Going to the Dogs: When Men Travel in Packs

One day this summer I was sitting on the beach watching groups of young men walk up and down the shore. They followed a rigid heterosexual masculine script, strutting along arrogantly, glaring angrily at other groups of men, and eyeing women with undisguised lust. (Although to be honest, these guys’ looks of lust seemed full of anger as well.) And although I hated the image that kept coming to mind, what these groups of young men kept reminding me of was packs of dogs – each trying to stake out its own territory, each looking to be “top dog” on the beach, and all of them on an animalistic hunt for sex.

I hate it when I see men acting like dogs. This is not how I want to picture men. This is not how I want men to be. And, most important, this is not how I believe that most men truly are.

I hate it when we prowl around like brutes with only fighting and sex on our minds. I hate it because it is dehumanizing. Because it is a waste of our time, our talents, and our energy. But mostly I hate it because it is dangerous. It is dangerous when other men encounter this energy, and it can be extremely dangerous for the women who cross our path.

(An excellent discussion of groups of men and their high incidence of sexual violence against women can be found in Robin Warshaw’s book I Never Called It Rape. A more recent essay on this topic is William Pinar’s “The Gender of Violence on Campus.” Pinar points out that, after prison and military bases, fraternity houses are the most common public locales for sexual assault to occur.)

So who are these guys who get together and prowl around so aggressively? Most often it’s just every-day guys. It is us. And one of my great frustrations in life is when I see a man who on his own is a terrific person suddenly turn into an absolute ass in the presence of “the guys.” All too often I have seen men of conscience – good men, caring men, loving men – begin to participate in the most obnoxious, offensive, homophobic, and misogynist behaviours once they are surrounded by a group of similar-(un)thinking men.

Many years ago, when I was trying to get the administration of my university to do something about some fraternities on campus that were out of control in terms of their violence, their sexism, and their homophobia, one fellow student told me: “Look, I am a member of [that organization]. They are really great guys.” And he was right about that – for the most part. And he himself was a really great guy. He was caring, fun, loving, generous. We spent time together studying overseas and got to know each other really well. But when we returned to campus we reverted back to being mere nodding acquaintances. He re-immersed himself into his hypermasculine group, and I would see him, and them, performing their offensive and dangerous antics... and I would wonder about the mysterious duality of a man who is in reality a great guy but who chooses to act like such a jerk.

Since then I have given the matter a lot of thought, and I believe that there are some readily-identifiable reasons why when we men are in groups our behaviour so often degenerates into thuggery:

1: North American society is recreationally impaired. As people who are in recovery from alcohol or drugs can tell you, North American society is seriously impaired when it comes to recreation. Many of us have a terribly difficult time relaxing and having fun without the presence of alcohol. And, as we know, groups of men + booze = trouble.

2: We straight men are often relationally impaired. Perhaps part of the reason we use alcohol is to handle our anxieties about how we are supposed to relate to each other as men. Much of the research on straight male socializing describes us as being largely activity-oriented (and essentially non-relational) when we get together. Playing sports. Going fishing. Watching the game. Drinking. Going to the bar. Going to the strip joint. When “doing something” becomes one’s only way of connecting with others, then one’s connections tend to be pretty loose. For many of us, because we don’t know how to just “be” with each other, carousing becomes our way of interacting.

3: We men are often insecure about our masculinity. Many of us have significant anxiety about whether we are masculine enough. A cutting word from another guy that attacks our manhood can be simply devastating. Always afraid that we may not be perceived as manly enough, we don’t show our fear. We don’t show it when we are uncomfortable. And we don’t say things like “I don’t like it when you guys act this way.” Which means that...

4: We don’t confront the badass. Our insecurity about whether we are manly enough means that we fail to stand up to the badass/bad apple in the bunch, for fear that our masculinity will be called into question. (The badass/bad apple is the guy in the group who always takes things further and further until they have gone just a little too far... and then he takes them further. And then he takes them even further still. And his antics that were initially met with our laughter because we thought they were funny continue to be met with laughter because now they are outrageous. And we continue to laugh even as his behaviour moves way beyond healthy, way beyond civil, and way beyond humane.)

In our laughter we seem to forget that things that have gone way too far are in fact rarely funny. They are typically highly offensive and often pretty dangerous. And the bad apple in the bunch is usually someone who is acting out some serious demons of his own. But rather than confront him and get him to rein it in, we encourage him with our laughter. We provide him with a stage upon which to perform. And just as we encourage him, he encourages us right back, and we jump right in, joining this bad apple in the bottom of the barrel.

Of course being urged on is the last thing this guy needs. He won’t benefit from any more booze, from yet another fight, or from further episodes of sexual aggression. Our egging him on does nothing to help him, and only makes us look like we are every bit as big of an ass as he is.

And our participation this hypermasculine charade certainly doesn’t help the women in our lives -- who all too often pay a terribly high price when we men take things too far.

I wish that more of us had the courage to step up and say, “Hey, man. Cool it. That behaviour is not okay.”

I wish that we had the courage to call off the dogs.