And now…to the other side (on issues of gender)

And now…to the other side (on issues of gender) January 29, 2012

The trouble with young men?

            This is following up on my earlier posts about so-called (evangelical) complementarianism. Anyone who has followed this blog very long knows how strongly I feel about equality between men and women. I won’t repeat all that. If you have doubts, just go back and read some of my posts on gender issues.

            A few commenters here thought that by rejecting complementarianism I was rejecting differences between the sexes (other than physiological). Nothing could be further from the truth. Some egalitarians and probably most feminists don’t like my views on that.

            Personally, I cannot understand why absolute equality and difference cannot co-exist. Why is it that (some) feminists can proclaim that women’s consciousness and ways of being are superior to men’s (culturally-conditioned) ways, but if a man suggests men and women are different (beyond physiology) they get upset? I’ve experienced this apparent contradiction many times over the years. For example, I have been told by former female colleagues that women are naturally more nurturing and collaborative than males. I don’t disagree; overall and in general that is probably true. But if I say that overall and in general men are more…anything positive, I get accused of sexism.

            Let me say right up front that I do not have an answer to the nature versus nurture argument about male/female differences (beyond physiology). It just seems to me that some differences (beyond physiology) seem very deeply rooted such that from earliest ages of action and communication boys and girls typically differentiate in certain ways—even when they have been raised NOT to live out gender stereotypes.

            Let me also say right up front that I know I’m going out on a limb, out on thin ice, with what I am about to say here. But this is my blog, so….these are my musings. They are based on observation; they are impressionistic. I’ve read a few books about the subject (of male/female differences beyond physiology), that’s all. I’m no scholar in gender studies.

            One related area about which I have read is testosterone. There are some excellent clinical studies in the relationship between hormones and behavior and a whole branch of science called socioendocrinology. It’s not an exact science; it’s an area of research. But people engaged in that research have come up with some interesting facts that hold true MOST of the time.

            The problem is that, beyond some physiological changes, giving testosterone to women can’t guarantee any particular outcome. However, testosterone levels in young men tend to be a predicting factor in certain general behaviors such as aggression and empathy. Young men with higher levels of testosterone (near the upper limit of normal or above normal) tend to be more aggressive than their counterparts with testosterone levels near or below clinically deficient.

            Also, and this is most interesting, young men with very high levels of testosterone TEND to be less empathetic than young men with low normal levels. Men with high normal or abnormaly high levels shown films of actual killing or torture, for example, respond less empathetically.

            Finally, studies show that men with higher levels of testosterone are more willing to take risks than men with lower levels and, in general, men tend to be more likely to take risks than women. Some researchers chalk that up to testosterone. Except that giving women testosterone supplements doesn’t seem to raise their risk-taking behaviors. So there’s something more involved.

            What does all that mean? Well, nothing absolute. But in terms of apparent tendencies, it means “testosterone poisoning” is not just a myth.

            This raises all kinds of questions, but offers few answers. Should judges take tesosterone level into account in sentencing young male offenders? It’s well known that certain brain tumors can hinder ability to resist impulses. That’s sometimes taken into account in sentencing offenders. (For example, sentencing them to treatment rather than punishment.)

            What set me off on this area of research (which, I admit, has been quite shallow compared with clinical researchers!) is the number of young men in America’s prison system and the almost unbelievable imbalance of percentages of prisoners that are male and female. I think one factor explaining that in part is that judges and juries tend to give women lighter sentences (often probation) for the same crimes because there is the assumption they are more likely to be rehabilitated. Women offenders’ rate of recidivism is, overall, less than men’s.

            But my mind simply boggles as I see the statistics. What’s this all about? Why is it that especially among minority groups the percentage of males in the justice system (either in prison or on parole or probation) is staggeringly higher than females?

            It’s easy to say, as I think many people do, that women are just better human beings than men. But who is going to say that about whites and blacks? Is anyone going to say that because the percentage of black men in the justice system exceeds the percentage of white men in it, white men are just better human beings? No. Nobody in their right mind says that. I certainly do not believe it.

            So what’s the explanation? I don’t know if anyone has one. But I think it’s worth exploring. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, nobody is exploring it. If they are, I’d like to know about it. Is there a theory that potentially explains the predominance of men in the justice system and the higher ratio of minority men in it? (The only theories I’ve read rely on explanations based on poverty and injustice in convicting and sentencing. I don’t discount those, but I’m not sure they provide the total explanation.)

            I doubt that testosterone is going to be the comprehensive answer. It may be a partial explanation. In fact, I’ll go so far as to suggest it probably is a partial explanation (not with regard to minority ratios but with regard to gender ratios of prisoners generally—male to female). However, scientific studies are showing that men’s testosterone levels are dropping quite dramatically overall and nobody seems to know why. Some have suggested it has something to do with bovine estrogen in the water supply. That seems far fetched to me, but I would like to see some serious research done on the problem. (Maybe it’s not being done because most people think it’s a good thing so why tamper with it!)

            So let me pose my theory about the problem with young males in today’s society.

            I look around me on the streets and see numerous young men with lots of really scary tattoos and bumper stickers and attitudes. Lots of young men seem to be dropping out of the “rat race” and settling for living with their parents or getting by on as little work as possible, spending their time playing computer games and hanging out at bars. What might explain the “man problem” that many people are observing and commenting on (including women educators, sociologists, etc.)?

            My theory is this. From a very early age, males crave respect. Stop. I’m not saying females don’t need respect! I’m saying males crave it. It’s very high on most especially young men’s hierarchy of needs. It seems to me that females crave love and intimacy and affirmation. They DESERVE respect, but it’s not AS MUCH a craving as it is with males.

            Now, lest anyone misunderstand me…I am NOT saying females don’t want or need respect. I’m just saying the psychological need for respect is so high in males, especially young males, that they will do things to get it (or some surrogate for it) most females won’t do.

            Here’s my main point: When males (especially youngish ones) come to believe respect from the larger society is never going to be theirs, many embrace fear as a substitute for respect. In other words, “If you, society, will never respect me, fear me.” Fear becomes a surrogate for respect which causes many young men to act out in ways that may not be criminal but send the message “Fear me because I am capable of doing really bad things to you.”

            I THINK (can’t prove) that many young men today are getting the message that their maleness is something society at large disapproves of. The women’s movement has been great for women, but I THINK it has had the unintended consequence of sending subtle signals to young males that there’s something bad about just being male. Or, maybe there are no such intentional signals but males are interpreting social shifts that way.

            However, here is what I’ve noticed. Many public school teachers treat male students as defective females. They try to social engineer them into being more like their female counterparts. Sitting still, being quiet, enjoying reading for long periods of time, not moving, paying attention. Teaching methods have shifted toward females’ ways of learning. Many schools are abolishing “recess” altogether. If you’re a boy who is not particularly good at sports (so not involved in extracurricular sports), what outlet do you have for your natural restlessness and need for physical movement during the school day?

            I pay close attention to the announcements in our city’s newspaper about educational and recreational opportunities for kids to see how many are geared toward females and how many toward males. Almost all that state a gender are for girls. I have seen very few announcements of such special events put on by parks and recreation agencies, YMCAs, non-profit groups, etc., for boys. Almost all are for girls. And there are many local and national non-profit organizations geared specifically for girls to help them with self-esteem, body image, making good choices, etc., etc. I see very few of those for boys. And yet the percentage of boys dropping out of school and choosing to commit crimes is much higher than the percentage of girls.

            I open my local newspaper and look at the large color pictures on the front pages of the sections that very often feature children or young people. They are almost always girls. The local TV stations often feature (especially in the summer) brief human interest stories about kids and recreation events, camps, etc. The kids interviewed by the reporters are almost always girls. I asked one reporter about that and she told me the girls are “well spoken” compared with the boys.

            I could go on and on with examples of ways in which our society seems to tilt favorably toward girls and young women.

            Oh, yes, of course. I know that there are many disadvantages to being female in America’s still largely sexist society. What I am saying, however, is that in our rush to affirm and help females boys and young men are feeling left out and neglected and even disrespected.

            I remember a few years ago a nationally syndicated radio psychologist (a female) suggested on the air that males, including children, need respect just for being male. She wasn’t making a value judgment; she was giving advice to parents and teachers who wonder how to handle boys. As I recall, the media pounced on her and she was dropped by radio networks.

            These are unpopular opinions. I am not suggesting in any way that males are superior. But I think society may be doing itself a disservice by ignoring the male problem. I think it is just prudent to recognize and come to terms with males’ (especially young males’) need for respect.

            Instead, what I fear is happening is that we are putting boys on meds instead of adjusting teaching methods and schedules (etc.) to accommodate them. We are sending them the message that they are, indeed, defective girls and need to sit still, quieten down, pay attention (for long periods of time), don’t look out the window, talk and write about feelings, etc., etc.—things that come somewhat harder for young males than for young females (overall and in general with many exceptions, of course). When they don’t, after we’ve canceled recess, we put them on meds.

            When I see a young man looking scary (many tattoos, scary bumper stickers, threatening demeanor) I tend to think “There’s a young man who decided he won’t get respect, so he’ll settle for fear.”

            Yes, yes, of course…there are other factors such as many boys lacking fathers, but the one I’m talking about is one I almost never hear mentioned or discussed and, I suspect, that’s because it’s very politically incorrect to mention something boys or men “need” more than girls or women.

            Strangely, very strangely, something the opposite of what I’m theorizing about boys and young men is happening in the entertainment media with regard to women. Have you noticed that in entertainment media, many women characters are aggressive, mean, even violent in a way that’s highly unlikely if not impossible (e.g., one woman beating up two or three larger, very strong men all by herself)? It seems that the media are obsessed with reversing traditional gender roles. And I’m certainly not saying everything about that is bad. I’m all for showing women as strong, competent leaders. They can be and often are. But why this sudden rage to make movies showing them as assassins, ninjas, warriors, etc.? Perhaps some women are and have been those, but the movies and some TV shows go to extremes with it. Sometimes extremes that are just laughable. (A young teenage girl trained as an assassin? Three women assassins going to a central American country to kill a drug lord? Etc., etc., etc.)

            This phenomenon seems to be the flip side of the first one. But I don’t see it as having long-lasting or widespread deleterious effects on society. Most people know it’s pure fantasy. But I do think one reason our jails and prisons are crowded with young males is that many young males simply give up on the idea of ever gaining respect (except perhaps from a few friends or a gang)  and opt for fear or crime or both. And many others, who never turn to crime, simply give up on achievement because they conclude no matter what they do they won’t get respect anyway or their chances of achieving very much are low. (Perhaps they see less qualified women being promoted over their fathers and uncles which is undeniably a trend in some government agencies and private organizations.)

            Well, this has gone longer than I intended, but part of that is the felt need to add a lot of words to avoid misunderstandings and perceptions of sexism. Let me close by saying clearly that I believe in absolute equality of men and women, boys and girls. But I’m not sure society does. There’s still a lot of bias against females in our society. But there’s also increasingly a blindness to boys and young men and their needs. And I don’t think this need for respect is something that can be changed by social engineering, at least not in the short run. I suspect it’s somehow built into boys and men by something (perhaps a combination of nature and nurture).

            Finally, back to how this relates to the over abundance of young males entering America’s prison systems. Is it possible that it has something to do with them feeling no respect from society? Even feeling hopeless about ever receiving society’s respect? Could that then drive them to live on society’s margins, becoming involved with gangs (whether formally organized or just a group of similar friends)? It just seems to me there may be a connection between what Newsweek called “The Boy Crisis” in a cover story a few years ago and the increasing enrollment of young men in our prisons or just dropping out of the attempt to achieve and succeed.

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  • Dr. Olsen,

    Please define respect for us.

    In these kinds of conversations I have often said that men need to feel that they are powerful and have something valuable to contribute in order to engage positively. So I would define respect, in this context, as the general recognition that a man has the power to contribute valuably to society.

    • rogereolson

      That is one element of it to be sure. But I think “respect” is hard to define; each person may feel a little differently from another person when he or she feels respected. But it always involves acknowledgement of ability to achieve. That might mean a pat on the back by dad and coach for winning a wrestling match. (I’m not sure if winning a wrestling match contributes valuably to society but being praised for it by people from whom you need acknowledgement is feeling respected.)

  • greg huguley

    Dr. Olson, Thanks for having the, uh, courage, to post this. As the father of an 11 year old boy, I can clearly see at least some of your theory in the school system. My son has only had one male teacher through kindergarten and 6 grades of elementary school– and I believe this is true in public ed as a whole. Might not this be a very significant factor in the “practice” of males being seen as “defective” females?

    • rogereolson

      I believe so. I know that as a boy and young man I felt a special relationship with my male teachers in that I appreciated their help and affirmation in a special way. Studies have shown conclusively that boys learn better from male teachers and girls learn better from female teachers. As you say, there are very few male teachers in public schools these days (especially below high school). I would like to see teacher’s associations and unions make an all out effort to recruit males teachers. But the times I have seen billboards or advertisements in magazines inviting people to become teachers it’s always a woman featured. There’s a big push by educators to get women into certain fields traditionally dominated by men (engineering, physics, etc.). I don’t see a corresponding push to get men into teaching, social work, nursing, etc. Why?

  • Thanks for posting this. A few things:

    1. The estrogen issue may be tied to the abundance of soy products in our American food. Soy mimics estrogen, which is bad for both men AND women (higher rates of ovarian cysts, endometriosis, etc. because of too much soy in the body), but, incredibly, soy, is found in everything from bread to salad dressing. And THAT is way more believable to me than the water supply.

    2. I agree that men feel disrespected. But the problem I’ve always had with the male = respect/female = love dichotomy is that I am not a “normal” female. My childhood daydreams were always about saving the world. I was the damsel-in-shining-armor. If there was a love interest, he was the knight in distress. When a man in early college called me “adorable” as he asked me out on a date, I lost all interest in him. And when asked, “Would you rather be in a relationship where you have love, or respect?” My answer is “RESPECT!!” I HATE feeling disregarded. I HATE feeling that my opinion isn’t valued. And I HATE feeling that it is my womanhood that causes this reaction (in childhood I hated that being a kid made people disregard me. I don’t mind being disagreed with, it’s disrespected that grates on me). I know other women who feel the same so it does irritate me when the Church states across the board “Men need respect, women need love”.

    But I totally agree with your point that our culture does not respect men. It’s a serious problem that needs to be addressed, and I know the Church is trying to do so, they’re just coming up with the wrong solutions. What I would like to see is truly equal opportunities, because not all little girls want to go to tea parties and not all little boys want to go beat something up. If we could offer things to anybody based on their preferences rather than based on what they’re “supposed” to like, then acknowledge their efforts and accomplishments based on what their preferences and talents rather than on what they’re “supposed” to be good at then we might start getting somewhere.

    3. As far as the media and totally unrealistic female ninjas…they’re really no worse than Arnold Schwarzenegger in any of his films! Hollywood is fantasy.

  • Rachel Ann

    I’ve had two more thoughts since responding earlier:

    1. Love that is not rooted in respect is patronizing and belittling, so I still think that’s a false dichotomy. We all need to be respected as human beings. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. The respect issues extends beyond just men (afterall…there may be some gender shifting in Hollywood stories, but women are still overly sexualized in almost every movie that comes out; that isn’t respect either). I think our culture just does a poor job of teaching respect for anything – for others, for the elderly, for ourselves….we’re a feel-good culture that doesn’t want anything to stand in our way of experience (our highest good) and so things like honor and courage and respect get lost along the way.

    2. As far as men of the current generation not being driven…I think that’s way more complicated than just not being respected. I think inertia can often follow wealth, and we are one of the wealthiest nations on earth. In a strange juxtaposition to that, there seem to be fewer and fewer opportunities for success these days. Many of us are making less than or just nearly $20,000/year, and that simply isn’t enough in our consumer-based society where even the very water you drink has to be purchased from the city, rather than drawn from a well on your own property. Yet the chances for earning a higher income are shriking. It just gets a bit terrifying and can shut a person down – male or female. It’s easier to sit on your parents’ couch playing video games or looking at porn than having to deal with the scary realities of a failing economy and an aging body.

  • Clinton

    Thanks for the blog entry! I am a youth pastor (and i went to good ole Truett), and I continually see young men trying to get respect. They want to answer every question so that they can sound wise and earn the respect of their friends, even if they have no idea what the answer is! But my question is: how can I teach a devotion/lesson and NOT make them listen or be quiet or sit still? I feel like those are necessities for the management of the class, not female ways of learning…

    This whole article makes me wonder (in a good way) how I can lead a youth group and help young men receive/earn well deserved respect.

    • rogereolson

      Hi, Clinton. I don’t know exactly how to put my theory into practice. But when I was a youth pastor I consciously tried to do things with the boys in the youth group that would show them I not only cared about them but also respected them–by affirming their attempts at sports or just taking them out to a fast food restaurant and looking for opportunities to praise them for something they accomplished. Naturally, that wasn’t totally lacking with the girls, but my wife did more with them one-on-one or with a couple of them. She was very good at making them feel cared for and about and affirming their value as capable of doing whatever God was calling them to do. When I spoke to the whole group I tried to keep the talk relatively brief and surround it with physical activities. The boys especially are more likely to sit and listen if they’ve just played a physically demanding game or something. (These were junior high boys.) And I gave them permission to get up and leave for a little while if they really needed to–just to walk around or move so long as they didn’t distract others.

  • As a woman, I thought all your comments were very sensitive to gender. (Maybe this is because I don’t feel insecure about it.)

    What do you think of this article? It talks about how men have fallen behind women in many standards of achievement over just a few decades. As a woman, I don’t see that as progress at all – it’s just sad to see how many waste their lives playing video games.

    It’s hard not to wonder if these men are the product of the sexual revolution. Men used to need to get married to have a regular sexual partner, now they don’t. But providing for a family was what forced a lot men to grow up and take on responsibility. Now, why bother?

    Many of the women I see portrayed in the media are still overly sexualized in feminine ways – heavy makeup, skimpy clothes, etc. But the growing number of women achievers have moved on from this. Maybe that’s why they don’t connect with single men.

    • rogereolson

      Well, predictably, I guess, I didn’t find Hanna Rosin’s article very helpful. Just saying “Man up!” won’t help. I think we need to look more deeply into the problem that both she and Bennett helpfully point out. My own theory is what I wrote–in today’s society boys and young men feel their maleness is actually something society disdains. How many times have I read or heard that “all men are potential rapists?” (I lived for 15 years in a large metropolitan area with one of the strongest Women’s Studies programs in the local state university and read many letters to the editor and guest columns saying things like that.) Even when it’s not said or even thought, there is a growing sense in society that being male is just not a good thing; it’s a problem to be overcome. I suspect that contributes to the problem of many young men just dropping out.

  • I think that the devotion to video games isn’t necessarily boys giving up on getting respect, but actually a means of procuring it. It is something simple which can be mastered or won. Most young boys who are devoted to TV, comics, or video games often brag about their triva knowledge of these things, and there ability to defeat others at these activities. It is a niche respect if you will, and that niche is then elevated in importance by that person’s ego.

    • rogereolson

      Good point. It’s a substitute for achievement in the real world. But I still think the extreme popularity of video games among boys and young men has something to do with lack of belief that they will get respect in the real world (unless they’re a star athlete or a genius at science or whatever).

  • Interesting thought, but by focusing on the extreme cases of those engaging in illegal behavior, I think you missed out on a connection. Think of a young man that is not sufficiently respected by his father. Could this cause an insecurity that leads to bullying rather than full out criminality? Could the need for respect drive one to act out in a domineering manner?

    If so, could our capitalistic structures reward these individuals for what is essentially bullying. Given the infusion of bigger, better capitalistic values and forms in the evangelical Megachurch movement, could churches even becom complicit in this enabelling? Could the overly testoseroned, insecure male come to a church, lead by bullying fear and then use complementarianism as the intellectual cover for his domineering and bullying ways?

    • rogereolson

      Yes. That’s a possibility. But I don’t think that’s a society-wide problem that goes very deep. If we could somehow affirm males and give them respect without in any way oppressing women I think our culture would be much better off everywhere. There is, of course, false respect–affirming rotten behavior. I’m certainly not for that.

  • Some of the best judges I know have involved themselves in community programs and church ministries promoting boys and girls programs. Providing creative, pro-active outlets for children and young families. Recreational programs in schools, community clubs programs, and church youth ministries do a lot of this too. I have been involved in many of these areas and can only say that part of the solution is to continually re-create opportunities for children (and their families) to interact with one another on positive levels and with objectified goals in mind. Service areas abound everywhere and are but a start to providing real-world interaction between all levels of society. Thanks for your article. Respect spelt (!) any other way must be spelled by l-o-v-e and s-e-r-v-i-c-e.

  • Deborah

    Although I understand you protest this, when it comes to your ideas, I am not closed but have to wonder about socialization to need that more keenly b/c the socialization this point looks so strong and wide-ranging to me regardless of how one’s parents condition him. I personally (and I know my whole life story is kind of “different”) felt a keen craving for respect from the youngest ages I can remember b/c I felt so disrespected. I didn’t even want anyone to call me by a diminutive like “Debbie” b/c I was bucking against being the youngest child in a large family and against all the types of abuse. The intensity of my craving for love couldn’t really get through to me until later even though I was very compassionate and always wanting to give love and thus very “feminine.” I have been repulsed by men who think they can come along and “treasure” me w/o respecting me first. At the same time, I think that the bodies we inhabit as women, the likelihood most of us will be mothers, etc. do tend to shape our relating and values such that there could be some truth to the disparity you see on this point (btw, I am an egalitarian all for gender differences). But I feel like a lot of what I see in women and girls is a repression of their need for respect; we are taught to demote it or even deny it, and there isn’t social support (generally) for seeking it out through dominance, intimidation, etc. in the ways that there is immense social support for boys to seek it out.

    • rogereolson

      Remember that I did not say that girls and women don’t need or deserve respect; I affirmed that. I just think males crave respect, in the sense of acknowledgement of their power to achieve and succeed, in a way most females don’t. At least they will do things to gain respect or its surrogate fear that most females won’t do. They will either lash out with intimidation or drop out when they feel hopeless about gaining the respect of society around them.

      • Deborah

        Yes, I noticed that. Thanks.

        I guess it’s just that for me I was always most keenly aware of my need for respect but didn’t have a “legitimate” way to voice this need, making me wonder if a lot or even all of the difference in “need” here is social (although testosterone has to play a role even in the social willingness for boys to shove their way toward this need while girls, perhaps even in light of their relative weakness shaping their social world, quiet down their own great need for respect). Again, I do believe there are gender differences beyond plumbing and that you might be on to something in part. I just really–especially w/ the keenness of how greatly I felt this unmet need growing up–am hesitant on this one.

        The other thing that makes me hesitant is that I wonder if there would even be a way to get across a message of boys needing respect w/o it implying to people that girls need less respect (b/c while they might put up with it, I think this is one of the great wounds of the female gender, and that message would perpetuate the imbalancing notion that men should have more respect). I know you are saying girls need respect too, but how can we emphasize boy’s especially needing respect w/o diminishing the amount of respect girls should be given??

        • rogereolson

          I don’t see it as a zero-sum game. Teachers and others working with boys and girls should show both respect equally. I think that respect can be expressed differently, however. I think boys and young men feel the need to be respected for their ability to achieve in competition. Of course, I don’t advocate promoting aggressiveness in winning, but boys and young men are goal-oriented and need affirmation of their prowess whether in math or sports. Girls need to feel respected for who they are as valuable, capable persons. Of course both should be applauded for achievement, but I think boys and young men crave that applause in a special way and become withdrawn and bitter and even act out when they feel they will never get it no matter what they do.

          • LK Louise

            Dr. Olson,
            I really appreciate your thoughts on the subject and think you’re onto something about the minority and prison issues, I know that often talks about it and is a blog I read pretty frequently. This article, which I actually came across earlier today, may also answer some questions or create new ones. “Why are Men So Violent?”
            As for the “boys and young men are goal-oriented and need affirmation of their prowess whether in math or sports”, as in boys want to be recognized for the things they do vs girls “affirmation” of simply being good part of the problem here? Girls, before doing anything, are told they are good at somethings and not at others (this is often used as a contributing reason for the math and science gap. Girls aren’t pushed to value that “achievement” in a way that boys are.* Boys are, in many senses, neutral or negative until they prove otherwise, and for those not being told they prove otherwise, turn to find that in fantasy or against it in bitterness.
            Just in the way it’s been worded, the way we speak about it reaffirms that. “We need to affirm what boys do, not who they are, because that’s what they want.” vs “We need to let girls know they are valued, capable persons no matter what they accomplish.” It doesn’t seem to offer a solution for allowing boys to know they are respected as human beings as well as encourage energy and drive that could be partially a result of testosterone.
            I’m not one to deny there are more than biological differences between men and woman. I enjoy being a very feminine woman who professionally loved the chance to get away with wearing skirts more than I ever could on campus as a student. I wear sparkly shoes just about everyday. Sometimes I tear up over good hallmark or kodak commercials. I think that’s part of who I was made to be. On the other hand, I identify with the guys about being ambitious and goal oriented.
            As the only young woman in one of my 40-person robotics/electrical engineering classes last semester, I craved validation that I was good, among the best at it. And as a kid, I liked trucks more than I liked barbies, and as a kid and a teenager, those things that made me “not a girl” bothered me. The longer the litmus test is, the more harmful it is, to both both genders.
            As someone who enjoys the friendships of responsible, emotionally mature, adult men, I find myself in conversations about the repulsive messages society sends to boys and men: that they can’t control their impulses, that they have to be violent, that they can’t take responsibility for their actions, no matter the circumstance. It creates entitlement and permanent boyhood. (see: any blame of a crime that doesn’t fall on the shoulders of who ever committed the crime. No one can force anyone else to act a certain way, and attempting that kind of dominance/power over another human being is terrible. We all have the ability to control our impulses.) It took a long time of dating to find men that I didn’t have to emotionally “mother” because they couldn’t be fully open with their guy-friends. As much as I generally hate “bro” culture, I’m a huge fan of the bro-mance.
            Men clearly are capable of more than what many are achieving, and I’m not about to blame a bunch of individual boys for this failure of society. Now the adult “boys” who are my age? They can claim responsibility for their own actions, no matter the past. But the actual boys, kids not old enough to drive or vote? We are clearly not teaching the right tools for maturity. Are there things that need to be changed in our early education system? Yes- for both boys and girls (who may find the sitting still easier, but not the focusing), we’re creating an ADHD society.
            Sorry for the long winded comment, and I hope some of the links provide perspective, I just, again, worry about being told “boys like to achieve, women like to be.” I think boys need to know they are good and whole and capable, and I think women need to know they are allowed to have drive and ambition without it being “unseemly” or “emasculating” to men. No one should need the approval of another being outside of God so much that it causes such a negative response. (and no one can force such a negative response either.) One of the better projects I’ve see on on that front and tension is The Good Men Project, which I hope youll enjoy.

            *A lot of young women are encouraged to use their strengths and ignore their weaknesses. This was interesting about how to “raise the floor”, with both girls doing better and boys not dropping back, and sometimes improving as well: Ars Technica: Granting Women a Competitive Advantage Won’t Destroy Society )

          • rogereolson

            I hope you remember that I was not prescribing but describing. That is, I do not argue that boys need respect just for being boys. My argument is that boys and young men’s craving for respect can’t simply be socially engineered out of them and to ignore it puts us all at peril.

  • Rob

    I thought I would add a little to what you said at the beginning. Little boys will usually prefer a ball over a doll when given the choice (and girls vice versa) before they are old enough to identify their own sex. This is evidence that the some of the differences of “gender” (have no idea what that words means) are rooted in nature and are not taught. The same results have been replicated with baby monkeys.

    About testosterone levels. Everything I have read about this indicates that the overall lowering of testosterone levels is bad. In men, low testosterone (and very high testosterone) is associated with feelings of depression. It also contributes to infertility. This is not good as we have enough problems with infertility as it is and we do not want it to get any worse.

    But it may be nothing at all. The average level is dropping, but I don’t know that levels are dropping across the board. A man’s testosterone levels fluctuate throughout the day and can be significantly affected by sleep, exposure to sunlight, diet, exercise, and percentage of bodyfat. Given that 1/3 of the population is obsese and bodyfat is kryptonite to testosterone, I bet a lot of the “lowering of testosterone levels” is due to more fat people. In the 1950s there were hardly any. Another thing to consider is diet. We eat more refined grains and sugars than in the past and eating these foods causes the body to produce insulin. Apparently the body cannot efficiently send the signals to produce insulin and testosterone at the same time, so high insulin results in lower T-levels.

  • Robert

    Important factors in (rising) crime rates include length of prison sentences, increased prosecution and sentencing of drug-use-related activity, and there is definitely a correlation with poverty and crime (or at least, crime prosecution and sentencing). “Male” hormones surely do play a role, as they’re robustly correlated with impulsivity and aggression.

    I don’t think television and video game-playing should be understated:

    Now, why are we watching so much more tv and playing so many more video games??

  • Other ubiquitous chemicals that exert estrogenic effects are (1) BPA or Bisphenol A which is present in the majority of plastic products and some canned goods. It is an “hormone disruptor.” In 2010 the Food & Drug Admin. raised further concern regarding exposure of pre-natal, infants and young children in regard to long-term adverse reproductive and carcinogenic effects. And (2) phthalates which are used in plasticizers and have been reported to reduce masculinity in men. They are used in enteric coatings of pharmaceutical pills and nutritional supplements to viscosity control agents, gelling agents, film formers, stabilizers, dispersants, lubricants, binders, emulsifying agents, and suspending agents. End-applications include adhesives and glues, electronics, agricultural adjuvants, building materials, personal-care products, medical devices, detergents and surfactants, packaging, children’s toys, modeling clay, waxes, paints, printing inks and coatings, pharmaceuticals, food products, and textiles.
    So most plastic products do release some estrogenic compounds. (One can get more info at the Center for Disease Control website or Wikipedia).

    • rogereolson

      I wonder why I see so few, hardly any, articles about this in the media? If there was scientific evidence to believe chemicals in the environment were reducing women’s natural health and well-being it would be splashed all over the media. I have read or heard almost nothing in the media about this issue for men.

  • Very interesting ideas! Alarming too.

    For over 40 years we have been bombarded with Smart Woman/Dumb Man ads on television. The exceptions are rare indeed.


    • Deborah

      Yeah, that’s one of a number of really problematic stereotypes/tropes constantly being recycled about the genders. :-/

  • Les Yoder

    Here is a link to a USA Today article entitled ” Study: Most plastic products trigger estrogenic effect”

    • rogereolson

      Was that in the print edition, too? I didn’t see it. I see tons of articles there and elsewhere about women’s health, hardly any about men’s.

  • Roger – as a side note on this same thing, I have often thought this is why women – single women, far out number men on the mission field than men. It has to do with respect. A man has. A more difficult time giving up the respect and honor that comes with a “normal” career. For a woman, it doesn’t matter as much so she is far more willing to give up everything and teach in a village somewhere. We need respect, but it’s not a driving force like it is for men. So to leave your community and go to another and love the people, for a woman that is much easier. But to do the same for a man, he can do the leaving and loving, but earning respect takes a long time and may never happen. So women outnumber men (possibly) because men have more to lose.

    • rogereolson

      Interesting application and possible affirmation of the theory. I also think it applies to the extremely low level of men teaching in public schools. As a society we have not shown respect for teachers; respect is reserved for athletes, entertainment celebrities, medical researchers, scientists, millionaires, etc.

  • I think our society is overcompensating in its attempts to reverse long-standing oppression of women. The pendulum is swinging too far the other way, but I think eventually equilibrium will be reached. In the meantime we need to help our sons, brothers, fathers and husbands to feel their inherent worth and how much their gifts are needed.

    I don’t know if I’d use the term “respect” for what men need more than women, but I do think there is a difference in needs. Perhaps “reputation” would be a better word. I think the need for reputation is testosterone related, yes, having to do with greater competitiveness coming from male hormonal differences. I’m hoping there will come a day when we can celebrate differences like this rather than ignoring them, finding them insulting, or using them as excuses to subordinate one sex to the other.

  • ft

    I have thought about this for a couple of days. Here is what I think. I am female.

    I do think it’s important for our young boys to be validated in their efforts to achieve. And I do think that schools need to attend to the unique wiring of our boys so that they have more recess time to burn of the energy etc. And they should not be shamed for having extra energy. I also think that schools should encourage and validate boys. And a good teacher should consider her/his class in presenting material and in assignments. I also think that boys need men to mentor and guide them and help them accept themselves, learn to be like Christ and resist socially imposed harmful definitions.

    But in terms of adult men. I think that our society presents men in a negative light in many ways. As does our society present women in a negative light in many ways. I think that moving into adulthood especially as Christians requires that we learn to reject those stereotypes and begin to see ourselves in the light of Christ. We may not always receive the validation and the respect from the world–that’s real. The task of maturity is to be the person we are whether or not others agree or validate who we are. Because that does not always happen.

    We can ask our families for what we need… spouses. It’s very important that we ask our spouses to speak well of us, to encourage us, to validate us etc. That’s part of a good marriage anyway. In other relationships also, it is adult to ask for what we need and let others know if their words are disrespectful.

    But I have come to believe that I cannot control what this world thinks of me. I hope to be respected as a human being but that’s not reality in a broken world. I too want to achieve and have validation for that achievement…. but the reality is that I cannot always make the achievements that I desire or have the validation and respect that I really want.

    I think the debate about men and women has a lot to do with becoming mature as human beings more than it is about gender. If women are strong, that should not prevent men from being strong. If women lead, that does not prevent men from also being leaders. If women achieve, that does not prevent men from achieving. it’s not either/or… but both/and.

    Because God created men, masculinity is good. Differences between men and women are real. Hormones have an effect. (I think society and cultures inflate the differences, however and create all manner of issues around that). I think that growing into comfort with our gender is part of becoming mature and whole… and becoming self-defined and Christ-centered is about not allowing external social definitions to define us. We become inner defined.

    I would love it if we men and women would advocate for one another and validate one another and strengthen one another. If we do not receive it, will we be courageous enough to be ourselves anyway?

    • rogereolson

      Thank you. I agree with everything you say. The only thing I would add is that I think society needs to come to terms with boys’ and young men’s craving for respect at least to the point of ceasing and desisting from sending signals that being male is problematic in and of itself.

  • I’m unsure if “respect” is the right word. It’s loaded.

    I think boys want to be loved. And “respect” is usually an earned quality (or we respect a position, which is also earned, even if the man in the position hasn’t lived up to it). I respect a boy for being honest. I respect a girl for working hard. To “respect” someone for simply existing seems to pollute the word.

    I also don’t know if the educational system is become more girl friendly. The education system itself is fraught with problems (creating a classroom of 30 children in a cookie-cutter format without individual attention). Many slip through the cracks, boys and girls, because of this format. I don’t want to try to fit the format for boys better. I’d rather address the format itself as helping society on one level but perhaps dehumanizing us on another.

    The recent book Manning Up, whose thesis is to decry that boys are not becoming men, list their stat (if I remember correctly) at 13% of boys/men have this problem. This is a pro man-problem book. And all they can find is 13%? That means 87% of boys/men keep getting this negative attention that they don’t deserve. This topic should be treated as a fringe rather than a mainstream.

    And who are these young males going away to college or executives entering the workplace? Computer programmers, bankers, mechanics, social workers, doctors/nurses?… The number of young men not living at home is huge. And some may play video games in their spare time. They used to go fishing more. I like both. I know husbands and wives who play video games together.

    I want to be loved intrinsically. I want to be respected for doing something well, having good character, etc. If you respect me for no good reason, well, the word loses it’s ability to communicate.

    Girls and women want to be loved too. And I would say equally as much. They just act out differently when they don’t get it. It may be both are as sinister. But it also may be that one harms others more physically (hence, prisons). We don’t lock women up for being emotionally wounding, for example, or for being passive aggressive or for having abortions.

    And this is one of the major differences between men and women: their bodies. And whoever these folks are who say you cannot have quality with diversity hasn’t studied the issue long enough. Egalitarianism does not mean sameness, though modern political ideas have drifted into that arena. If it meant sameness, I’d like all of us to go to Harvard.

    We talk about these and other issues often over at Have you read my wife’s book, Ruby Slippers: How the Soul of a Woman Brings Her Home by Jonalyn Fincher? It’s an apologetic on the equality of women while maintaining a woman’s difference. It’s a smart read.

    • rogereolson

      The point is that the percentage of boys and young men dropping out, whether from school or work, is increasing. Did you read one commenter’s posted URL to a CNN column by William Bennett? The statistics are startling. As a 30 year university professor I can tell you the educational ethos has changed, shifted, toward greater emphasis on females, to a point that I think is becoming deleterious for young men. I read some reviews of “Manning Up” and I don’t find her solutions helpful. When girls and women have a problem, it’s society’s fault. When boys and young men have a problem, it’s their own fault. I think that’s a double standard. Some issues facing boys and young men are societal and need to be addressed.

    • Gina


      I really appreciated your statements on respect. I agree with you that that we need to define respect as something that’s earned, not merely given out for existing. In 1 Timothy, Paul admonishes that deacons and their wives are to be men and women “worthy of respect.” This implies that it’s earned by how you live and act, not given merely because you want it.

      I have to admit that I’m somewhat biased having grown up in a family where my father demanded respect while having affairs and beating and abusing his wife and children. He always said that we were to respect him because he gave us life. So my attitude is that respect must be earned, not demanded.

      I agree with Rachel Ann that the sexual revolution has removed barriers that contributed to maturation of men. There’s no definitive event in our culture when a boy moves into adulthood. Marriage is no longer as attractive because the single life means many sexual partners without commitment. We also no longer have the draft and the military did serve a role in teaching discipline. And, sadly, many boys are without fathers or male role models so they just drift along in perpetual adolescence with no guidelines or goals.

  • I should add one more component about socialization. If VanLeewen (sp?) is correct, boys are taught at a young age that to be male means you must have control, competition, and a disdain for women. If this is correct, we can see the early clues of control and competition manifesting in violence among boys. In other words, they need your respect to fit society. And if you don’t give it, they will work to extract it.

    Hip hop is filled with this kind of impressing others with violence and the domination of women.

    And boys to gravitate toward the more aggressive boy in their class… hoping that the “respect” will rub off on them because they are on the bully’s side.

    Anyway, it’s difficult separate this inculturation out of boys when it comes to what they think they need. It gets so ingrained in us at a young age that we think it is there naturally. Scripture doesn’t point us in this way. Scripture points us toward “God so loved the world…” which means that God didn’t think men needed to be respected in order to get their attention and feel the sacrifice of the Son of God was meant for them. The deep need of men is love in action.

    And don’t even get started on the “Love and Respect” publishing phenomenon. That one is terribly guilty of cultural assumptions.

    • rogereolson

      My main point was that boys and young men will act out when they feel disrespected, that is, when they sense that their maleness is a problem to be overcome, that they ought to be more like females. I am certainly not advocating hip-hop or aggressive behavior and anyone who read my post that way is just wrong.