It's payback time

In "The War Against Boys," author Christina Hoff Sommers claims that unfair programs to empower girls have taken a toll on boys.

Published June 21, 2000 7:31PM (EDT)

In the early 1990s, in the midst of a general revival of interest in feminist issues, there was a proliferation of reports that girls, victimized practically from birth, were being robbed of their self-esteem by a patriarchal culture and shortchanged by sexist schools.

The American Association of University Women and the Ms. Foundation sounded the alarm with largely uncritical media coverage and support from female-friendly politicians. Mary Pipher's "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls," which lamented that "the selves of girls ... crash and burn" in our "girl-poisoning culture," became a bestseller. Take Our Daughters to Work Day became a big hit; and Congress boosted funding for programs to combat gender bias in education. Some school districts experimented with single-sex classes and even all-girl schools as an answer to the inequities supposedly pervading coed classrooms.

It probably was inevitable that sooner or later people would start asking: "But what about the boys?" Sure enough, as the Decade of the Girl drew to a close, there was a spate of articles and books pointing out that boys had their share of afflictions, including higher rates of learning disabilities, emotional disorders and suicide. "Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood," a male counterpart to "Reviving Ophelia" by psychiatrist William Pollack, soared to best-sellerdom after the Columbine massacre (and a plug from Oprah Winfrey).

And now, from dissident feminist gadfly Christina Hoff Sommers, comes the provocatively titled new book "The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men" (Simon & Schuster), both an addition and a challenge to the onslaught of boys-are-in-trouble literature.

The mother of two sons, Sommers makes a powerful case for treating boys with more concern and compassion, while calling for a moratorium on the depiction of girls (and boys) as psychologically crippled victims of an oppressive society. Regrettably, she doesn't base her plea for boys on the principle of individuality but often advances an overly simplistic view of sexual difference.

As expected, Sommers ably and convincingly rebuts the claims of a "girl crisis," following up on her debunking of feminist "Ms.-information" in the 1994 book "Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women." She cites a host of data -- academic sources, as well as the U.S. Department of Education -- that supports her claim that "far from being shy and demoralized, today's girls outshine boys."

Girls not only get better grades but have higher aspirations, says Sommers. She points out that in recent years, girls have outnumbered boys in advanced-placement programs, in all extracurricular activities except sports, and even in most high-level math and science courses.

More male students are "disengaged" from school, says the author, and they are pessimistic about their prospects. While boys, on average, maintain an edge on the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), this is largely due to the fact that more girls from disadvantaged backgrounds take the SATs, because more of them go to college. (Overall, 55 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded in 1996 -- and 64 percent for African-Americans -- went to women.) On standardized tests taken by all schoolchildren, girls are narrowing the gender gap in math and science while boys continue to lag behind, by a much wider margin, in reading and writing.

Have girls simply benefited from actions taken to remedy the disadvantages decried by feminists in the last decade? Sommers argues that at the time the save-the-girls crusade began, girls weren't really in need of saving. By 1990, women were already earning 53 percent of college degrees, and the gender gap favoring girls on reading and writing tests was larger than the one favoring boys on math and science tests. Nor was there any real evidence that girls' self-confidence or psychological health were uniquely at risk.

And even as efforts to empower girls have undoubtedly helped them get closer to parity in some areas -- math, science, computers and athletics -- and get further ahead in others, boys' problems, says Sommers, remain virtually "invisible" to educators who remain wedded to the notion that young males are a privileged group. She describes a 1997 education conference that featured reports on several surveys showing girls to be doing better on most measures of academic and social success. These revelations, presented "somewhat apologetically," says Sommers, had zero effect on the tenor of the conference: "The allegedly tragic fate of girls in 'our sexist society' remained the dominant motif."

But in depicting boys as a "gender at risk," Sommers tends to gloss over crucial socioeconomic differences. Middle-class boys are generally doing as well as their sisters; it is among working-class and poor children that boys today are more likely to founder and girls to pursue more ambitious goals. And all too many children of both sexes are robbed of a quality education: Girls may be ahead in language skills, but their average reading and writing scores in 11th grade still fall short of real proficiency.

Nonetheless, it would be hard to dispute that Sommers is on to a serious problem. A mostly male underclass left in the dust by more upwardly mobile women is hardly something to celebrate. And the evidence of boys' underperformance in some key areas is strong enough to warrant targeted intervention (which, according to Sommers, has worked well in England). It's hard to see how any fair-minded person could disagree.

It is not difficult, however, to find controversy in the second part of Sommers' indictment, in which she claims that boys are being singled out for inappropriate special education in accordance with a radical feminist agenda. "The War Against Boys" describes a reign of terror created by "girl partisans" who see boys as actual or potential sexist evildoers, a climate in which "boys live under a cloud of censure, in a permanent state of culpability." Mildly ribald jokes or innocuous horseplay can lead to charges of harassment and harsh penalties; schoolchildren are herded into consciousness-raising sessions heavy on exaggerated tales of the horrors males inflict on females.

Sommers maintains that sexual misconduct should be treated no differently from the larger problems of bullying and violence in which both boys and girls can be victims and perpetrators, and that bad behavior should be seen as a matter of discipline and ethics, not gender politics.

But even though her critique of sexual harassment prevention programs is generally on target and her proposals are quite sensible, Sommers gives one little sense of whether the more egregious excesses that she describes are typical or common. (A high proportion of her examples come from elite Eastern private schools of a progressive cast.)

I happen to know that one anti-harassment curriculum she describes -- a true monstrosity which had kindergartners solemnly reciting a pledge to combat sexual harassment, and criminalized the pee-pee jokes even gender-equity experts must have told in grade school -- was introduced in a few schools in Minnesota but withdrawn after protests from parents. It might have been worth mentioning, too, that the school harassment guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Education specifically caution against overreactions like the infamous 1996 incident in which a 6-year-old boy was disciplined as a sexual harasser for kissing a little girl on the cheek.

More unfortunately, "The War Against Boys" often lapses into the sex-difference hype that seems to be enjoying a mini-vogue (see, for instance, Andrew Sullivan's recent paean to testosterone in the New York Times Magazine). It is true that not all sexual distinctions in psychology and behavior are "socially constructed," nor does it make sense that, as some feminists including Gloria Steinem have injudiciously suggested, research on biological sex differences should be stopped because it is somehow anti-woman. But by the time scientific evidence trickles down into the popular media, it is almost inevitably oversimplified and overgeneralized.

Sullivan's essay is one example. While many studies find some correlation between high testosterone levels and aggression or dominance in men, whether the hormones produce the behavior or vice versa is still unclear -- and far less is known about the role of testosterone in women. Suffice it to say that if the link were as straightforward as Sullivan implies, no woman would ever be more aggressive or competitive than any man.

"The War Against Boys" offers some similarly sweeping generalizations. Girls cuddle their dolls and exchange intimate confidences with their best friends; boys run around with toy guns and compete in physical prowess. A brief acknowledgment that boy-girl differences are matters of averages and not absolutes is relegated to an end note.

Sommers is especially alarmed by "increasingly aggressive efforts to feminize boys" under the guise of helping them -- led by feminists like Carol Gilligan, who earlier spearheaded the crusade on behalf of oppressed and silenced girls, and by their male supporters such as "Real Boys" author Pollack. In her view, these would-be saviors are just as bad as the outright boy-bashers: They want to "rescue" boys from conventional masculinity and make them "less competitive, more emotionally expressive, more nurturing -- more, in short, like girls." And to achieve their utopia of androgyny, they are willing to pathologize normal boyhood and warp the true nature of boys.

As it happens, I heartily agree with Sommers that emotional expressiveness is not always a good thing and that "stoicism and reserve may well be traits to be encouraged, not vices or psychological weaknesses to be overcome." (Having been accused on occasion of being emotionally repressed, I was especially cheered by her account of research indicating that repression may be healthier than wallowing in emotion.)

And I certainly agree that schools should not be in the business of getting students, male or female, "in touch with their feelings," especially through intrusive and psychologically manipulative methods requiring children to describe why they feel bad about themselves or why they fight with their parents. Whether this is a gender issue is a different matter; Sommers produces no real evidence that such assignments are more injurious or alienating to boys than to girls.

Gender reformers like Gilligan and Pollack are wrong, of course, to depict the American "boy next door" as a near basket case, tragically disconnected from his feelings, emotionally isolated, enslaved by the rigid codes of manhood and only a few degrees removed from the Columbine killers. Yet, while Sommers criticizes this reductive view, she also seems to be agree that "emotional disengagement" and "reluctance to engage in social interactions" are indeed typical of boys. However, she regards these traits as biologically "hard-wired" and therefore in no need of fixing.

In fact, I suspect that just as Gilligan and Pollack overestimate the rigidity of cultural stereotypes of masculinity, at least in middle-class families, Sommers overestimates the rigidity of biological distinctions. Both sides underestimate the social and emotional skills of boys, even if these skills tend to manifest themselves somewhat differently than those of girls.

Sommers also ignores the fact that in some segments of American society, boys still do get a lot of grief if they stray from conventional masculinity. I suspect that the tyranny of the jock culture is still far more prevalent in our schools, and more damaging to boys' learning, than the tyranny of teacher-enforced androgyny. I really don't see why Pollack should be ridiculed for hoping to see a time when boys can "safely stay in the 'doll corner' as long as they wish, without being taunted" -- even if far more girls than boys will choose to drift into that corner.

To be fair, Sommers is hardly a champion of unbridled machismo. She believes that a proper education should temper masculine aggressiveness with gentleness and civility; she even offers some tantalizing evidence that in a single-sex school with male teachers, many boys feel liberated to pursue interests in non-stereotypic activities such as art.

Unfortunately, these themes are subsumed in a biology-as-destiny drumbeat. It seems that every time Sommers refers to boys' competitiveness, she has to preface it with the word "natural" -- which eventually makes one wonder if non-competitive boys are somehow unnatural.

Should a proper education be tailored to the supposedly distinct qualities of boys and girls? There is no doubt that many single-sex schools and classes, some of which are described in "The War Against Boys," serve children very well. But these are carefully designed educational programs in which students get a great deal of focused attention. They would probably work even if they were coed -- though, undoubtedly, there are some children who learn better without being distracted by the opposite sex.

In the end, Sommers herself seems to conclude that boys and girls really need the same things out of their schooling: firm moral rules, structured and guided learning, healthy competition combined with teamwork. Maybe, as she suggests, boys need these things more. Is that really a point worth arguing?

Sommers is right about many things -- above all, the fact that boys need attention and encouragement at least as much as girls do. It will be too bad if her tendency toward retro-sounding rhetoric about the perils of "feminizing" boys alienates many educators who need to hear her arguments the most.

By Cathy Young

Cathy Young is the author of "Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality."

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