Peggy Orenstein’s recent Atlantic article on “The Miseducation of the American Boy” — which pulls from her 2020 book Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity — is a good reminder that the topic of toxic masculinity is still front-page news, but it has left me frustrated. To be clear, this is not a knock on Orenstein. I wouldn’t take on that publication record, and her new book is fantastic, but I do intend to push the metaphorical envelope. She keeps us all up to speed with the ever-evolving state of masculinity, and I’m always fascinated to hear boys speak about what “being a man” means to them.
Orenstein wrote, “A Big Ten football player I interviewed bandied about the term toxic masculinity. ‘Everyone knows what that is,’ he said, when I seemed surprised” (2020).
It seems to me that most people in the educational setting know about this stuff, and often the conclusion is that toxic masculinity exists and is bad. We’ve been hammering away at the bad nail for some time — and it’s sinking in. “When I asked my subjects, as I always did, what they liked about being a boy, most of them drew a blank,” wrote Orenstein. “‘Huh,’ mused Josh, a college sophomore at Washington State. . . . ‘That’s interesting. I never really thought about that. You hear a lot more about what is wrong with guys’” (2020).
My main critique of the teaching of toxic masculinity is that we aren’t doing enough beyond raising awareness (the first essential step). It’s like racism in some ways. We know it’s bad, but it is still dominating the dance floor. Though we’ve gotten to a point where being blatantly racist is undesirable in the reputation and credibility departments, boys mostly still gain social standing by following the stereotypical “boy code” that Pollack explained to us back in 1998 (no sissy stuff, be a big wheel, be a sturdy oak, and give ’em hell).
I think Orenstein’s greatest insight is this: “If your response to all of this is ‘Obviously,’ I’d say: Sure, but it’s a mistake to underestimate the strength and durability of the cultural machinery at work on adolescent boys. Real change will require a sustained, collective effort on the part of fathers, mothers, teachers, coaches.”
She’s exactly right, and the impressive amount of work that leads to this conclusion is critical, but we need this to start being a thesis statement instead of a conclusion if the next decade is going to look different.
The strength of the machine is strong. Orenstein’s main interviewee, Cole, experienced that strength when he chose between doing the right thing and having friends (Orenstein, 2020) — a handcuffing decision for an adolescent. I heard the same sentiment in a recent conversation with one of my students regarding his use of objectifying language. He explained to me that he didn’t want to lose his friends from home, and that’s how they talk.
Yet, for the past decade, I have heard the same messages in response — like a yearly flu shot — an impersonal inoculation of the dangers of masculinity just to say we check that box on the list of important topics to discuss with kids. That’s a far cry from a “sustained, collective effort” to change the masculine model.
If we are serious about having a healthy culture, if camps are going to be a place where boys can be themselves while developing sound character, we must be much more ambitious and disruptive with our approach. As racism needs more antiracists and sexism needs more feminists, we need more people to adopt a new mentality altogether, one that sticks and serves as a compass in a masculine wasteland.
Break the Box
I didn’t learn about toxic masculinity until my freshman year in college. Until then, I was shaped by a mostly white, affluent, athletic, and straight community, and though I was fortunate enough to attend (and still work for) a summer camp that offered exceptional male role models and is largely responsible for my character education, we certainly weren’t having conversations with our leaders 10 years ago about the dangers of modern masculinity. During my time working in all-boys and co-ed communities, I’ve seen our awareness increase dramatically. I’ve seen brave individuals speak out and transform minds, including my own. Middle school boys mostly know what the word objectification means, and they mostly know it is bad — but, mostly, they still go on to join the party.
To redefine the attitudes and behaviors that gain us social standing, we need an approach that detoxes masculinity and focuses on men being honorable people who stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellow humans — and I say “we” because this isn’t just a man-to-man problem. When I studied masculine humor in college, the women I talked to generally found the jokes funny, albeit to a slightly lesser degree than the men. Everyone knows what makes a man, at least what supposedly makes one, and most of us share some guilt when it comes to boxing in our boys. However, if we only acknowledge the existence of the box, we do little to disrupt the stranglehold of male stereotypes and power structures on our society, while continually telling young men that society makes them bad. As a result, we can inadvertently shame them, put them on the defensive, and make them less likely to learn a different way.
Step one is breaking the box, refusing to accept the old male model, and clearing the way, at last, for a new masculinity. I’ve seen enough presentations where a speaker draws the man box on a big flip chart, with all those words that boys can’t be and the ones they will be, leaving the box lingering there in the background like the Ghost of Bros past, present, and future all in one. People are ready for more. They are tired of the age-old script. They are ready to break the box and be free of the man-made restrictions telling them (and everyone they care about) who they can and cannot be.
How to start:
- Reveal the man box, listing stereotypical characteristics of what it means to be a man on the inside and characteristics men must avoid on the outside.
- Think about how this box influences your daily life, the groups you belong to, and the spaces you inhabit. Think about the impact of that influence and learn the facts to better understand the implications of toxic masculinity — including violence, depression, and suicide, to name a few (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2017; American Psychological Association, 2015, 2018).
- Recognize that gender policing is a social choice, not actual law that we must participate in or conform to. Ask: “How does my current participation in gender policing contribute to my identity and sense of purpose?”
- Commit to breaking the box. Choose not to renew membership to the gender police. Identify ways that you can respectfully decline participation and encourage more inclusive language, attitudes, and behaviors.
Cut the Schlock
Once we commit to breaking the stereotypical man box, we have the difficult task of cleaning up the rubble. To move forward with a healthier model for boys, we need to recognize the language, behaviors, and attitudes that produce emotional poison and pain. By experiencing the feeling of our lives without those toxins, we redefine the values our boys strive to possess.
“Schlock” is trash. When we tear down the walls of the man box and leave ourselves with individual values to choose from, it makes sense to cast aside the rubbish before we rebuild. The trash in our lives only harms us and others and distracts us from being our best selves. Each person will have different schlock, but some obvious toxins can and should be removed from the model:
- Toxic language (derogatory terms)
- Sexual conquest
- “Locker room talk”
- Drug abuse
The list is long, and if you haven’t read Boys & Sex, I recommend it (Orenstein, 2020). It will turn your stomach, but you’ll be more aware of what poisons boys today. You would have a tough time arguing that anything on the preceding list truly leads to happiness, morality, and feeling good about yourself as a person. Nonetheless, society and the media tell young men that porn resembles reality and the richest, baddest, Wolf-of-Wall-Street kind of guy who doesn’t give a you-know-what gets to wear the crown and reap the treasures in the world of men (and to men, that often means the world itself).
However, when men have the facts and sit down and reflect, they can see the truth. Camps, schools, parents, and mentors have a responsibility to help liberate our youth with the truth about pornography, sex, bottled emotions, and everything else that stands in their way. It’s an empowering thing being well informed and able to choose who you are not and who you won’t be. Still, with all the noise and temptation, we need constant reminders and a frame of mind in which we can identify and abstain from the toxins that hold us back. Otherwise, we’ll slip right back in when the invitation comes knocking.
How to start:
- Identify the schlock — the bad habits, words, attitudes, and behaviors — that you live with (consciously and unconsciously). Ask: How does it make me feel? And what’s the impact on others? When it comes to personal weaknesses, having honest conversations with people you trust and who will hold you accountable can be transformative.
- Set daily goals to cut the schlock from your life. Whether it’s using the word “bitch” to describe others, watching three episodes of TV instead of picking up that book, or telling boys to “man up,” a daily challenge to curtail such behavior makes this effort more manageable.
- When making decisions, recall the phrase “cut the schlock,” and notice how you feel when you resist daily temptations and bad habits. It may sound counterintuitive, but making good choices can be intoxicating.
- Acknowledge how it feels to slip, but remember that you’re human; offer an apology if one is warranted, and grow more ambitious with your goals.
Be a Beauty
When we break the box and cut the schlock, we are left with the task of picking up the pieces that feel true and beautiful and right. If someone is a beauty, they are an excellent example of a human being, and I’m not talking about chiseled abs or perfect curves. If we’re going to educate and mentor well, we need a model that teaches honorability. (Richard Weissbourd makes a convincing argument for this in The Parents We Mean to Be, 2010).
Earlier, I mentioned the trend of shaming boys just for being boys. While it is appropriate to teach the consequences of toxic masculinity — and to feel guilty about the participation in and perpetuation of it — it’s important that we create a new model to aim for. This model should be one that prioritizes integrity and service to others, and one we can all celebrate. To change a culture for the better, there must be something good to change it to. So, what can we do? With the toxins revealed and the distractions removed, we can share what and whom we truly value. We can rewrite our personal mission statements to include the values that are important to us. Likely, these are the values we admire in others, the character traits of our true role models, the individuals worth thanking and highlighting — not the ones the media sells us for a pretty penny.
I’ve been part of two groups of men who I felt did a good job redefining masculinity: my college soccer team and my summer camp. In these communities we could express ourselves in ways we may normally have kept hidden, make ourselves vulnerable, reveal our talents and gifts, and amid our varying examples of beauty, find belonging. From those experiences, I learned that one person can be a force for positive change, and those individuals are courageous heroes. However, it takes a sustained, collective effort to have lasting change in our culture. I thank Peggy Orenstein for reminding me of that, but I challenge those passionate about this work to build and share transformative models that shape upstanding citizens.
How to start:
- Create a guiding leadership framework grounded in core values. I pull from Daniel Coyle’s Culture Code (2018) for mine: lead by example, radiate belonging cues, be vulnerable, communicate purpose, be useful and joyful.
- Share your gratitude for those who have helped you grow in significant ways.
- Set daily positive goals. Write them down the night before and wake up to an encouraging challenge. Whether that’s delivering thank-you notes, performing an act of service, or going for an early morning run, you can be your best self — one day at a time
- Create opportunities to celebrate the talents and skills that fall outside the stereotypical man box, such as singing, dancing, and playing together. See what you can learn about others and yourself — remember, vulnerability is attractive (Smith, 2019).
Men and boys are more than the boxes that have been designed for us over time with profit, not people, as the motive. I hope this call for change is hopeful and motivating. I hope it is also a little daunting. If it is, then you understand the strength and durability of the machine we are challenging — but also that this is a struggle we can win. I believe that camps especially are well positioned to help lead this struggle, and when we prioritize honorable and honest forms of male expression, there is no limit to the good we can accomplish.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (2017). Suicide statistics. Retrieved from afsp.org/suicide-statistics/.
American Psychological Association. (2015). By the numbers: Men and depression. Retrieved from apa.org/monitor/2015/12/numbers.
American Psychological Association. (2018, September). Harmful masculinity and violence: Understanding the connection and approaches to prevention. Retrieved from apa.org/pi/about/newsletter/2018/09/harmful-masculinity.
Coyle, D. (2018). The culture code: the secrets of highly successful groups. New York: Bantam Books.
Kimmel, M. (2008). Guyland: the perilous world where boys become men. New York: Harper Perennial.
Orenstein, P. (2020). Boys & sex: Young men on hookups, love, porn, consent, and navigating the new masculinity. New York: Harper.
Orenstein, P. (2019, December 20). The miseducation of the American boy. The Atlantic. Retrieved from theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/01/the-miseducation-of-the-american-boy/603046/.
Pollack, W. (1998). Real boys: rescuing our sons from the myths of masculinity. New York, NY: Random House.
Smith, E. (2019, January 9). Your flaws are probably more attractive than you think they are. Retrieved from theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/01/beautiful-mess-vulnerability/579892/.
Weissbourd, R. (2010). The parents we mean to be: How well-intentioned adults undermine children’s moral and emotional development. Boston, MA: Mariner Books.
Nick Nowak is the program director at Camp Belknap. During the academic year, he is the director of student life at Cardigan Mountain School, a junior boarding school for boys in Canaan, New Hampshire. Nick studied education for social justice at Colby College and later received a Master’s in Education from UNH. In his free time, he hopes to give back through his business, GoodMenders LLC, by organizing presentations and workshops aimed at detoxing masculinity and building better culture while donating net profits to underfunded schools and students.