Rather than a conversation about guns or sexual assault, which is difficult to have on social media, I thought we might talk about what is going on that so many young men are turning to violence, whether sexual or gun violence.
I could indulge in all sorts of discussion about how this is tied to warped ideas of manhood. I’ll leave this for the psychologists. What I wonder about is the sheer number of boys who really have no one helping them figure out this passage to manhood.
Many cultures have “rites of passage” that mark the transition from boyhood to manhood. These often involve rituals, ordeals, and the mentoring of boys by men. Some of this may seem barbaric to our modern sensibilities but the impact was to clearly demarcate for young men that they had truly become men, and fully shared with other men responsibilities for the health of their society.
One of the few places I’ve seen anything like this happen in our society is in Boy Scouts. Adolescent boys are mentored by men. The Scout Law emphasizes qualities of character: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” Scouts learn a variety of outdoor survival skills including orienteering, building fires, pitching tents properly, cooking food, and first aid.Two of the most important parts of Scouting are The Order of the Arrow and the Eagle Scout project. The Order of the Arrow is a kind of “ordeal” where a boy must camp out alone, create his own shelter, and not speak to anyone for 24 hours. Subsequently, Arrowmen are part of a brotherhood for life.
The Eagle Scout project involves attaining a series of ranks by meeting a number of requirements including badges that signify competency in a variety of skills. Then the Scout organizes a service project for the community, obtaining the needed materials and leading other Scouts and volunteers, and finally writing up and defending this project and his whole Scouting career before a board of review before being awarded this rank, which is also consider a lifetime achievement. One is always an Eagle Scout.
These are rites of passage that mark a transition from boyhood to adult manhood. They involve developing a capacity to endure some discomfort and to exercise self control, to work hard, to lead others and accept responsibility under the mentorship of adult men.
What I wonder about are the many boys who have no experience, formal or informal, like this in their lives, and no men, fathers and others, involved in helping them learn a richer idea of being a man than sexual and physical prowess. I also wonder if there are others whose only “adult” models are really boys in men’s bodies.
I suspect there are those who will accuse me of swapping one set of gender stereotypes for another. I would contend something different. I think many young men are more confused than ever about what it means to be a man. Sexual prowess and gun violence (real or virtual) are easy outs. What I would contend for is that a real man is an adult–someone who knows how to act with integrity, to work with excellence, to express his sexuality to love and serve and enrich another, and to handle conflict constructively and work with those who are different from him. And such an adult knows how to act and live well in the company of others, regardless of their gender identity or orientation, without posturing, power plays, or manipulation.
We can pass laws (or not) to control guns and establish policies to control sexual behavior (particularly on campuses). Fear or lack of opportunity may cut the numbers of assaults and maybe even deaths from guns. But until we take a hard look at how our young men are coming of age and what kinds of experiences are forming them into what kinds of adults, I think we will continue struggle with how to control boys in grown up men’s bodies. And frankly, I’m not sure we will ever be very satisfied with the results of that kind of “man control.” The best control is still self-control.