Cruelty to Boys

For most of my life I’ve found Mormon-girl and Mormon-woman culture infuriating and alienating. I despise passive-aggressive triangulation and insincere niceness and gossipy backstabbing, in others and especially in myself. I’m all for greater assertiveness and directness and less apology for one’s existence and neurotic hand-wringing over one’s perceived sins, chief among them the sin for which no woman can be forgiven in this life or in the life to come, failure to be nice.

But a recent comment on Ziff’s old scouting thread by someone who was forced to hike through a canyon naked by Scoutmasters/priesthood leaders really horrified me. Since I have mostly sisters, I grew up with little knowledge of or interaction with boy culture. The MTC was my first real encounter, and I found the fart jokes, leering at girls, and general adolescent giggling over bodily functions and parodies of the temple ceremony a bracing and educational experience, to say the least. But I was more struck by the often harsh rhetoric of some (certainly not all) of our MTC leaders. Our first branch president was ex-military, and he treated the elders with extraordinary brusqeness. When our ZL failed to quash the other elders’ juvenile dorm antics, he was publicly, summarily rebuked. There was no opportunity for explanation. There was no his side of the story. There was no discussion. He was simply interrogated and then immediately, publicly smacked down for the acts of others in the district (fascinating psychological technique, to punish him in front of them for their misdeeds!), and on we went.

This kind of demanding, no-whining-no-excuses boot-camp culture evidently works well for some boys, and for some girls, particularly for the thick-skinned, if I might venture a guess. We have mythic stories about how the military makes boys into men, and in the church missions perform a similar mythic function. But for some boys, such emotional roughness can be devastating. And it can clearly go way too far. In the same way that courtesy, kindness, and consideration for others are feminine virtues that can be twisted into passive-aggressive backstabbing nastiness, the masculine virtues of directness, assertiveness, and refusal to indulge whining can be twisted into brutality, emotional and physical bullying, and downright abuse.

I simply cannot imagine an LDS girls’ camp that would force girls to hike naked; if such practices exist, they’re far, far outside any norms I’m familiar with. (Part of this, as Kiskilili pointed out to me, is an issue of modesty and our intense taboos around the female body that don’t obtain with the same intensity when the body in question is male.) If such a thing ever happened, endless recriminations would ensue–as they should. But when we inflict such practices on boys, it’s too often excused as part of “toughening them up” and “making them men.” Similarly, it’s far more culturally acceptable to ridicule boys publicly for their failures, weaknesses or physical unloveliness than it is to ridicule girls. Girls target each other, of course, often with devastating accuracy, but I find it very difficult to imagine a YW leader making fun of a girl in front of her peers. It’s the hierarchically sanctioned ridicule, in which the leaders themselves inflict sometimes downright emotional abuse, that seems peculiar to boy culture.

I hear more than I’d like to at church about the evils of The World as if The World were some monolithic and wholly external entity laying siege the stake center, ready to pour diet Coke down all our virginal throats and cackle with horrifying glee at our collective corruption. But it’s far more useful, though far more difficult, to consider the ways we as Mormons and as fallible human beings all, to varying degrees, embrace the ways of the world instead of the ways of Christ. Over the course of my life I’ve thought a lot about the real evil that can slide around under the guise of femininity, the cruelty of women to women and girls to girls, and more recently, the indignities women inflict on children that we’d never dream of inflicting on other adults. The kind of cruelty to boys this commenter endured is, in a sense, yet another way we as a people have heeded the voices emanating from the great and spacious building instead of honoring our covenants to Christ in the ways we treat each other.

26 thoughts on “Cruelty to Boys

  1. 1

    “hike through a canyon naked ”

    Eve, that’s not boy culture. That’s aberrant abuse. Nothing like that never remotely ever occurred to me. The commenter’s experience was sad but definitely not indicative of “boy culture.”

  2. 2

    I gotta agree with Steve here, I think citing the naked hike is a (probably unintentional) strawman to your anti-“boy culture” argument.

    As for the rest of the cruel things boys subject other boys to, I have a somewhat embarrassing anecdote from my youth wherein me and the rest of my priests quorum unintentionally drove a family of recent converts out of the church because their son felt like he was being bullied and the parents were deeply offended.

    My defense was that we were just treating him like “one of the guys” – because we were. We didn’t abuse him any more or less than we abused each other. I still feel that had we treated him more gently, that he would have felt excluded and patronized leading to the same end result.

    Yes, we could probably have just started playing more nicely, but I’m not convinced that we wouldn’t have lost a greater number of our young men because they felt like church activities were too boring. Also, I truly relish the “boy culture” as described, farts and all. I would be heartbroken to see it go.

  3. 3

    Woops, looks like I’d better clarify a couple of things. Steve, I wholeheartedly agree that the incident described isn’t just “boy culture,” that it abuse. I didn’t mean to suggest it was somehow representative of what goes on in the world of Scouts or boy activities (about which I know almost nothing, clearly!). But at the same time I’m wondering about our seemingly greater tolerance for a kind punitive harshness toward boys than we are toward girls, and about the consequences for some boys.

    Ryan, I didn’t mean to portray myself as anti-boy-culture. I’m actually not, or at least, no more anti-boy culture than I am anti-girl culture, which has at least as many problematic elements, and maybe more (which I allude to in my first paragraph). Although I myself have a pretty limited ability to participate in it, I have developed a certain perverse tolerance and even fondness for fart jokes, Captain Underpants, and all that stuff my nephews, like so many small boys, seem to find hilarious–simply because I love my nephews and they clearly get a huge kick out of laughing at bodily functions. I don’t get into it myself, but something about it makes me smile even as I inevitably roll my eyes. If I had a son who was into noise, dirt, jumping, running, shooting people with imaginary guns, and fart jokes, as so many boys seem to be, I think I’d just smile and roll my eyes a little and try to give him as many physical and social outlets as possible.

    I have no desire at all to eradicate boy culture. Fart jokes seem to play an important part in the psychological and social development of many boys, and probably some girls as well. I just don’t want to see outright cruelty flying under the radar because boys are supposed to be “tough.”

  4. 4

    I don’t think this boy culture would ever be eradicated, and I don’t think it should. I don’t favor going through it, but it is no different than most trials and tribulations we must inevitably endure in this life. Those kinds of incidents described help boys gain their experience and character as they grow up. Certainly the “naked in the canyon” incident is beyond normal, and is abusive, but boys have to have a way of learning to assert themselves, to be able to “stand up for themselves, or fail trying.” In older days, this was done in training the boy in the ways of a warrior. We don’t do that so much these days.

    If a boy cannot find a way to learn to assert himself, he will be trampled on the rest of his days until he finally learns how or dies.

  5. 5

    Dan – egads, man! What you are describing sounds more like the Lord of the Flies than any sort of reasonable coming of age experience. Trampled and die?! Maybe the Cipher in the Snow, then. Yikes.

  6. 6


    Haha, did I capture well from the perspective of the male? I’ve admitted before that I’m not very good at articulating what I really mean.

    I think that man is sometimes harder to understand or grasp than woman is.

  7. 7

    Eve, thanks for this post. Probably at least partly because I was largely socialized by sisters I’ve never been any good at boy culture. I’ve often thought back, for example about the wrestling and endless teasing that my friends did with their brothers, but that I was almost entirely uninvolved in, for the simple reason that I don’t have a brother. My two boys, just by wrestling and arguing with each other endlessly, are more plugged in to boy culture than I ever was.

    So Dan, I have to agree with ECS that your argument for the necessity of boy culture doesn’t sit well. Certainly in the sense of physical confrontation, I’m a namby-pamby 21st century wimp who sits at a computer all day. I’d never learn to “stand up for myself or fail trying.”

    I’ve actually been quite happy to find as an adult that my inability to participate in boy culture well is less and less of an issue.

    Oh, and Eve, I’m so happy to hear that you’ve gained an appreciation for Captain Underpants. 🙂

  8. 8

    Could be. Male processing of low-level emotion isn’t done in the cerebral cortex as in the female. We have a harder time explaining why we feel how we do.

    I recommend “Why Gender Matters” by Dr. Leonard Sax for anyone who wants to understand the other side a little better. It’s like Mars/Venus, but backed by current research. Some of our stereotypes are right, and some are wrong. What’s clear is that we’re fundamentally different. (Not better or worse – differences in cognitive ability disappear by age 30. But until then our abilities develop in different orders and at different rates. And we always approach things a little differently.) There’s also a section on “atypical” people, which is fascinating as well.

    Boys generally have a lot of unchanneled energy and aggression. They overestimate their abilities and take more risks. They actually feel less pain than girls do. They need good men around to show them how to take reasonable risks, spar without harming, banter without intending or taking offense, and put their strength to work in the service of others. In general, the Boy Scouts and Young Mens’ program do a good job. Probably the worst failures happen when leaders take a “boys will be boys” attitude and let them act as they please. That’s the opposite of what they need.

    Our patrol had an overnighter recently. We cooked a lot of meat, cut things, burned things, tied things up, told gruesome stories about people who didn’t practice good safety, had a little good-natured fun at each others’ expense, and read scriptures and prayed together before bed. I know all the men who were there, and they’re hard workers who are gentle with their families. If our scouts decide that *this* is what it means to be a man, we’ll have participated in something great.

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  10. 10

    I feel about the same as Ziff. I always felt more comfortable around girls than boys and never had much taste for wrestling and crude humor. I’ve never been an assertive ‘Alpha male’ type, and I really don’t feel like it’s made me any less a functioning, happy member of society.

  11. 11

    At the risk of piling on Dan (who of course can handle it, since he’s an alumnus of boy culture), let me say I find Right Trouser’s description of male socialization a lot more palatable, not to mention a lot more compatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    It’s not just boys who have to learn to assert themselves; girls do too, and far too many never seem to learn to. And it actually may be more of a problem for girls than it is for boys, because assertion is in tension with feminine norms in a way that it isn’t with masculine ones. But outright cruelty, whether overt or subtle, isn’t a good way to teach anyone anything.

  12. 12

    I haven’t read the Ziff account, but I have been associated with the scouts for a number of years as an adult leader.

    The adult leaders have committed something akin to an “unpardonable” offense within the BSA movement. Should any report them for this abuse (and each of the adults is under an obligation to report), they would no longer serve in a scouting position. Good way to get immediately released. Or go to jail.

    In addition, the scouts have training materials for leaders, scouts, and parents regarding how to recognize abuse and how to report it. Of course, many parents object to their sons’ viewing such materials, on the theory that such things don’t occur in LDS culture.

  13. 13

    This is an interesting post.

    I agree with previous commenters that forced naked hiking is aberrantly abusive, but I think we also need to recognize that abuse which isn’t quite so egregious is shockingly common. ECS perceptively made the connection to Lord of the Flies, and I know several adult men who describe their scouting experiences in exactly those terms. In my troop, for instance, we had the spanking machine. It was used to maintain order. The boys all formed a line, and the miscreant crawled on his hand and knees between their legs. As he went past, you could slap him “on the buttocks”, as Forrest Gump would say.

    This post has caused me to reflect on my own behavior (thanks a lot, Eve!), and I wonder if some of the things I did to other boys might have left some scars. I remember once on a campout we tied a kid up to a tree and left him there for an hour or so. In my defense, I can say that he was being incredibly obnoxious and totally had it coming. And we always tried to steal each other’s towel and clothes from the shower so that the unlucky victim had to run back to the tent nekkid. I’ve heard that a version of this game takes place at the MTC as well. I think a lot of it starts as a joke, and it’s funny until somebody decides it isn’t funny. But that doesn’t excuse the very real trauma that we might inflict.

    I’ve noticed that even among our highest male leaders, they’ll sometimes make public jokes about one another’s age or appearance. I can’t imagine that happening among the women in the General YW presidency, though.

    I’ve tried to empathize with my wife, with little success. She grew up in a family of three girls. Our offspring are all male, and sometimes when the family is together, she feels completely lost. When our sons greet each other by saying “Hi, Butthead!” and exchanging hard slugs to the upper arm, I find it heartwarming and see clear evidence that they really like each other. She is more likely to wonder why they are being mean, and where she failed as a mother. Part of the appeal of the humor we can describe as stereotypically male is that it causes the women in our lives to roll their eyes – that just makes it all the funnier. We still laugh like hyenas about the episode of The Simpsons where that very proper British guy comes to dinner and Homer tries to get him to pull his finger. We repeat the lines back and forth to each other and laugh until our sides hurt, and DW just looks on incredulously, shaking her head and saying something about “inappropriate”. Oh well.

  14. 14

    Great post. It’s always good for feminists to stick up for the little guys 😉
    Like the Zelophehad’s, I was raised with sisters, and having 3 sons is like being on another planet. Luckily, they’re still young, but I know the days of, “Hi, Butthead!” are not too far away.
    Broaching this difficult subject is one of the first steps to changing it. People who don’t see a problem should be convinced that there is a problem so we can work together to fix it. For me, that means I have to role-play with my children what it means to bully or be bullied. What is a good touch and a bad touch, what is helpful and what is hurtful.
    When they’re in YM, I hope to be able to talk to the leaders and get an idea of what their expectations are for the boys, if they “toughen them up” or lead them to be more like Christ. Hopefully, it’s the later. If not, ,maybe we’ll find some inspiration to get DH called in to the YM 🙂
    I really hope that there isn’t too much of this aggression and brutality. It’s actually pretty frightening.

  15. 15

    I have no desire at all to eradicate boy culture. Fart jokes seem to play an important part in the psychological and social development of many boys, and probably some girls as well. I just don’t want to see outright cruelty flying under the radar because boys are supposed to be “tough.”

    Bah. The sooner this “boy culture” is eradicated the better.

  16. 16

    Now Eve, if you had only attended Sunstone, you could have heard a very interesting presentation about the joys of hiking naked. (I think I saw Kiskilili in the audience?) So perhaps the scout leaders were just trying to instill a healthy appreciation for naturism and nudist hiking.

    (I have to say, when the speaker started talking about the joys of naked hiking, I couldn’t help but wonder about some of the . . . practicality issues. The Arizona trails I hiked as a scout were covered in cat claw and jumping cholla at every turn.

    I guess that might provide a chance — not a particularly pleasant one — to earn the first aid merit badge at the same time?)

  17. 17

    Part of the appeal of the humor we can describe as stereotypically male is that it causes the women in our lives to roll their eyes – that just makes it all the funnier.

    Ah, Mark, so rolling my eyes at all this boyish interaction is actually the correct and humor-enhancing thing to do. Good to know. 😉

    Bah. The sooner this “boy culture” is eradicated the better.

    It’s not that I’d miss boy culture, or fart jokes, if they vanished tomorrow. But there are a lot of things I wouldn’t miss if they vanished tomorrow–football, NASCAR, and cage wrestling, on the one hand, and scrapbooking, centerpieces, and wedding planners, on the other. Still, I can’t see that any these things are evils in and of themselves as long as I’m permitted to opt out. As Mark said, as long as everyone participating is having a good time–well then, let the good times roll!

    Kaimi, eek. I’m a prude anyway, but the whole nudity thing just seems so highly impractical to me, for some of the reasons you mention. I like to get my first aid badges under controlled circumstances, so to speak. 😉

  18. 18

    If you want to see the effects of unfettered boy culture, try viewing areas where the illegitimacy rate is approaching 80% and most boys grow up without even a reasonably good role model father in the house. One such teenage boy lived with us for a little over a year, and I can testify of the effect of an unrestrained boy culture on him. He had enormous “natural” potential, but right now he’s on his way to being just another out-of-work baby daddy. Nothing I have experienced in my entire life saddens me more deeply than that.

  19. 19

    This thread looks nearly over, and I need to go on a blogging fast and attend to my real life, but before I do I’ve been trying to figure out how to respond to something Ryan said in #2 that I don’t feel I should pass over without comment, and that’s his description of having run a new-convert family out of the ward with what the parents of the priest felt was “bullying,” and what the other priests felt was just making him “one of the guys.”

    Obviously individual perceptions and preferences can differ wildly–and obviously I wasn’t there and have no idea what happened–but Ryan’s explanation that if they had been gentler with him he would have felt patronized and the family would have left anyway troubles me. The assumption seems to be that regardless of how they treated the boy, he and his family would have left the church. It’s possible that’s true; some people are determined to go. But at the same time it seems far too easy and too self-exculpating to sever the relationship between our own behavior and others’ church activity so completely, especially given the constant stream of counsel we get to friendship and fellowship and treat others with kindness and respect.

    I disagree with Ryan’s final assertion that a kinder, gentler young men’s program would have driven away more boys because they would have been bored. Even if it’s true–which I seriously doubt; I think if we have to resort to cruelty and bullying to entertain people, we’re suffering from a profound lack of imagination–it doesn’t justify the roughness. There are undoubtedly a lot of sinful or downright evil activities that might draw much larger crowds than the service and “wholesome recreation” model on which the youth programs are supposed to operate. That obviously doesn’t mean we should switch models.

  20. 20

    I think if we have to resort to cruelty and bullying to entertain people, we’re suffering from a profound lack of imagination

    Eve, the eloquent insight of your comment aside, this quote explains the popularity of all reality TV and TV talk shows. Public humiliation and cruelty sells big.

  21. 21

    ECS, really good point that never would have occurred to me because I’ve seen so little reality TV. But (as I’ve complained before) I am troubled by the way a lot of forms of TV seem to have completely annihilated any concept of human dignity or privacy.

  22. 22

    With 50-75% of all new members leaving the church in the first year my question is, were they treated like one of the boys before they joined or after? What does that tell us. Our young mens program is willing to put up with just about any amount of rudeness in the name of boys will be boys. A fine line between bullying and play but the results certainly speak for themselves.

  23. 23

    Ray, you make an excellent point.

    I just don’t want to see outright cruelty flying under the radar because boys are supposed to be “tough.”

    I also don’t want to see downright nasty pecking order behavior and social exclusion accepted by the parents of the kids at the top of the chain and accepted as “boys being boys” — it can cause a lot of harm.

  24. 24
  25. 25 an expired website used to provide baptism and activity rates in the 20-30% range for most countries close to 50% for the USA before it went dark. Even if it is 10% or 20% the point is how do we treat our members. We should treat members the same as we treat investigators. Friendly joking and teasing is great but rudeness and abuse to toughen em up not so great. Personally I have seen 1 in 12 are active as soon as the missionary or main conversion catylyst is out of the picture.


    David G. Stewart, Jr., MD – Law of the harvest

    The low number of congregations and stakes being formed reflects fractional retention of converts. President Gordon B. Hinckley noted in 1997: “Last year there were 321,385 converts comprised of men, women, and children. This is a large enough number, and then some, in one single year to constitute 100 new stakes of Zion.” He then cited the imperative need to help new converts “find their way.” Certainly it would be a large enough number of converts, if they became or remained active members. Yet a net of just 119 new stakes were formed between year-end 2000 and 2005 (23.8/year).

    — Using this logic new member wards and branches average over 4000 people and stakes average 30K for 2002-2007. If 800 are active in each ward and branch which would be a large ward that would be 80%inactive rate.

  26. 26

    Correct my math at the end of the last entry

    1,472K new members 1684 new wards and branches 874 new members per new ward or branch. From ENSIGN april confernece reports. 188 new stakes 7,832/stake. New members include Children of record plus converts minus deaths.

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