When I was kid, I lived in a suburban neighborhood, down the street from a boy in my class. He was an athlete, crude and a bit rowdy — the kind of kid who gets his name written on the chalkboard. Though we went on to become friends in high school, we weren’t close as kids.
My family has a tradition of carving pumpkins for Halloween, and I remember this one year in grade school, my younger sister and I were particularly proud of our little jack-o-lanterns. My mom placed them on the steps in front of our house with candles inside, and as we trick-or-treated around the neighborhood with friends, we couldn’t wait to walk by our house later to show them our pumpkins.
But when my sister and I returned home, the glowing faces of our jack-o-lanterns were nowhere to be found. Instead, the splattered remains of our pumpkins were strewn across the sidewalk and the street. Someone had kicked them off the stairs and stomped them to pieces.
There had always been rumors about roving bands of boys who’d cause mischief in the neighborhood, but this just seemed…mean. My mom dragged a trash can out into the street and joined her two small daughters as we collected the remains of our handmade holiday decorations. I remember thinking to myself, “What kind of person would do this?”
Back at school, I got my answer. The kid from down the street told me that he and his buddies destroyed our pumpkins, and he laughed when he told me. In that moment, it was hard not to describe him as a bully.
A few weeks later, the kid’s mom joined us on a school field trip. She was a sweet woman who was always very kind to me. I was still quite hurt about the pumpkins, and her warm nature made me feel safe coming to her. I should say here that it wasn’t my intention to be a tattletale or get her son in trouble. Instead, I was looking for some empathy, and maybe a some reassurance that behavior like this was not what I ought to expect from my peers.
And so I approached this mom and told her about the pumpkins. I’ll never forget what she said.
“Oh sweetie. You know, boys will be boys!” she chuckled dismissively.
And that was that.
I’ve thought about that moment many times since that day. This mom seemed like a nice woman, and I know her intentions were good. But her response gave me a glimpse into our culture’s shrug-it-off, permissive acquiescence to male violence, privilege, and aggression.
Kicking some little girl’s pumpkin is hardly a crime and ranks nowhere near the horror of real violence. But throughout my life, I’ve heard some version of “boys will be boys” used as our culture’s justification for everything from a little destruction of property to a presidential candidate describing the ease with which he can “grab a pussy.” Examples are everywhere:
- Rush Limbaugh proudly compares the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to a “fraternity prank.”
- In response to the video of NFL player Ray Rice’s assault of his wife in an elevator, a Fox News contributor suggests that the wives and girlfriends of athletes could avoid domestic violence by not provoking “testosterone-filled” men.
- Brock Turner’s father refers to the rape committed by his son as “20 minutes of action” and describes the behavior as “modeled by many upperclassmen on the swim team.”
- Fox News’s toxic corporate culture of sexism and sexual harassment is called a “boys’ club.”
- The male attorney of a male student-athlete convicted of raping two women defends his client’s lenient sentence saying, “We all made mistakes when we were 17, 18, 19 years old.”
- While running for President of the United States, Donald J. Trump passes off his descriptions of sexual assault as “locker room banter.”
It’s hard to hear these stories and not hear echoes of the “boys will be boys” mentality.
Brené Brown said of Trump’s conversation with Billy Bush:
Brown makes an important point on behalf of people trying to educate others about the concept of “rape culture” — a term that can feel so loud and overt that it’s easy to overlook the quiet nuances it also defines. Its insidious subtlety is that it is reinforced every time we shrug off an offensive comment or violent act or a sex crime with a sports metaphor or some cutesy aphorism about permissible male behavior.
When we say “boys will be boys,” we’re not merely tolerating despicable actions, we’re actively encouraging them. Boys and men everywhere get the message that this is not only accepted but expected male behavior.
Even the most well-meaning among us have a role to play in fixing this. Let’s teach our boys (and our girls, too!) that inappropriate behavior is not something we condone. Let’s raise the bar on our expectations of men and women everywhere, and aspire to treat everyone with decency — especially in those moments when we think no one is listening.