A Post In Praise of Boys and Men

Sorry for the long silence.  The month has been consumed with a variety of demanding and stressful projects.  You can read about one of them here.

In these last few weeks, I’ve had some experiences that individually aren’t terribly significant but which have gotten me pondering about men and boys, male gender roles and boys growing into adolescent, young men and finally men.

Louann Brizendine’s companion volumes The Female Brain (2007) and The Male Brain(2010), both include the idea that men’s brains and women’s brains are wired differently, that men and women can do the same work and are equally intelligent but because of the different wiring, do the work and use their intelligence differently – we all have the same circuits but they connect differently and we use them differently.  Brizendine’s description of the effects of testosterone versus estrogen are interesting.

Some years ago, Camille Paglia wrote that men are more able to think “cold” than women – that is men can more easily conceptualize and think abstractly than women – she described is as slow but deep; women by contrast in her description are fast but shallow.  Thinking about Brizendine’s description of how men’s and women’s brains are wired that makes a certain amount of sense; women’s brains handle communication differently than men’s; men can in some sense switch their emotions on and off while women’s emotions are always on.  I saw a quote from Chaz Bono talking about the effect testosterone has had on him and how as he increases the doses, he finds himself impatient and uninterested in female gossip and talk.

Dealing with a group of early adolescent girls – with surging hormones – can be bewildering as a constant stream of emotion and nearly ceaseless dramas play themselves out before you.  A single glance from one girl to another carries tremendous weight and implication and is read and interpreted and parsed in twenty ways; watching girls try to use their female glances to interest a boy is fascinating as he is unaware of the import of those looks and the girls grow increasingly wild, trying to get is attention in ever more inappropriately physical ways (I’ve actually seen teenage girls tackle a boy and hold him down to get his attention).  In season two or three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there was an episode in which cursed candy caused the adults to regress and act like teenagers.  A scene between Buffy’s mom and her watcher played out with him listening to music while she tried desperately to get his attention; in an interview the actress who played Buffy’s mom, Kristine Sutherland, recalled her own teenage years when she was attracted to a boy and spent the entire night listening to music with him while she was trying frantically to get his attention but all he wanted to talk about was music. 

By contrast, a group of early adolescent boys are profoundly physical – moving, pushing, shoving, even hitting, and yet read almost nothing into it such interactions.  A girl hitting another girl will cause a month’s long feud.  The boys hit back and move on.  Brizendine points out that the surge of testosterone in adolescence actually makes boys less aware of and responsive to other people’s emotional states and in fact makes them read other people as more hostile than they really are.  But there are other effects of testosterone as well.  Andrew Sullivan recounted his experience with testosterone injections:

Because the testosterone is injected every two weeks, and it quickly leaves the bloodstream, I can actually feel its power on almost a daily basis. Within hours, and at most a day, I feel a deep surge of energy. It is less edgy than a double espresso, but just as powerful. My attention span shortens. In the two or three days after my shot, I find it harder to concentrate on writing and feel the need to exercise more. My wit is quicker, my mind faster, but my judgment is more impulsive. It is not unlike the kind of rush I get before talking in front of a large audience, or going on a first date, or getting on an airplane, but it suffuses me in a less abrupt and more consistent way. In a word, I feel braced. For what? It scarcely seems to matter.

And then after a few days, as the testosterone peaks and starts to decline, the feeling alters a little. I find myself less reserved than usual, and more garrulous. The same energy is there, but it seems less directed toward action than toward interaction, less toward pride than toward lust. The odd thing is that, however much experience I have with it, this lust peak still takes me unawares. It is not like feeling hungry, a feeling you recognize and satiate. It creeps up on you. It is only a few days later that I look back and realize that I spent hours of the recent past socializing in a bar or checking out every potential date who came vaguely over my horizon. You realize more acutely than before that lust is a chemical. It comes; it goes. It waxes; it wanes. You are not helpless in front of it, but you are certainly not fully in control.

Then there’s anger. I have always tended to bury or redirect my rage. I once thought this an inescapable part of my personality. It turns out I was wrong. Late last year, mere hours after a T shot, my dog ran off the leash to forage for a chicken bone left in my local park. The more I chased her, the more she ran. By the time I retrieved her, the bone had been consumed, and I gave her a sharp tap on her rear end. ”Don’t smack your dog!” yelled a burly guy a few yards away. What I found myself yelling back at him is not printable in this magazine, but I have never used that language in public before, let alone bellow it at the top of my voice. He shouted back, and within seconds I was actually close to hitting him. He backed down and slunk off. I strutted home, chest puffed up, contrite beagle dragged sheepishly behind me. It wasn’t until half an hour later that I realized I had been a complete jerk and had nearly gotten into the first public brawl of my life. I vowed to inject my testosterone at night in the future.

I managed to get some viral infection a while back.  As I started getting better, I felt a change come over me much like the one Sullivan described – a sense of my body chemistry returning to normal, my concentration changing, my emotional state changing, my sense of energy and ability to face the world altered positively as my body purged itself of the virus and returned to normal.  It was fascinating.  When men are preparing to go into a stressful situation or even into a workout, their bodies start pumping up testosterone.  It reduces sensitivity to pain – professional athletes pumped full of adrenaline and testosterone can play with broken fingers, arms, feet, torn muscles.  As the hormones wear off, suddenly they’re in shocking pain.  A surge of testosterone at the right time increases confidence, aggressiveness, energy levels.  Researchers have found that in fans, testosterone levels increase before a game, then among fans of the winning team stay elevated for a time, while fans of the losing team levels drop immediately after the game. 

Anyway.  Recently, I was with a group of teenage boys; as they came together as a group, I was struck by watching power surge within them – no doubt the effect of testosterone on them as they bonded as a group.  Their energy levels shot up, their eyes shone, their voices carried, their body language shifted, they inhabited the space we were in with a comfortable ease that I don’t remember from own teenage years.  Even their communication changed – it was steady, yes, but there were times of silence, there was a steady, even deliberate pace to the conversation – it wasn’t verbal pyrotechnics because it didn’t need to be.  They listened to one another, and allowed space in the conversation.  By contrast, teen girls talk constantly, a unceasing stream of chatter that has its own rhythms and rhymes and texts and subtexts but which exhausts by sheer volume.  In mixed gender settings, girls talk over boys who as often as not listen with bored bemusement at the constant flow of drama and emotion.  You can see the boys thinking “What the hell are going on about?  Get over it” and the girls thinking “Oh my god!  You aren’t listening to me!?”  Those dynamics seem to continue into adulthood and often (hilariously) plague married couples.

I think about an acquaintance of mine who is raising children.  She recently commented that her now early adolescent daughter has already been more work than both her sons combined – more drama, more emotional outburts, just more work.  Her boys, she commented, pretty much asked for what they needed with her daughter she is constantly having to decode what she actually needs.  It’s a cliche, but in many ways boys are easier than girls.  Boys have their own set of needs and challenges but in my experience tend to respond more readily to parental attention than girls.

Boy, adolescents, and men relate to one another very differently than they relate to women or than women relate to other women.  I have no doubt some of it is attributable to how we social boys and men.  I’ve seen men work side by side for a whole day, exchanging maybe ten words, yet growing a deep bond through shared labor.  Men tend to speak and hear conversation at one level – you say what you mean, you mean what you say; it can feel blunt and even cruel to women, while men often feel trapped by women’s conversations.  “Does this dress make me look fat?” isn’t a request for a compliment, nor is it a request for honesty; men avoid such conversations like the plague.  Listening to these teenage boys the other night, I was struck by the positive sense of casualness they had with one another.  There was a simple sense of camaraderie, a casual slap on the back connection.  You can see, at its best, that same casualness among men.  The willingness to simply be in the group is often sufficient to be accepted by the group.

How boys learn to be together, how adult men model manhood for boys, is incredibly important and I think there’s much to be optimistic about as I think about these fine, strong teenage boys and their interactions with one another and the world.

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