Parent, Teacher, Activist
This is an important question for us to ask. We’ve talked about how viewing yourself as an object and focusing on your value only in terms of your sexual attractiveness can impact girls. But what about boys? Do the messages that they get about women and girls have an effect on them?
Some of the most interesting conversations that I’ve had recently were with middle school boys about this topic. They say, in no uncertain terms, that the pervasive sexual images and depictions of women and girls do impact them.
What they tell me is that it does three things:
1. Confuses them about how they should act toward girls. They get mixed messages, be polite and respectful but then again “it’s good for a girl to be hot.” As an adolescent male, how do you handle both of those messages? Is it polite to comment upon a girl’s “hotness” or how they their body looks? Or is that disrespectful?
2. Encourages them to make choices about the girls they choose to spend time with in a different way. Boys say, “I really like this person, she’s fun and smart and we have a great time together. But….nobody else thinks she’s pretty or hot. People will make fun of me if I hang out with her.” Boys believe that their own social value is closely linked to their ability to be romantically involved with girls who are viewed as highly attractive and sexy. Even 5th grade boys when asked why they liked a certain girl that they were “going out” with said things like, “She’s hot.” They didn’t mention if the girl in question was nice, fun to be with, had interests in common with them, and so forth. Their primary criteria was physical attractiveness.
You might argue that many grown men are even using this as their criteria for a partner. I would say that of course we all need to be physically attracted to our partner. But there is much more to it than just that person’s perceived level of sexiness. Above and beyond all of that, we must like being around them. That’s the message that these boys are missing in our culture that focuses primarily on a woman’s value being in her appearance. Boys are not getting the idea that pretty isn’t all there is to a female.
3. Alienates them when they’re not at a stage where they’re ready to be in a romantic relationship. It’s very natural for a young adolescent boy to be fairly uninterested in having a romantic relationship with a girl just yet. He often wants to hang out with friends of both genders. But, he consistently gets the message that his prime focus should be on getting a girlfriend. It’s hard to deal with this difference in his own wants and the pressures that he feels from others. Many boys that I talked with said that they would “go out” with girls just because they felt that they were supposed to. Some even found themselves involved in physical relationships at a level that they were uncomfortable in. My guess is that the girls in those relationships were also uncomfortable. Both were responding to perceived social pressure to be physically and romantically active in ways that aren’t necessarily developmentally appropriate.
So, yes, the sexualization and objectification of females in the media does impact boys. What can we do to help our boy see things differently?