1Elizabeth Schroeder, EdD, MSW Answer Executive Director The Boy CodeElizabeth Schroeder, EdD, MSWAnswer Executive Director2011[This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.]I am Dr. Elizabeth Schroder, Executive Director of Answer. On behalf of Act for Youth, I’m presenting this webinar on the "Boy Code."
2This WebinarCombination of research and professional experience working with adolescent boysWill focus on adolescent BOYS… not specific populations of boysI like to give a little disclaimer up front that what I’m going to be presenting on is a combination of the research that’s available right now as well as my own professional experience working with adolescent boys for many years. I’m also going to be focusing on adolescent boys in general and not specific populations of boys.
3To reach boys… ...we must first UNDERSTAND boys How do they learn? From where/whom do they get support?What is the “boy code”?I always tell people that to reach boys we must first understand them, and that includes answering three key questions. The first is, how do boys learn? The second is, from where and from whom do they get their social and emotional support? And third, and very specific to this presentation, is what is the boy code?
4How do they learn? (Good question…) The educational system is failing boysI sometimes work with adolescent and teen boys and wonder myself -- how on earth are they learning when the educational system in the United States by and large is failing boys?
5Boys Are More Likely Than Girls To… Have discipline/behavior problemsBe diagnosed with a learning disability or Attention Deficit DisorderBe placed in special educationDrop out of schoolScore lower grades; usually behind in reading/writingBy and large boys are much more likely than girls to have discipline or behavioral problems, and actually they’re much more likely to be labeled as having discipline or behavioral problems. They’re much more likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability, in particular Attention Deficit or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. They’re much more likely to be placed in Special Education and the tragedy there is in some cases that’s because they have learning challenges and in other cases it’s because they have been labeled as behavioral problems. So in essence Special Education’s often used as a punitive measure for male learners. They are much more likely than girls to drop out of school. No wonder. If school is not a welcoming, nurturing environment why on earth would someone want to stay there? And as a result, we’re going to be seeing lower grades. In particular they tend to be behind girls in reading and in writing.
6Social Development of Boys “The BOY CODE”William Pollack, PhDHaving worked with adolescent and teen boys for many years I would have to say the single most valuable tool that I learned and have incorporated into my work is the boy code, which really was first named and described by Dr. William Pollack.
7What Is the “Boy Code”? The unwritten code of boy behavior Are not suggestions, are strict rules about how they "must" behaveGenuine fear of what will happen if they break them.The boy code is basically the unwritten code of behavior for boys. It is something that is understood by boys throughout various cultures around the world about what is and is not acceptable behavior for being a boy. And I think it’s important to keep in mind that these are not suggestions for boys, like you might consider expressing yourself in this way. The boy code dictates very specific ways of how you’re supposed to be a real boy, and later in life of course a real man. When you think about trying to encourage boys to break the boy code, there’s a general sense of fear and anxiety of what will happen as a result of breaking the boy code.
8What Does the Boy Code Dictate? ToughDistrusts adultsDoesn’t do anything “weak” or “sissy”MuscularNever criesPlays sportsDoesn’t talk muchDoesn’t “act like a girl”What the boy code dictates is stereotypical behavior that we’ve heard for years and years. That stereotype that boys don’t cry, they’re supposed to be tough, they’re supposed to be muscular, and play sport, and be sort of uber-hyper-masculine in how they present themselves. If you notice the points that talk about not doing anything weak or sissy-like or not acting like a girl, the interesting thing here is that you don’t even have to define that for boys, they know what this means. I think it’s important for educational and health professionals to keep in mind that the boy code also puts out the value of boys needing to not necessarily trust adults. That’s important if you’re working one on one or in groups with adolescent and teen boys, that it’s not necessarily a reflection on us as professionals if they don’t trust us right away, it’s really part of the boy code.
9The “Boy Code”Boy Code: Needs to look like he knows what he’s doing – “I know, ok?” – even if he doesn’t (starts early).Girls: appearance important; Boys: appearances important (e.g., video games)A huge part of the boy code for an adolescent male is that he has to look like he knows what he’s doing. For example, an adolescent boy might ask you a question and when you are half way through giving the answer he’ll interrupt you and say "I know, I know, OK" -- even if he doesn’t understand what you’re talking about. Even if he doesn’t get the answer. And that starts even earlier than adolescence. You’ll see that in elementary school around 2nd, 3rd grade. Very, very important for them to look like they know what they’re doing.What I found very interesting in the literature is that, generally speaking, for girls in adolescence appearance is important, how they look is important. But for boys, appearances, or how they seem, is most important. The example I like to give is related to video games. When a boy gets his first video game, it’s very appealing to him on a number of levels. First of all there’s research that shows that the male brain actually takes to the patterns that they see on the screen when playing the video games. It’s very similar to watching sports on television -- the patterns create something that appeals to the male brain.The second thing that video games offer adolescent and teen boys is the opportunity to fail in private. And that‘s very important if how you seem to others is so important. So you’ll notice if you have an adolescent boy in your life, or have worked with them, that if he gets a new video game he will never call a friend over to come and play that game with him the first day he has it. He’s going to sit with that game, he’s going to play it, he’s going to master it, and then after a few weeks when he’s mastered it, then he’ll call a friend over and say "do you want to play this game with me that my mom got me today?" Then his friend will say "oh my gosh, you are such a natural with this." And then the first boy who got the video game will feel like he’s a leader, like he’s competent and capable. That’s a huge part of the boy code.
10What’s the “normal” range for an adolescent boy? Wants to be HIMSELF – different from parents, different from pastEventually, different from peersLooking to gain respect for what HE does and who HE is.When we’re talking about adolescent development and how boys develop throughout their adolescent and teen years, there’s a real range of typical or normal manifestation of what it means to be an adolescent boy. This is a time of individuation, meaning a boy trying to define who he is and wanting to be himself. He’s differentiating from his parents, he’s differentiating himself from his past as well, if he has siblings. He’s really trying to be his own person. Although during adolescence the peer group is the most important group to adolescent boys and girls, eventually a boy is going to look to become a leader, and to differentiate himself from his peers as well. The number one thing that an adolescent boy values, that I found in my work specifically with adolescent boys, is respect. He wants to be respected for how he thinks, for what he does, for what he’s accomplished, and basically for who he is.
11What’s the “normal” range for an adolescent boy? May “one-up” people, especially peersRoughhousingHumiliate and be humiliatedHomophobiaALL = MALE BONDINGTypical behavior we tend to see with adolescent boys (though there are many boys who do not fulfill these stereotypes) is a real desire to one-up someone else, including their peers. Their peers don’t get frustrated by this because they are doing the exact same thing. Whether it’s in sports or video games or academics, one-upping each other is a big part of the boy code.Roughhousing is something that is to be expected with adolescent and teen boys. There are boys who do not roughhouse, but this is something that we will see very much in school hallways, and at organizations where we work with young adolescent and teen boys.One part of the boy code that I personally find very challenging is humiliation. It is expected that you will be humiliated by your peers and that you will humiliate others. There’s nothing in the boy code that dictates an opportunity to talk about and respond to that humiliation. You accept it and then you perpetrate it on others. Here's an example that I give from working at a middle school here in New Jersey. Two groups of adolescents were standing in a hallway in a school -- a group of boys, a group of girls -- and it was very clear that one of the boys liked one of the girls. He was trying to get his nerve up to go over and talk with her. His friends were encouraging him, her friends were encouraging her, and it was June so everybody was in shorts and t-shirts. When the boy who was interested in the girl started walking across the hallway to talk with her one of his friends ran up behind him and pulled his shorts down, in front of everyone. Now, as adults, if we were in a situation like that we’d turn around and we would label that behavior as inappropriate, we’d get upset about it. But what this boy did was -- even though he was completely red-faced -- he turned around to his friends and he laughed, and he said "good one." This is a part of the boy code.Another very unfortunate part of the boy code is homophobia, commonly seen in middle school. It is something that is valued within the boy code, and very, very challenging. It is something that educational and health professionals really need to jump on, and not just punish. It’s important to intervene when we hear homophobia, but to really talk about why are they using these words, why are they expressing themselves in these ways, because this is something that is really institutionalized for boys.You put all these things together and what you are seeing is truly male bonding. All of these are -- within the boy code -- acceptable ways of boys expressing intimacy, especially with each other. This how they can express intimacy, this is how they express friendship even though it may not resonate as being particularly positive in many ways.
12Everything in an adolescent’s life revolves around sex and sexuality Since adolescents are going through puberty we have to keep in mind that really everything in their lives revolves around sex and sexuality. Now that’s not to say that they’re sitting there thinking about sex all of the time, but even if they do, that’s completely normal. During puberty we see a huge increase in hormones, there’s a lot of emotional ups and downs, and there’s a huge amount of feelings of sexual attraction.But when I talk about sexuality and when my colleagues talk about sexuality, we’re talking in the most general terms. Sexuality involves not only attraction and sexual behaviors, or the desire for these sexual behaviors, but it has to do with things like intimacy, and body image, and gender and sexual orientation.
13Everything in an adolescent boy’s life revolves around gender and masculinity Specific to adolescent boys, when it comes to sex and sexuality, everything that goes on with them revolves around gender and masculinity. Although we see the boy code play out in earlier years, it’s really at its height during adolescent and teen years.
14Boys “tell” us that… NEED to be heterosexual. NEED to have sex. Want desperately to be good lovers. Consumed with giving partners orgasms.Obsessed with penis size.Concerned about statutory rape laws.Experience love in extremes.At my organization, Answer, we have a teen-to-teen sexuality education program called Sex Etc., and these are some of the things that boys who have written to us over the years have told us about what it means to be a boy, at least in the United States. The themes that we hear are: they really, really feel they have no other option but to be heterosexual. And that’s so ironic because obviously one does not choose one's sexual orientation. But this talks very clearly to the number of boys who feel they have to be closeted, who cannot disclose that they are gay or bisexual.They also express the fact that there is no flexibility for them around sexual initiation. They feel that they have to have sex as soon as possible, with as many people as possible, and obviously if they need to be heterosexual that’s with as many girls as possible.They also have expressed a strong desire to be good lovers. And this isn’t really about "I want to give my partner pleasure" as much as it is that sense of achievement. That’s the boy code we were talking about before. This is a race to the finish. So for boys when they start their sexual relationships they will not accept a sexual encounter as being successful if their partner has not had an orgasm because it means they have not been a good lover. As a result, what we’re unfortunately seeing is that in adolescent sexual relationships, we already have partners lying to their boyfriends saying that they did reach orgasm when in fact they didn’t, because they’re receiving so much pressure.Boys are also obsessed with penis size, and I think that this is an important thing to consider because I feel like a lot of people in the health and education fields minimize this around boys. I think there are a lot of jokes about boys and men and how obsessed they are with their penis size. But if they’re so focused on gender and masculinity they’re getting the strong message that to be a real man you have to have a large penis. This is very challenging for adolescent boys whose bodies may not be done growing or whose bodies may be done growing and their penis is average or shorter than average size.Boys are also very concerned about statutory rape laws. It’s so interesting to me when I work directly with adolescent boys that they may not know all the information related to sexuality, their anatomy, how to prevent pregnancy and or STDs, but they can quote the statutory rape law in their state word by word. They have gotten the message that they are again supposed to have sex as early as possible, with as many people as possible, but they also have learned that there can be some negative consequences from a legal standpoint.The last point I’ll make here is that when it comes to emotions, boys tend to really experience love in extremes. And that’s very challenging because we don’t support the emotional growth of boys. As we said earlier, boys are not supposed to be emotional, they’re not supposed to cry. The ironic thing is that when you fast forward into adult relationships, women who are in relationships with men are often very frustrated that their male partners don’t express their feelings. When I hear this I always say to them "why should they? No one taught them how to do that."
15From Sexetc.org -- 15-year-old boy “Hi. I'm very confused. I don't know if I'm gay, bi, whatever. I need you to tell me some signs for straight and gay or even bi boys. Please. I need to know; and I need to know now.”-- 15-year-old boyI wanted to share with you just a couple of excerpts from the sexect.org website that came directly from adolescent and teen boys. This is from a 15 year old who writes “Hi, I’m very confused. I don’t know if I’m gay, bi, whatever. I need you to tell me some signs for straight and gay or even bi boys. Please. I need to know; and I need to know now.”What we often find is adolescent boys who write to us want a sort of checklist so that they can find out if their feelings of attraction mean that they are gay or bisexual or heterosexual. Of course, there is no quiz that someone can take to reveal that for sure, but certainly if this boy is gay or bisexual it’s pretty clear from his that he’s not happy about it. So he’s reaching out for support and he’s reaching out for validation and to be normalized, that these feelings he’s having are OK.
16From Sexetc.org -- 14-year-old boy “I am considering suicide because I do not know what to do after my girlfriend left me. She is the only one I love and I cannot go on without her”-- 14-year-old boyThis next from a 14 year old boy is an example of what I mentioned earlier about boys experiencing extremes when it comes to love and emotions. He writes, “I am considering suicide because I do not know what to do after my girlfriend left me. She is the only one I love and I cannot go on without her.”What I always tell health and educational professionals is that when a boy expresses suicidal ideation we must take it very, very seriously. We must take it seriously if a girl expresses it as well, but boys -- again, according to the boy code -- are not supposed to talk about their emotions, they’re not supposed to trust adults. We also know from research that boys and men are much more likely than girls and women, when they say that they are considering suicide, to actually carry it out. They’re also much more likely to use methods that are intended to work, and are a bit more violent. They tend to use guns, they tend to jump out of windows, they’ll lie down in train tracks. They’re not looking to be stopped, they’re not looking to be interrupted. It’s something we must take very, very seriously.
17From Sexetc.org – 17-year-old boy “Is there anything i can eat, drink or buy to enlarge my penis? Like that pump thing, does it really works? I hav difficulties since young like u know getting undress in front my friends... My first lov broke up wif me... Sometimes i just wish i wasn't born at all. Suicidal thoughts often cross my mind. i really need ur help...pls”– 17-year-old boyThis 17 year old’s is an example relating to what I mentioned before about how boys feel about the size of their penis. He writes, “Is there anything i can eat, drink, or buy to enlarge my penis? Like that pump thing, does it really works? I hav difficulties since young like u know getting undress in front my friends… My first lov broke up wif me.. Sometimes i just wish i wasn’t born at all. Suicidal thoughts often cross my mind. i really need ur help…pls”Now the bottom line here is this 17 year old believes that his first love broke up with him because of the size of his penis. And that’s something that cannot be teased, it cannot be laughed through. I think there’s a lot of humor that’s used here that isn’t appropriate, when he truly believes that this is why he lost his first love. It’s something we have to take very seriously.
18So…To reach boys with our sexuality lessons (e.g., sexual initiation, healthy relationships, safer sex, etc.)We need to spend MORE time looking at and incorporating gender/masculinity w/sexualityI’m often asked if we really want to make an impact on how adolescent and teen boys learn about sexuality, what should we home in on? And what I always say is we need to spend much more time looking at the messages they’re getting about gender and masculinity within our sexuality programming. There are benefits they get from adhering to the boy code, and so if we’re proposing anything that’s contrary to that we have to have room and space to discuss the potential pros and cons of contradicting what the boy code says.
19In the next few slides I just want to give an example from an amazing organization out of Washington D.C. called Men Can Stop Rape. They have this campaign that’s called the "strength campaign": "my strength is not for hurting." At the bottom of this ad it says "so when I wanted her I asked her, and I took no for an answer." This is a brilliant way of taking what we know now about the boy code and integrating it into our messages so that they resonate with boys and young men.
20Here’s another example, again reinforcing "my strength is not for hurting." "So when she changed her mind, I stopped." You’ll also notice that there’s racial and ethnic diversity in these images, which is very important for the populations with which we work.
21This one again really reinforces from the boy code This one again really reinforces from the boy code. These are very stereotypically masculine-looking boys that say "our strength is not for hurting. So when men disrespect women, we say that’s not right." And again it comes back to "men can stop rape."
22What I really appreciate about this campaign is that it also focuses on adolescent boys, who are referred to as young men of strength. In this case, when they notice that something’s going on with over-texting someone or potentially harassing someone, they’re saying "as young men of strength, we ask Steve to stop texting Pam all the time," which is a terrific message.One thing to keep in mind with all of these messages is this is really coming from a very heterosexual, hetero-centric standpoint. The boy code really values heterosexuality. You may be wondering, what does that mean for boys who are gay or bisexual? There are plenty of boys who are not heterosexual who have been taught they have to behave in a certain way. What this really speaks to is how much more challenging it can be for boys to accept who they are if they are not heterosexual or if they do not express their gender in a way that really matches the boy code.
23Some things to consider… Separating boys and girls (pros and cons) – research on single-sex vs. co-ed schoolsSpend MORE time with boys… bridge the gender gapREAD… get to know the RESEARCH, and adapt your existing activities/programsIn working with adolescent boys there are a few suggestions that I give to educational and health professionals to really make an impact. The first thing that I recommend is separating boys and girls. Certainly there are pros and cons to doing that. There’s research out there on the value of single sex versus co-ed schools, but I always get some push back from professionals that "boys and girls and men and women interact together in the world, so shouldn’t they be interacting together within an educational setting or a health setting?" That’s true, but I have to say if we are exploring things like gender, the things that are behind the boy code, which can be very threatening to do, at least starting with single gender groups can be very important. It can be very impactful and powerful for the boys. The other thing we have to keep in mind of course is that if we’re working with a population where we know for sure we have transgender youth, separating by the genders can be very hurtful and even harmful. So we really have to know our populations and make our choices according to what we think is best within that population.The second thing I recommend to people is to try to spend more time with boys and bridge the gender gap that we find particularly in sexual health education. The vast majority of curricula that are developed out there are developed with girls in mind. In fact I would go so far as to say they’re developed with suburban, heterosexual, white girls in mind. That’s not going to resonate with boys, or boys in an urban setting, or boys of color. So we have to focus on what messages resonate with boys, and we how can teach them using their language and their values.A very important thing that we as professionals can do or have to do is to read. Get to know the research that is available about the differences between how boys and girls learn, and work to adapt our existing activities and programs. There are a couple of sexuality education curricula that seem to be adaptations of existing curricula to focus on boys, but they don’t truly integrate the tenets of the boy code, they don’t truly integrate what we know from the research. We need to go through our materials with a fine tooth comb and adapt them, the way we would adapt it for a particular culture. We wouldn’t just translate curriculum into Spanish or another language; we would try to make it as culturally relevant to the various cultures represented that also speak Spanish. The same thing goes for the boy code and for having materials that resonate with all different kinds of boys.
24Some more things to consider… Gender of teacher: less important than respectDon’t avoid emotions; are taking your leadPERSONALIZE but maintain boundariesI’ve often been asked by educational professionals whether the gender of the teacher or the educator matters when working with adolescent boys. What I have always found is that the element of respect is the most important thing, so regardless of the gender of the instructor, if that instructor respects the boys, if that instructor is well educated and is a strong facilitator but really demonstrates a respect for listening to the boys and having them be a part of the learning process, that is far more important than the gender of the instructor. I really push back when I hear educational professionals say "we don’t have a male facilitator so we can’t have a boys group." That’s not the case at all, and both I and many of my other female colleagues have had very powerful and impactful experiences working with adolescent and teen boys. So that’s one thing to keep in mind.The second thing that I think is very important is we can’t just keep to the facts with boys. There’s a lot we can talk with them about relating to emotions, and they’re going to be taking our lead. If we don’t talk about emotions, if we don’t talk within the affective learning domain, they’re getting reinforcement of the boy code that they’re not supposed to have these feelings, and they’re certainly not supposed to express them.Another thing that’s important with boys is they want to have some kind of connection with us as the adult professional, but that is a very slippery slope. We can personalize how we reach young people, whether they’re boys or they’re girls, by how we interact with them. And again respect is the most important thing. But I’m very concerned when I see adult professionals who will share their own personal experience, "this is when I first started having sex, this is the contraceptive or safer sex method I’ve used," especially with adolescent boys. With boys or girls it’s not appropriate. We have to be very careful to maintain boundaries when we’re working with adolescents of any gender.
25How do we break the “boy code”? We can’t.But we can make it less limiting.I’m often asked what do we do about this, how do we break the boy code, and to be honest we can’t. The boy code is something that is far too valued by cultures all around the world, and certainly cultures throughout the United States. But what we can work to do is make it less limiting. What I find in working with adolescent boys is they will say "this is how boys are supposed to be, this is how girls are supposed to be," and the question I keep asking them is why? Why? Where did that come from? And having this opportunity for them to build their critical thinking skills and to realize how much of what they’re saying is just a script that’s been given to them from the time they were very little, gives them the opportunity to consider that they don’t necessarily have to believe what they’ve been taught, or if they do at least it’s because they thought about it, and this is what they value as a boy or a young man. But they do have a choice about how they feel about their gender and how they express their gender.
26How do we break the “boy code”? We can’t.But we can help boys to understand what it is and choose for themselves the parts they do and don’t accept.Keeping in mind that during adolescence, this is a time when boys are individuating and answering the question "who am I," a key role that we play as adult professionals is asking the kinds of questions to help them think for themselves. What do I think? What do I believe? And perhaps most importantly, how do I feel about this?
27For More Information/Reading “Real Boys” and “Real Boys’ Voices” by William Pollack, PhD“Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys” – Dan Kindlon, PhD and Michael Thompson, PhD“Speaking of Boys,” by Michael Thompson, PhDThere are many resources out there to help guide us as we work with adolescent boys. The ones that are listed here are among the strongest ones I think we have out there currently. And there are many others. I really can’t encourage people enough to read William Pollack’s stuff, that’s really where the boy code comes from. But “Raising Cain” is very valuable, and “Speaking of Boys” and Michael Thompson’s other articles and books are also very helpful.
28National Sexuality Education Training Initiative: In-person/Online National sex ed resourcesNational Teen-to-Teen Sexuality Education InitiativeI hope that the information I’ve shared in this presentation has been helpful. As I mentioned earlier, I’m the Executive Director for Answer, which is a national organization that’s dedicated to providing and promoting comprehensive sexuality education to young people and the adults who teach them. As you see here we do this really through two major initiatives. One is our National Sexuality Education Training Initiative, where we offer both in person and online workshops and trainings. And then also our national teen-to-teen sexuality education initiative which is the Sex, Etc. magazine as well as our website sexetc.org. Both of these resources are written by teens for teens, are very male-friendly, are very diverse in the information that’s presented, as well as in the communities that are represented. So I encourage you to check them out for additional training and professional development needs, as well as resources, if you are working directly with young people.
29ACT for Youth Center of Excellence Youth development and adolescent sexual health resources:Youth network site—sexual health, leadership, rights, and more for youth:Once again this presentation was done on behalf for ACT for Youth. We would very much appreciate if you would go to the link at the bottom of this slide and take the very brief zoomerang survey to let us know what you thought of this, as well as what other kinds of information you would value from future presentations. Thanks very much for listening, and again I hope this is helpful to you.Was this presentation useful? Please give us your feedback: