we reinforce as manly to boys are not what we expect from good men."

"This language of 'everybody engages in it' is really just a way of trying to normalize one's own negative behavior, and somehow make everybody else seem like they're the ones that aren't normal and they're the ones that aren't OK."

Cliff Leek

On the danger of saying, "Everybody does it," to dismiss bad behavior among boys

"This idea that everybody engages in this, it's the parallel to the 'boys will be boys' language, right. If we say that everybody engages in it, then what we actually do is we take the majority of people who don't engage in it and make them into the outcasts. This language of 'everybody engages in it' is really just a way of trying to normalize one's own negative behavior, and somehow make everybody else seem like they're the ones that aren't normal and they're the ones that aren't OK."

On the toxic forms of masculinity that can arise among boys in all-male environments

"What's fascinating about not just these elite, private all-male schools, but also all-male spaces in general, they tend to emphasize a sense of brotherhood, and that brotherhood is sometimes explicitly, but usually implicitly, at the exclusion and expense of girls and women, and oftentimes those bonds between men are forged over things like the conquest of women."

On the boys who do not engage in activities associated with toxic masculinity, and the harm society can do by pressuring traditionally masculine behavior onto them

"There's numerous men out there for whom this 'boys will be boys' mentality doesn't resonate, for whom our traditional ideas of what masculinity is and what men are supposed to be like doesn't resonate, and we send those boys the message that they aren't real boys or they aren't real men, because they aren't conforming with those ideas, and we apply all sorts of social pressures to try to encourage boys to conform with those ideas, whether that be bullying or harassment or telling them to man up or grow a pair.

"There's really two major challenges that face all of us boys for whom this doesn't resonate. The first challenge is being introspective, to recognize when and how our own behaviors conform to these ideas, when and how our own behaviors harm others and recognize where we can make changes in our own lives. Challenge No. 2 I would say that we face is the challenge to not be complicit, to not see these things happening around us and be silent, so our silence can be taken as support or assent for these sorts of behaviors.

"All-male spaces ... tend to emphasize a sense of brotherhood, and that brotherhood is sometimes explicitly, but usually implicitly, at the exclusion and expense of girls and women."

Cliff Leek

"It's really important for us to speak out and not be bystanders. So when we see these things that we recognize as problematic and we recognize — you know, as as the man who went to school with Kavanaugh said, you know, 'I was disgusted by those behaviors, then and now' — that's a challenge that I think we all face, all of us men who are in these positions, is to do something about it in the moment."

On how men, later in life, should go about owning up to misbehavior in their youth, and whether they should publicly apologize for it

"I would say that yes, that's exactly what we do. I will come out and say, you know, I did have moments in high school, and I went to an elite, private, all-boys school much like Kavanaugh did, and I did have moments in my career in high school where I made choices that I'm not proud of, and I've done what I can to try and make amends for that — and I think that that's exactly the conversation that we need to be having with young boys and young men.

"I think that we've all engaged in things that we weren't proud of in our youth. But it's not all to the extent that what we're hearing about Judge Kavanaugh. So, I think we can all own up to the ways, big and small, where we have engaged in this behavior. But in terms of doing things like the sexual assault the Judge Kavanaugh is accused of, we should absolutely stand firm and say, 'No, not everyone did engage in that, and that is extreme, and that is unacceptable.' "

This segment aired on September 25, 2018.

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