Tag Archives: Michael Kimmel

From boys to men

Boston and the Boy Scouts. All week, I’ve been contemplating whether to write about one, or the other. And suddenly, when it was getting down to the wire, it hit me: I’m going to write about both. Because, in my mind, the two issues are actually related. So here goes.

I lived outside of Boston, in the Medford/Somerville area, while I attended Tufts University. I remember the importance of Patriot’s Day. I never ran the Boston Marathon, nor have I attended it as a spectator. I have, however, gone to Fenway Park on Patriot’s Day (even though, as a die-hard Yankees fan, I hate the Red Sox) – and I’ve wedged myself through the marathon crowds on the T, coming home from those games. It’s a day that, for Bostonians, is a very big deal.

So when I heard about the bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line, I was stunned. Stunned because it was such an inconceivable act of violence. Stunned because I know the finish line area well, and could easily picture in my mind what the scene must have looked and felt like (and this was before seeing any actual imagery). Stunned when I heard that the entire city of Boston and the surrounding areas (including Tufts University) were going on lockdown. And then, when a neighborhood in Watertown became the site of gunfire, explosions, and an intense door-to-door search for the suspect, I thought, I know these places. I know plenty of people who live in these places – Boston’s Back Bay, Cambridge, even Watertown. The whole thing was surreal – and terrifying.

Even though these events have been deeply upsetting to me, my cynical mind remained surprisingly intact. And that cynical part of me zeroed in on one word that I kept seeing in the news, and hearing on TV, over and over again.



Two men – not people, but men – were responsible for this violence. When the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School took place last December, the fact that a man was responsible immediately came to mind – and galvanized my thoughts about the link between violence and our culture’s definition of masculinity. (If you haven’t already read it, you might want to check out my December 16, 2012 post titled “Naming the obvious.”) Now another senseless, massively destructive act of violence has occurred, and I’m not seeing much discussion about how this event might be part of the epidemic of male violence in our country.

Of course, it’s not that these discussions aren’t happening. There’s Jackson Katz, whom I mentioned in my December 16th blog post. There’s Michael Kimmel,  Distinguished Professor of sociology at SUNY-Stony Brook and author of Guyland: The Perilous World where Boys Become Men. There are quite a few pro-feminist men’s groups – the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS), Men Can Stop Rape, the White Ribbon Campaign, and the Men’s Resource Center for Change (which started in 1981 at Tufts University, interestingly). Clearly, there are resources for men who wish to move beyond stereotypical – and limiting – definitions of manhood and masculinity.

But what exists for boys? The American-as-apple-pie answer to that is . . . the Boy Scouts.

For decades, the Boy Scouts of America has been considered the go-to organization to teach boys good values, citizenship, and character. In spirit, the Boy Scouts has the potential to offer some alternatives to stereotypical forms of masculinity – for example, Scout Law includes, among other things, being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, and kind. But a major goal of the Boy Scouts involves teaching boys to be men, in the very traditional sense of the phrase.

Case in point: Kathleen Denny, a sociology graduate student at the University of Maryland at College Park, conducted a study published in the journal Gender & Society in which she compared gender messages in Boy Scout and Girl Scout handbooks. According to Denny’s research, girls and boys are still being fed traditional ideas about femininity and masculinity. For example, girls were offered fewer scientifically-oriented activities, while boys were less likely to be directed towards artistic endeavors. Boys’ badge titles used more career-oriented language, while Girl Scout badges tended to use diminutive language (“Sky Search” rather than “Astronomer,” for example). But what’s particularly interesting is this: in their respective handbooks, Girl Scouts are taught to think creatively, engage in protests, and defend their beliefs, whereas Boy Scouts are encouraged to be obedient, loyal, traditional Americans. And for a Boy Scout, being a traditional American means being a man. A real man.

No wonder the Boy Scouts have resisted allowing gays into their ranks for so long.

If we examine the Scout Oath, we can delve even more deeply into these traditional American masculine values. Let’s unpack this, line by line (with a little bit of cynical commentary added):

On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.

Obey Scout Law. Obey God (and certainly don’t question whether God exists in the first place). Do your duty. (“Be a good soldier” comes to mind for me.)

Help others. Be the knight in shining armour. (Benevolent sexism, anyone?)

Be strong. Remember that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. (Michael Kimmel calls this the “fallacy of misplaced attribution,” which is a form of proving your masculinity through endurance and physical prowess. Tough it out. Play through the pain.)

Stay focused. (Because, you know, women are the weaker sex because their emotions take over.)

And stay morally straight. (In the Boy Scout lexicon, “morally” and “straight” go together like peanut butter and jelly. “Morally” and “gay” – NEVER.)

All roads lead back to traditional masculinity. And traditional sexism, and traditional homophobia. The triad of oppression.

In the wake of the tragic events of the past week, I think the city of Boston can offer us hope for change. The April 22, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated features a powerful image of three Boston police officers standing over a fallen marathon runner. The officer on the far right is Javier Pagan, an openly gay member of the force, LGBT Boston Police Department Liaison, and a long-term member of the Gay Officers Action League (GOAL). In 2005, Boston’s LGBT chamber of commerce awarded Pagan an Award for Excellence for Outstanding Service.


The city of Boston holds firmly onto its traditions – Patriot’s Day, the Red Sox, the Boston Marathon. Sports Illustrated represents the longstanding traditions of professional athletics. But institutions change. Traditions change. Let that be a lesson to the Boy Scouts. Granting membership to gay youth is a step in the right direction. Upholding the ban on gay adults who would like to be of service is not.


Filed under homophobia, psychological research, religion, sexism, stereotypes, Uncategorized, violence

Naming the obvious

Thursday, December 13, 2012. It was the last day of my Psychology of Women class. The topic of the day was “Men and Masculinity,” and the movie of the day was a documentary called Tough Guise.  Narrated by anti-violence educator Jackson Katz and directed by Sut Jhally, Tough Guise links the increase of male violence, misogyny, and homophobia to the way we define manhood and masculinity in American culture. Over the course of the film, Katz examines violence in professional sports, sexualized violence in the media, homophobia-driven violence towards men who violate gender norms – and the role of masculinity in school shootings, including the tragedies in Littleton, Colorado and Jonesboro, Arkansas. It’s a powerful film, never failing to spark thoughtful discussion among my students.

Friday, December 14, 2012. I got to my office, turned on the computer, and did what I always do – scan the headlines from the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and the Sacramento Bee. And what was the first headline I saw?


Twenty-seven deaths – twenty of them children. How on earth do you wrap your head around something like this? My first reaction was disbelief, followed by an intense desire to protect my own child. And the fact that I’d just the day before shown a film that, in part, examined the reasons behind school shootings was more than a little chilling to me.

Here’s what else was unnerving to me. After the shootings at Columbine High School, the New York Times published a number of front-page articles that attempted to unpack the reasons why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold would open gunfire on their classmates and teachers. Among the reasons cited included the usual suspects: video game violence, social ostracism, lack of mental health prevention and services, overly permissive gun laws. And yet, as Jackson Katz pointed out in the film, the one obvious factor was completely overlooked. “It’s not just ‘kids killing kids,'” says Katz. “It’s boys who are shooting boys, and boys who are shooting girls.” Naming the obvious – the fact that boys are almost always the shooters – opens the door for a discussion about masculinity, power, and violence.

Within hours after the news broke about the shooting, the media began to speculate about the underlying causes of this most recent tragedy. And guess what they focused on? Gun control. Mental health. Media violence. School security. And yet again, the fact that a man was the shooter isn’t even a part of the discussion.

I want to make very clear that I’m not trying to be a male-basher. The vast majority of men do not engage in violence. However, it’s important to note that the men who do engage in violence are responsible for most of the violent crimes in the United States. Check out these facts:

  • Over 85% of people who commit murder are men (and the women who commit murder often do so as a defense against their male batterers);
  • In 90% of homicides, both the victim and the perpetrator are men;
  • Men commit 95% of serious domestic violence;
  • 99.8% of those in prison convicted of rape are men;
  • 84% of hate crime perpetrators are men.

These statistics are staggering. And yet, it’s important to clarify that merely being a man isn’t the primary factor associated with violence. The “X” factor, according to the research, is masculinity in men – and the threat of losing it. For many men, getting your “man card” taken away is the worst possible thing that could ever happen to you – and some men will do whatever it takes to salvage whatever shred of their “man card” they can hold onto. According to sociologists Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel, in a 2010 article published in Health Sociology Review, this is exactly what motivates boys to engage in school shootings:

These perpetrators were not just misguided ‘kids’, or ‘youth’ or ‘troubled teens’ – they’re boys. They are a group of boys, deeply aggrieved by a system that they may feel is cruel or demeaning. . . . What transforms the aggrieved into mass murders is also a sense of entitlement, a sense of using violence against others, making others hurt as you, yourself, might hurt. Aggrieved entitlement inspires revenge against those who have wronged you; it is the compensation for humiliation. Humiliation is emasculation: humiliate someone and you take away his manhood. For many men, humiliation must be avenged, or you cease to be a man (Kalish & Kimmel, 2010). 

“Aggrieved entitlement” – now there’s a whole different lens through which to consider violent crimes. Numerous studies indicate that, among men who perpetrate violence, masculine identity (or the threat of losing it) is a primary motivating factor behind rape, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and hate crimes – particularly those crimes targeting the LGBTQ community. It makes perfect sense, if you think about it.  Expressing violence towards the feminine (or, more appropriately, the “not-masculine”), is a powerful way of reinforcing one’s manhood. No wonder women are far more likely than men to be victims of rape. No wonder the highest rates of LGBTQ-related hate crimes are perpetrated against gay men and transwomen – two groups that fly in the face of a traditional masculine identity.

Many people (New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg being one of them) are hoping that the Connecticut shootings will be a call to action to implement stricter gun regulations. This is my hope as well – the number of gun-related deaths in the United States far outnumber those in other highly industrialized countries around the world. However, I also hope we can engage in conversation about what it means to be a man in our culture – and how, by definition, being a man means acting violently towards anyone who might threaten that masculinity. What if a new definition of manhood didn’t center around strength, power, and violence, but rather on having the courage to show love, compassion, fear, sadness, vulnerability? What if we considered a “real man” to be someone who has the courage to stand up for the rights of all people, and who won’t tolerate any form of oppression, discrimination, or violence?


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Filed under anti-gay bullying, children, gender nonconformity, hate crimes, homophobia, human rights, LGBTQ, media, mental health, overt homophobia, psychological research, transgender, transphobia, violence