Think of the average college man: what does he look like?
Is he the boozy, womanizing frat boy of films like Old School and Animal House? Is he the brazen college football star, whose ego is as artificially inflated as his GPA? Is he the nerdy shut-in, browsing 4chan and trolling feminist blogs instead of studying for his final exam? Or is he the snobby, pretentious Ivy League rich kid, silver spoon firmly implanted in his mouth?
If these seem like overgeneralizations and stereotypes, imagine how we feel. Young men in Canada and the United States, navigating the minefield between adolescence and adulthood, are in a steep and steady decline. Where their female counterparts are excelling in academics, starting clubs, and joining the workforce, men are getting lower grades, drinking more dangerously, and ignoring their studies.
They’re also reacting aggressively and often violently to the shifting demographics in colleges and universities across the continent. Business school students chant rape slogans at frosh events; sexual assaults are shared online and victims are blamed for attire and attitude; most recently, Carleton boys wearing “Fuck Safe Space” T-shirts have gained national attention and subsequent scorn.
There’s a strong link between participation in a fraternity and a decline in cognitive function and GPA.
Campaigns to quell the tide of sexual violence on campuses have begun shifting their focus towards men. Their argument is that, in a society that opposes rather than condones rape, we need to focus on the perpetrators, not just the victims.
These campaigns — as well as our cultural conversation around college men, and indeed all men — are on the right track. But they don’t go far enough. Telling men not to commit rape in college is a temporary bandage on a centuries-old wound that’s been festering since antiquity. Too many cultural critics have claimed that our sense of masculinity is in crisis, or that this is the end of men — and, in a way, it ought to be. But the problem here isn’t just men. It’s our cultural and social conception of what men should be.
Long before any boy in North America even thinks about applying to a post-secondary, he’s spent years of his life being told what to do and how to act by his parents, his peers, and countless authority figures.
He’s been called a pussy, a faggot, and a queer. He’s either been taunted in locker rooms and hallways, or done the taunting himself. He’s been threatened with social isolation and humiliation if he doesn’t live up to expectations of our society: namely, that he man up, not show any outward emotion, treat women as prizes to be won, show little interest in schoolwork, and express himself chiefly through violence and aggression.
As we age, the line we draw in the sand separating men from women becomes thicker and more pronounced. (As a result, those who don’t fit on either side of the binary tend to be unfairly cast out by our one-or-the-other society.) In that stressful and pivotal proving ground between boy and man is university: a series of culturally codified negotiations between scholastic achievement and party boy thrill-seeking.
This is a sales pitch. Our idea of college, borrowed from comedy flicks and breathless word-of-mouth, is culturally created, in part to woo young people into paying big money for an education they might not actually be interested in. We’ve created an image of college as one big four-year-long party, and this fantasy persists for many, despite the consequences.
We’ve created an image of college as one big four-year-long party, and this fantasy persists for many, despite the consequences.
It’s more complex than that: in college, we learn to negotiate social situations in a way we’ve never had to before, and issues such as consent and the politics of gender are introduced and explored, often for the first time. Our society does a woefully inadequate job of preparing men to deal with these issues in a respectful and tolerant way — boys are conditioned to react violently and carelessly to what they don’t understand, and what challenges their means of self-identification.
Masculinity is our societal default, our culture in neutral. We so rarely think of men as gendered the way we think of women, or those who exist outside the binary: so much of our society is built on our concept of masculinity, and the way it naturally intersects with values such as confidence, power, and accomplishment. It’s hard to think of a better way to describe the concept of man than as not woman, the same way women are defined as not men. Young boys are conditioned to be terrified of seeming girlish or feminine, and punished when they violate this social code: it threatens our sense of who we are.
But masculinity is a performance, like anything else. It’s made up of a complex language of codes and signifiers, all of which are taught to boys at an age too young to know any better. We don’t cry because men don’t cry. We drink because men drink. We are violent and aggressive and careless because that’s just the way boys are.
These are myths, plain and simple. There’s nothing intrinsic or natural about the way we think of manliness — it’s a performance that’s been carried on and on for centuries. The cast and the stage might be different, but the script has barely changed.
Few contexts carry as many assumptions and challenges for our current definition of manhood as college. We think of it as the place where boys become men, as though it isn’t a process that spans one’s entire life. Countless friends and acquaintances, counting down the last days of high school, shared with me their lofty dreams for higher education: to go to parties, have sex, and generally raise hell.
Partly, this fantasy persists because college is historically a boys’ club. The first North American college to allow female students did so in 1833 — centuries after the first institutions opened their doors — and it took another hundred years or so until most colleges stopped categorizing women as ‘incidental students.’ Up to the 1970s, boys in Canadian colleges outnumbered women two to one.
Simon Fraser University, known for its political radicalism, introduced their first Women’s Studies course in 1971, but it took decades for other institutions to follow suit.
At the centre of the male university fantasy is the fraternity: historically all-white, all-male organizations which borrowed heavily from the guidelines of freemasonry and other secret societies. It’s impossible to tell the story of the university without telling the story of the fraternity — a quick look at the Fortune 500 or the list of big league politicians in the United States shows just how far the frat boy tag will take you.
Frats are generally the go-to stereotype when we think of the college man; he goes on panty raids, engages in nasty hazing rituals, and drinks enough to tranquilize a horse.
Sadly, there’s plenty of truth to the stereotype. The Atlantic reported earlier this year that over 60 people had died in the past decade as a result of fraternity-related pranks and activities. Many more have suffered serious injuries, engaged in or been victim to sexual assault or harassment, consumed dangerous amounts of alcohol or other stimulants, and ignored their studies.
The last issue is particularly prominent for first-years: multiple separate researchers have indicated a strong link between participation in a fraternity and a decline in both GPA and overall cognitive function.
Frank Harris of San Diego State University notes in an essay on college masculinities that membership in a fraternity is often seen as a measure of one’s popularity and dominance in the university setting — the only men more popular than frat boys are student athletes, whose statistical connections to physical assault mirror their fraternity brethren. Both subtypes tend to be associated with violence, power, and emotional immaturity — exactly the same archetypes boys are taught from childhood on.
The drinking doesn’t help, either. The world of alcohol has long been male-dominated: beer and spirit commercials uniformly target the frat boy and his grown-up counterpart, promising bikini-clad women and the excesses of unhampered virility. Every year, more than 1,800 college students die from alcohol-related accidents — most of those involved are men, who drink more than women on average. Students most at risk for drinking problems, according to recent research at the University of Washington, are “incoming freshmen, student athletes and those involved in the Greek system [fraternities].”
Where men who fit the narrow definition of manhood in college tend to be rewarded, those who don’t are often ostracized and humiliated. The pointed backlash against men who espouse feminist or egalitarian ideals betrays just how afraid men are of losing the power they’ve inherited. “Fuck Safe Space” T-shirts can be roughly translated as: I feel threatened.
The saddest part is that this reaction is hardly a surprise. These men have been told by authority figures their whole lives that masculinity is the ultimate ideal to live up to; that their dominance and influence in society is earned, rather than a product of historical power dynamic; that they should react to any challenge of that dominance with aggression and violence.
Yet we’re still shocked when men push back in violent and hateful ways against an increasingly tolerant and progressive society. We, all of us, are the ones who teach them to behave this way. It’s a poisonous and circuitous system, and one that’s best fixed by going straight to the source. To change men, we need to change our definition of what men can be; we need to throw out the rulebook and start fresh.
The truth is that universities, in the grand scheme of things, have only very recently become safe spaces for anyone who isn’t white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, and wealthy. And many would argue, convincingly, that they still aren’t truly safe spaces. The number of sexual assaults on campuses in North America is staggering: in Canada, roughly 29 per cent of female college students will experience some form of sexual assault while earning their degrees. These assaults are almost uniformly perpetrated by men.
And they’re getting worse: between 2001 and 2011, instances of sexual assault on American campuses shot up by 52 per cent.
The problem here isn’t just men. It’s our cultural and social conception of what men should be.
However, despite these challenges, women continue to excel in the university setting. Between 1971 and 2007, women went from making up 32 per cent to 59 per cent of college graduates in this country. Women in Canada are also much less likely to drop out of college or high school, and tend to be much more involved with extracurricular activities such as student government, clubs, or university media organizations.
Even sororities aren’t associated with the same low grades and violent statistics as their male counterparts — in fact, in second- and third-year students, sororities have been associated with positive trends in GPA and performance.
The increasing prominence of women on campus has inspired more institutions to adopt programs to benefit their needs: women’s centres have become commonplace, as well as LGBTQ organizations and expanded gender studies departments. The cultural conversation around campus sexual assault has been slow to build but steady, and an increasing outcry for better policies for victims has resulted in serious change at many institutions.
There’s no reason men can’t participate equally in this atmosphere of increased tolerance and understanding. Many do — our school is full of men who see themselves as allies, who support SFU as a positive learning space from those of all genders and backgrounds. Some of them are even involved in our fraternity or sports teams, changing the conversation from the inside out. Across the continent, others like them are working to make college campuses safer spaces for everyone.
But most importantly, we to change the way we treat men when they are young. We need to tell boys about consent, and teach them to think of women not as adversaries or sexual goals but as people, as equals, as collaborators. We need to promote respect and tolerance and emotional expression for everyone, and not make arbitrary distinctions based on a chromosome or a different set of genitals. We need to expose our ideas of masculinity for what they really are — a fiction.
In that fiction, there are ideas to reconcile. Strength and self-assurance and confidence are all virtues, and the leadership skills we teach boys have helped to make some of the most remarkable human beings who’ve ever lived.
But these traits needn’t be associated with any particular gender — or person, for that matter. Once we begin teaching boys that there are no limits to who they can be and what they can achieve, we’ll start to see the change our society sorely needs. To think men can’t change and evolve is shortsighted — we just need to give them the chance.
Want to change the world? Want to make better, more tolerant human beings? Start them young.