By Tom Klaus, Program Director, Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiatives, Advocates for Youth
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Advocates for Youth.
My son started teaching me about sex when he was only four years old. As I was driving him to pre-school one day, he turned to me and said, "Dad, I know how babies are made." I smiled and, expecting to hear the latest childhood sex myth asked, "Really…so how are they made?"
"Well," my son began, "you see, sperm comes shooting—BOOM! - out of the penis and it swims and swims and swims until it finds an egg and sticks to it." Thank god for child safety seats or I'd have had to peel him off the windshield. "What!?!" I exclaimed. "How did you learn that?" After a few minutes of panicked interrogation, I learned that he saw this while watching the movie Look Who's Talking? with his mother.
Not counting my first reaction, my son was not harmed by this information. The only "harm", if there was such, was to my own myth of fatherhood—a myth in which I would have the opportunity to give this little guy "the talk" when I thought he was ready. What I learned that day was that my son was going to get a sexuality education whether I liked it or not, whether I was ready or not. So, it was time I got into the game.
Talking with boys about sex really requires us to "get into the game." Boys need the same information about sex and sexuality that girls need. What is different is how we need to approach it. Behind all we do and say with boys, we need a basic understanding of how boys are taught to be men—the "game." One of the best models for this process is from William Pollock's book, Real Boys. Pollock calls this model "The Boy Code," and it affects, not only how males view the world, sex, and relationships, but also how they process information.
While conducting research at Harvard, Pollock developed "The Boy Code" to describe a set of four rules that he suggests every boy has to learn and live by, if he is to be welcomed as a "real boy" into the world of adult men. It's not like these are lessons that are written out anywhere; rather, they are ideas of manhood that boys learn by repetition and through the modeling of other males—and females—in the greater culture. Briefly, the four rules of "The Boy Code" are:
- The Sturdy Oak — Boys learn that men are not to show weakness but are to be stoic, stable, and independent.
- Give 'Em Hell — Boys learn that males are supposed to be high energy, violent, super humans, and hence, that even their wildest, worst behavior may be overlooked because "boys will be boys."
- The Big Wheel — Boys learn early that they need to work to attain status, dominance, and power and that they should avoid any sense of shame.
- No Sissy Stuff — Boys learn that the "sissiest" of the sissy stuff, is feelings, in general, and any tender feelings, in particular. Real Boys, and hence, Real Men, don't feel anything.
Anytime we attempt to communicate with boys, we'd do well to remember what "The Boy Code" is impressing on them. Here's what I've found helpful in talking with boys who are playing by the rules of "The Boy Code."
Respect: I need to respect boys and to acknowledge that "The Boy Code" is a powerful game that all boys in our society are asked to play on their journey from childhood to adulthood. This doesn't mean to condone "The Boy Code," but to remember the power it has in a boy's life and to understand that wanting to play something else may not be emotionally, or even physically, safe for him. Because "The Boy Code" teaches males to avoid a sense of shame at all cost, I need to remember that a young man will not respond to attempts to "guilt" him into more sexually responsible behavior. Because a boy is taught to be "The Big Wheel," it may be tough for him to admit that he doesn't already know everything there is to know about sex. Because he is taught to be "The Sturdy Oak," he may put up a wall that seems to suggest that he has it all together. Because he learns to "Give 'Em Hell", to take risks, the idea of engaging in "safer sex" may seem "unmanly." I simply need to be aware of the powerful lessons "The Boy Code" has been giving long before I have a chance to sit down and strike up a conversation with any particular boy or young man.
Stories: Because "The Boy Code" does not encourage males to communicate at all—including emotionally, story telling can be a powerful way of talking about ideas as well as feelings. For the past 18 years, I have told my son stories about my own experiences and discoveries, as well as about other people I know. For example, I told him a story from when I was in 5th grade and, for the first time, experienced a crush. It was on a classmate. I told him about the risk I took—standing behind her in the lunch line one day, leaning up to her ear, and quietly whispering, "Sandra, I really like you." She turned around, looked glaringly at me and said, in no whisper I might add, "That's really great, but I can't STAND you!" I used this story to teach my son that attraction and love are not always reciprocated, no matter how passionate we feel.
I learned about the power of storytelling when I was leading therapy groups with males several years ago. It wasn't until I asked the men to start telling stories and writing and reading stories within the group that we really began to make progress. When boys and men tell stories, if we listen carefully, we can hear their feelings that lie just beneath the surface.
Sound Bites: I've also found that boys tend to feel most comfortable with short, to-the-point conversations. Once a story has been told, that is not the time to launch into a long exposition of it or to point out every lesson in it. I keep "teaching" to a minimum, and instead, remain open to the opportunities that boys create. Then, I simply drop a piece of information or an idea into the conversation. The lessons behind the stories can be condensed into "sound bites," in the form of a comment or even just a conclusion. "Well, no matter how much I liked her, it didn't guarantee that she liked me back." Though boys may not acknowledge the "sound bite," they hear it.
Keep Busy: Some of my best conversations with boys, including my son, have occurred while we were doing something else—driving, working on the yard, playing chess, hiking, watching television. In these situations, our conversation tends to be more comfortable, natural, and flowing because it isn't the total focus of our attention.
Several years ago I worked with a thirteen-year-old boy who had fathered a child with a 15-year-old girl. He was considerably younger than the other young fathers who came to our teen dad group and he didn't feel particularly comfortable with the group. So, I spent one-on-one time with him. Every Tuesday afternoon, I picked him up after school and drove to the neighborhood McDonald's. It always cost me a McMeal, but while we ate fast food, we talked—about his son, his now ex-girlfriend, and how he was handling the pressures of fatherhood, school, and new relationships. In this environment, my role was less as an advisor and counselor and more as a "life coach" and it worked.
The worst thing we can do is to fail to connect with boys about any particular thing, but especially about sex. It isn't easy growing up male in American culture, and it can be a nasty game. However, we won't do much good from the sidelines. Let's suit up and get in the game!