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Our boys need to absorb this message: Acting violently doesn’t mean you’re a man

Posted Sept. 23, 2015, at 9:51 a.m.

The Sept. 15 BDN headline, “Report: Maine 9th in country for rate of women killed by men,” caught my attention, but I quickly got distracted by the disproportional focus on guns, knives or whether these men killed their partners with bodily force.

Too often, it seems, we take the focus off the men who have committed these violent acts by focusing on the side story — or, more tragically, by blaming the victim. Instead, let’s ask the tough question that sits at the heart of this issue: How can we get boys and men to stop hurting themselves and others at such alarming rates?

The sobering fact is that we live in a world where boys and men are abusing, harassing and violently assaulting girls and women at terrifying rates. Nationally, we see estimates that one in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college, one in four women have experienced violence by a partner at some point in her life and one in five tweens know a victim of dating violence. Locally, a 2013 report by Maine Kids Counts highlights that Maine high school students report higher instances of bullying, physical and sexual violence than the national average. These are people we know, people we love and people in our community.

Not coincidentally, boys and men are also hurting themselves and other men at levels that are very concerning. I don’t highlight this to diminish the epidemic of male violence against women but rather to highlight boys and men as the common thread. While we know the majority of boys and men are not responsible for these violent acts, we all have a responsibility to address the culture that encourages and allows these behaviors to happen. We need to hold ourselves and other men accountable by confronting sexist attitudes and stopping disrespectful behaviors that can lead to harassment, abuse and violence.

So, back to the question. How can we get boys and men to stop hurting themselves and others at such alarming rates?

First, let’s acknowledge that hurt people will hurt other people. When we look at research around the academic decline of boys, suicide, self-harm, violence and incarceration, the story starts to become clearer. Many boys are hurting, often silently and sometimes from very young ages.

While holding ourselves and other men accountable to stop violence against women, we also need to look closely at what we can do to help boys in our society reach their potential to become emotionally healthy, respectful, nonviolent men. We need to counter the many social pressures and cultural norms that can pull boys in exactly the opposite direction by looking closely at the elements of our culture that cause them to detach emotionally and engage in self-destructive and violent behaviors. We need to engage more boys and men to stand up as leaders alongside girls and women to confront the narrow gender assumptions that are harmful and limiting to men and women. And we need to confront sexist attitudes and behaviors that can lead to all forms of violence and self-harm.

We need schools to open up these conversations and opportunities for boys to examine and challenge the cultural norms of violence often associated with masculinity. We need to present role models for boys who are empathetic, tolerant and respectful of others. We need to give boys the opportunity to explore their emotions and develop nonviolent ways to deal with them.

Maine Boys to Men is working with many schools throughout the state to do just this kind of work, and that gives me hope. But we need more partners — parents, schools, government and cultural leaders — to help us present the message that violent acts do not equate with “being a man.” The more people we have helping develop true strength and character in our boys, the safer and stronger our community will become as they grow up into men.

Matt Theodores is the executive director of Maine Boys to Men. He can be reached at matt@maineboystomen.org. He is a resident of Cumberland.

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