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The war against boys: Trying to tame all young men by ‘educating’ their ‘toxic masculinity’ out of them is the wrong approach

Frank Furedi
Frank Furedi

is an author and social commentator. He is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Author of How Fear Works: The Culture of Fear in the 21st Century. Follow him on Twitter @Furedibyte

is an author and social commentator. He is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Author of How Fear Works: The Culture of Fear in the 21st Century. Follow him on Twitter @Furedibyte

The war against boys: Trying to tame all young men by ‘educating’ their ‘toxic masculinity’ out of them is the wrong approach
The hysteria generated over a small minority of badly behaved, violent boys has gone too far. Teaching them ‘gender neutrality’ and to resist ‘macho, heterosexual’ maleness is not the answer.

Fake news about men is making the rounds and at times it seems that young boys have become the target of a veritable crusade designed to tame them. Since the eruption of anxiety about a supposed rape culture afflicting British schools, the mantra of ‘Educate Your Sons’ is constantly echoed by politicians, campaigners and media influencers.

Leading the way is Police Minster Kit Malthouse, who declared that schools should teach boys how to treat girls and women with respect. Numerous commentaries in newspapers and on websites, with titles like: “Schools are the best place to educate boys about how to respect women,” echo a sense of urgency about what they present as a national crisis.

Unfortunately, the demand ‘Educate Your Sons’ is closely linked to the understandable outrage surrounding the murder of Sarah Everard and a media focus on the apparent rape culture haunting schools. In these circumstances, the moral status of boys has been called into question and the insinuation that they are all potential abusers is frequently conveyed.

Now and again, there are lone warnings about demonising boys, and one mother reported that she was horrified when her young son came home from school and stated, “Mum, some of the girls are saying 70 per cent of men are rapists.”

However, media personality Davina McCall faced a veritable backlash when she dared to say that calling all men dangerous was “Bad for our sons, brothers and partners.” It seems that influential sections of British society have lost the capacity to make a distinction between a small minority of badly behaved, aggressive and violent boys and the conduct of the vast majority of young men.

Of course, all children need to be educated in the principles of civilised behaviour and about the need to respect others. But unfortunately, at the moment, the kind of education many wish to inflict on boys constitutes a one-dimensional attempt to tame them and socialise them to adopt gender neutral behaviour.

Often the advocacy of teaching boys about respect and consent turns into an attempt to eradicate some of their boyish attitudes and behaviour. One commentator in the Mirror justifies her argument for the need for schools to teach boys about respect on the ground that it provides a great opportunity for promoting gender neutral attitudes. She complained that despite her best efforts, her 5-year-old son “still tells me there are colours that only girls wear, or jobs that only boys and not girls can do.” She adds that, “I don’t know where he gets this from and I pick him up on it, but it would be even better to have the support of the education system to back this up.”

It requires a major jump in logic to imagine that the musings of a 5-year-old on the colour preferences of girls represents a marker for disrespecting women later on in life. Indeed, this 5-year-old ought to be praised for noticing that in the real-world, young girls do have colour preferences that are different to boys. However, from the standpoint of the current fashion for perceiving all boys as the carriers of toxic masculinity, logic and objectivity gives way to hysteria.

At times, it appears that the campaign to ‘educate’ boys is motivated by the impulse of not simply targeting masculinity, but also what used to be perceived as normal heterosexual behaviour. In their essay entitled ‘Why misogyny needs to be tackled in education from primary school’, two academics argue for the need to tackle ‘gender-based behaviour’ which they perceive as inherently damaging to all.

The focus of their concern is that of gender identity in general and of boyish identity in particular. They observe that “boys in the UK build their sense of masculinity in direct relation to the dominant ‘macho’ heterosexual ideal of what it means to be man.” From this perspective, the job of schools is to prevent young boys from embracing ‘dominant’ and heterosexual ideals.

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That macho, over-the-top masculinity possesses many grotesque and unattractive features is not in doubt. But such forms of destructive behaviour are no more an inherent affliction of maleness than the fluttering of eyelids and constant giggling of female behaviour. If there is a problem in school behaviour, it has little to do with boys being boys.

The real problem facing society is that the adult world has lost the capacity to socialise young people through setting an example of what polite, sensitive and respectful behaviour looks like. Children are far more likely to learn their values from TikTok and Instagram than from their teachers, parents and the community of adults.

What boys need is not to be trained out of heterosexual ideals but to be educated in the norms and values associated with a good society. Instead of looking for the technical quick fix of a consent workshop, they need to be educated to understand what right and wrong and good and evil look like. 

The solution lies in the domain of morality rather than with the fad of gender neutrality.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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