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“Boys Will Be Boys.”

4 November 2016

I haven’t delved deeply into the Harvard Soccer scandal. The basic allegations are that members of the men’s team produced (at least once, probably annually) a document which speculates pruriently on the women’s team recruits. The press is having a great time detailing the specifics of the copy from 2012 which has been uncovered, but I think it’s in basic poor taste to rehash it all. It is exactly what you might expect a group of 18-22 year old boys would write about a group of 18-22 year old women.

You know what? This is “boys being boys”. And this is actual “locker room talk*” (though, writing it down takes it into another, darker, realm). Boys around the world objectify women, view them as sex objects, and jockey with other boys about what they’d do, or what they’d say they’d do, if they ever caught one. Boys are like that. We’re all like that. Very nearly every heterosexual boy has engaged in this kind of thing. I have. All of the men who are currently pretending to be horrified that this document exists and was produced have done it too.

But let’s be clear about “boys being boys” and “locker room talk”. Just because these things are common, that does not make them acceptable. When people say “boys will be boys” they tend to say it as an excuse meaning, “this is common, understandable, and normal behavior which – while potentially harmful and mildly destructive – can be overlooked.” And I’m sorry but that’s bullshit.

There is a reason that I’m saying “boys” and not “men”. We don’t say, “men will be men”. This is juvenile behavior. Boys are horrible. When we are boys we are destructive, entitled, rapacious, self-absorbed, cruel, and domineering. We need to be taught that these things are not acceptable. And the teaching needs to be serious, heavy-handed, and unequivocal. Because sadly, too many of us never learn or internalize that these are unacceptable behaviors, and never change.

Boys do these kinds of thing. And every generation will need to be taught anew – that’s how development works. We need to take the opportunities we find to confront boys when they behave like this, and correct them, in order to help them develop into men. Men don’t do this kind of thing. Men treat women with dignity and respect, because they have been taught to recognize women as independent humans and not just as sex organs.

There are places for ribald, men-only jocularity even among men (rather than boys). In my AA men’s meeting, we vent about the women in our lives, often using humor, when we need to. But then, immediately thereafter, we begin talking about how to approach our difficulties with them as grown adults who respect the women who’ve chosen to be part of our lives. And when boys show up and don’t recognize that dynamic, we fix it, by teaching them.

So I’m happy that Harvard has now chosen to cancel the remainder of the men’s soccer season. Because it is apparent to me that Harvard didn’t have a men’s soccer team. They had a boy’s team. And that group of boys needs a harsh lesson before they can take the field as men.


*What Trump said on that tape was not “locker room talk”. It was a recording of him confessing to serial sexual assault. As I understand it, the Harvard document was explicit, prurient, and pornographic. But it was not a description of past sexual assaults, nor a detailed manual on how to commit future ones.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Robert permalink
    4 November 2016 11:00

    It feels to me as though the bar for what constitutes a “scandal” is being revised ever downwards.

    What happened here was these guys circulated a document rating the hotness of X women, fantasizing about what kinds of things they would like in bed, and speculating about their personalities based upon their appearance. Harvard is a private institution and is free to hyperventilate about these things if they want to.

    Do I think they’re overreacting? Yes, I think they’re overreacting. Predictably so. Issues like this bring out a toxic admixture of political correctness and Puritan attitudes towards sex and the body.

    Here is what the director of athletics had to say:

    “Any time a member of our community says things about other people who are in our community that are disparaging, it takes away from the potential for creating the kind of learning environment that we’d like to have here at Harvard.”

    The term “disparaging” is dropped in along other, more self-evident descriptors like “lewd” and “vulgar.” And a minority of the contents quoted do appear to be disparaging, such as speculating that a given woman is STD-ridden. But. BUT — calling a woman hot and speculating on her preferred sexual position IS NOT disparaging. It may be lewd, it may be vulgar, but it isn’t inherently derogatory.

    There are no doubt good feminist reasons to deplore this list, but it also inspires outrage for being “lewd” in that it presumes adult women have sex and like sex and in various positions, no less. And that outrage is very far from being feminist in spirit. You could drop this story into 1910 and although the justifications would be rather different, men would still face outrage for talking about women this way, which perhaps should give us pause.

    That list is dumb, it certainly carries with it an implication that sex appeal is the most important thing about these women to these men, and it is potentially hurtful to the women so described. OTOH, our standards for what is actionable when private individuals are e-mailing it to each other should be pretty damn high. Were I in charge, my approach would be to say, look, this reflects badly on the team and the school, it’s disrespectful to these women, knock it off and write a letter of apology. But, no, it’s 2016, so rating college girls’ hotness is described as “the milder end of what has been dubbed US college ‘rape culture'”(1).

    1) See the BBC story cited above; don’t want to drop in a hyperlink on my first post.

    • 4 November 2016 11:07

      While I agree that this doesn’t represent the most harmful type of thing we see (after all, we see rape) in college sports, I think a simple “knock it off” if far too little. These boys should know better by now, and there should be real consequences.

      As for “actionable”, let’s remember that being on a college sports team is a privilege. No one has deprived these boys of life, liberty, or property, or even suggested as much.

      And finally, your dismissive “good feminist reasons” and subsequent invoking of puritanism is absurd. I deliberately didn’t say a thing about the women, because for my purposes, it isn’t really about them. It’s about what behavior we men tolerate from one another.

      And men should not tolerate this juvenile bullshit from boys.

      • Aimee permalink
        4 November 2016 11:39

        Interesting. You both make good points. As a woman (and a feminist!) I can see both sides of your discussion. I also dislike the continually downward pressure on the definition of words like “assault,” “harassment” and even “rape.” I dislike the general tone that young people (women and men both, though in different contexts) need to be protected from ordinary boorishness.

        On the other hand – I don’t think this kind of thing is harmless. Words exist along along a spectrum that goes from thought to action. I am reminded of watching the Hollywood access tape – to me, the most frightening and disgusting part was how excited Billy Bush listening to Trump talk about assault. And when they got out of the van and the woman was there, the first thing he did was pressure her for physical contact (“how about a hug for the Dinald? What about me don’t I get a hug?”) maybe he’s always like that but I got the distinct feeling he was amped up by the immediately preceding “locker room talk.”

        Dehumanizing people with words is a precursor to dehumanizing them with actions. Just because not every thought or word leads inexorably to action does not make this less true. When we talk about people as though they are objects, we make it easier to treat them as such. That’s ultimately why such talk shouldn’t be tolerated – not because women are “too fragile” to hear themselves described as fuckable or not fuckable.

        As for the specifics of the punishment, I can’t speak to that. That’s up to the institution, I guess. Cancelling the season sounds harsh on the face of it, but I don’t have any details. Maybe that was imposed after lesser punishments failed.

        Finally, I just want to say how happy I am to see smart, thoughtful men talking to each other about this subject. Yay!!!

      • Robert permalink
        4 November 2016 12:01

        “And finally, your dismissive ‘good feminist reasons’. . .”

        That was not intended to be dismissive, I just didn’t want to go into great detail in a comment that was already very long about the points where I agree with you.

        I stand by my dislike of the intersection between feminism and Puritanism, and the idea that the two interact in negative ways is far from original to me. For example: If you want to learn a lot about this phenomenon, ask any sex-positive feminist about it.

        “Dehumanizing people with words is a precursor to dehumanizing them with actions. . . . When we talk about people as though they are objects, we make it easier to treat them as such.”

        That is an apt summary of the theory of objectification, of which I must say I am a skeptic. This theory, which is Cartesian in its implicit separation of the mind and the body and Platonic/Christian in its automatic privileging of the latter over the former, states that if you take an interest in someone’s body, you are “dehumanizing” them (because true human beings are souls, not bodies, and sex is dirty and primitive.) I do not think this is necessarily the case. When we see Michael Jordan dunk a basketball, we don’t conclude from that that he doesn’t love his kids or appreciate opera or have an opinion on Brexit. Admiring people’s bodies and what they do with them doesn’t necessarily devalue them or deny their humanity.

      • 4 November 2016 12:10

        I agree that there is a leftist illiberal puritanism (I’m not sure I’d call it feminism, but I also haven’t studied it). And I agree that that is troubling. Sex-positiveness is better all the way round in my opinion.

        But I don’t believe that “appreciating bodies and what they do with them” is a fair description of this kind of document. these kind of thoughts, kept private or shared in intimate settings, are obviously fine. It’s when it becomes a rite of passage to participate in it as a member of a group that it’s troubling. And when it becomes *about* the sexualization to the exclusion of humanity. And this, I think, is a perfect example of that.

        Sex is part of life, as is aesthetic (sexual) appreciation of people one is attracted to. Rightly so. But sexual expression has appropriate and inappropriate exhibitions, and this is firmly in the latter.

  2. Robert permalink
    4 November 2016 12:28

    I agree with all of that. The “this is part of being on the team” aspect does make it more troubling, you’re right to make that distinction. The extent to which, although sexualization does not *have* to be dehumanizing, this particular document *was* dehumanizing, is difficult to judge since it is held to be so horrific the Crimson didn’t make the text itself available.

    I suppose we differ, a little, on the appropriate sanction, but I am not even really incensed about that. It’s incredibly hard to break all sorts of unwritten traditions, and maybe the response needs to be somewhat disproportionate to convey the message that, no, this is really unacceptable and can never happen again.

    • Aimee permalink
      4 November 2016 19:59

      Well, the point is that nobody knows what any given woman’s reaction would be because *nobody asks her.* if there were at any point a genuine interest on the part of a man to approach her and discover her level
      of interest, that would be treating her as a human with agency. There is no such intention here. The intention of these guys – as far as I can tell – is to amuse themselves and each other, not to engage with the women in any way. They could just as easily be doing the same thing with pictures of women in magazines (although that would of course have less possibility of impacting the women under scrutiny). This behavior is dehumanizing because the women are completely erased as living beings with a will
      of their own; or if that will were granted to exist, it would be irrelevant to the game. It’s not dehumanizing because
      of some assumption about what that will might be. There is no such assumption being made because it doesn’t even matter one way or the other. I’m afraid I don’t agree with you that the dehumanization can only happen if we posit that the women would always reject sex. Disregarding their will (even the existence of same) is the same
      No matter what that will actially is.

      • Aimee permalink
        4 November 2016 20:00

        Sorry the thread stopped giving me the option of replying to the same
        Conversation. Maybe you won’t see this.

  3. Aimee permalink
    4 November 2016 12:46

    I’m not much of a philosophy student and I can’t say I’ve ever studied “objectification theory” so I dare say you’re right. It never occurred to me that there was a split between mind and body being asserted here. I don’t see it, to be honest. The whole person is being treated as a plaything for someone else’s amusement – speculating on her likes and dislikes in bed is as amusing to these guys as soeculating on the color of her nipples (or whatever).

    I am, though, a student of history. And I feel pretty confident in asserting that Outbreaks of mass violence are preceded by a long buildup of dehumanizing language towards the targeted groups. That seems to be almost without exception. And I lean towards believing that the same is true in small groups and even on an individual level. Before we can act violently towards someone else, we have to place them outside the circle of empathy. That’s what I meant by “dehumanizing.”

    • Aimee permalink
      4 November 2016 12:48

      Oh and I forgot to add that of course admiration is not dehumanization. Nor is sexual desire. What makes it dehumanizing is hard to explain but easy to recognize – it’s an act of the imagination that turns the other person into a thing without agency.

      • Robert permalink
        4 November 2016 17:13

        Where do you make the inference from rating someone’s hotness and speculating on someone’s favored sexual position to regarding them as “a thing without agency”? That I think is the lacuna.

        It seems as though — and I don’t want to words in your mouth — that the only way we can conclude that is if we know these women would NEVER want or enjoy sex, and these men know that, and hence to speculate about having sex with them denies their agency (since if they had agency, they wouldn’t ever want to have sex.) This is what I mean in saying the (very valid) feminist critique of this behavior has some Puritan overtones I’m not comfortable with.

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