The #MeToo balancing act in school

Black male teenager chatting smartphone outdoors, high school students on break
Black male teenager chatting smartphone outdoors, high school students on break (Dreamstime)

Last year, the private all-boys high school that Chris attends in Baltimore co-hosted an event with an all-girls high school. They discussed the #MeToo movement and sexual assault against girls.

Girls discreetly shared their own stories about assault and unwanted attention of their bodies as a way of giving boys greater insight into their experiences, said Chris, a high school senior. They were also “talking a lot about how guys abuse our privilege and power,” he added.


At some point in the discussion, some of his classmates asked questions, including one that challenged the “double standard” where girls could hit boys but “boys weren’t supposed to hit back to defend themselves,” said Chris, who, like others in this article, did not want his last name used because he feared online and offline retribution.

“They were shut down,” he said. “The girls kept saying that they shouldn’t have to answer any questions” because the boys should already know.


A similar clash played out last year between an all-boys and an all-girls school in Adelaide, Australia. I was in Australia conducting research for a book about healthy masculinity and working as a visiting scholar and lecturer at some boys schools.

One boy, Angus, a senior at the time, told me that he and a few friends asked questions about girls’ roles in the murky landscape of dating and sexual consent that were met with “furious resentment.” Angus said he had asked why girls were allowed to “touch and kiss us without asking.” He said he and his friends were told to leave.

“We had questions the girls wouldn’t answer. They said we should have known the answers,” Angus told me. “Did the girls and administrators really think that shaming us would suddenly change the way we think?”

Then he asked something I’ve heard many times in my research: “How are we supposed to understand if no one will answer our questions?”

The #MeToo movement was a watershed moment, empowering girls and women to share their stories, and many boys and young men have told me in interviews that the greater awareness of and need to end sexual assault against females is “long overdue.”

But some boys and young men have also told me that they are worried about what the movement means for them. They feel that their voices have been silenced in conversations around gender, and they struggle to navigate damaging perceptions about masculinity, particularly in the realm of dating.

Many boys have told me of the “confusing messages” they are sent when it comes to expressing their romantic interest in a girl. On the one hand, boys are finally learning about the necessity of consent; on the other hand, they still face dated masculinity stereotypes that limit and confound them, including a culture that places pressure on men to initiate intimacy.

“I have friends, girls, who want the guy to be the sexual initiator, to be ‘the man,’ like in movies,” Jaden, a high school junior in Alexandria, Virginia, said. He said these are the same girls who, if a guy asks if he can kiss them, say: ‘That’s so lame. Why would you ask that?’”

Jaden said he and his male friends want to be “absolutely respectful” of girls’ boundaries, but they also want to be “taken seriously” by the ones who expect them to behave in a stereotypically masculine way. In addition to deciphering this riddle, boys fear that one wrong move could ruin their current and future reputations in this age of swift, devastating social media justice, especially because many college admissions officers scan social media for black marks on candidates’ cyberpresence.

“Dating is just a huge scary maze,” Jaden said, adding that many of his friends have sworn off romantic entanglements for now.

One sexual assault accusation, even if a boy is absolved, is tagged to that person and hovers in cyberspace for life. “You’re guilty until proven innocent,” said Ben, a junior at Frostburg State University in Maryland.

Michael Reichert, head of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania, said that “boys are behind #MeToo but feel overlooked and misunderstood” when it comes to their own needs.

“They feel nothing about their experience as males is being recognized or addressed,” said Reichert, the author of “How to Raise a Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men.” Yet, he adds, “they are yoked with normative masculine expectations from both males and females.”

Chris, a 25-year-old Duke University graduate student, says he often tries to “find a resolution or common ground with friends when tension arises.” But he has found that any time an issue around gender arises and his “question to a female friend comes out the wrong way or is perceived differently than intended,” then the “conversation is immediately shut down.”

When he was discussing a fellow male student from Colombia with female friends, all of whom are in the same program, Chris said the women complained about how flirtatious and romantically direct the young man was with some of them.

“I brought up that maybe we need to not be so critical without considering his cultural norms,” Chris said, adding that he was trying to find a middle ground when discussing a colleague they all knew. “I was accused of being a ‘misogynist’ or of defending harassing women. A circle firing squad occurred immediately.”

Chris said that the one other man who was part of the conversation later admitted to him, “I was thinking the same thing, but I didn’t want to get ganged up on.”

Consequently, Chris said he had recently decided to step back from some of his friendships with women. He is not as open with them as he used to be “because conversations around gender have become stifling,” he said. “Anything you defend when it comes to men leads to you being lumped in with bad masculinity.”

Some young women said they have noticed a self-imposed distance from some of the men in their lives.

Jess, 21, who works at a Starbucks in Baltimore, said a male co-worker negotiates their frenetic workspace with his hands raised. “He’s afraid of being accused of inappropriately touching anyone,” she said.

Nicole, a senior at Towson University, said her brother, 20, walks through crowded parties with his hands on his chest for the same reason.

“He does this out of respect for women,” she said. “Honestly? He also does it because he’s terrified of being accused of touching them, even accidentally.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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