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'Boys Will Be Boys' — The Harm Of Justifying Assault With Stereotypes

The ideals of masculinity and manhood can affect how people regard the issue of sexual assault.
Posted at 7:15 PM, Sep 27, 2018

You've probably heard this phrase before. "Boys will be boys," which according to stereotype means "energetic, rough or improper."

But in the context of discussions about sexual misconduct, the phrase "boys will be boys" is less innocent and more dismissive of the issue. For that reason, it was the focus of a PSA from the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization that advocates for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Despite that caution, the sentiment of the phrase and stereotypes about boys and men have been used to defend those accused of misconduct. According to some researchers, that could be harmful.

"There's a lot of evidence that there's a lot of cultural variations in how sexually aggressive men are, which suggests that cultural factors are important," researcher Sarah Murnen told Newsy. 

Murnen studies the relationship between masculinity and sexual aggression.

"People are talking a lot about this concept of 'precarious manhood.' Manhood is something in our culture that is hard to achieve, but it's easily lost," Murnen said. "They have to prove themselves in various ways, and that can be done through some of these socially illegitimate means, such as treating women in a very sexually callous way, drinking to excess, showing that you're violent or something like that."

Murnen and other researchers have said this idea of manhood or masculinity is instilled through family and supported by some predominantly male cultural groups like sports teams and fraternities.

Some researchers say that defensive and stereotype-driven rhetoric like "boys will be boys" allows people to justify injustice as "the way things are" — especially if "the way things are" supports preconceived ideologies about gender roles and masculinity.

"I think that people think that these roles are natural, and there really is not a lot of evidence that these roles are natural. I generally look at gender differences and behavior, for example," Murnen says. "And really, there's a lot more similarity than there is difference, but I think particularly in the realm of sexuality, you know, we want to believe that some of these differences we see are somehow natural."

These ideas of natural differences between men and woman can form the basis for rape myths, a term used by researchers to describe "false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists."

Other notable myths — taken from the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale — include variations of "she asked for it" or "he didn't mean to."

The problem with the acceptance of these myths is two-fold: It creates hostile environments for survivors of assault and, according to some research studies, may even encourage some men to commit acts of assault themselves.

"Most of the research is correlational. There are certain, you know, pieces of it, that have looked at causally — where you expose people to rape myths and then see how it affects how they rate a woman, for example. But, there is one good longitudinal study that I cited in that paper I sent you," Murnen said.

That study Murnen mentioned surveyed 795 men at the end of their four years of college. Two-hundred and thirty-eight reported committing at least one incident of sexual coercion and assault.

"Most men don't engage in sexual aggression — 71 percent, I think, of the men did not engage in any across college," Murnen says. "There was a group that stayed the same in terms of being sexually aggressive throughout college. There was a group that decreased, and there was a group that increased. And they found that the group that increased were more likely to have these hostile masculine attitudes, but were also more likely to have supportive peers."

This is why so many assault prevention advocates focus their energy on combating rhetoric and dispelling rape myths. Experts still aren't sure how to best do this, but one thing is certain: Calling out the myths and critiquing our stereotypes is key to solving the culture of assault.

"We can't be afraid to critique masculinity, but I think that in our society we are, because I think we need masculinity — to some extent — to maintain this position that we have in the world," Murnen says.

Additional reporting from Newsy affiliate CNN.