January 19, 2019

Help Boys Be Better Boys

Photo from Max Pixel.

Amid the soul-searching that has followed the Florida shooting, there has been an implicit acknowledgement that there are in fact differences between the sexes. My friends on the left posted and reposted this stat: 98 percent of mass shootings are committed by men.

After decades of hearing that there are zero differences between the sexes, this acknowledgment is quite welcome. Unfortunately, the fact that it is being used to prop up a “masculinity is toxic” argument undermines its usefulness. Imagine what could be gained if we put theory aside and began to look at reality again.

First, let’s be clear: Masculinity did not cause the deaths of 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. A legally bought AR-15 did. An AR-15, combined with systemic failure on the part of the FBI, the police and school officials.

Second, this interest in sexual differences is based on a false premise: that these differences are “constructed” by society, that evil parents condition boys to be boys by continuously telling them to “stop with the emotion,” encouraging aggression, and prohibiting their desire to play with dolls.

When my son was 3, he ran to join the dozen other boys watching a construction site next to the playground. Not one girl stopped to watch, and I remember thinking: Maybe now the “no-difference” parents will begin to understand biological differences.

Once we return to accepting sexual differences, there’s much we can do to help boys — and girls — become their best selves.

Shortly afterward, a mother of one of his friends said to me: “I finally relented on the subject when I gave my son a Barbie and he used it to hammer down some Legos.”

I must interject here: There are, of course, some girls who enjoy watching construction sites and some boys who like to play with dolls. When we talk about sexual differences, we’re talking about how the majority of males and females act.

Boys are generally more physically aggressive than girls, and it’s not because of parental encouragement. In fact, good parents work hard at channeling their sons’ aggression into healthy, constructive pursuits. My son and I used to watch “The Ten Commandments” a lot, and every time we came to the scene where brawny Joshua helps to save Moses’ mother from being crushed, I made a point of saying, “See, this is how we use our strength.”

Unfortunately, some boys become bullies; their aggression turns violent, their energy is used to destroy, not create. This we surely can call toxic masculinity, and it is clear the Florida shooter fell into this category.

Would various Broward County institutions have been better equipped to treat him if there was a deeper understanding of how masculinity can turn toxic? No doubt. All schools — society in general — would gain radically from even an acknowledgement of sexual differences and the problems that can emerge.

Right now, most schools operate under the neutralization theory promulgated by academia for the past three decades: attempt to neutralize all differences. At my son’s elementary school, this has amounted to boys in kindergarten being sent to the principal’s office if they can’t sit completely still for hours on end. Oh, and gym class has been cut to once a week, and there’s only 20 minutes of recess. If it rains or snows, the kids are forced to sit for more than six hours with zero physical activity.

Would frequent diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other behavioral issues be significantly reduced if kids, especially boys, were allowed more time to run around? I looked at the schedule of the top all-boys school in New York as an answer: vigorous activity, academic work, vigorous activity, academic work.

The point is, once we return to accepting sexual differences, there’s much we can do to help boys — and girls — become their best selves. Belittling boys and men, the current trend, is not going to get us to that point.

My hope is that the horrific Florida shooting leads to much change, from gun laws to FBI responsiveness. It would not be insignificant if it also leads to a better understanding of differences between the sexes, and what can be done to foster self-respect and dignity for all kids.

It’s well past time to tear down the false gods, whether promulgated by the National Rifle Association or gender studies departments.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and author.

Strasser – I Wanna New Hug

Back in the primitive days of male hugging, my dad was what trend watchers might call “an early adapter.” When few of the other Little

League dads hugged their sons, my dad clutched my older brother any chance he got, Mr. Focker-like, at the drop of a bat.

My brother appeared to hate the whole experience, which didn’t deter my dad at all. He didn’t get hugs from his dad, and his son was getting hugs, like it or not.

Now, it seems the rest of the world is catching up. For the American male, it’s never been cooler to show affection toward other guys. Or, in the great words of sleazy agent Ari Gold on HBO’s “Entourage,” to “hug it out.”

You might think Jews, like the fictional Ari, have long been more comfortable with warmth and physical affection between guys, but I posit that even for ethnic groups considered on the cuddly side of things, acceptable male hugging is only now coming into vogue.

Once, it was reserved for guys who scored a last-second leaning fade-away jumper or pitched a no-hitter. If you wanted a bunch of guys hugging you, you had better be in the end zone spiking a pigskin. Aside from sports achievement hugs, a son might get an embrace from his dad, but only on special occasions — weddings, graduations, funerals, before or after a stint in the military. It would be a constrained, starchy sort of hug, its awkwardness exceeded only by its brevity.

That was before hugging became the new handshaking, on screen and off.

Today, you can not only watch the macho, Queens-bred guys from “Entourage” hugging and back-slapping their way through Hollywood while easily retaining their masculinity, you can also witness the man who may have single-handedly revolutionized the world of straight, male affection: Vince Vaughn. He’s white, he’s white bread, he’s all-American and if he’s coming your way, look out.

Sure, he was chummy and demonstrative with his male buddies in “Swingers” and “Old School,” but in his current hit, “Wedding Crashers,” the 6-foot-5 actor doles out more bear hugs than an addiction counselor on chip day. In this romantic comedy, the most effecting and loving relationship is between Vaughn and his best friend, played by Owen Wilson. Vaughn not only frequently hugs Wilson, but also kisses an elderly gentleman right on the lips. There is nothing even remotely sexual or uncomfortable about this kiss; it is just one man’s way of expressing his joie without even a fleeting concern about whether or not you think he’s straight.

Seeing a man hug another man makes me feel fuzzy inside in a way I can’t explain. It conveys a Vaughn-like self-confidence and swagger. Maybe on some deeper level, it suggests that the males in my pack are at peace and won’t start brawling over resources. I don’t know. Who am I, Margaret Mead? I just think it’s sweet.

There are still limitations to public displays of male affection, subtle rules that must be obeyed, styles of embrace that are acceptable. When I polled my male friends, who likely comprise the first generation of true huggers, I learned some specifics.

There’s the “‘Sopranos’ hug.” This is an embrace that includes two to three burly back slaps (given with enough force to dislodge food from a person’s gullet) followed by a double shoulder squeeze and the simultaneous uttering of an affection-neutralizing epithet. I asked for a demonstration of the “Sopranos hug” and found the whole thing unpleasant. My friend Ted’s handprint still stings on my back, but I got the idea. You throw in a little muscle with your affection, and badda bing, everything is OK.

This leads me to the less painful “high-five hug,” which as you would imagine, begins with a sporty, introductory high-five, and folds into an upper arm pat or in some cases a full embrace. The inclusion of the high-five negates any feminizing effect of physical affection.

The most common male hug seems to be more of a handshake/hug hybrid. You reach out for a handshake, await some non-verbal signal that more is welcome, and let the momentum of your hand pull you into a one-armed embrace.

While hugs are quickly becoming standard, they are not for strangers or acquaintances. Hugs between men are earned, and in many cases signal an upgrade in the friendship.

As women, we’re expected to hug. If you are female and we’ve met before, I’m pretty much going to have to touch you in some way to convey that I like you, or that I’m not a cold, unfeeling snob. It’s a given, which is what makes male on male affection even more irresistible. Guys don’t have to hug each other. In doing so, they risk looking foolish. Still, the male hug’s time has come, and there’s an embrace for every guy’s comfort level — from the handshake hug to the full Focker.

Teresa Strasser in an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She’s on the web at www.teresastrasser.com.