|Book Chapter: How Gender Affects Our Relationship to Anger and Violence and to Self-Expression with Accountability
© 2001 Michele Toomey, PhD
"Perhaps the least understood area of brain difference is emotive processing. We educators may give it too little credence, because we have been taught to think of it as nonessential to learning. In fact, brain based research shows us it is crucial."
Gender is our primary identity. We're not just a baby, we're a baby girl or a baby boy. When we walk into a room, we are seen as a girl or a boy, a man or a woman. Race, age, and appearance are all aspects of our physical identity, but gender is first and foremost a defining factor of who we are and how we are perceived. If the sexist stereotypic roles are endorsed, gender dictates our relationship to anger, to violence, and to confrontation with accountability. Lest we think that gender stereotypes are a thing of the past, a Harris poll conducted for Girls, Inc. in the year 2000, surveyed over 2,000 students in grades 3 through 12 reports otherwise. According to the survey, 81% of girls polled said they are expected to be kind and caring, 74% said they were expected to dress the right way, 65% said they were expected to spend a lot of time on housework and taking care of younger siblings. The most telling statistic can be found in the 63% of both boys and girls who believe that girls are under pressure to please everyone and 56% say girls are expected to speak softly and not cause trouble. Humor is even affected by gender. It has been reported by Provine and Alexander that men tend to be humor producers and women are the laughers. This, of course, establishes a hierarchy of status. The humorist has the status and the one laughing (more often females) grants him status by laughing. (APA Monitor, September, 1997, p. 16)
-- (Gurian, 2001)
How could gender not be a powerful influence on the way we relate to anger and violence and to self-expression with accountability? Research shows that boys are more easily angered, and girls are slower to anger. (Howard, 2000) For girls, the stereotype tells them that the loudness of anger is something to stay away from, and niceness is something that brings praise and protection. In order to be a "good girl", soft spoken and not causing trouble, anger is off limits and accountability is not necessarily something to engage in either, because it may cause hurt feelings or trigger anger. Gender tells girls to avoid conflict, to make things pleasant and be nice. Hardly the formula for fostering courage and confrontation. She is supposed to be pretty, shapely, and able to attract attention by her looks. If she is unattractive she must be more subservient. Manipulation not confrontation is the cultivated exercising of power for the stereotypic female.
Then there are those girls who reject the stereotype and rebel against it. They often imitate aggressive male behavior, and define power in terms of anger and intimidation. They may rely on ridicule to establish their position and taunt other girls who represent the female role they are rejecting. Abuse of drugs, alcohol or sex are frequently part of their rebellion. Violence and bullying are a natural outgrowth of this response.
Boys who fit the stereotype for acceptable male behavior and looks, often feel they own their world. If they are smart, handsome and athletic, the stereotype tells them they can assume they have it made. Left unguided or unconfronted, they can become arrogant, manipulative or dominating. Their talent, looks and charm can become an excuse for lording it over others. Feeling superior, they can demand respect but not think they need to give it. Accountability is not attractive to them if they endorse this stereotypic belief system. Their birthright is superiority with impunity.
Boys who don't fit the stereotype often struggle with their self-image and may either become withdrawn and depressed or aggressive and violent. If they are too short, too obese, not athletic, or not aggressive, they may suffer from feelings of inadequacy. In William Pollack's book, "Real Boys' Voices", a 17 year old boy is quoted as saying: "If I get in shape, if I develop a more attractive body, I'd be more popular. It's a problem to be naturally skinny like me. You're not as athletic or muscular or attractive. You're not as good as the other kids are." These feelings affect their sense of personal worth and personal power. If the stereotype defines them, they will become alienated and perhaps depressed, or they can become rebellious and violent. Acting out as a bully and/or becoming involved in drugs, alcohol or sexual exploitation, aggressive physically and verbally, they are certainly not drawn to confrontation and accountability. Bullying, attacking and intimidation are their resources for conflict resolution.
To teach fairness, integrity, and confrontation with accountability, therefore, we must attend to gender and how it affects the way we, and our students, approach personal power and vulnerability. I have had young female teachers tell me they didn't feel comfortable confronting a young adolescent male student on his personal hygiene. Instead, they left it to the other male students, who used sarcasm and ridicule to the point that the student with the body odor was humiliated. I explained to the teachers that their lack of confrontation of the problem had set the stage for the student ridicule. Students wouldn't have to take it into their own hands if the adults took care of it. In addition, the students had no positive modeling of fair confrontation to imitate. They did stereotypic male behavior, aggressively taunting the "jerk" who smelled.
As teachers, you must become comfortable with the integrity and fairness of confrontation with accountability. No one is at risk and no one is the enemy. Everyone is treated with respect. Things can be addressed, explored, discussed and then resolved fairly. Everyone learns and violation isn't tolerated.
Let us consider how gender must be factored into our approach to confrontation. The following article that I wrote was published in "The Independent School", a national magazine for independent schools, in 1991. It addresses the issue of gender and violence and should provoke an engaging and interesting discussion.
The Price of Masculinity Based on Violence
(Note: This article first appeared in "Independent School," fall, 1991.)
Our youth are bombarded by messages of sexual violence presented as the desired image of masculine passion and power--and I am appalled. Therefore, when I was invited to give the commencement address at the Woodhall School this June, I used the opportunity to challenge the students to reject both the message and the violence.
The Woodhall School is for adolescent males, so the issue of masculine sexual identity is very present and very real. Young men are coming of age before our very eyes. In my address, I formulated the challenge to them in these words:
More than 2 million copies of "Girls, Girls, Girls," an album by Motley Crue, were sold to our youth in 1989. The lyrics to one of its songs are:
"The blade of my knife
Faced away from your heart
Those last few nights
Turned --sliced you apart...
Laid out cold
Now we're both alone
But killing you helped me keep
Statistics tell us that by age sixteen, you have probably seen 200,000 acts of violence on television. Comic books today offer you sadism and sex. A stripper was crucified in an issue of Green Arrow.
Video stores rent slasher films that feature graphic and erotic scenes of female mutilation. Statistics indicate rentals are booming among 11 to 15 year old males. In some fraternity houses on college campuses, slasher movies play continuously in the lounges.
2 Live Crew sings, "The girls would say 'Stop' and I'd say 'I'm not.' Date rape is one of the most common adolescent sexual crimes. One out of four high school student relationships is suspected of involving physical abuse.
The pressures to speak and act violently are everywhere. You are being taught by society to be violent. Violence is not a deviant act; it is a conforming one. When you ridicule, intimidate, harass and physically punch each other out, you are imitating the violence that is not only accepted by our society, but also is promoted by it to "turn you on" to being a man.
It is no secret that adolescent males often talk and act aggressively, even violently. It is an accepted expression of boys' "coming of age."
You are becoming men. Adult males talk and act aggressively and often violently. Masculinity is tied to aggression. To be a man is to be in charge. To be gentle is to be a wimp, a weak excuse for a man, an object of derision and ridicule -- to "wear a skirt."
In 1991, adolescent males such as yourselves are coming of age before an openly violent backdrop unmatched in our history. It is no surprise, therefore, that there is a marked increase in violent crimes committed by teenage males. In the past five years, murders, rapes and beatings by young males have risen sixty-eight per cent.
In the words of one 15 year old girl who was quoted in a pamphlet distributed to high school students in Connecticut: "My boyfriend didn't like what l was wearing today. He told me to change, but I said no. So he grabbed me and threw me against a wall."
I challenge you to reject this trend and this tradition. Here at Woodhall, we have an entirely male and adolescent student body. Adolescent testosterone is everywhere, and coming of age as a male is the primary emotional bond. Aggressive words and acts bordering on and often crossing the line into abuse abound here. We all, students and faculty and administration, continually struggle to determine what is fair, and how to stop what is unfair and abusive.
What is fair to "the young bucks" sharpening their antlers by ridiculing and intimidating each other? Is giving some one a black eye a fair response to harassment? Does a hickey on a young man's neck signify sexual abuse by the one who gave it to him? Is verbal abuse and intimidation a violent act deserving of suspension? Is ridicule among friends a sign of male bonding that needs to be treated differently from ridicule used against a boy who is considered undesirable?
The quandary is shared by all. The young male faculty have revealed their own personal struggle over the issue of verbal and physical abuse. Some share that they participated in it in their own adolescence, but were uncomfortable with it even then. Others share that they are intimidated by some of you and your uncontrolled outbursts of verbal and physical rage. Still others share that they find it so anger-producing to deal with your abusive treatment of them that they want to get back at you with abuse of their own. The struggle is real--very real--for them.
You, on the other hand, have shared your own struggle. You struggle openly with your stress and feelings of self-doubt, of frustration and despair, of intense anger and powerlessness. You call attention to your need to be heard, to be treated fairly, and to be respected . You speak of fear, and not feeling protected. You describe the feeling of loss of control, of intense inner pressure, of confinement that feels too tight, of the tension that is not sufficiently released. The struggle is real, very real, for you, too.
We all meet in this struggle. I wish we could meet in our approach. You have the intense inner stress of adolescence in an era in which the aggression equated with masculinity is marked by brutal violence.
I challenge you to take a different philosophical position on masculinity and aggression. Reject violence and abuse. Choose self-expression with accountability. Yes, express your intensity, your confusion, your stress, your anger, your fear, your pain. Yes, demand attention be paid to you and your needs. But no, don't abuse to get it. Become a man to be admired, not feared. Admire yourself because you have integrity, not because you can intimidate. Do not join the trend of violence; create a path of confrontation with accountability instead. Be true to yourself without pretending your power and your worth depend on your ability to devastate or destroy anything or anyone that gets in your way.
Reject the norm. It has already been a source of upset and trauma for you. It can never be anything else.
Masculinity that allows you to cherish your tender side as well as value your drive will provide you with the broad range of feelings that you have a right to experience. Relationships with family, friends and associates have the potential for honesty and intimacy once intimidation is not the underlying force. A man who respects his own vulnerability will be able to respect the vulnerability of others.
You will not need to fear any of your feelings if you are not ashamed of them. You will dare to be true to them instead. When you look at your parents and hear what they are saying, go inside and get in touch with how you feel about what is being said. Don't hide behind silence or anger once you discover how you feel.
Dare to say to them:
"I agree but don't know what to do about it."
"I feel pushed into something I don't want."
"I feel powerless with you."
"I'm angry that you don't hear what I'm saying"
"I love you and appreciate what you've done for me."
"I'm afraid I can't live up to your expectations."
"I want you to be proud of me, but I want to be true to myself and I'm unsure right now."
"Your opinion is very important to me, but I need some time to be able to know what I feel and want."
"I want to be respectful of you and what you think and feel, but I get scared of the power you have over me and I get resistant and rebellious. Please help me get it together, and work with me and I'll try to work with you. I don't want to fight you."
Dare to say to friends, male and female:
"I am upset. Please leave me alone right now."
When anger is not a man's primary emotion, he is someone to be desired, not just feared. He is someone to be respected and loved, not just a force to be reckoned with to feel safe.
"I get angry when you talk to me that way. Please stop."
"I am having a hard time; I'd like to talk about it."
"I really appreciate your friendship. Thank you."
"I'm about to explode with tension. I need to let off some steam. I'm going outside to do something physical."
"You look upset. Do you want to talk about it?"
"I'm sorry I yelled at you."
"Are you okay?"
You and I have struggled together over these issues. We have experienced intimacy and tender caring, and we have experienced conflict and abuse. You have confronted faculty and administration,you have confronted each other, and you have confronted me. In turn, you have been confronted. That is as it should be: equal time to hear and be heard; equal opportunity to learn and teach; equal access to fairness for yourself and others.
We at Woodhall have tried to speak and to listen as we prepared you to join the world of integrity and accountability and to reject the world of violence and abuse. As you close a chapter of your life and leave Woodhall, I challenge you to choose integrity and reject the masculine image built on violent aggression.
I hope you do. I hope you dare!
As I was speaking I saw some of the students give each other looks that seemed to say, "Why would she subject us to this topic today? This is our day of glory and achievement. What a drag to hear it in front of our parents."
Others just looked directly at me, attentive and intent. There was absolute silence as I spoke. When graduation was over, several parents and board members came up to me and thanked me. Several asked for copies of the talk. Not one boy mentioned it. Not one came over to me to comment.
I felt that I knew what they were saying. "That was a hard message. We were exposed . We are at risk if we speak to you and show our classmates where we stand. We heard you. That is enough for now."
For me, it is not enough. Not nearly enough. I challenge all educators to confront this aberration of what masculinity is, what sexuality is, and what power is. It takes many forms and comes in many shapes, but violent expression is still wrong and must be countered. If we don't take a strong stand, the message will speak louder than we do, and that will be a tragedy.
- What is your reaction to this paper? Where do you see yourself in it?
- What experience have you had relative to slasher movies in college dorms or fraternities? How does your gender affect your exposure to violent films? What position have you taken or do you intend to take relative to slasher movies? Why?
- Have you ever encountered a threatening experience that caused you to fear the possibility of physical violence or date rape? If so, how did you deal with it? Have any of your friends been date raped? How was it dealt with? What role, if any, did you play in helping her deal with it?
- Talk to each other about the genderized effect of wanting to please your girlfriend or boyfriend and what you tolerate in rude or abusive behavior because you don't want to lose them. Where are you regarding physical intimidation and physical fear, either as the intimidator or the intimidated?
- Have you ever been bullied either verbally or physically? How did it affect you?
- Do you use ridicule when you communicate with your friends? Does their gender affect your use of ridicule? Do you tolerate ridicule from your friends? Discuss why or why not. Does your gender affect your tolerance of ridicule? Is verbal abuse part of your history? Your present? In what way?
- Are you philosophically willing to be intolerant of verbal abuse? What will it take for you to express yourself in the way you know is fair, honest and respectful to either stop yourself or another from being verbally abusive? Are you intimidated by the opposite gender? Same gender? Explain.
- Write a dialogue between girls and boys, girls and girls, or boys and boys where verbal abuse is allowed and the outcome is destructive. Write another dialogue where verbal abuse is confronted and not tolerated and the outcome is fair and the abuse stopped. Read them by having different students play the different parts. Discuss what you understand about what is needed in order for violence, either physical or verbal, to be confronted and stopped.
The Obstacles Females Face When Confronting or Being Confronted
One of the underlying messages that girls and women are susceptible to is that females need to be protected by another. Whether spoken or unspoken, the message to girls and women is that they are vulnerable and need protecting. This message, when it becomes part of a female's view of herself, has many negative and even debilitating side effects. A sense of powerlessness can creep into her psyche, exaggerating the power others have over her and underestimating the power she has over herself. Rather than confronting others, she wants others to confront for her. Aaron Beck in "Prisoners of Hate" writes, "If I perceive myself as weak and you as powerful, and you perceive me as weak and yourself as powerful, one likely outcome is that you will dominate me or at least attempt to do so." (Beck, 2000)
When trying to teach your female students confrontation with accountability, you will need to consider this issue of vulnerability and powerlessness. It would be helpful to discuss it with your students and discover where each of the girls is regarding her confidence in her own power and strength. You will need to show them how the integrity of the process protects them and as long as they are honest and fair and honesty and fairness is exacted from the other participant(s), they will be in a position of power and not in jeopardy.
Fairness will have to be reinforced as the desired goal. If the girls are caught in wanting to be "nice" and "please", the whole issue of integrity, honesty, as the essential ingredient for accountability will need to be explored and demonstrated.
The trap of hiding the truth behind nice as a way of protecting one's self or another will need to be discussed in depth. Girls will not learn to confront and demand accountability if they are looking for approval. They need to learn to value being respected and orient themselves toward giving and expecting respect, instead.
If you are a female teacher, you need to evaluate where you are relative to your own sense of power and your own desire for approval. It is also important to discover where you are with verbal abuse. Have you been verbally abused and/or are you one who at times engages in ridicule or any form of verbal abuse? Verbal abuse leaves no visible wounds or scars, and can be hidden or denied with scarcely a second thought. And, unfortunately, since verbal attacks require no physical prowess, (although it helps, since it increases the fear and intimidation), they can be as violent and destructive when done by women as when done by men. There is no great public outcry against verbal abuse, and certainly no laws making it illegal to slice another with words and leave them emotionally bleeding. So it is an accepted, or at least tolerated, form of violence.
Fathers and husbands can roar at daughters and wives, berating, belittling, and verbally pounding them into submission without being confronted or jailed. Mothers can verbally bully and deride daughters, and it goes virtually unnoticed. Teachers can verbally humiliate or attack students and students can make comments that verbally attack or ridicule teachers, and it may go unaddressed unless it becomes so over the line that it must be dealt with. As a society, we tend to deny the potentially damaging effects verbal abuse can have. Girls and women, as members of the "weaker" sex, are particularly vulnerable to put downs and attacks that deride them. Their self-esteem is often shaken or lessened from such messages. Confrontation is much harder to teach to girls who feel poorly about themselves and who have been the victims of verbal abuse. You will need to try to discover how your female students feel about themselves and their right to be treated fairly and with respect. Teaching them to confront requires them to dare to tell someone else that they don't like the way they are treating them. If some of your female students are afraid of others ability to abuse them, they are going to be afraid to confront others. Any confrontation that you facilitate with them must be exacting of fairness and respect so that they can begin to trust the process and you. It will be a slow process.
You will make a great contribution to the sense of self-confidence and safety these female students possess if you help them develop a voice to confront and take their own power. The more girls and young women learn to stand up for themselves in a fair and respectful way, the less chance that they will learn to be victims and allow the bullies to get away with abusing them. If we want to stop bullying we must first teach victims to refuse to take the abuse and demand respect. That is, of course, true for both genders.
The Difficulty Both Genders Have with Confrontation
Males bullied by other males often feel very emasculated and their sexual identity is threatened. As a male, they are expected to be dominant, not dominated. Their investment in intellectual pursuit can be dramatically affected by their distress over being bullied. This alienation may lead to withdrawal, isolation, or depression. Or it can lead to aggressive, hostile, bullying behavior. Either position complicates teaching confrontation with accountability. The withdrawn boy, seeing himself as the victim, will refuse to participate, while the hostile boy propelled by anger, will attack and resist playing fair. Neither will easily claim any responsibility for the presenting problem. Their underlying issues will need to be confronted and addressed.
Confrontation challenges both genders relative to gender stereotypes. The female brain processes emotional data through more senses and more completely than the male brain, and girls verbalize emotionally charged data more quickly than boys. (Gurian, 2001) Each must learn to go inside and ask themselves what they are thinking and feeling, and why they are reacting the way they are. Each must then dare to confront the other whose behavior triggered their reaction. Girls must dare to trigger anger, and boys must dare to be vulnerable. This means finding the strength and the words to describe how the confronted behavior affected them and why, and then asking the other why they said or did whatever they did. Each must combine discipline with courage since it is not enough to react, attack or ridicule the other, but with discipline, they must contain their hurt, anger or whatever strong negative feeling they are experiencing, and express it fairly and respectfully. Whether a girl or a boy is shy or hostile, courage and discipline are needed for an effective confrontation.
For you, the teacher, you must have all of the above plus patience. It will take time to teach girls uncomfortable with anger and boys uncomfortable with vulnerability, how to confront with accountability. Each gender has fear and discomfort with some aspect of confrontation. Each gender will be hesitant, reluctant, or resistant at first. At times you will need to model, invite, encourage, even cajole them into trying to express themselves in a fair and confrontive way, revealing themselves as they ask another to reveal as well. If you show any impatience or annoyance because they aren't coming forth easily or are even arguing against revealing anything, your impatience will work against the process. It becomes the focus and the reason for not participating.
All of your best pedagogical skills will be called upon when you teach self-expression with accountability. You have to meet the student where she or he is, then bring them to where they need to be. Your manner must be caring but firm, confident, but not presumptuous. Even as you try to lead you must be able to follow where they may take you. You must give them room to search for what they're trying to say, while containing them if they ramble and get off the point. They will want to express themselves without being corrected, but if they attack, belittle, or ridicule, you must intervene and not allow it. They may argue with you and tell you that's their style, but you will have to insist that they learn a respectful style that doesn't violate another. They may talk around the issue and try not to trigger anger by not really confronting. You will need to circle back and remind them of the behavior being confronted and ask them to try again to say how they felt and why it was upsetting. They may say they can't, that they don't know how, or even that it's too scary, and still, patiently and firmly, you continue to try to get a true description of what is going on for them.
You will be practicing your own confronting skills as you try to teach your students, and get them to dare confront. You do not have to be perfect at it. You can learn with your students. However, you must have integrity as you learn, and your courage must be evident as you venture forth. They will learn as much from your example as from your words.
Girls Confronting Girls
Girls generally are more comfortable confronting each other than they are confronting boys. However, even confronting each other is often difficult. The more aggressive girls may intimidate the more fearful girls. Ridicule and meanness may become a weapon for expressing hurt feelings, disappointment, or anger. Crying, sulking, withdrawing may become the escape for victimized girls. Those girls who are comfortable with themselves and are able to succeed in school and have a circle of friends, may or may not confront each other. Often they just get very adept at getting along, and they make allowances for each other without ever really confronting each other. All need some help and need to be taught. Some will find it much easier than others. Almost all of them will benefit greatly and be grateful for the tools.
If you are a female teacher, you need to discover how your style of confronting will be perceived by your female students. When you are facilitating a confrontation among them or engaging in one yourself, you will want to evaluate the level of confidence they have in themselves and the ability they have to hold their own fairly and respectfully. Girls who bully will need help containing themselves and revealing instead of attacking. Girls who are fearful and see themselves as victims will need help finding the courage to come forward and reveal themselves instead of waiting to be rescued. The self-confident girls who have not been bullied at home or at school, will be leaders by example in this process. Often they can be used as mentors and become part of the leadership in changing the climate in the school.
One of the positive side effects of learning confrontation with accountability is the leadership that emerges among the students. I was once at a private high school giving a full day workshop to faculty, administration, and students, and at an all school meeting a confrontation between some students and a faculty member became contentious. The head of the school attacked me for allowing students to confront a teacher, and one young girl raised her hand to speak. She stood up, turned and faced the head, and confronted him on blaming me for what all the students knew was a problem with a particular class and the teacher. She prefaced her remarks with a comment that said she realized no one would expect her to speak at this meeting, let alone confront the head, but she felt what I was doing and trying to teach them to do, was badly needed in the school. Then she proceeded to express her opinion that the climate in the school was too aggressive and there was too much bullying and it was not being effectively addressed. She liked what I was trying to teach about fairness and accountability and he didn't need to be afraid of it because it could be really beneficial in building community. Everyone applauded, and it turned the tide for the rest of the day.
Girls Confronting Boys
In general, girls have a harder time confronting boys. Both the sexuality factor and the opposite sex factor complicate girl - boy confrontations. If girls want boys to like them, they feel they can't confront them. If girls are intimidated by boys, they are reluctant to confront them. If girls are angry at boys, they may either antagonize them or ignore them. If girls are unfamiliar with boys, they may shy away from interacting with them and try to avoid any confrontations. Depending on the age of your students, you will encounter different reasons for why it's not easy for girls to confront boys.
It will be very helpful for the group and for you, to have a discussion with your class on why it's hard for girls and boys to confront each other. As they hear each other and agree or disagree without being ridiculed or attacked, they will begin to feel a sense of safety with revealing some of their thoughts and feelings. You will get to know them better and be in a position to understand where they are relative to their fears and their confidence as well as their style.
Your main position needs to be that the fairness of the process and the resolution it brings will both protect them and free them when they risk expressing themselves. If your students feel safe and see that the process is fair, they will gain confidence and begin to participate in confrontations when it is appropriate. An essential part of the educational opportunity you are offering them, is a safe environment in which to learn. That pertains to every subject, but is particularly necessary when confrontation and accountability is the topic. If any of the girls have been used to being sarcastic and hiding behind ridicule, you will need to be very quick in confronting them and asking them to rephrase.
Sarcasm starts young. It isn't just pre-adolescents and adolescents who know how to strike out sarcastically. Children learn from us, and they learn early, so even those of you who teach or will teach in elementary school will be dealing with sarcasm. When it does occur, you must not only confront the one who was sarcastic, you must confront the one at whom it was directed. She or he needs to express how it made her or him feel and why, so that there can be accountability and resolution before you continue. The sarcastic student needs to reveal why she or he spoke the way they did and a discussion on hiding behind the weapon of sarcasm could take place. It would be a helpful tool for trying to change that pattern for those who are caught in it, and teach those who are the recipients of it what to do to not just allow it.
For the older students, the sexuality piece as well as sex role stereotypes complicate girl - boy confrontations on every level. As the statistics showed in my paper on "The Price of Masculinity Based on Violence", girls often allow themselves to be pushed around and bullied by their "boyfriends". There is a whole range of behaviors that fall on the continuum of girls not wanting to lose a boyfriend or just lose male approval. For those girls to learn to confront boys and expect to be treated respectfully and fairly, a great deal of work will have to be done over time. Their attitudes toward themselves and what makes a female desirable will be challenged in this process, and hopefully, as the school climate reflects fairness and confrontation with accountability, the girls caught in stereotypic roles and stereotypic attitudes will gradually be drawn toward boys who value fairness and respect. Dominance by a male will not be so quickly associated as necessary for a relationship with a male.
I once met with the girls at a boarding school where girls were in the minority. They spoke of the intimidation and put downs that occurred in classes where the teacher was male, and the class was male except for one female or possibly two. They would just take the verbal abuse and never told anyone, not their parents or their advisor. We discussed the fact that this situation was being perpetuated by their silence, and the only way to stop it was for them to expose the situation. It wasn't fair for me to ask them to confront the teacher and the other male students alone, but with adult help, they needed to confront them and demand that the behavior stop.
Boys Confronting Girls
It is not easy for boys to confront girls, either. Boys can also be shy and uncertain about telling a girl that she offended or angered them. Boys can also be intimidated by girls, either because they fear being embarrassed by what they might say, or they may fear being humiliated by a girl's anger or cutting comments. The burden for boys is saving face. Gender stereotypes dictate that boys be superior to girls to protect their masculinity. If a girl dominates either by behavior or by words, the natural order of these stereotypes is upset. For a boy to confront a girl, he must dare risk the stereotype of having his masculinity challenged. William Pollack in "Real Boys' Voices" speaks of the Boy Code that favors male stoicism and makes boys feel ashamed about expressing weakness or vulnerability.
To protect himself, a boy may act very aggressively when confronting a girl, and instead of confronting her, he may attack her. It will take skill on your part to stop this violating behavior while still getting the boy to express his feelings of anger or hurt fairly and respectfully. Often the hostility and abusive language get all the attention and the underlying feelings are lost. If boys are going to learn to confront with accountability, they will have to have the discipline and courage it takes to contain their feelings. It is not easy to convince aggressive boys that disciplined, fair speech can be powerful and effective. They have learned to rely on the shock effect of hostile speech. They recognize that power. Only through repetition and experiencing the movement that occurs when passionate feelings are expressed fairly will these boys begin to believe that they can be powerful and angry without being abusive. This lesson will be invaluable to them, however. Their ability to relate to themselves and to girls with integrity and accountability, will prepare them for honest, intimate and respectful relationships as partners, husbands, fathers and friends.
Classrooms where boys and girls are comfortable with each other and able to confront each other when the situation calls for it, are classrooms where attention to the lessons being taught is high. Rather than competing with various levels of hostility, alienation, and manipulative games, teachers have a chance to meet their students where they are and as a class engage in an educational journey together. The focus of the class becomes the class, not the subplots distracting members of the class.
Boys Confronting Boys
Boys who like each other tend to have a way of confronting each other that works, even if it appears to be harsh or abusive when observed. Often boys will tell you the don't mind the names their friends call them or the sarcasm they engage in with each other. As long as they are friends, there is a latitude of acceptability that seems to allow them to relate and keep each other in check without directly confronting each other. Let another boy who's not a friend try that kind of talk, and he'll get quickly put in his place, even attacked verbally. Only friends can talk to friends in a put down way and not be called on it. There has to be a silent agreement and if no one crosses the line, it seems to work just fine for them.
These boys still need to learn how to confront with accountability, though, because sometimes even their friends cross a line, and often, non-friends need to be confronted or need to confront them. Some boys tend to be ostracized by other boys and teaching them to confront is a real challenge. A thirteen year old boy is quoted by William Pollack, "Boys are supposed to shut up and take it, to keep it all in. It's harder for them to release or vent without feeling girlie. And that can drive them to shoot themselves." (Pollack, 2000) They are used to being cut out or cut down, so they may either imitate that style or withdraw and become silent, even sullen. They have very little room, either within themselves or among other boys. Only as time goes on and confrontations occur that go well and issues get resolved, will the marginal boys begin to have a place. Fairness, as it becomes the accepted norm, even the desired one, opens the door for the mistreated boys to venture forth. Peer pressure begins to be exerted on those who would mistreat another, and as the outsiders begin to speak and become known, they become better understood. This in turn leads to their having a legitimate place in the group, and instead of being ostracized they can begin to belong. Again, the educational process is enhanced when students aren't alienated. They can more easily join in learning together once they feel they belong. Alienation has a profound influence on interfering with a desire to learn or even the ability to learn.
Boys tend to have a strong need to help each other out, and confrontation can become a welcome tool for them. They may openly share their experiences and are often uninhibited in telling each other what they're doing wrong. They are frequently not afraid of what the others are going to think of them when they share, because they have a confidence in themselves for having gone through something and come out the other side. Unlike girls, they aren't expected to be perfect. The attitude, "Boys will be boys", allows them to feel it's OK to learn as they grow up and make mistakes as they learn. This ease and openness can be very helpful as you teach confrontation with accountability. The honesty that many of the boys bring to the process allows everyone to benefit from it. Leadership often comes from these boys and they set a tone that facilitates honest claiming and sharing. However, as Gurian reports (Gurian, 2001), "Our males perpetuate more violence on each other and on our females than all other cultures except those at war. Female violence (and basic nastiness) is increasing, but males will always dominate violence statistics. Boys are testosterone driven and brain directed toward spatial expression of stress; they will tend to lash out physically (and with more sexual aggression and physical rage than school age girls.) This trend continues all through adulthood." (p. 62)
Gender Similarities and Gender Equality
Both girls and boys respond to fairness and appreciate the safety it provides. Although they have differing paths to take if they are to learn how to confront with accountability, they come together when the accountability occurs. A fair resolution that brings with it greater understanding and respect for each other, allows boys and girls to meet and join together with integrity and intimacy. By respecting each others' differences they are able to recognize their similarities. Both genders find security in fairness, both benefit from accountability, and both feel the strength and power of the process and are glad to be able to exercise it. It is a great equalizer.
Neither gender has the upper hand in confrontation. Some girls and some boys may find it easier than others, and some may be better at it, but neither gender is superior or inferior in this process. It exacts the same from each and offers a level playing field where the rules of fairness and accountability allow each gender to participate as equals. The bullies of either gender can be confronted by both genders, and girls and boys can join together in challenging the bullies to stop. Peer pressure that includes both genders has its own special power. Gender equality promotes a community feeling in the classroom and in the school. Respectful relationships encourage fairness and fairness breeds respectful relationships. A sense of happiness and healthy competitiveness as well as feeling safe and connected creates a climate for learning. Erika Karres in "Violence Proof Your Kids Now" comments that connection and involvement on all levels is a primary key to prevent violent behavior in children. Education and interest in discovering new things are enhanced by this environment, as well. A sense of well being is necessary for intellectual excitement to have a strong draw for students. Fairness and accountability provide the opportunity to create this climate of safety for them. Education and interest in discovering new things are enhanced by this environment.
- Video tape a group discussion of students the age you plan to teach or do teach. Talk about feeling put down, intimidated or bullied and discuss the difficulty of girls confronting each other, girls confronting boys, boys confronting each other and boys confronting girls. Show it in your class and discuss what you learned from facilitating the discussion and from watching the tape of it.
- Write a skit that involves confronting a bullying situation. Divide the class and have 1/4 of you write about girls bullying girls, 1/4 write of girls bullying boys, 1/4 boys bullying girls, and 1/4 boys bullying boys. Role play the skits and discuss what you notice and what you think the differences and similarities are in the 4 conditions.
- Write a paper from the perspective of the gender you are on what you've experienced from the same gender and from the opposite gender. Discuss how you think the gender stereotype has affected you in a confrontational situation and how your sense of confidence in your ability to take care of yourself verbally has been affected. Read each other's papers and have a discussion on them.
- Real Boys' Voices, William S. Pollack, Ph.D., Penguin Books, New York, 2001
- Prisoners of Hate, Aaron T. Beck, M.D., Harper Collins, New York, 1999
- Violence Proof Your Kids Now, Erika V. Shearin Karres, Conari Press, California, 2000
- Boys and Girls Learn Differently, Michael Gurian, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, New York, 2001
- The Owner's Manual for the Brain, Pierce J. Howard, Bard Press, Georgia, 2000