“How Little Boys Learn To Be Little Men”
by David Cain
“Even in the information age I still occasionally encounter an otherwise reasonable person who insists that men really do think about sex every seven seconds. A little thinking reveals this to be pure nonsense—it would mean the average man has been perturbed by over 500 sexual fantasies before he even arrives at work. Yet you still hear it said with a straight face. (Scientists estimate that even college students usually only have about twenty sexual thoughts a day, not seven thousand.)
This not uncommon belief is so astronomically distant from the truth that some strange social force must be at play for even a single person to believe it. After all, we’re not talking about some kind of esoteric knowledge—50% of the population has direct access to a random sample of the data. For this belief to have become as popular as even a mid-tier myth like “gum takes seven years to digest”, think of how many men must have felt like they had to pretend, when the topic came up, that they were thinking about sex several hundred times more often than they actually were.
It’s hilarious, and kind of fascinating, that anyone could get it that wrong. But having once been a boy, and knowing how boys learn to be men, I can see how it happened.
My dad’s eight feet tall: Conformism is the bedrock of our survival strategy as humans. Even when we have no idea what to do, which is often, we know that doing what everyone else is doing is a safe enough bet. Boys learn how to be men by emulating the boys and men around them. However, because everyone is doing this same kind of posturing and pretending, the system is subject to a feedback loop problem. Boys are emulating boys who are emulating men who were once those same boys, each of them with a variety of ludicrous ideas about what it means to be a man.
There’s no reality check mechanism into this system. Among boys, everyone kind of knows everyone else is full of shit, but there’s no precedent for being candid. My experience of being a boy was full of moments like this: “My dad’s seven feet tall!” my friend said, for some reason. “Well my dad’s eight feet tall!” I found myself saying immediately.
Clearly I made that claim without a single thought about whether it was true, or even of the importance of truth at all, at least in any kind of situation where someone is trying to outdo you (or your dad). I don’t know if I continued to argue that particular point about dad-height, but that impulse towards one-upmanship, along with a corresponding aversion towards backing down, was always there as a general dynamic in every boy-to-boy relationship.
This unchecked cycle of posturing leads to the feedback loop that can spawn, among other ridiculous myths, the old canard about men living every moment of their lives with a private sexual fantasy going on.
If everyone’s constantly pretending, who is it they’re pretending to be? And what are the chances that person really is on the inside what they appear to be from the outside? Let’s say young boys of the 1950s saw John Wayne as the ideal man and modeled themselves on him. Was John Wayne even like John Wayne? Of course he wasn’t—any on-screen image is always going to be simpler, more uniform, more uncompromising and uncomplicated than any real person. Even the people who knew The Duke personally wouldn’t have seen the bottom nine-tenths of the iceberg that was his private internal experience. Few of us advertise our self-doubt and existential worries, and I imagine that goes double in Hollywood.
So the kids trying to be like him built themselves on a false image built on other false images. And then they became dads. It’s such a common story that it’s a cliché now: a man meets his childhood hero and is devastated to find that he’s fallible, even pathetic—a drinker, a liar, a steroid cheat. And if they don’t have that disappointing but enlightening experience, they keep on posturing, becoming grown men who will, if pressed, earnestly try to convince you they’ve never actually cried. The feedback loop has driven them into the realm of what pop culture now calls douchebaggery—living as a persona that’s all posture and no candor.
The Yin-Yang Myth: The runaway feedback loop starts at playground age, when our ideas of masculinity are pretty basic. The main tenet is “Don’t be a girl”. This must be why many grown men and women still think that masculinity has no meaning aside from “not being girly”. But if you revisit the issue as an adult you can see it’s not true. The good qualities we associate with masculinity are strength, decisiveness, dependability, upright posture, and a few others. But clearly these qualities aren’t exclusive to men, they’re just the ones manliness emphasizes; nobody with any critical thinking ability seriously believes women are intrinsically weak, indecisive, unreliable and slouchy.
We take the yin-yang image, with its clean lines and stark tones, much too literally. Masculinity and femininity aren’t opposites. They aren’t even yinyang mutually exclusive. They are loose groups of universal human qualities, each benefiting us at different times, but which are usually celebrated more in one sex than the other. We can all be nurturing; we can all be aggressive. We can all be stoic and we can all be sensitive.
If there’s a starkness anywhere, it’s in which of these universal qualities we men and women are supposed to advertise, and which we’re supposed to downplay. I was told not to be a girl, and that meant don’t draw unicorns, don’t wear pink, don’t cry if anyone can see you, and don’t skip. And definitely don’t tell a man you love him unless you add the word “man” at the end.
We learn these rules so young that they have to be simple and kind of dumb. But the earlier we learn something, the harder it is to challenge and refine our views on it. And if we’re not challenging a given view we’re probably reinforcing it.
So it was really encouraging to see Maria Popova’s piece on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s creativity research. He found that high-achieving creative men and women tend to exhibit both masculine and feminine qualities to a greater extent than the general population.
In all cultures, men are brought up to be “masculine” and to disregard and repress those aspects of their temperament that the culture regards as “feminine,” whereas women are expected to do the opposite. Creative individuals to a certain extent escape this rigid gender role stereotyping. When tests of masculinity/femininity are given to young people, over and over one finds that creative and talented girls are more dominant and tough than other girls, and creative boys are more sensitive and less aggressive than their male peers. (from Csikszentmihalyi’s book "Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention")
Note that these people aren’t “keeping to the middle”. They’re doing the opposite. By reaching freely into both conventional territories, they have access to modes of thinking and interacting that are usually unavailable to most of their peers and competitors.
A person who is willing to embrace qualities beyond the stereotypes for their gender “in effect doubles his or her repertoire of responses and can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities.” Letting ourselves make use of the whole human toolbox sounds like a good deal to me. These findings also suggests that relaxing our gender expectations isn’t only a social justice concern—it could also help us become a smarter and more capable species. You can probably imagine, as one example, how our foreign policy ideas might change if there were fewer grown men afraid to look too girly in their responses to problems."”