THE WEEKLY NEWSMAGAZINE


INTERVIEW - SEPTEMBER 16, 1991

 

Why Johnny Might Grow Up Violent and Sexist

 

Social philosopher MYRIAM MIEDZIAN argues that boys are being raised in a culture that

discourages nurturing and leads many of them to denigrate and beat women

 

By DANIEL S. LEVY

 

Q. Do sports make men cruel?

A. Not all sports, but unfortunately, in this country a lot of sports aimed at the young emphasize competition and winning at any cost. In high school football, boys are often taught to "take out" players from the opposite team. Taking out a player means injuring a player so badly that he can no longer play. I would say that is cruel and entirely inappropriate. There have been studies that indicate that instead of learning sportsmanship and fair play, boys who are involved in competitive sports demonstrate less of these qualities than boys who are not involved.

Q. Aren't you overreacting? I played sports as a kid. I learned positive competitiveness and camaraderie. What is so wrong with wanting to push our sons and our daughters to excel?

A. I am in no way saying every team is obsessed with winning to a really outrageous degree. I am saying it happens much too often. It sounds like it didn't happen to you. My research reveals it is frequent enough that it is a serious problem.

One problem is that there are coaches who are obsessed with winning. Often parents, particularly fathers, literally push their sons to such a degree that some boys play really badly, because they want to get kicked off the team because they are under so much pressure from their fathers to win.

Parents should become aware that an extreme level of competition is just not good for a seven- or eight-year-old boy.

What I recommend is that parents make sure the coach is not someone who is obsessed with competitiveness. At every level it is important that parents find out what is going on and do something about it. I advocate regulation of youth sports. There are 30 million American children involved in youth sports programs, and there is absolutely no control over who the coaches are or what is going on.

Q. How can you seriously expect more regulation in a period of budget austerity?

A. Anything is possible. We have gone through a period of extreme deregulation, and we are suffering greatly as a result. The fact that regulation isn't fashionable now doesn't tell us anything about five or 10 years from now.

Q. But isn't the inappropriate behavior you speak about isolated to the playing fields?

A. No, not at all. It isn't. What athletes learn on the playing fields is often carried on in the outside world. They learn to win at any cost. They are taught to be enormously concerned with dominance and conquering the other team. Having learned those kinds of lessons, it is very hard to cut that off when you are in the outside world, so it is not surprising that they carry it with them to their relations with women. That is not to say some athletes don't make a distinction, but many don't.

From the youngest age in Little g League, there is often a denigrating attitude toward girls and women. The worst insult a boy can yell at another boy in Little League is to call him a "wuss." If you combine the emphasis on winning at any cost with the negative attitude toward women, it is not at all surprising that approximately one-third of the sexual assaults on college campuses are by athletes.

Q. Isn't the level of sexual assaults just a reflection of better reporting of a phenomenon that has been going on for a long time?

A. I don't think there are any hard statistics on that, but my guess is there has been an increase. There has been an enormous increase in violent crime in this country in the past 30 years. Homicide rates have doubled and continue to soar.' There is such a culture of violence now that surrounds young people that I would suspect violent rates in all areas would be going up.

Boys are constantly being subjected to so-called adventure films, which are really nonstop violence films with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator and Jean-Claude Van Damme doing blood sport, and slasher films in which people are dismembered, burned alive, skinned. By the time American kids are 18 years old they have watched 26,000 murders on television alone. Heavy-metal and rap lyrics often encourage rape and bigotry. It is contrary to common sense and research to think you can create such a culture and not have any effects.

Q. Recently, several members of the lacrosse team at St. John's University in New York were accused and then found innocent of sexually assaulting a woman. If, as they claim, the woman freely consented, why are their actions still so disturbing?

A. I find it disturbing that these young men want to do this kind of thing-that they think it is fun to have group sex with an inebriated young woman. No one denies that she was drunk. The definition of rape in most states includes having sex with someone who is not in the position to give consent. But even if they thought she was somehow consenting to this, why do they think it is fun to slap her face with their penises? Why do a bunch of boys in Glen Ridge, N.J., all of them on the high school football team, think it is fun to shove baseball bats and broom handles into the vagina of a retarded girl, a girl with an 1.Q. of 64? This isn't sex. It is violence. The Glen Ridge case hasn't been decided yet, but it doesn't really matter what is ultimately decided. What bothers me is why they think that is fun.

Q. In your book, Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence, you argue that parents should be more forceful about insisting that society help rather than hinder them in the overall raising of children.

A. Both parents and educators can start to pressure their schools to introduce conflict-resolution programs so young people from the earliest age can begin to realize that there are alternatives to violent behavior. In these programs, children act out scenarios in which they learn to defuse confrontation; for example, boys might be taught how not using insulting language can help resolve a dispute over the ownership of a basketball. For many boys who go through these programs, violence goes from being a first reaction to a last resort. Parents should also urge schools to conduct child-rearing classes. While schools teach almost every complex skill that people need to know, we omit what is the most important one-how to be a good parent.

Q. Won't child-rearing classes just encourage pregnancies?

A. No. Absolutely not. I recommend that we start teaching the classes in fifth grade at the very latest because girls are getting
pregnant at the age of 12. Once the kids understand what an enormous responsibility it is to be a parent, they don't want to do it anymore. They begin to respect the needs of the child. Another thing these programs do is encourage caring and sensitivity in young boys. They encourage boys to view themselves as future nurturing fathers. There is very little encouragement of nurturant fathering in this society. We have had a 350% increase in births to single mothers in the past 30 years. We have a soaring divorce rate, with half or more divorced fathers not seeing their children. Research reveals that boys raised without caring and involved fathers in the home are at a higher risk for violent, antisocial behavior than those who have such a father.

Q. How do you stop the violence?

A. Children have to be removed from the commercial market and treated as a precious national resource. We have made the mistake of allowing the enculturation of American children to be in the hands of businesspeople, whose primary interest is not in these children's well-being or even in the well-being of the nation. These people are perfectly ready to exploit the worst possible human potentials. Parents, teachers, educators, social workers, should get involved to try to bring some regulation to this.

Many European countries have much more serious restrictions on what movies children can see than we do in the U.S. We have these theoretical restrictions like the R rating. But the R rating is a joke. I went to see slasher films, and the movie theaters were filled with young kids. Some parents bring their children to see slasher films. When I went to see A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4, there was a little girl sitting in front of me whom I estimated to be three years old. We need to educate those people to begin to understand what the effects are of viewing these kinds of films.

Q. Toy-store aisles now look like mini-arsenals. Do you want to control that too?

A. Yes, and that is also done in some of the European countries.

Q. But that violates a youngster's right to buy whatever toy he wants.

A. No, it doesn't. Does the fact that a 12year-old can't go into a bar and order a scotch on the rocks, does that violate his or her rights? It is the same thing. We have a history of regulations for the protection of children. A 15-year-old boy cannot buy the same girlie magazines that his father can buy. There are laws to protect children from alcohol. There are laws to protect children from working at an early age.

Q. But a G.I. Joe toy is not an issue of Playboy. Kids have always played with such toys, and who are you to tell parents what their kids can play with? That violates the parents' right to let their child grow up the way they see fit.

A. But then aren't we violating parents' rights when we don't allow their children to go into an X-rated theater and see pornography?

Q. One is pornography, the other the right of parents to buy their child a toy.

A. We have a complete double standard in this country with respect to sex and violence. Why is it that on a Saturday morning it would be unthinkable to put a porno movie on regular network TV, yet it is O.K. to put on a show in which 87 people are killed an hour? Isn't killing people at least as inappropriate for a young child to see?

Viewing this endless violence encourages violent behavior. We let our kids watch this stuff, and then we are surprised that we have the highest violence rates of any industrialized country. We talk a lot about freedom, but what kind of freedom is it when a child's worst potential is being encouraged by people who are interested in making money? Where is the freedom of a boy who has watched endless slasher films and goes out and commits acts of rape or other violent acts?

Parents should do everything to protect their boys from these films, but they are being put in an unfair position. It is completely unrealistic to expect parents to constantly monitor everything their child is watching. But parents do have some options. They can install lock boxes on their TVs, which allow them to program their sets so they can control what their children can watch. Parents also should be writing letters to their member of Congress, asking for the creation of a children's public television network dedicated to pro social, nonviolent programming. This is not to say I have in mind goody-goody, boring programming. You can have entertaining, interesting programming that doesn't have to be filled with gratuitous violence.

Q. How do you turn the Sylvester Stallones into Gandhis?

A. You have to redefine masculinity. We have to begin to encourage boys from the youngest age to be empathetic, to get in touch with their own feelings, to tell them they can be nurturing and masculine at the same time.

Q. As a mother of two girls, why did you write this book about boys?

A. The book focuses on boys for the very simple reason that approximately 89% of violent crimes in the U.S. are committed by males. If you are trying to deal with the problem, you deal with those who are at the center of the problem.

Otherwise, I was drawn to this topic in part because I am a Holocaust survivor. I was three years old when the Second World War started. I was born in Belgium and was forced to leave a very peaceful environment. My family and I became refugees, sleeping in schoolyards and running from bombs.

When my father turned 80, he sat down and counted how many of his relatives had been killed in the Holocaust. The number totaled 135 people. I think my ability to see that masculinity does not have to equal violence comes out of having grown up with a father for whom the values of the masculine mystique meant cossacks raping the women and looting the homes. It meant Nazis gassing his family. Because I grew up with a role model for whom violence was not at all a fun and exciting thing, it was clear to me that there is no necessary connection between masculinity and violence. This is a very different angle from which many women might arrive at this subject, because it is from my own positive experiences that I know that a man can be strong, determined, courageous and adventurous without being violent.