Conservatives Fabricating ‘War on Boys'

While boys' problems and some girls' problems have been exaggerated for political reasons, the fact remains that anti-violence, anti-bullying and anti-harassment messages are good for boys and that both girls and boys need help.

Author Caryl Rivers

Conservatives have taken up the cry that American society has embarked on a war on boys that demonizes young males and ignores their problems, focusing instead on girls. In fact, they argue, feminists have hijacked the agenda of American schools, and boys are suffering as a result.

Leading the charge is Christina Hoff Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The War Against Boys.” As she sees it, American girls are thriving, but boys are in grave danger.

But are boys, in fact, in terrible shape? First of all, in detailing boys' woes, critics like Hoff Sommers downplay the role of class and race. Poor boys, especially African Americans, are indeed in crisis, with more young black males in prison than in college.

But are middle-class boys in great trouble? In fact, few are involved with the criminal justice system and drug use is going down. And while a few school shootings by troubled boys get massive publicity, schools are in general very safe. Your child has only a one in a million chance of being shot by a crazed boy in school.

That's not to say that boys don't have problems. Boys have more learning disabilities than girls do, for example. But is this fact being ignored? Hardly. Schools are spending billions of dollars on such problems as attention deficit disorder. Arguably such programs benefit boys more than girls.

Critics say that “zero tolerance” policies toward violence and sexual harassment demonize boys. In fact, they help more than hurt boys, often the victims of violence themselves. Sure, there is the occasional silliness-like the suspension of four kindergarten boys for playing a game and using their hands as toy guns. But overall, anti-violence and anti-bullying messages are good for boys. The Columbine tragedy might not have happened if vicious bullying of the two high school boys had been halted by school officials before the youths picked up guns.

As for sexual harassment, clear policies can help boys sort out mixed messages they get from a hyper-sexualized media. They need to understand that in today's workplace, harassing behaviors are not tolerated and they could derail a man's career.

There is, in fact, no war being waged against boys. And while Hoff Sommers makes some valid points about how the problems of girls have sometimes been exaggerated, the author does exactly the same thing herself with boys' problems. The book is based on anecdotes, not data. While she bombards the reader with charts and statistics, she makes her major points based only on a story or two. For someone who chides advocates for girls for playing fast and loose with data, her own data are far from solid and convincing.

Hoff Sommers argues that girls' problems have been exaggerated; it's boys that really need help. And indeed, a well-intentioned but poorly designed study of self-esteem by the American Association of University Women gave the impression that all girls are at risk for self-esteem problems. Not so; a minority of girls actually suffer low self-esteem. But girls do have problems. While they get higher grades than boys, they score lower on the all-important SATs that often determine college admissions. Girls suffer from a plethora of eating disorders and math and computer phobias that could keep them out of the good jobs in tomorrow's workplace.

None of this means we should ignore boys' problems, educators warn-but we shouldn't exaggerate them, either, which some on the right are doing.

For example, US News and World Report columnist John Leo notes with alarm the fact that girls now outnumber boys in college classrooms. He conjures up a dire scenario in which educated middle-class women won't be able to find men to marry and the numbers of unmarried mothers will increase.

That's a misreading of statistics. Where are middle-class young men going who are dropping out of college? The roaring economy is attracting many of them, especially into computer jobs. Will middle-class young women refuse to marry young men with good jobs because they don't have a college degree? Not likely. And if the economy cools off, these still-young men may return to school; they are not hampered by the lack of basic skills that keeps poor young men unemployed. Just as many 60s “hippies” turned into lawyers, doctors and businessmen after dropping out for a while, few of today's young middle-class college dropouts will morph into jobless men who can't support their children. It's a false alarm.

And American University Professor David Sadker notes that female presence increases as the status of the college decreases. Females are more likely to dominate in two-year college than in the prestigious Ivy League, where males still outnumber females. Also, too often women are concentrated in majors that correlate with lower-paid positions in the job world.

Setting boys against girls is an exercise that serves children ill. And it is risky to advocate, as some conservatives do, that we should raise today's boys just as their grandfathers were taught in the 1950s. In those days, white males could look forward to 30-year jobs in the industrial state. They composed the dominant group who had no competition for jobs from women and male members of minority groups, and they could expect that their wives would be willing to stay home and do nearly all the parenting.

That world is gone. Young men who can't accept the new economy and the new realities of gender and race will only inherit anger, sadness and, most likely, failure. While the old hierarchical order rewarded macho behavior and the stiff upper lip, new realities at work and in families demand flexibility and the ability to communicate.

In fact, Harvard professor William Pollack's study of boys, “Real Boys' Voices,” found them constrained by old gender stereotypes and very much in need of “being openly caring, loving and affectionate without fear of being seen as weak and feminine.”

Stereotypes hurt both girls and boys and they both need all the help we can give them. In order to prepare them for the real world they will be facing, we should neither exaggerate nor ignore their problems, especially in the name of ideological warfare.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University and the author of “Slick Spins and Fractured Facts,” Columbia University Press.