“Men don’t do that. They’re just boys.” It’s a phrase I’ve been hearing a lot recently in various contexts. I don’t mean when it comes to the discussion of puberty or the relative performance of junior sports leagues. But when conversation turns to sexism and misogyny, whether on campus, on the streets or online, it’s a frequent theme. Real men aren’t sexists, just immature boys.
I understand the impulse behind it, but I wonder whether it plays into some sexist tropes which actually maintain the damaging system of enforced gender roles which we call “patriarchy” for short. I should emphasize that I’m not telling women how to respond to sexism. It’s none of my business how people react when they’re subjected to slurs and unwanted attention, so this isn’t directed to women.
Instead I’m talking to the men who (surprisingly enough) seem very keen to separate the boys from the men when the talk turns to sexism’s daily manifestations. On one level, it makes perfect sense. Indeed, it’s rather laudable. Alongside critiquing behaviour which we find unacceptable, many people want to produce a positive image to aspire to. The “real man” has frequently been redefined throughout history, and some people feel that the way to reduce harmful attitudes and violence towards women is to rework our notions of what a man should be in our culture.
Even for those who believe that our ultimate goal should be the total erosion of gender itself, redefining manhood positively may be a very attractive interim project. It’s also undeniable that many of the ways sexism manifests itself go along with immature behaviour amongst men. Believing that someone will clean up after you, that you shouldn’t take responsibility for your actions, that women are inferior (and somehow disgusting) because their bodies are different from yours: these are all attributes found in young boys.
As we grow up, we learn that they are untrue and we are (hopefully) encouraged to alter our behaviour in response to that knowledge. The middle-aged boss whose secretary sends birthday gifts to his relatives, or the man who comes in from rugby sevens and leaves his kit on the kitchen floor, are enacting a kind of “learned helplessness”, because society hasn’t demanded that they grow up in some spheres of their life. The spectrum of “immature” sexism might be said to run from the mundane – refusing to do housework – to the dangerous – a sense of entitlement to other people’s attention and bodies. Calling sexist men “boys” calls attention to the way in which they have failed to grow up in this way, and the way that they are exploiting the lower standards society expects of them.
Nonetheless, I think there are problems with “men who do that are just boys”. It’s not true, for a start. Telling a woman that the man who sent her sexually threatening emails or whistled at her in the street are “just boys” minimises the discomfort and danger she experienced. There was an awful lot of this sort of talk when commentators like Caroline Criado-Perez, Laurie Penny, Helen Lewis and others spoke in public after the horrendous abuse they regularly receive online. All just teenage boys in their parents’ basements, they were told. You make them feel big by calling them “men”. Two men in their twenties were recently arrested for sending threats to Caroline, and it regularly turns out that these supposed pimply teenagers are in fact adult men with professional careers. It seems incredibly insulting to tell women who are being intimidated by violent men that they’re exaggerating the threat.
It also lets men off the hook. Saying “real men” or “good men” (whatever those terms might mean) don’t cat-call, hit or attack women, seems to be ducking the issue when “actual men” undeniably do. There are quite a number of statistics on the subject. Male violence towards women is an epidemic in our society, and the structural disadvantaging and denigration of women – for being women – is a daily scandal. Saying that men don’t really do these things – because if they do they’re boys – feels a lot like trying to shrug the blame off elsewhere. I don’t do these things, so why must women say “men” do them?
It is painful and unpleasant to admit that we are members of a group which oppresses and terrorizes vulnerable people, so it’s easier to direct the blame elsewhere. Men who victimize women are just “boys”. And I’m not a boy. I’m a man. This rush to distinguish the men from the boys also perpetuates all the old excuses for sexism. How many times have we heard “boys will be boys” or “what do you expect on a boys’ night out”? Categorizing sexist and harmful behaviour as “boys being boys”, when it’s being carried out by men, gives them an easy alibi. It offers a licence to disappear off beyond the community’s moral horizon and play Lord of the Flies whenever they feel like it. This rhetoric constructs a double identity for adult men, allowing them to be “boys” when they want to duck responsibility for their actions, but to claim the title of “men” when they want the cultural power and rights which comes with it.
Given that patriarchy – the “rule of the fathers” – involves the wielding of power by men over both women and boys, this seems a particularly remarkable ideological move. Boys – who are at an economic and political disadvantage compared to adult men, and at higher risk of physical and sexual abuse – are co-opted as an identity of convenience when men don’t wish to tarnish their stereotypical image as competent, controlled and infallible. We should consider how men as a group benefit when a man’s actions are shrugged off as “just some boy”.