A War against Boys?

By Kimmel, Michael | Tikkun, November/December 2000 | Go to article overview

A War against Boys?


Kimmel, Michael, Tikkun


A War Against Boys?

Michael Kimmel

Michael Kimmel is the author of Manhood in America and, most recently, The Gendered Society (Oxford University Press). He teaches sociology at SUNY Stony Brook.

By now, you've probably heard there's a "war against boys" in America. The latest heavily-hyped right-wing fusillade against feminism, led by Christina Hoff Sommers's new book of that title, claims that men are now the second sex and that boys--not girls--are the ones who are in serious trouble, the "victims" of "misguided" feminist efforts to protect and promote girls' development. At the same time, best-selling books by therapists, like William Pollack's Real Boys and Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson's Raising Cain, also sound the same tocsin, warning of alarming levels of depression and suicide among boys, and describing boys' interior lives as an emotionally barren landscape, with all affect suppressed beneath postures of false bravado. They counsel anguished parents to "rescue" or "protect" boys--not from feminists but from a definition of masculinity that is harmful to boys, girls, and other living things.

In part, they're both right. There is a crisis among boys. But the right-wing jeremiads misdiagnose the cause of the crisis and thus their proposed reforms would take us even further away from enabling young boys to negotiate the difficult path to a manhood of integrity, ethical commitment, and compassion. At least the therapists get that part right. But, in part, both sides are also wrong: on most measures boys--at least the middle class white boys everyone seems concerned about--are doing just fine, taking the places in an unequal society to which they have always felt entitled.

The Boy Crisis

Let's begin with the evidence of crisis. The signs are everywhere. Boys drop out of school, are diagnosed as emotionally disturbed, and commit suicide four times more often than girls; they get into fights twice as often; they murder ten times more frequently and are fifteen times more likely to be the victims of a violent crime. Boys are six times more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. Boys get lower grades on standardized tests of reading and writing, and have lower class rank and fewer honors than girls.

On college campuses, women now constitute the majority of students, passing men in 1982, so that in eight years women will earn 58 percent of bachelor's degrees in U.S. colleges. Doomsayers lament that women now outnumber men in the social and behavioral sciences by about 3 to 1, and they've "invaded" such traditionally male bastions as engineering (where they now make up 20 percent of all students) and biology and business (virtually par).

Elementary schools, we hear, are "anti-boy," emphasizing reading and restricting the movements of young boys. They "feminize" boys, forcing active, healthy, and naturally rambunctious boys to conform to a regime of obedience, "pathologizing what is simply normal for boys," as one psychologist put it. Michael Gurian argues in The Wonder of Boys that despite the testosterone surging through their little limbs, we demand that boys sit still, raise their hands, and take naps. We're giving them the message, he says, that "boyhood is defective."

According to Christina Hoff Sommers, it's "misguided feminism" that's been spreading such calumnies about boys. It's boys, not girls, who face the much-discussed "chilly classroom climate," according to Sommers. Schools are an "inhospitable," hostile environment for boys, where their natural propensities for rough and tumble play, competition, aggression, and rambunctious violence are cast as social problems in the making.

"Misguided" feminists have ignored the natural biological differences between boys and girls, and, in their fear and loathing of all things masculine, have demeaned an entire sex. Sommers quotes a line from a speech by Gloria Steinem that "we need to raise boys like we raise girls. …

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