Boys high school basketball team:
Credit: Getty Images

The heated, reclining driver’s seat in my car is more comfortable than any chair in my house, which is nice because I spend a lot of time waiting in parking lots for one or the other of my two sons to emerge from baseball or soccer practice. That’s where I was when I read, with my hand over my gaping mouth, of the aggravated rape of a ninth-grade boy, “Martin,” by his basketball teammates—rape with a pool cue. Martin’s recovery began with six days in the hospital and was followed by nine months of physical therapy, including learning how to walk again. Even with these facts not in question, the adults involved could not initially agree on a name for what had happened. “This was something stupid that kids do that shouldn’t have been done,” said the Gatlinburg, Tennessee, police detective Rodney Burns in state court. “What this case actually is, is much smaller than what it’s been blown up to be.”

Would Detective Burns have had the same flippant assessment of this gruesome crime if the victim had been a girl? In her book, To Raise a Boy, the Washington Post reporter Emma Brown argues that the answer is no. Through expertly gathered research and interviews with parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, and young boys from all walks of life, Brown offers a study of what it means to be a boy in America today—and the outdated notions of masculinity that continue to let our boys down.

For starters, we generally don’t hold boys’ bodies sacred in the same manner we do girls’; boys are apparently too tough to experience physical pain. We deny them access to the full range of human emotions, labeling certain feelings like sadness and fear as exclusively feminine. We don’t give boys the language to tell us when something bad happens to them: Being hung from a hook by your underwear is “just messing around,” and penetration with a foreign object is not rape, but “horseplay.” Real rape happens only to girls. And, finally, we adhere to the myth that boys are unfeeling, oversexed, and naturally prone to violence. These low expectations for boys persist despite a two-decade focus by academics and journalists on what has been termed the “boy crisis.” 

This book raises an important and overlooked question: In a society where boys who are brutalized are left with no words to describe their anguish, should we be surprised that we also have a problem with sexual violence of all kinds? “When we fail to recognize and address violence against boys, not only are we failing to protect boys, but we also may be stoking violence against women,” Brown concludes. “These problems are to some extent intertwined.” 

Already the parents of a daughter, Brown and her husband welcomed their first son against the backdrop of the burgeoning #MeToo movement. Brown read of the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein on her iPhone as she nursed her baby boy. As similar allegations against other powerful men continued to stack up, she wondered, “How [will] I raise my son to be different?” After her maternity leave, she promptly found herself in the center of the ongoing reckoning: It was Brown who broke the story of Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against Brett Kavanaugh prior to his confirmation to the Supreme Court. This experience, coupled with her new responsibility of raising a son, inspired her to get to the bottom of what’s going on with boys and men in America. What she found surprised her. 

“I thought we needed to raise our sons differently in order to protect our daughters,” she writes. “Now, after spending time in the world of boys, I understand that we also need to raise our sons differently for their own sakes.”

When we think about sexual assault, we tend to imagine the victim as female and the perpetrator as male. When the victim is a boy, we imagine an adult, male perpetrator. This picture, although accurate to some degree, is incomplete. About one in four men experiences some kind of sexual violence over the course of his lifetime, ranging from unwanted physical contact to rape, according to a 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. It’s worse for LGBTQ boys and men. Perhaps even more striking, in one recent national study of about 13,000 teenagers, of the boys who reported being victimized 75 percent said their assailant was another child. 

We don’t give boys the language to tell us when something bad happens to them: Being hung from a hook by your underwear is “just messing around,” and being penetrated with a foreign object is not rape, but “horseplay.”

Brown recounts several stories like the assault of Martin by his basketball teammates—boys turning on one another in too many locker rooms, sports camps, and even classrooms throughout our country. Desperate to prove their manhood, and often their heterosexuality, boys participate in violent hazing rituals, endure them in silence, and then turn around and inflict the same torture on younger classmates and teammates. We don’t hear about most of these cases, Brown points out, because they are often hidden “behind a shield of well-intentioned confidentiality” meant to protect minors.

These violent rituals exemplify a theory advanced in Boys Adrift, a popular parenting book by Leonard Sax that I read several years ago. Discussing the importance of community-recognized rites of passage from childhood into adulthood, Sax warns, “If we fail to provide boys with pro-social models of the transition to adulthood, they may construct their own.” We see this thirst for rites of passage in boys’ bragging about real or imagined sexual conquests. “If two people are having an argument,” a California high school senior tells Brown, “one easy demeaning roast is ‘Oh, you’re still a virgin.’ That’s such a big thing to say.” In one school, a group of kids tells Brown that boys talk about their “ ‘body count,’ the number of girls they’ve had sex with.” Body count: a phrase used in war to determine which side is winning. There it is—the link between sex and violence.

Besides the raw brutality of what happened to Martin, the most haunting part of his story is that he heard the screams of other boys being attacked, and he knew he might be next. Martin managed to call his mother to tell her what was happening, but when he got on the phone with her, he couldn’t get the words out. “I was going to tell her, but I didn’t know how to say that,” he later said.

One national survey, published in 2016, showed that one-third of young men aged 15 to 19 have never spoken with their parents about birth control, sexually transmitted infections, or how to say no to sex. At the same time, students are getting less sex ed in school than they were a generation ago. If they’re not accustomed to having low-key, instructional conversations with the adults in their lives about their bodies and sex, then how can they be expected to get the right words out when they are afraid, ashamed, or in pain? And if parents don’t talk about sex, kids will track down the information elsewhere. The most likely source is online pornography, which can teach unrealistic and even brutal lessons about intimacy. Most importantly, Brown’s reporting suggests that when parents communicate warmly and openly with their sons about sex, birth control, and mental health, it makes a difference. Brown cites a conversation with Carolyn T. Halpern, a developmental psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who seems to have to beg parents to talk to their kids. “I sometimes think that parents get lulled into thinking it’s all about their peers and they don’t care what I think or what I say. That’s just not true,” Halpern says. “They actually are listening. They’re just pretending not to.”

One sees this same parental resignation in the portrayal of sexting as “an emerging, and potentially normal” part of teen development, according to a journal article Brown references. She approaches the subject with the professional impartiality of a reporter, but I see this expert analysis as evidence of a cultural attitude that says because an activity is prevalent, it must be okay. As a mother of two teens, I don’t understand impressing on my sons that their own bodies are private and that sex is—like paying taxes and drinking alcohol—for adults, and then turning around and telling them it’s okay to engage in sex talk and to share nude photos with other minors on their iPads. That would be paving a road to embarrassment and regret. 

Although there is a cavernous silence in homes and schools on the subject of sex, thanks to #MeToo we are having a nationwide conversation about consent, albeit often with a rule-of-law approach, sometimes guided by oversimplified slogans: No means no, and Yes means yes. In one of the most powerful sentences in her book, Brown writes, “Consent is a low bar.” Indeed, it is: The word conjures a reluctant yielding—Okay, I guess so, rather than Yes, absolutely! Our young people are routinely in situations where their willingness to participate is in question, and the persistence of the old narrative that “boys pursue while girls play coy” only confuses the transmission of subtle signals. Brown empathizes with a high school senior who told her, “I think it’s tougher to court these days, know what I mean? If you want to date someone, if you want to pursue somebody . . . if you ask repeatedly, persistence is one thing that people look for. But also, if you do that, it could be perceived as sexual harassment.” Brown suggests a two-part message to resolve this confusion: First, girls like sex too and are not waiting to be lured; and, second, “no” means what it says—it’s not a trick. “If we don’t make that clear, if we leave our sons unsure whether persistence is cute or creepy, then we’re setting them up to overstep another person’s boundaries,” she argues. This approach calls on girls and young women to also be forthright in their intentions and communication. 

Better signals around desire and consent won’t, however, address the need for healthy rites of passage. If bullying doesn’t make a boy into a man, and premature sex doesn’t make a boy into a man, then what does? Jewish boys study for a bar mitzvah and Catholic boys for a confirmation. Generations before us relied on young boys to milk cows and harvest fields and fight wars. We need new rites of passage for boys, or they will continue to create their own. 

In the meantime, during her travels for this book, Brown found many inspiring teachers and mentors who are showing little boys how to manage their feelings and older boys how to intervene when they hear disparaging talk about women or see encounters that are headed toward dangerous territory. In short, they are showing boys how to be men. 

One of the many programs Brown highlights, Chicago CRED (“Creating Real Economic Destiny”), founded by former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, began as a job training program in the city’s most distressed neighborhoods. The program initially focused on resume writing, but the CRED mentor Paul Robinson tells Brown, “What we discovered was how much more they needed.”

In a society where boys who are brutalized are left with no words to describe their anguish, should we be surprised that we also have a problem with sexual violence of all kinds?

Brown interviewed one of Robinson’s mentees, 24-year-old Jamon Lynch, the middle child of five kids who grew up without their dad. Lynch was 17 when he was charged with his first felony. In 2016, CRED helped him find work and study online for his high school diploma. “If I woulda met Paul in middle school, I woulda never been locked up, ever,” Lynch says. “I feel like he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.” 

Another Chicago-based program, Becoming a Man, seeks to catch boys earlier, ideally before they get caught up in the criminal justice system or worse. “I got into this work to break the cycle of fatherlessness,” says Ramirez-Di Vittorio, who grew up mostly without his own father and developed the group therapy and mentoring program for middle and high school students. He gathers the boys into discussion circles and teaches them how to identify and deal with their feelings. “We embrace our softness,” he says. “It’s not embracing a feminine skill—it’s a masculine skill, to be soft.”

Brown wraps up her stirring account of boyhood with the story of Alex Thompson, a senior at Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown Day School who, in response to the backlash against #MeToo, cofounded a group called Boys Leading Boys to fight sexual harassment and assault. Thompson, a popular athlete, drew in most of the soccer and lacrosse players and made having conversations about consent socially acceptable. Alex tells Brown, “Young men should care about this, and should intervene to stop other people from being hurt, because it’s the right and honorable thing to do. Most [boys] consider themselves to be moral people. They consider themselves to be good.”

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Sarah P. Weeldreyer

Sarah P. Weeldreyer is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and other outlets.