Boy friends

Making boys anti-sexist will soon be on the curriculum of many school systems. "We can do even better," claims Nick Sellars.

Young people are treasures. They are one of the greatest assets humanity has. For various reasons many adult men and women are choosing to give young men a hand in figuring out what it is to be a boy. Some of us are motivated by wanting boys to embrace ways of being that we once couldn't envisage, for them to have better information than we had, for them to grow up with a sense that they are okay as men. But sometimes we lose sight of all the other things going on for them. Sometimes, because of our own preoccupation with men's politics or personal recovery, we only think about that part of boys which we want to change in them, or the parts that we want them to keep.

Equally, some of us have found it hard telling grown men about feminist perspectives, or had difficulty thinking for ourselves about being male-positive. We look to the next generation, often because it's the only place we can see hope for changing things. In our despair for our own generation, we turn to them and hope to reprogram the harmful, sexist training they currently receive. As long as we see ourselves as the potters and young people as the clay, we will not be successful. There is a much wider context in which to view anti-sexist work with boys, and it contributes directly to our understanding and our success.

Age oppressed?

Boys, like girls, are just little human beings. In our work with them we need to focus on their humanity. It should be incidental that they are boys rather than girls, or that they currently behave in ways which make us fear they are going to be violent, or alternatively wimpy, people. Of course these issues are of great concern to us - many of our own experiences to date have been immersed in sexism and violence to some degree. But these are our issues, and they are not necessarily the primary issues for young men and young women, even though it hurts us to see how much they hurt each other. This is not to deny that boys and girls are subject to different socialisation processes. That is, both sexes are systematically treated differently far beyond any biological justification. I'm saying that we need to be careful about not adding to their socialisation by ignoring all the places they are doing well in their lives, and the wider context of how every young person is disrespected by an economic system which only values working adults. Young people may need us to create slack for them in these areas before we can be effective in our anti-sexism work with them.

Young people live in a legal and cultural system in which their freedom as humans is very restricted. Young people are made the strict responsibility of their parents and guardians. Parents, in turn, are placed in a position where they are constantly worried about what other people think of their parenting. At the same time most parents are financially over-stretched, poorly supported, exhausted and receive only conflicting advice about how to make young people behave. "Behave" in this context means to grow up like good future workers or bosses. Consistently "bad" behaviour is severely punished and leads to "no future". Parents are made to feel bad about how their young people act - it can never be good enough for some people. Teachers, in the dual role of educators and primary day-carers of young people, are also placed in this situation. These judgements always originate from well-meaning but misguided adult conceptions of how children should act and behave at particular ages. Young people are not seen as fully capable of being responsible, and consequently are given only a few resources and few freedoms. They get angry at being treated badly (anything from not being given thoughtful love and attention, through to child abuse) and take it out on each other or public property, recreating the unfairness of all the times they have been treated as less than human. Young people's own treatment of their peers is then used as a legitimation to treat them with further disrespect, to punish parents, or to justify harsh legal penalties.

There are other restrictions on young people. There is a widely held belief that young people are less intelligent or less capable than adults. What we often forget is that they just lack information on how to do things. What happens, though, is they are expected to just know things, aren't given time to explore all the possible ways of thinking things through, or receive only our impatient instructions about how to do things. As adults we are pressed for time. We are tight for money. We need to get things done. We don't discuss, we don't reason. We present one case - usually the one passed to us - "That's just how it is and I wish I could change it, but I can't." There isn't time in a class- and sex-discriminating society to bring up humans as humans - only time to train boys and girls to learn how to work. "Just maybe they'll have a better life than us?", we think, desperately. If that's how we, as agents of society, continue to treat young people, I don't think so.

The way each young person thinks is constantly examined and graded, and the system (of parents, peers and educators as agents for the oppressive structure) values the adoption of narrow methods of thinking rather than informed problem-solving, or encourages the adoption of "adult" viewpoints to be regarded as successful. These viewpoints shut out possibilities for young people to show their brilliant leadership based on fairness and equity. These adult viewpoints are not "natural" viewpoints acquired with age, they are learned values which characterise societies that exploit classes of people. To not take on those values is to invite exclusion or punishment. For us to pass on the disrespect we were shown is to bequeath, comply with and prop up an inequitable economic system.

Our fears

In men's politics, because most of our focus is put on gender issues, it is tempting for us to address only gender conditioning with boys in schools. This is a sticking point and actually reinforces that conditioning. We are likely to leave young boys confused, worried and feeling as though they are to blame. The system is so tight that they will do things we fear they will do. They will feel bad and that won't help them reflect, reassess and recover. In addition, we will tend to teach down to young ones, rather than involve them in learning. As a way out of this we need to creatively make it safe for them to bring up all their fears and tensions. We need to view the systematic mistreatment of young people as the preparation stage for the internalising of sexism and other oppressive or victim behaviour. Next we need to see sexism as one of the main mechanisms for dividing humanity. Division, alienation and isolation are major preconditions for our acceptance of the systematic exploitation of humans and the environment for the economic benefit of the few. As pro-feminist and pro-male activists, dismantling such a system is our eventual process.

Sexism is the extra layer on top of the oppression of young people. Initially they all receive messages to behave and they are taught to be submissive to adults and as a result to give up their sense of justice. Their position as physically less strong than adults or older young people, along with their economic dependence, is used to enforce that dynamic. Without space to deal with their indignation at injustice, it doesn't take long for boys to discover the dual message that they can mistreat girls or beat up younger boys and that they are themselves expendable. It doesn't take long for girls to internalise the messages that they are weak and fragile, and that boys are the best there is in this society. The dominant evidence they are shown is that this must be true. We all grew up with this same evidence.

Sometime we will need to reject this evidence and realise that we can determine our futures collectively. The catch is we need to do this in an environment which is temporarily outside of oppressive forces. It is not something we can only do intellectually. It needs to be felt and experienced. The more we expose the mechanisms of gender-based socialisation, the more we are faced with our own unresolved issues of mistreatment as young people.

Them and us

The key to understanding this phenomenon is that each young person must first be sufficiently scared to tolerate or perpetrate the further disrespect of any other young person. Young people, including ourselves when we were young, are given no option but to take on sexism. Many theorists of masculinity have been good at identifying the terror of childhood endured by men, and have attributed causality to subsequent incidents of violence, terror, mistreatment of women and children, compulsive overwork and unbidden sexual feelings. They have shown us the mechanism of our socialisation, rather than providing men with the wholesale excuse to continue sexism. Taking on, or internalising, sexism is best viewed as a survival tactic. No-one is at fault for adopting sexism - but it is not at all desirable or useful to practice it or pass it on. We don't need sexism any more.

It is important to acknowledge that at the time we internalised these messages we were relatively powerless to prevent it. The powerlessness necessary to install the messages of sexism is the powerlessness of young people. Sexism and the way we treat young people are intricately connected. Until the living conditions of young people are improved, young people will continue to have no choice but to adopt sexism in order to perpetuate an unjust class-based society. As men we need to decide to say "no" to sexism; as adults we need to acknowledge the links between sexism, labour issues and the mistreatment of young people. To end further segregation based on gender, we need to put a stop to segregation based on age. In our education with them we need to treat all young people as human beings: as intelligent as they need be; as strong as they need be. There are many places where they are the teachers for us. How to wonder. How to be amazed at the intricacies of the world. How to play. How to be friends with anyone. How to be calm. How to be raucous. How to love.

In our work as carers and educators we can safely assume that every young person is good for no other reason than she or he is alive. It is that fundamental.

Smart people

Every young person is dying to be treasured because of who they are. When we have high expectations of them, taking the time to ask them about their lives and really listening and being excited about their wisdom, it is amazing how their humanity shines through. Young people haven't invested in the economic system yet - they haven't got the jobs in which men are paid more than women, they haven't bought the real estate or assets. They are in a good place to hear information about choices in how they can live their lives. They are interested in that sort of information.

Gender role information is useful to them when presented without blame (how can they possibly be to blame?) with respect and not in any hurry. You'll be surprised at first to notice how they have worked most of it out anyway. Respect is different from giving a person positive feedback for what you want them to say. Safely assume that everything a young person does, he or she has done with the absolute best intention they could muster at the time. We should not blame them for their bold struggle against their lack of information or for some inner tensions which may be impairing their judgement. Are we not battle-scarred also? Each is as intelligent as they can be at any given time. They deserve to be treated that respectfully. An equitable society like the one the men's movement (with many other movements) is trying to build, will value every skill and every different ability. Young people will have the option to vote, to be politicians, to rest, to learn what they want and when - all at very young ages. It is not our job to place limits on other people's abilities. Just because we weren't respected as young people is no impairment to our success in this project. We are all co-students in this, as well as co-teachers.

Any of us who have shared those golden moments with children who are feeling good about themselves and who are close to the people they are with will know how loving, thoughtful, easy-going, creative and energetic young people are. They are also extremely powerful and determined. Hanging out with young people and letting them teach us will help us in our journey in reclaiming our obscured heritage of living as men in a peaceful world.

We are at a time of shift - the rules of gender politics are about to change. Women have argued for the rights of children for decades. Often this has come from reflection on the commonality of women's mistreatment and that of young people. It is also influenced by a less useful, conditioned perspective of mother as traditional nurturer: protective in essence. I am joining those who argue for the right of young people to be allowed to stand up for their own rights; an empowerment and full inclusion of young people of any age into society. Yes, that includes boys as well. There are "jobs" for every person in such a society. Just remember that society is something we constantly shape and influence, rather than something we are helpless to change.


First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 4(4), Summer 1994-95. XY, PO Box 4026, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995