Dominance and aggression – what could go wrong?

Andrew Sullivan wonders what the point was.

I read with some interest Peggy Orenstein’s long essay on what’s wrong with boys. An in-depth study of a hundred boys, analyzing their problems and issues, seeing what makes them tick, seeing how the culture has changed them: It’s a fascinating topic. I kept reading and reading in the hope of discovering the point. I’ve now reread it and still can’t figure it out.

Orenstein reports the following facts drawn from her meticulous research: Boys brag to each other about whom they’ve had sex with and compete for girls, they boast about how they screw around on girls, they tend to admire jocks and athletes and mock those less active in sports, they try not to cry in public. They admire “Dominance. Aggression. Rugged good looks (with an emphasis on height). Sexual prowess. Stoicism. Athleticism. Wealth (at least some day).” Teenage boys may react to the notion that they should become vegans by saying something like, “Being vegans would make us pussies.”

More earth-shattering revelations: Boys find it hard to talk about their feelings, especially with their fathers. They tend to talk about these things with women — girlfriends, sisters, mothers. Many are jealous. One immediately broke off an affair with a girl when he was told she was cheating. In the locker room, male teens can be really gross: “It was all about sex,” one sensitive teen boy complained. “We definitely say fuck a lot; fuckin’ can go anywhere in a sentence. And we call each other pussies, bitches. We never say the N-word, though. That’s going too far.” These boys also saw socializing as instrumental: “The whole goal of going to a party is to hook up with girls and then tell your guys about it.”

Sullivan’s reaction is “You don’t say.” Boys are like that, boys have always been like that, tell us something we don’t know.

This, Orenstein implies, is some kind of crisis. But it’s only a crisis if you find the very idea of male culture as it has always existed somehow problematic.

Yes, there are downsides to this kind of maleness. There’s a reason men tend to die younger than women.

I can think of some other downsides that Sullivan doesn’t mention, like misogyny, rape, the sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, domination, aggression…that kind of thing. Sullivan, weirdly, talks about everything but that. He seems to get so close to it but he never arrives.

What if so much of what she abhors — admiration of strength, envy of others’ ability to have sex with women, aggression, nonverbal forms of interaction, stoicism, risk-taking, mutual mockery, bawdiness — is intrinsic to being male?…[Y]ou’re left with the sinking feeling that the essay is really simply a lament: that men are men, that they are different, that their world can be alien to women, and that their rituals and discourse and company are somehow inherently problematic in a way that women’s simply could not be.

Not “somehow inherently problematic.” It’s not mysterious. Male rivalry and aggression all too often centers on domination and ownership of women, and that’s not great for women. It did its work on Sullivan himself, apparently: he can’t even see the problem.

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