The damage being done when people insist 'boys will be boys'

Society should absolutely demand more of boys - but we should also expect more for them, writes Clementine Ford.

Society should absolutely demand more of boys - but we should also expect more for them, writes Clementine Ford. Photo: Stocksy

 Another small American town has been rocked by revelations of sexual abuse at the hands of some of their most protected football stars this week, and local response is sadly much as we've come to expect. According to the Washington Post, the town of Dietrich, Idaho is "a community on edge" after charges were filed against three high school football players alleged to have sexually assaulted a fellow student.

While it's not uncommon for residents to rally around young men with "promising futures" (remember Steubenville?), there is one key difference between this case and most of the ones we hear about - in Dietrich, the victim is a male teammate. He's also an intellectually disabled black male in an overwhelmingly white town. Prior to the assault, he had been subjected to racist bullying. During the assault, the three defendants allegedly inserted and then kicked a coat-hanger into his rectum.

It's hard to imagine a situation in which anyone could find this kind of behaviour defensible, but it's incredible how flexible people can be when it comes to forgiving their heroes. Local resident Hubert Shaw was clear in his position to the Washington Post: "They're 15, 16, 17 year old boys who are doing what boys do...I would guarantee that those boys had no criminal intent to do anything or any harm to anyone. Boys are boys and sometimes they get carried away."

Further south, students at South Fort Myers High School in Florida were being similarly defended by community members intent on protecting boys from the consequences of their actions. After footage taken of a 15 year old girl engaged in sexual activity in a school bathroom with up to 25 boys (some of them participated simply by spectating) resulted in the arrest of one of the school's football players, the Lee County Schools Superintendent Greg Adkins corresponded with parents, urging them to "move forward from this incident without further harsh judgment of those involved...They are adolescents who have made a serious mistake. They must now be afforded the opportunity to learn from their mistakes."

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Meanwhile, the media and public were predictably quick to condemn the girl and question her motivations. Indeed, when incidents like this occur people are often full of scathing judgment for 'sluts' and 'hoes' who need to 'respect themselves more' while excusing any young men involved for acting on their instincts.

It's telling how much leniency is given to boys allowed to 'learn from their mistakes' while girls continue to be subjected to scrutiny and shame for similar engagement. And again, there is a key element in this situation that not only compounds the girl's exploitation but makes the shaming of her especially repugnant. At 13, she was trafficked into sex slavery where she spent the next two years being raped for the sexual gratification of large groups of men.

As her advocate Megan Estrem argues, this is a victim who has been conditioned into sexuality at the threat of extreme punishment. For her to be now labelled as 'promiscuous' by a community more intent on sheltering its boys is simply inflicting further abuse on her.

At the same time, the sexuality of boys is both revered and given free reign to experiment without risk.

Just this week, a 24 year old female teacher was arrested in America for grooming and raping her 13-year-old student. The teacher, now pregnant, briefly tried to flee authorities but was soon captured. And although there is commentary from the public calling this what it is - rape and paedophilia - there's also a significant amount of back slapping and praise being foisted on the 13 year old, whose ability to "nail and impregnate the teacher" is apparently the stuff of envy.

These stories all share the commonality of reducing male sexuality to something base. Why is a 13-year-old boy not entitled to the same protection from predatory adult behaviour as a 13-year-old girl, just because the society he lives in views his sexuality as something dominant and invulnerable? To what extent do those attitudes inform the behaviour of a pack of boys who gather in a bathroom to watch as sequences more at home in a porn film are recreated with a 15-year-old rape victim?

Isn't is at least possible that some of those boys stood there and watched despite not wanting to because they feared not doing so would expose them as somehow less manly in front of their peers? And how does that kind of peer pressure and performative toxic masculinity then lead to a trio of young men brutally raping a teammate as a means to assert their own pack dominance, before passing it off as a joke?

What damage is really being done when people insist that 'boys will be boys'?

It's perplexing how fiercely some people will defend what they see as the natural impulses of male sexuality, while also demonising feminists for 'stereotyping'. How many times have you either heard someone say - or perhaps even expressed the sentiment yourself - that it's feminists who 'paint all men as rapists', while ignoring the much more tacitly accepted belief that this kind of inappropriate and even illegal sexual behaviour in young men is just unavoidable?

The truth is frustratingly different. It's feminists who advocate tirelessly against the entrenched view that men are one dimensional animals incapable of restraint. We repeatedly stare down the kind of victim blaming attitudes that insist short skirts, alcohol consumption and flirtatious conversation are among the many things that provoke a man to force himself on an unwilling partner because, funnily enough, we hold men in a much higher estimation than that.

But despite being the group that shows the most faith in men's inherent humanity and complexity, we are still abused as man-haters even while mainstream society continues to police the behaviour and dress of girls and women so they might prevent being 'taken advantage of' by a Shadow Man looking for an easy opportunity.

I've spent countless hours trying to wrap my head around this double standard, and my ultimate conclusion is depressing to say the least. Anti-feminists do seem to believe that feminists view all men as rapists or sexual predators, but only because feminists have a definition for rape that involves acknowledging it exists in the first place.

Simply put, for these people the real offence isn't in attributing a certain kind of behaviour to boys, but in attributing criminality to that behaviour. Why should they be made to feel bad for perfectly normal, natural behaviour? That doesn't sound like equality. That sounds like misandry, this argument goes. 

But what could be more misandrist than conditioning young boys to view their sexuality as a weapon that both empowers them and exists outside of their control?

Not only does it deny them a depth of vulnerability, it tells them that the vibrancy of their masculine identities is dependent on how forcefully they not only express their sexuality but perform it for other men to admire. It encourages them to view girls and women as conquests instead of human beings, while denying them the right to prioritise intimacy over physicality if they choose or indeed to reject sexuality altogether when it suits them.

We are doing damage to our young boys and this in turn compounds the damage we already do to our young girls. We should all be disgusted to live in a world where an assault on either of them can be ignored met with high fives or praise. Society should absolutely demand more of boys.

But we should also expect more for them.