This is not a blog about our book Slammed, but there is a model in the book called “Upstream Downstream” designed to help solve problems. And right now, the world has a big problem.
It seems not a day has gone by in the last month without another report of sexual harassment, misconduct, or assault perpetrated by a powerful man. Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Dan Schoen, Kevin Spacey, Roy Price, Mark Halperin, Michael Oreskes, Roy Moore, Ben Affleck… and too many more. Oh, wait, also the guy serving as our President. Maybe I should have listed his name first.
For each of these public figures, there are thousands of stories about thousands of men. As a woman who has worked in the corporate world for two decades now, I can’t think of a woman I know who doesn’t have a story about sexual harassment in the workplace. It happens all the time. We all know it. But society doesn’t talk about it. And when we do, it is often dismissed as “locker room talk” – just the way things are – boys will be boys, you know.
And that makes me wonder… What is it like to be a boy today? Men I can talk to about this subject tell me that there are few universally acceptable topics for “man to man” conversations: sports, women, work, working out, and penises. An accidental reference to cooking (unless it is with fire), fashion, skincare, or home décor and it’s a surefire bet the poor boy will be promptly slapped with the dreaded label of “gay.”
I saw a man today crossing the street in the rain, and he was wearing a pink rain jacket. Pastel pink. And it looked great. But I had to wonder, where did he get it? Did he buy it in the women’s section? Can a grown man even get a men’s pastel pink rain slicker? Is that an actual thing? The lessons for how to be a boy start very young. “Boys don’t cry.” “Boys are tough.” “Boys play sports.” “Boys fight.” And most important: “Boys like blue, not pink.”
Men have the most important role to play in stopping sexual violence. Men have the most power to redefine what it means to be a man today. Men can talk about sports and sex, but also talk about emotions and vacations. Or sewing. I worked with a woman who was married to a man who was a building contractor by day but loved to sew her costumes for Halloween and parties in the evening. But he would always say, “I am going to build you a dress with an A-line and short sleeves…” Somehow, if he “built” the costumes instead of “sewing” them, it was OK. We have to change the way boys talk at a very young age—to solve this problem; we are going to have to go Upstream. We have to focus on prevention.
This has to be an effort that is about broadening the definition of what it means to be a man. It’s not about not being strong, or not loving sports, or not being interested in sex. But, allowing boys to express more than those things is good for boys. Harvard Medical School psychologist William Pollack writes in his book, “Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood,” that narrow definitions society places on boys today boxes them in with a constricting set of behavioral rules and regulations they must adhere to for success. Pollack argues that this “Boy Code” hurts us all.
“The Boy Code puts boys and men into a gender straitjacket that constrains not only them but everyone else, reducing us all as human beings.”
Upstream changes happen when boys are very young. It’s about not telling a 3-year old he has to stop crying. It’s about not pushing the 5-year old to have no fear on the first day of Kindergarten. It’s about not telling the 9-year old boy to “figure it out by yourself” when he asks for help.
Research shows that in elementary school, boys will hug each other and hold hands in line or for activities, but by middle school such expression of emotion between men is unacceptable. In the middle school years, boys today are also exposed to pornography at an unprecedented and alarming rate. They learn quickly that the girls they played with in elementary school are transformed into objects to be treated without respect or worse, to be abused. Psychologist Justin Coulson has published several journal articles on the impact of pornography on adolescent boys and explains, “Even though they know the images are not ‘real life,’ boys’ beliefs about intimacy shift, along with sexuality, and their behaviors follow. They are swimming in a sexualized society that consistently highlights the dominance of men over women.”
Boys need more images and examples of women and men working together as a team—parents, teachers and community members. And while mothers can do a lot to socialize young boys, it is the men who have made the rules in the Boy Code. Men set the tone. Men will need to talk to boys more about what they see in the media, how a girl should be treated, and how a boy should behave. And men need to ask boys questions: “Does this ever happen at your school? How do you feel about it? What do you think you could do to make it better?”
An Upstream approach means helping boys develop a broad set of emotions, responses, and an authentic voice that ignores the restrictions of the Boy Code. We have to encourage boys to speak up when they see aggressive or dominant behavior. In workshop sessions for high school boys, program leaders report boys coming up to say how they challenged a guy making inappropriate comments on the football field or helped a buddy with his relationship with his girlfriend. An Upstream approach has to be about more than stopping sexual misconduct and violence; it has to be about helping our boys develop a strong internal voice, a reliable moral compass, and a life of healthy, happy relationships. Upstream means we must think bigger and encourage the next generation of men to think bigger as well.