Friday, September 5, 2008

Young guys try to read society's road map for behavior

This article appeared in USA Today a while back, and I have been meaning to post it for a while, but am just now getting around to it. It looks at the conflicting messages young men are getting about what it means to be a man.

For what it's worth (and more comments below), one of the models I had as a young boy was Alan Alda's character on MASH, Hawkeye Pierce. Hawkeye loved women and was quite the player, but he treated women with respect. He sought to maintain a sense of moral balance in the midst of an insane war. He was very liberal in his views, but was sometimes a pragmatist. On the downside, he was abvout as unhealthy as was possible, especially in the realm of drinking (which I also did my share of in my youth).

I grew up admiring that character as much as I admired any celebrity or fictional character. There could have been worse models.
Young guys try to read society's road map for behavior

It's a rough road to manhood for young guys, who more than ever are finding themselves confounded and conflicted about what "masculinity" means.

Behavioral researchers say being a heterosexual male used to mean being macho, but guys today get mixed messages on all fronts as they navigate sex, drinking, friendships and the future.

"The social messages … about how to be a good person or a good guy vary quite widely," says Glenn Good, professor of counseling psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Joseph Hammer, 23, who is working on a master's in counseling at Missouri, hears a lot of competing messages. "Your parents tell you things. Your friends tell you things. Your teachers tell you things. You see things on TV."

How to deal with women?

"Guys know they're supposed to treat women as equals," says Andrew Smiler, an assistant professor of psychology at the State University of New York-Oswego. "But we haven't changed masculinity and we haven't taught boys and men how to deal with these women.

"We still tell boys and men they should be in charge and wear the pants," he adds. "Those are two messages — you want someone who is your equal, and you should still be in charge."

In his 2007 book Boys Adrift, family physician Leonard Sax of Malvern, Pa., suggests that many young men are becoming slackers, in part because of too many hours of video games and a dearth of role models that undermine male motivation.

In the past, images of manhood glorified drinking and womanizing, researchers say, but today, they note, there seems to be equal pressure to be sensitive.

"A large proportion of young males view drinking and having sexual conquests as the appropriate way to begin to prove they are an adult male," Good says. "Their male peers are saying 'Be tough' and girls are saying 'Tell me about your feelings."

Guys pal around and do "guy" things, like play video games, talk sports, watch porn, binge-drink and hook up, which sociologist and gender studies expert Michael Kimmel of Stony Brook University-New York discusses in his new book Guyland. It's based on surveys of 13,000 students at 17 colleges about sexual "hooking up." And he interviewed 400 young men, most in their 20s.

"The middle-class white idea of proving masculinity becomes the dominant form on campuses today. It's more intense and pervasive than ever before," he says.

Kimmel, 57, says there has always been "guy culture," but what's acceptable has changed.

"My generation's 'dating etiquette' is now called sexual assault," he says. "What we used to think was typical office behavior is now sexual harassment."

Kimmel says these hard-partying behaviors are "almost universal" from ages 16 to 26 and are most prevalent on campuses, especially at large public universities. But they are also evident among both minorities on campus and working-class males.

In their early 20s, "around relationships and around careers, women seem more focused and task-oriented and have a better-defined life plan than the men do," Kimmel says. He worries that "that leads men to look more irresponsible or slackerly."

That's not true, he adds: "They just haven't figured out what they have to do to get on track."

Getting back on track

Kenny Gillis, a 2005 mechanical engineering graduate from the University of Colorado-Boulder, is finishing a stint in Williamstown, Mass., with a company that leads bicycle tours for teens.

His last semester of college, he interviewed with several engineering firms and accepted a job.

That spring, "I called them back and said 'I can't do this right now,' " he says. "I wasn't ready to go into the workforce."

But turning 25 last month made him decide to focus more on his long-term goals, he says.

Peers play a critical role in validating gender identity for young men exploring their masculinity, experts say. And even as this generation has more mixed-gender friendships, guy bonding, largely through shared activities, is important, says Geoffrey Greif, a University of Maryland professor who interviewed 400 men of all ages for Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships.

Late teens and 20s is one of "two peak times" in life when friends play a key role, he adds.

Greg Glasser, 19, of Columbus, Ohio, says he and his friends are into outdoor activities, from basketball to hiking and swimming.

In the fall, football is "huge," says Glasser, a sophomore at Ohio University in Athens.

"Saturdays and Sundays are just football days," he says. "Guys gather around and throw a football in the yard during the day and go to the game and party."

So, if all this exposure to "guy culture" isn't healthy, as some suggest, what's a guy to do?

Kimmel says staying connected with parents and finding at least one close guy friend will help.

Some manage to stay on track, including 22-year-old Layne Held, a credit analyst at a bank in Birmingham, Ala. He graduated in May with a business degree from the University of Georgia in Athens, where "people went to class and wanted to do well.

"I knew going into college I wanted to have fun and meet people, but I realized I was going there to get an education. I had to get my studies done."

READERS: How do you define masculinity? How's it different to be a young guy today? If you're a parent, what messages are you trying to send your son about "guy culture?"

The comments for this post are kind of interesting, after you get past the frustration with this article being on the site too long.

Here is the sidebar that was posted with the article:

A lot of the mixed messages that young men get about gender and sexuality come from their parents, new research suggests.

A study of 92 male high school students recently presented to the American Psychological Association took a closer look at the extent of the messages and their effects.

Nineteen percent said they got "a lot of messages" about two seemingly conflicting ideas: being tough and being nice. The messages were specific verbal comments or implicit unspoken ones.

"They did endorse that they felt conflicted," says researcher Marina Epstein of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, noting the most commonly heard message was to "be nice."

Half reported at least one set of conflicting messages; the more conflicting messages they got, the more confused they felt.

Other messages involved endorsing either traditional roles or gender equality. Messages promoting equality were associated with greater body esteem and parental attachment; messages endorsing the idea that sexual activity is OK for guys but not girls were associated with more sexual partners and more alcohol use.

Epstein co-authored another study about having sex that has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Sex Research. Of 20 men ages 18-23, most didn't hook up with random sexual partners with whom they had no emotional connection.

"Most guys are not promiscuous. Most guys have had very few hookups, if any," says co-author Andrew Smiler, an assistant professor of psychology at the State University of New York-Oswego. "It is really a small percentage of guys who hook up regularly."

I got a lot of the traditional messages about masculinity when I grew up, mostly from my father but also from peers -- be tough, don't show feelings, sexual conquest is crucial, but also to show consideration and chivalry.

The chivalry stuff has stuck even as I have tried to become an authentically masculine man who is balanced in his strength, power, and emotions. Still figuring out what that means, thus this blog and all the exploration.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think this century has certainly made "being a man" challenging. And I don't know that it's necessarily a bad thing.

I got the usual/stereotypical admonishments on what being a man was. At the same time, I soaked up what the media delivered as the "new" way of being a man. Along with that came the Christian message, which was both good and bad. It stressed humility, service and respect--but it also succumbed to the old men-are-uncontrollable-pigs theory. Just throw in Satan as the cause. In other words, God wants you to be respectful and kind but you can't be, because you're a pig man. Gee, thanks for the encouragement!

All the while, I was different from most other boys I knew and turned out to be gay.

I don't have the answer but only acknowledge it is tough. As I think I've posted before, it's really up to each of us to be honest with ourselves, identify what kind of man we want to be and fearlessly pursue it.