Scarleteen Confidential: How “Men Suck” Messes Everybody Up

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Messages parents or guardians have given our users about gender come up frequently, and often problematically. We often see the negative impacts of crummy ways some of their parents frame and talk about gender. As feminists and queer activists, we address gender stereotyping often in our content and conversations around women and gender nonconforming people of many stripes (or polka dots, whichever one prefers), and we know the weight of it all too well. But gender stereotyping is not just everybody’s problem, it’s a problem for everybody, and that includes for men, and the problems, for everybody, many gender stereotypes about men create.

One powerful thing you can do as a parent is to present and talk about gender as something fluid, personal and individual, rather than strictly, externally or universally defined AND as something that never tells us about someone’s character, value or worth.  That alone is going to go a long way in supporting healthy self-esteem, sexuality and healthy interpersonal relationships for a young person.  It also helps teach them to be compassionate and understanding with others and themselves. Too, this generation of young people is, from all that we can see, far better at being compassionate and open-minded about gender than previous generations have been.  That’s something to support them in and follow their lead with. And when you do, you also support their gifts and positive contributions to the world, rather than undercutting them, on top of getting behind an approach to gender that’s much improved (thanks, young people!).

One of the most pervasive messages our users have brought up about men and boys -- including, sadly, men and boys themselves --  is the belief that guys just suck, and that one of the ways guys suck is that they only ever (and always) want sex, to the exclusion of any other kind of relationship or interaction, and without care for a partner’s wants or desires. More often than not, they also share that those messages are either coming from one or more parents, or are being backed up by parents. Usually repeatedly, until it not only sticks, but is good and stuck, and very hard to shake.

I always figure what's most likely to be going on here is that an adult, if they're talking about their own gender, are basing that in their own past or present behaviors or those of male friends. If the person saying this stuff isn't themselves a man, I figure they're basing it mostly or only in their own and their friends personal experiences with men.  Of course, all of this is cemented by how culturally prevalent gender stereotypes like this are. If you find it to be true, and ten other people find it to be true, and then all the media you ingest says it, it must be true, right? (Nope.) And if a man doesn’t trust himself, and is basically afraid of his gender and himself as a person of that gender, he’s going to bad-talk himself or other men. It’s easier to believe shitty gender stereotypes when we basically figure we suck in toto, so our gender must be part of that. (Or maybe we don’t suck, but only because we have boldly conquered all the apparent bad things about people of our gender and don’t let our gender be any real part of who we are. In other words, the only "good men" are those who have somehow managed to be good in spite of their gender.)

This sentiment is sometimes intended, however foolishly, as an attempt to help protect a young person from disappointment, heartbreak, or any involvement of depth with a man or boy; or, if it’s men or boys, to keep them at a safe distance to keep other people safe, and "protect" the possible vulnerability or emotional richness of men and boys rather than encouraging them to explore it and have the option of getting the good, big things that can offer us when we do.

If being a guy means you have to suck in these ways and be of this little depth when it comes to sexuality and relationships, then guys worry if they’re not like this, they won’t be “real” guys. If they are inclined to be jerks, as some people of every gender are, these messages tell them that’s the right way to be, the guy-way to be, rather than showing them other ways to conceptualize themselves and behave. In other words, being a jerk can be easily seen as affirming masculinity.

It’s hopefully obvious that “guys suck” messages most certainly don’t support self-esteem. These kinds of messages about sexual desire also enable the idea that consent is a nonissue for boys or men themselves: if they only want sex, and even more, will always want it, then while it’s on them to seek consent from others, especially if those others are women, they should have no expectation of anyone actively doing consenting with them (an expectation that sadly is often met in their experiences). One of the worst impacts of this kind of messaging is that it sets men and boys up to be victims of sexual abuse or assault, and worse still, to be less able to see that that has happened to them when it has.

When young men want something different than only sex, or something with more longevity or breadth, they second-guess it, and often worry about having their gender (or orientation) questioned.  If they have those wants, and either can’t get them met, or do, but then have heartbreak or disappointment, they often go that alone without any support or even any expression of how hurt they feel.

It should be mentioned that while there has been a lot of talk, validly, about the sexualization of girls and young women, there's been little about boys and young men.  And the sentiment and message that young men only care about sex, and always want sex is about as basic an example of sexualization as there is.

There’s so much more to list when it comes to the impact on them, but I want to make sure to talk about others these stereotypes impact poorly, too.

One of the biggest bads of this for young women, for instance, is that it normalizes men behaving badly, with badly being anything from dismissive and careless to outright abusive. If young women are attracted to men, or have a desire for any kind of intimate relationship with them -- be that sexual or romantic relationships, friendships, or family relationships -- and any men or boys behave badly, including engaging in abuse, often rather than seeing these people as outliers to get away from, these messages can tell them that this is just how men and boys are (so why gets away?), or that THEY must be doing something wrong to have “unleashed the beast” that surely resides inside every man or boy. These stereotypes hold up some of the most dangerous and hurtful aspects of rape and abuse culture.

We’ve also had young heterosexual women voice to us that they feel cursed by virtue of being so, because being attracted to men means they are doomed to relationships with jerks, and only if they are exceptionally lucky, or go bonkers trying to be the most alluring, appealing, amazing woman on earth, only then will they find “a good man.” You won’t be remotely shocked to know how many of them wind up being with jerks, sometimes clearly because that’s the only kind of person who wants to be with someone who thinks they’s a jerk; other times because they just don't bother looking for men who aren't jerks, as they don't believe there is such a thing.

These stereotypes also hurt and divide families: telling the men and boys in your family, or other family members, men suck says, then, that those men and boys within the family suck, shouldn’t be or can’t be trusted, or can only be trusted because they’re family, and should be kept at a different emotional distance than women are.  It isolates members of the family from each other, setting one group up as superior to the other based on gender. Instead of creating an environment to facilitate the building of trust, it makes clear from the front it should be given more warily to men and boys.

If we get the idea that we need to look out for danger based solely on someone's gender, then a) we get blindsided by more sound, revealing cues about dangers to us, or just barriers to what we really want. We may see certain behaviours as out of someone else's control, because of the idea they are based in biology, which means we learn to give license to people being jerks rather than insisting people take responsibility for their own behaviour and treat us all, and themselves, with respect and care.

I can't even say how many times we have heard a user say something like, "Well, that's just how guys are, my mother says so," as a response to control or abuse, sexual assault or other more benign, but ultimately crappy -- and utterly elective -- behaviours. (And again, that also often results in them presuming that if this stuff is based in biology or someone’s genitals -- which we know it isn’t -- it's just how it goes, so they remain and assume they must just learn to tolerate these things, as that must be what all women with men are all doing.)

Back to boys: some of the most heartbreaking users I've interacted with at Scarleteen are young men coming in after a breakup.  In the event you really believe that young men can’t or don't have their hearts broken in early relationships, relationships they were deeply in love in, I challenge you to talk with one of these guys and see if you can last even a few minutes without reaching for the tissues, and cursing the world for not yet developing a hug button on keyboards.

The results of studies like these were no surprise to us. This idea that men, especially young men, lack the capacity to give or experience love, to have sexual relationships where they aren't interested in a partner's pleasure or in real intimacy and affection is probably more based in archaic, and socially-constructed and imposed, "rules" of masculinity than it ever has been based in earnest, broad commonalities that are really happening. If anything, when men do strongly avoid intimacy, chances are good it's actually because of these crummy stereotypes, not the other way round. If and when people have the idea -- another debunked by studies a’plenty -- that men only care about their own pleasure, not that of their partners, that’s more likely due to the men who care (which is most) not feeling very free to say or show that, because again, the strong stereotype that counters those realities very effectively silences them if the man in question wants to be sure he’s seen and thought of as a man, perhaps even just by himself.

Here are a few good books on this subject, should you want to dig deeper than my paltry overview (and I hope you will):

In the event you’ve been giving some of these messages and are yourself masculine-identified, it might be beneficial to you to do some of your own work, just for yourself, around this. A good counselor can help you work through self-esteem issues attached to your gender or sex, and not only will improving your own sense of self be of obvious benefit to you, a parent with positive self-esteem of their own is always what’s best for children. In the event you’ve been passing any of this on not as a man yourself, but based in your experience with men, the same goes here: your own personal growth work is likely to benefit everyone, including yourself.

Nobody feels good about thinking poorly about billions of people, and nobody is going to feel good about themselves or others when they’re getting the clear impression that they should think poorly about billions of people.

Again, the resounding message everyone should get when it comes to gender is that it does not define us, seal our fates or doom us, nor is there something about it that is outside our control when it comes to our own behaviour and sense of self. Gender does not dictate our behaviour, we do, and gender only has to limit who someone is, or their sense of themselves or others, if it's presented as limited and limits are created about, around or with it. For sure, there are a lot of limitations in our world and cultures when it comes to gender, and while we can work to change these, we can't wave a wand and make them different for young people. But what we can do is be sure that what we offer them about and around gender doesn't limit their relationships with themselves or others, nor defines them as people, and that what we give them with gender messaging lets them know that while some people -- even ourselves -- sure can suck sometimes, it's usually got nothing to do with what sex they were assigned or what gender they are.