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I was excited to read To Raise a Boy for many reasons. Because it’s a well-researched tour of the current landscape of American masculinity. And because it’s the masterful work of Washington Post investigative reporter, Emma Brown, who broke Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, which were central in driving the essential and ongoing #MeToo discussion. (And because that conversation seems to have gone too quiet lately.)
But mostly I wanted to read To Raise a Boy because I’m currently raising two—my son and myself. And because I had come to believe that after decades as a journalist for so-called men’s magazines and thirteen years as a father to a son, that no matter how old I get, I still have a lot to learn. That to raise someone else really just means to grow up yourself. And that if I’ve learned anything about parenting my son it’s that I’m best as a father when I’m best as a person—when I’m open, honest, accepting, and a good listener, allowing him to become who he is and not just who I want or think he should be.
Emma Brown had a son shortly before the world began discussing her reporting on Blasey Ford and attempting to reckon with Kavanaugh’s confirmation. She quickly connected that moment to the complexity and difficulty of raising anyone—but especially of raising a boy—at a time when it seems both possible to push ahead with progressive, enlightened ideas and ideals about masculinity, but that was also shadowed by the fear that some things will never change.
So she did what great reporters do, speaking to hundreds of people—coaches, teachers, parents, academics, researchers across the country and across the sociological, economic, and geographic spectrum, about what it is to be male today and how that might evolve in the future, as the boys we’re raising become the men they should be. Read the book that resulted, and you’ll discover sobering statistics—men are killing themselves in disproportionate numbers; as many as 1 in 4 boys are sexually assaulted in America. But you’ll also see how coaches and educators and parents are learning and teaching and modeling better behaviors and models for young men that present the potential for real change and growth.
Brown spoke with GQ about the problem with the term “toxic masculinity,” and unlearning the idea that growing up as a boy is “easier.”
GQ: Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of the book?
Brown: I think my first moment of realization that I had no idea what it was like to be a boy was when I had my son and was home on maternity leave when the first Harvey Weinstein stories broke. He was about six weeks old so I was home nursing him, and reading those stories and just thinking, “Wow, what does it mean to be the mom of a boy?”
Then I went back to work, and I ended up writing a story where Christine Blasey Ford told her story for the first time, and then there was all the political upheaval that came after that. But there was also I think just a lot of personal reckoning that went on for people in the aftermath of that, and many of them wrote to me and wrote about their experiences with sexual violence as children, as teenagers or even younger.
And I thought about how we had this so-called national conversation about sexual violence as a workplace issue, as a college campus issue, but we had never really talked about sexual violence in children. Where does it come from, that people hurt each other?
That’s where I started, but that idea underwent a transformation as I did my research, because I realized I just had never thought about the challenges that boys face growing up. I had thought a lot about the challenges girls face growing up, having been a girl myself, and frankly I think I just thought being a boy was easier. And what this book taught me is that being a boy is not easier. It’s such a fraught experience for the boys and young men I spoke to, and I wish we could see that more clearly and do a better job for boys, because I think boys would grow up healthier and happier. And I think the world would be healthier and happier if we did a better job.
I was very conscious of the fact that I am a woman who has had one experience growing up in this country trying to write about boys, and felt as a journalist, we do this, right? We write about people who have experiences that are different from ours, but I think we have to do it with a lot of humility.
I definitely felt the pressure of modeling male behavior and am acutely aware of my own shortcomings as a person and a man as a father to my son. The book talks about how dads are maybe in a more fraught position, about the so-called “Man Box.” Could you unpack that a bit?
I learned a lot in talking to boys and young men around the country and coaches and teachers and researchers about how, even over the last 50 years, even though we’ve poured energy into telling girls that they can be whoever they want to be, and they don’t have to be constrained by the old ideas of what it means to be a girl or a woman. Rightfully so, I think. That’s a message I benefited from, certainly. But I don’t think we’ve given boys that same message. I don’t think we have told them they can be whoever they want to be. It depends in this country a lot on what kind of community you’re growing up in, but there are plenty of boys who told me, and who tell researchers, that they still just struggle against all these rules about how they’re supposed to be. Namely: don’t be anything like a girl, right?
I learned a lot about how damaging that can be to boys’ physical and mental and emotional health over time, and their ability to sustain connections that we all need to have rich and healthy and happy lives. But I also had so much empathy for the position that fathers find themselves in. I spoke to one dad who had an eight-year-old son who was totally enamored with American Girl Dolls and wanted a doll. And I spoke to the dad about how he so much wanted to embrace that and cheer his son on in becoming his full self and enjoying dolls.
At the same time, he was aware of the pressures that his son will face. He’s aware that his son could face teasing or bullying or being beat up if he doesn’t ‘fit in’ to their community’s idea of what it means to be a boy. So I feel like dads are particularly trapped between this desire to embrace their kids and allow their kids to be their full selves, allow their boys to be their full selves, and a really acute awareness of the punishment that can come for boys that don’t conform.
What I got from the book was that this is about redefining and allowing ourselves to grow and have definitions for ourselves and avoiding older concepts and labels. Would that be fair to say?
When my daughter was two, she was on the playground and she was just struggling against her fear of going across this rope-netting bridge that was strung high up above the ground. And I told her, “Tell myself, I’m strong and fearless,” and for my daughter that’s what I wanted. It just rolled off my tongue, that’s what I wanted her to think of herself. And I had no motto like that for my son, but by the time I finished this book I realized I didn’t want to tell both my kids that. They should think of themselves as strong and gentle, that telling a kid they need to be strong and fearless is like telling them they have to choose only the traits that we have associated with masculinity.
And there are great traits associated with masculinity, right, like leadership and strength and courage and such. And we want all of our kids, boys and girls, to have access to the same things. I also want both of my kids to have access to the best of what we have traditionally called feminine, so that’s gentleness and caring, right, and connection. So I think where I came to myself as a parent at the end of this research was: I want my kids, both my son and my daughter, to be able to have access to and use the best qualities of what we have traditionally called male or female or masculine or feminine.
I wrote about research about how some of the most successful and creative and happiest people are the people who are able to combine those traits from across the stereotypical gender spectrum, rather than feel like they’re cornered in one spot on that spectrum.
Do you feel like the book is doing any good? Obviously you’ve probably become a better parent and person yourself and you know a lot about a really important issue. Are readers giving you feedback that you find heartening?
Let me stop and say it’s more than just parents. What I learned in doing the research for this book is there’s sort of this bubbling… movement may be too strong a word, but there is a lot happening in the world of thinking about boys and masculinity and how we can do better for boys and how we can create more spaces for boys to talk with one another, and with mentors and other caring adults about what it means to be a happy and healthy boy who has strong relationships.
When I say that, I mean I saw that in terms of groups that were being founded and led by boys in their school. And also in a program I wrote about called Coaching Boys Into Men where coaches take 15 minutes a week to talk to their players. And coaches are powerful figures in the lives of athletes, girls and boys, so they use their powers to talk about masculinity and respect and consent and dating violence and issues that maybe boys don’t have a lot of guidance around.
I was struck by the way there were specific prohibitions, not in a negative way, against language that isn’t too enlightened. “You hit like a girl,” or “don’t be a P-word” or whatever, because every day it just seems there’s so many casual, bad reinforcements of gender norms in sports.
Yeah, and coaches have a lot of power to set the expectations, right, for all kinds of things on a team. And they can choose to set the expectations around culture and respect, and not just respect for girls and women but respect for one another on the team, which is something I thought was interesting. Like this young man I talked to who was in college when I met him, but his team had done this Coaching Boys Into Men when he was in high school. He told me one of the main things that changed was that the players were more respectful and kinder to one another.
I write in the book about…
Sexualized attacks. Sometimes they call it hazing but it’s really sexual assaults or rape, right, in the context of sports?
And that kind of thing happens on some sports teams, and if you’re not creating a culture where it’s intolerable to be disrespectful or violent towards your teammate, then you’re leaving room for that kind of culture to take root. So I think sports coaches have so much power, that we as parents do our best, but we really need help from the other institutions and people who are helping to raise our sons.
I also think there are a lot of 35, 45, 55 year-old men, if you look at demographics, if you look at the political moment, at suicides, incarceration rates, I think there are a lot of men who need this understanding. I hope that they can read this. Because I think many men are the problem, in some ways. Do you have thoughts about how they can change?
You said you feel like men are the problem, and I think that’s not something I would say, but I would say that in the conversation this book, as I mentioned before, began as an exploration at the beginning of the MeToo movement, like how am I going to raise my son basically so that he doesn’t hurt people, right? And a lot of the conversation around the MeToo movement was about so-called toxic masculinity, and we can talk about that in a minute because I don’t use that term in the book for really specific reasons.
I talk to so many young men and boys who are really aware of the fact that there is greater accountability now for sexual violence and sexual harassment. And they agree with that. They’re on board. And they also feel like they don’t know what that means for them, and they aren’t getting a lot of guidance around how to have intimate relationships in a way that’s safe for them and their partners. I think it’s fair to say a lot of the boys I spoke to felt really lost and kind of adrift around navigating what can feel like, especially for them at this moment in time, like a really fraught, fraught thing.
I would turn the accountability to those of us, all of us, not just parents, but all of us who are raising boys and setting examples for boys. We are not giving boys a lot of guidance, and I’m talking specifically here around sexual violence, how to have healthy, strong, intimate relationships, right? We’re not giving them a lot of guidance. You could broaden that out and say maybe we’re not giving them a lot of guidance about what it means to be a quote, unquote good man, and that’s something that we can do better, and that boys deserve, right?
They get so many mixed messages about what they’re supposed to be as men, and I guess I feel a lot of empathy for boys. Like it’s not really fair to them to ask them to navigate really contentious and difficult politics around sexual violence if we’re not giving them sex education and frank conversations with parents or educators or other kind of trusted adults around those issues. And again, you could broaden that out and say it’s super unfair to a boy to expect them to understand how to be a good person in the world if we’re not teaching them and guiding them.
Can you talk to me about your concern with the concept of toxic masculinity?
Yeah. I didn’t use the term toxic masculinity in the book. I don’t use the term toxic masculinity in talking about these issues because boys have told me that they recoil at that term, and that they hear it… Not all boys, of course, but many boys told me that they hear it as an attack on masculinity itself, or an attack on boys and men. So I guess I just feel like, if we really want to invite boys into this conversation about what it’s like to be a boy, what it’s like to be a young man, what is working well and what’s not working well for them, we’ve got to use language that they can hear and can engage with. So I don’t want to use a term that’s immediately going to turn someone off or make them think they know what I think of them. That term makes a lot of boys feel like they know what you think of them and what you think is not positive, so it just isn’t very helpful.
You touch on this with some data and stuff in the book, how in many ways being male is a danger. For instance, that men are four times as likely to commit suicide. I would suggest that many men, if you look at the data, are killing themselves one way or the other, whether they know it or not, through poor lifestyle choices, poor habits, the work they do, bad mental health. Lots of reasons that maleness is a real danger to the male, as well as to the broader culture and to women.
Yeah, I think that what you just said made me think about the fact that we tolerate so much violence against men and boys. You brought up the suicide statistic, but there’s so much other violence that’s maybe not dying by suicide, but other violence that belong in the same kind of language that we use when we talk about “boys will be boys.”
Like that’s just part of growing up as a boy in America, right? It’s dangerous. You get beat up and whatever. I wrote about the hidden and pretty prevalent problem of sexual violence against boys as an example of the kind of violence that we overlook or tolerate. If we’re going to use the word toxicity, I think that part of a toxicity that boys and men face is this willingness to tolerate violence against them or to think that it’s normal or natural in some way.
When I think about for example my son, who’s almost four now, I don’t want him to live in a world where violence against him is tolerated or normal, and I don’t think that’s healthy for him or for any boy. I hope that’s one thing that can change.
We need everybody, to change, in my view. I wonder if you have hope that that will change?
I [started the book] with a lot of trepidation for my son about being a boy, and about the pressures he would face and how the pressures would shape him or hurt him in some way as he’s growing up. When I finished the research, I felt way more hopeful. I felt like there’s a lot of work being done, as I said, sort of bubbling, often not getting a whole lot of attention.
But there’s certainly more work being done to think about these issues now than there was 10 years ago or 20 years ago. So I feel like it’s a really good time to be raising a boy because in some ways I think that the MeToo movement opened up this discussion in a way that perhaps it had not been before. It made it more public and more common, like how are we raising boys and how can we do better?
But it was happening before that as well. It was happening in movements led in many, many cases by men and boys. So I have a lot of hope that it’s bubbling up, that what I saw in my travels for this book will continue and will become more and more a part of more boys’ lives.
Interview has been edited and condensed.