Will #MeToo dating rules bring on an 'end of men'?

Image: Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle
Image: Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle

Welcome to a new Yahoo Lifestyle column, “The #MeToo Guide to Raising Boys,” which takes a look at where we’ve gone wrong — and how we can go right — while raising caring, respectful, self-assured boys today. Michael C. Reichert is a psychologist, executive director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives, and author of the forthcoming How to Raise a Boy: The Power of Connections to Build Good Men.

When New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, an avowed political feminist, stepped down recently following physical-abuse allegations made against him by four women, it was perhaps the most striking #MeToo example yet of the split in some male personalities that has come into public view.

“At home, it seems, Mr. Schneiderman was a sexual sadist and manipulative misogynist,” wrote Jill Fillipovic in her New York Times opinion piece about Schneiderman’s public fall from grace. “At work, he was a champion of women’s rights, investigating potential charges against Harvey Weinstein, appearing at events supporting reproductive freedom, and even writing a bill specifically to punish the same kind of strangulation he is said to have forced on some of his partners. How do we reconcile these two versions of a single man?”

It’s a question many young men are likely asking about themselves these days.

Modern sexual mores ask a lot of millennial and Gen Z men, who are being whipsawed between two unyielding cultural forces. While the movement for gender equality offers everyone, including men, a better deal overall — and has the advantage of being fair — traditional masculinity continues to teach boys lessons in dominance, exploitation, shame, and loss. From this clash, some fear an “end of men” — or at least an end to the historic masculinity most males take to heart. And many young men are finding themselves confused by new rules governing intimacy and sex that are at odds with lessons they absorbed as boys.

‘I don’t really know … what’s expected’

Through my work as a psychologist working with high school students, I recently heard the following from an 18-year-old boy I talked with about how the masculine code conditioned his behavior: “You know, you’ve got to be good at sports, strong, know a lot of girls — you have to be kissing a couple [of them] — and all that. I don’t really know what’s going on, what I should be doing, what’s expected, how aggressive I should be.”

However bewildering, his survival depended upon doing what was “expected,” what a boy “had to be good at.” And the underlying message was clear: Who he really was did not matter.

Boys manage the conflict between their hearts and their public performances by exercising what feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan called “double vision.” Like girls, who must fit into a society dominated by sexist norms, boys learn to live “at once inside and outside the framework,” she’s said. There is the young man’s heart, steeped in feeling, connection, and virtue, and there is his public performance. Unfortunately, the boy who hides behind a mask can grow “to fit it,” as the British writer George Orwell recognized.

In part, that’s because the cultural framework has become harder than ever to escape. Male ideals in popular entertainment have grown more extreme: GI Joe and other action figures now set impossible standards for leanness and muscularity. In a recent TED talk by actor Justin Baldoni of Jane the Virgin, he described how much time he spent in the gym striving for a perfect body. Pornography, boys’ chief source of sex education, promotes ideals of hypermasculinity, offering misogynistic fantasies brought to life. The trope of the predatory male, however far-fetched, plays to boys’ baser instincts.

Inside that framework, young men are portrayed as sex-crazed beasts, driven and dominating, with one thing on their minds. And the stereotype is effective. In a recent Man Box survey of young men in the U.S., U.K., and Mexico, researchers at the global activist organization Promundo found that nearly one in three made sexually harassing comments to a woman or girl in the previous month. Those most likely to harass held the strongest beliefs in “toxic norms of masculinity.”

But outside the normative framework — behind the mask — boys are much less in charge. A team of researchers from Bowling Green University found that instead of the confident, aggressive player portrayed in popular media, real boys reported significantly lower levels of confidence and greater “communications awkwardness” in romantic relationships.

A ‘twisted’ view of sex

Boys’ sexual development is like a perfect storm. They are deprived of physical closeness before they are teenagers, driven from their close friends by homophobia, regaled by stereotypes of themselves as sexual animals, often first introduced to sex through pornography, and then encouraged to view girls as objects of conquest. These forces combine to separate sex from romance, objectify their own bodies as well as those of their partners, override tender feelings, and reduce sexual intimacy to arousal and satiation. For many, sex becomes just another high.

Some young men, misled by exaggerated versions of masculinity, view sex as an entitlement. As Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo has explained, “During our research, a lot of younger men told us how porn had given them a ‘twisted’ or unrealistic view of what sex and intimacy are supposed to be.”

Being out of touch with reality has widespread, negative consequences. On college and high school campuses across the country, recent changes in the legal definition of sexual consent have made hooking up more complicated. In California state colleges and universities, for example, a law establishing “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary” consent as the standard has caused young men to feel greater “nervousness about accidentally running afoul of consent rules,” according to New York Times writer Emily Bazelon. And Title IX advocacy has underscored the #TimesUp message, calling out attitudes of sexual exploitation.

To New York Times writer Ross Douthat, the poor fit between boys’ sexual conditioning and the flesh-and-blood, spirited agency of girls they encounter is reflected in the conflicted personalities of many young men today: “A breed at once entitled and resentful, angry and unmotivated, ‘woke’ and caddish, shaped by unprecedented possibilities for sexual gratification and frustrated that real women are less available and more complicated than the version on their screen.”

Perceiving the contradiction between who he is and how he acts is a necessary first step in a man’s recovery and in getting back to square one. Pop culture and porn have poorly represented what men really want. A study by the Kinsey Institute of Indiana University found that, contrary to stereotypes, young men are not so sold on no-strings sex: In fact, 72 percent — compared with 78 percent of women — report feelings of regret following casual sexual encounters.

Violence blamed on romantic failures

But male self-delusion is still what makes daily appearances in the media. The “Incel Rebellion,” which gained prominence from a series of violent rampages beginning in 2014 in California, was back in the news in April with the Toronto van attack that left 10 people dead and 16 injured.

According to the Center for Disease Control, as many as 27 percent of males ages 15 to 24 are sexless and single. And though only a fraction of this astonishingly large group blames women for their sorry state, one reaction to the Toronto killings has been sympathy for men who may be “ugly, or socially awkward, or mentally ill, or just really, really like cartoons” and find themselves left behind by women’s new sexual agency. The economist Robin Hanson said that there might be a “right to sex,” an idea taken up by Douthat in another column, “The Redistribution of Sex.” His ideas evoked their own reaction, summarized in the Washington Post by Molly Roberts, who accused him of missing the real point in his “refusal to confront an insidious strain of sexism that is already costing lives.”

To Michael Kimmel, author of Angry White Men, the Incel Rebellion is nothing new. In his book, Kimmel described a group of mass murderers who attributed their rampages to romantic failure and emasculation. One of these, Marc Lepine of Montreal, blamed feminists.

Kimmel also made a broader point about “everyday Sodinis.” There are the men who commit spousal homicide (for which the U.S. ranks first among industrialized countries) and those who attack their partners (the chief cause of injury to women ages 15 to 44) or those who stalk (nearly a million women each year). “Men’s violence toward women does not happen when men’s power over women is intact and unthreatened,” Kimmel writes. “Rather, it happens when men’s power breaks down, when his entitlement to that power is threatened and insecure.”

Despite all of this, I am encouraged by how many younger males are opting out of, or at least delaying their entry into, hookup culture. The dramatic decline in adolescent sexual activity — from 54 percent of ninth-graders who said they were sexually active in 1991 to 41 percent in 2016 — offers an unexpected opportunity. With late adolescents looking “more like middle adolescents once did” and middle adolescents looking “more like early adolescents once did,” male innocence may be reaffirmed and young men’s understanding of intimacy reinvented.

Holding off from sex while they build more fully realized selves, grounded in vital friendships and mentoring relationships, can counterbalance crazy delusions about what it means to be male. It’s a hopeful start, at least.

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