Our society has been silent, apathetic and cruel for too long about how our boys are treated, ignored and harmed. As a mental health professional who has worked with youth and families for close to two decades, I am on the front lines watching the spirits, minds and hearts of youth weep, tremble and rage with pain from schools, families and a society disconnected from their needs. However, while girls are embraced with incessant cultural messages of empowerment, “girl power” and support, boys must face a constant barrage of shaming, pathologizing, mockery and punishment for their maleness. Their needs, pain and suffering are simply denied existence. Not only is this pathologizing and shunning of boys happening in the media, it is happening in the fields of education, mental health, human services, the law and in the global social justice efforts that shape the world’s perceptions of gender.
Denying Sexual Abuse of Boys
Recently I did the powerful Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) trauma treatment with a boy who had suffered severe sexual abuse. This boy, like most other boys, lived in silence with this trauma for years. Society doesn’t afford males the safe, validating and empowering cultural environment of awareness, outreach, support, treatment and healing that females receive, especially when boys and men are raped and sexually assaulted by women. As we proceeded through the layers of the boy’s emotions about the sexual assault, suddenly, his body jolted as if he experienced an electric shock. His breath caught. I knew the emotional pain had peaked, as is expected and necessary during EMDR in order to release the trauma from the survival-based limbic system. This sullen, angry and disconnected boy looked at me in terror, saying nothing, but grabbing my eyes with his as if he were drowning.
It’s OK, buddy…” I gently reassured him, “That’s why we want to help this painful memory get to the part of your brain that can heal it, so it doesn’t hurt like this anymore. It’s going to feel better very soon… We’ll take it slow together. OK?” He nodded his head, kept his eyes locked with mine for a moment longer, then indicated when he was ready to proceed with another set of eye movements. After the next set, the trauma “broke”, and the child relaxed into his seat, looked at me with relief, nodded his head “yes” and said, “It feels better…”
Like their sisters in our society, all boys should be able to experience such a loving “embrace” of awareness, validation, support and empowerment for what they endure, especially when their very natural behavioral and emotional clues indicate to us a problem. However, far too many raging, aggressive, hyperactive and violent boys are labeled as “behavioral problems” rather than as victims of abuse or neglect. The pathology is not the behavioral and emotional reactions of boys; the pathology is our society and how its views and treats boys and maleness. Where are the advocates for boys?
Shaming Maleness, Denying Male Beauty and Goodness
Six year old Christian McPhilamy started growing his hair long in December 2012 in order to donate it to a charity for children with hair loss. Despite verbal harassment by both peers and adults about his long hair, he continued to reach for his goal. Only when Christian informed people of the reason for growing his hair did they change their opinion. By Spring 2015, he was able to donate four ponytails measuring around a foot long. What disturbed me was the underlining message in the Florida Today article that boys need a justification to grow their natural hair. Although we live in a society where girls are supported to freely express themselves in any manner they choose, mind, body and spirit, we have degraded back to the 1950’s era where Christian’s newly-buzzed head made people breathe a sigh of relief.
Both my son and my oldest nephew also suffered discrimination when they grew their hair long. In fact, years ago when my son interviewed for a job at a grocery store chain, he learned that they have an (illegal) policy of making males keep their hair short. When my son was in the foster care system prior to our adoption, not only was his head buzzed repeatedly against his will, but he also endured years of boy-shaming messages from dozens of caretakers, teachers, program staff, peers and from children’s media. However, these same sources kept up a constant drum-beat of “girl power” messages that caused him to believe that no matter how kind, helpful, intelligent, well-groomed or “good” he was, he could never be as “good”, as “smart”, as “beautiful” or as valued as a girl. The infamous David and Goliath line of children’s clothing and accessories bearing sayings such as, “Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them”, “Boys are stupid, gross, smelly”, “The Stupid Factory: Where boys are made” and “Lobotomy: How to train boys”, have surely done their fair share of damage. For years my male clients have disclosed to me how hurt they feel at this double standard of zero-tolerance for abuse of girls, at the same time that it is “open-season” on the hearts, spirits and bodies of boys. It took years of love, validation, empowerment and healing in our family for my son to heal from this cultural shaming.
Why do boys need a justification for growing their hair? Why was it OK in the 70’s and 80’s for males to wear flattering clothing and have attractive hairstyles when the trend for the 90’s and 2000’s has been buzz cuts and sloppy, baggy outfits? Why is it OK for boys to be vilified as “bad” by teachers, parents, caretakers, universities, corporations, programs and in school curriculum, products, books and society? Why is it OK for boys to be mocked, physically attacked and presented as ignorant, incompetent and “gross” in children’s media? I have noted an interesting parallel that during the time of boys being presented in society as “bad”, disgusting, incompetent and buffoonish, there has been an explosion of media stories of pre-adolescent boys wanting to be girls. Is this a reflection of our cultural lack of support for male beauty and male “goodness”? In the current issue of Vanity Fair, the former Bruce Jenner explained that he renamed himself “Caitlyn” because it means “pure”. I found it interesting that Caitlyn feels “pure” only after leaving the male body and male self behind.
Pathologizing and Medicating Boy-ness
Boys of all ages, from toddlers to teens, face a battle each day of being contorted and broken to fit into an educational mold that is developmentally inappropriate. Boys that cannot tolerate the punitive, sedentary, paperwork-engulfed monotony are reflexively referred to a medical and mental health system that prescribes labels, behavioral “modification” and chemical restraints to boys in epidemic numbers. Rather than allowing youth to explore, create, run, play, adventure and learn through their hands, bodies and natural abilities, it is easier to placate obedience-minded school officials and feed the multibillion-dollar medical and pharmaceutical industries by turning childhood, especially “boy-ness”, into a disorder. Why aren’t social justice advocates running campaigns to end the mass pathologization of natural boy development?
Where ever empowerment of boys is needed, there is silence from mainstream society. Most validation of the suffering of boys occurs in the annals of professional psychological science journals, in the form of 40 years of empirical research showing evidence that boys are the primary victims of all forms of child abuse, including sexual abuse. In 2006, Straus and Hagberg presented enlightening and disillusioning survey results at the 16th International Congress On Child Abuse And Neglect in York, England on worldwide rates of childhood sexual abuse. Contrary to the common “1 in 3 girls” and “1 in 6” boys media statistic, they found that in the United States, Canada, Mexico, India, China and several other countries, boys up to 18 years of age suffer slightly higher rates of sexual abuse than girls. In many other countries such as England and Australia, the rates of sexual victimization of boys and girls up to 18 years of age were nearly identical. Recent research in 2014 by Bryana H. French warns that adolescent males between the ages of 16-24 are at high risk for sexual victimization. Her study found that 43% of boys in high school and young men in college are victims of unwanted sexual experiences and that a sobering 95% of the aggressors were female acquaintances of the victims. Not only is research about sexual abuse of males barely whispered in the media, it is buried, minimized or ignored by the very institutions in our society that are responsible for igniting a firestorm of awareness, validation and empowerment campaigns for women and girls. Should it be any surprise that the suicide rate for American boys ages 15-19 is five times higher than for girls in the same age group, and six times higher for boys ages 20-24?
His Body, NOT His Choice?
However, the silence is most deafening when it comes to boys being allowed the power to choose integrity, safety and wholeness of their own genitals. Four and-a-half year old Florida resident, Chase Nebus-Hironimus is in the middle of a parental legal battle that has him at risk of having his penis permanently altered against his will. While 80% of living males in the United States have suffered circumcision without their consent, and untold millions of boys have suffered brutal genital mutilations around the globe through out history, it is Chase’s saga that has brought whispers of media coverage to the dead silence. Chase’s parents originally agreed to have Chase circumcised. However, upon researching the crucial protective and sexual functions of the foreskin, Chase’s mother decided that her son’s penis should be left intact. Chase also expressed that he does not want his penis cut. When the court ordered Chase’s mother to allow the medically unnecessary amputation or face jail, Heather Hironimus took Chase and went on the run for two months. Meanwhile, attorneys and activists for genital integrity attempted to get justice for Chase. Heather turned herself in and was forced under duress and threat of imprisonment to sign the surgical consent. The fate is still pending of whether or not this child will have to endure a procedure that will sexually, physically and emotionally violate him and his basic human rights. The fact that we hear no mass outcry against Male Genital Mutilation from the global social justice organizations that fund the multi-million dollar media campaigns that have supported empowerment, bodily integrity and sexual rights for girls and women should give people cause for immediate pause, concern, question and disillusionment.
While half of our children are being elevated, empowered and awarded with support, validation, protection and concern, the other half- our boys- are languishing in a society that turns a blind eye, a deaf ear and a silent mouth to the mutilation of their bodies, minds and spirits. The staggering suicide rates of boys should be more than enough proof that our neglect of boys is hurting them on a large scale. Like we have for our girls, we need an equally vocal, viral and supportive cultural and global campaign to protect, nurture and empower our boys!