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How Little Boys Learn to be Little Men

the wax duke

Even in the information age I still occasionally encounter an otherwise reasonable person who insists that men really do think about sex every seven seconds.

A little thinking reveals this to be pure nonsense—it would mean the average man has been perturbed by over 500 sexual fantasies before he even arrives at work. Yet you still hear it said with a straight face. (Scientists estimate that even college students usually only have about twenty sexual thoughts a day, not seven thousand.)

This not uncommon belief is so astronomically distant from the truth that some strange social force must be at play for even a single person to believe it. After all, we’re not talking about some kind of esoteric knowledge—50% of the population has direct access to a random sample of the data.

For this belief to have become as popular as even a mid-tier myth like “gum takes seven years to digest”, think of how many men must have felt like they had to pretend, when the topic came up, that they were thinking about sex several hundred times more often than they actually were.

It’s hilarious, and kind of fascinating, that anyone could get it that wrong. But having once been a boy, and knowing how boys learn to be men, I can see how it happened. 

My dad’s eight feet tall

Conformism is the bedrock of our survival strategy as humans. Even when we have no idea what to do, which is often, we know that doing what everyone else is doing is a safe enough bet.

Boys learn how to be men by emulating the boys and men around them. However, because everyone is doing this same kind of posturing and pretending, the system is subject to a feedback loop problem. Boys are emulating boys who are emulating men who were once those same boys, each of them with a variety of ludicrous ideas about what it means to be a man.

There’s no reality check mechanism into this system. Among boys, everyone kind of knows everyone else is full of shit, but there’s no precedent for being candid. My experience of being a boy was full of moments like this:

“My dad’s seven feet tall!” my friend said, for some reason.

“Well my dad’s eight feet tall!” I found myself saying immediately.

Clearly I made that claim without a single thought about whether it was true, or even of the importance of truth at all, at least in any kind of situation where someone is trying to outdo you (or your dad).

I don’t know if I continued to argue that particular point about dad-height, but that impulse towards one-upmanship, along with a corresponding aversion towards backing down, was always there as a general dynamic in every boy-to-boy relationship.

This unchecked cycle of posturing leads to the feedback loop that can spawn, among other ridiculous myths, the old canard about men living every moment of their lives with a private sexual fantasy going on.

If everyone’s constantly pretending, who is it they’re pretending to be? And what are the chances that person really is on the inside what they appear to be from the outside?

Let’s say young boys of the 1950s saw John Wayne as the ideal man and modeled themselves on him. Was John Wayne even like John Wayne? Of course he wasn’t—any on-screen image is always going to be simpler, more uniform, more uncompromising and uncomplicated than any real person.

Even the people who knew The Duke personally wouldn’t have seen the bottom nine-tenths of the iceberg that was his private internal experience. Few of us advertise our self-doubt and existential worries, and I imagine that goes double in Hollywood.

So the kids trying to be like him built themselves on a false image built on other false images. And then they became dads. It’s such a common story that it’s a cliché now: a man meets his childhood hero and is devastated to find that he’s fallible, even pathetic—a drinker, a liar, a steroid cheat.

And if they don’t have that disappointing but enlightening experience, they keep on posturing, becoming grown men who will, if pressed, earnestly try to convince you they’ve never actually cried. The feedback loop has driven them into the realm of what pop culture now calls douchebaggery—living as a persona that’s all posture and no candor.

The Yin-Yang Myth

The runaway feedback loop starts at playground age, when our ideas of masculinity are pretty basic. The main tenet is “Don’t be a girl”.

This must be why many grown men and women still think that masculinity has no meaning aside from “not being girly”. But if you revisit the issue as an adult you can see it’s not true. The good qualities we associate with masculinity are strength, decisiveness, dependability, upright posture, and a few others. But clearly these qualities aren’t exclusive to men, they’re just the ones manliness emphasizes; nobody with any critical thinking ability seriously believes women are intrinsically weak, indecisive, unreliable and slouchy.

We take the yin-yang image, with its clean lines and stark tones, much too literally. Masculinity and femininity aren’t opposites. They aren’t even yinyang240mutually exclusive. They are loose groups of universal human qualities, each benefiting us at different times, but which are usually celebrated more in one sex than the other. We can all be nurturing; we can all be aggressive. We can all be stoic and we can all be sensitive.

If there’s a starkness anywhere, it’s in which of these universal qualities we men and women are supposed to advertise, and which we’re supposed to downplay. I was told not to be a girl, and that meant don’t draw unicorns, don’t wear pink, don’t cry if anyone can see you, and don’t skip. And definitely don’t tell a man you love him unless you add the word “man” at the end.

We learn these rules so young that they have to be simple and kind of dumb. But the earlier we learn something, the harder it is to challenge and refine our views on it. And if we’re not challenging a given view we’re probably reinforcing it.

So it was really encouraging last week to see Maria Popova’s piece on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s creativity research. He found that high-achieving creative men and women tend to exhibit both masculine and feminine qualities to a greater extent than the general population.

In all cultures, men are brought up to be “masculine” and to disregard and repress those aspects of their temperament that the culture regards as “feminine,” whereas women are expected to do the opposite. Creative individuals to a certain extent escape this rigid gender role stereotyping. When tests of masculinity/femininity are given to young people, over and over one finds that creative and talented girls are more dominant and tough than other girls, and creative boys are more sensitive and less aggressive than their male peers.

(from Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention)

Note that these people aren’t “keeping to the middle”. They’re doing the opposite. By reaching freely into both conventional territories, they have access to modes of thinking and interacting that are usually unavailable to most of their peers and competitors.

A person who is willing to embrace qualities beyond the stereotypes for their gender “in effect doubles his or her repertoire of responses and can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities.”

Letting ourselves make use of the whole human toolbox sounds like a good deal to me. These findings also suggests that relaxing our gender expectations isn’t only a social justice concern—it could also help us become a smarter and more capable species.

You can probably imagine, as one example, how our foreign policy ideas might change if there were fewer grown men afraid to look too girly in their responses to problems.

Wax John Wayne photo by Prayitno. Yin yang by Travis Simon.


Camp Calm registration opens again this week!

campcalm-165bThe third season of my intro-to-meditation course Camp Calm starts in mid-September, and registration opens later this week. The program was really well received, and the first two seasons and filled up the first few days of registration. It’s designed for people who are interested in meditation but have so far found it confusing, annoying, boring or difficult.

So if you’re not already on the mailing list, go here to sign up. You’ll get updates with all the details over the next few days, and will have the first chance to register.

(What is Camp Calm?)


Anne August 29, 2016 at 2:29 am

Beautiful. Thank you.

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Colin Smith August 29, 2016 at 2:56 am

So true David, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

More than ever, I believe, the World needs men to embrace those traits normally associated with women, and visa versa.

It would enable more connection, collaboration and human beingness.


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David Cain August 29, 2016 at 8:21 am

I think so too. But I also think there is a backlash problem among guys, where men see how toxic the “manly” posturing can get, and reject masculinity too. There are a lot of related discussions here but I had to keep the post reasonably short.

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Jack August 31, 2016 at 6:30 am

Could not agree more, Colin. I’ve always thought that way and it makes me glad and hopeful that more and more people appear to be embracing this approach.

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Zoe August 29, 2016 at 2:57 am

I was always suspicious of that saying. I thought it must mean that girls didn’t think about sex as much, but because I thought about it a lot as a teenager, then perhaps I wasn’t normal… or people were just clueless about what really goes on inside someone’s thoughts, as you said.
I think these patterns of posturing and learning are also prevalent among women. For years I saw myself as this not-quite-girl because I didn’t always act or look like other “girly” girls. It really hurt me, because I didn’t think I was feminine enough for guys to like me. I liked wearing dresses, I had longish hair and the body of a woman, but it still never felt like enough. I still find myself looking at other women and thinking “she looks more like a form than me”. Silly, right?

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Zoe August 29, 2016 at 2:59 am

*girl, not form. Grr autocorrect.

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David Cain August 29, 2016 at 8:24 am

The researchers also found that men and women think about sex roughly the same number of times per day.

There definitely is a similar kind of posturing that happens with girls too, I just never experienced it firsthand. Humans are big on social status and the superficial judgments behind it. It’s hard to deal with as kids and especially teenagers, when it’s the harshest.

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CARLA August 29, 2016 at 7:45 am

Scratching the surface of one of our deepest societal wounds…ah, yes.

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Kathy August 29, 2016 at 8:48 am

Those men & women who have the courage and skill to rise above the current male-female narrative will be the ones to show the rest what respect, honour and love looks & sounds like. As a human race, let’s remember human responsibility and the “platinum rule”. When that becomes difficult, meditate!

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David Cain August 29, 2016 at 10:26 am

I hadn’t heard about the “platinum rule” and looked it up. It gave me something to think about — at first it seems like the same rule but there is a subtle distinction. It requires more empathy.

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David Stucker August 29, 2016 at 9:38 am

I keep seeing these memes and posts about how “manliness” has died. They talk about how weak, soft and disgusting the new generation of men has become. Men and women, particularly in a specific geographic dynamic. “like” it in droves. But here is my take, living among all of these folks: If you spent 35-50 years honing your chops to look like the perfect “man,” and the next generation came and looked upon all you’d accomplished and said, “Meh,” it stings. It’s “offensive.” There’s a sense of victimhood when all those efforts go unrecognized and unappreciated. Their very source of pride is struck. And, there’s a feeling that the younger generation is “cheating” the system. They’re subverting all those painful rites of passage. They’re “unpatriotic.” (Gasp!) Personally, I think the whole game is just ridiculous, and always have. I refused to participate and am lucky I had a dad who just didn’t give a crap about all that. However, I can certainly see how it would sting those who spent their whole lives trying to measure up. It’s just human nature to be hurt when it becomes irrelevant.

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David Cain August 29, 2016 at 10:32 am

There is definitely generational element to the prevailing ideas about what it means to be a man, and that makes it kind of complicated. In certain places and times it was manly to wear tights. But I think the qualities of strength, decisiveness and a resistance to supplication span all the generations as ideas of what masculinity is. And that means they may be worth cultivating, if we can do it without conflating them with misogyny, violence, etc.

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Chris August 29, 2016 at 9:51 am

Beautiful youtube video of a martial arts teacher and a little boy crying:

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Michael Hall August 29, 2016 at 10:58 am

Wonderful and affirming. I am a 51 year old man who has struggled with these issues…. “too sensitive,” “too vulnerable,” etc. And the way these ideas cross genders back and forth is astounding – women have loved me for my sensitivity, and not that long ago a woman ended a relationship with me because I was “not enough of a man.” (This mostly had to do with me expressing feelings for her in an emotional way.) Both reflect the same assumption, i.e., what “real men” are like, and women can be drawn to a man because he is *not* like that, or pushed away from an emotional man.

I have read books on being “manly” and the main thing I take from them is that the authors are convinced it’s better not to have deep feelings – and deep pain. Alas I have both plus confusion over stereotypes. And the answer to all of this is so simple: how about we let people be who they are?

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Chris August 29, 2016 at 11:20 am

Hey David, thanks for the post. This subject has been of great interest to me these past few years. As you mentioned above, I know you certainly can’t dive into this whole subject from both sides in one post, but I would love to get your thoughts on the other side of this. That being, how, in another sense, the pendulum has swung in the other direction too far and we don’t know how to be anything aside from “nice boys”, afraid to make a stand on things and maintain a healthy sense of our masculinity. I’ve read a great deal on it, and it confirms what has been my own experience. I have long been a reader of your blog though and would love to see you explore it further in the future.

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Elsa August 29, 2016 at 11:28 am

Wonderful! Thank you, David!
I’m sharing this on Facebook with my very creative husband, who will appreciate it as much as I do.

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vanderleun August 29, 2016 at 4:52 pm

No need to imagine our foreign policy. There is a girly man that’s been running it for about 8 years. Getting better all the time, isn’t it.

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slay August 30, 2016 at 10:35 am

if you mean the wind down/disengagement of/from pointless foreign wars and associated dead troops, then yes.

(son of vietnam vet and brother of iraq invasion vet.)

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Jack August 31, 2016 at 6:39 am

Great article, David. To a consciousy androgynous person like myself the approach of either or has never made sense, neither on an intuitive nor an an intellectual level. In fact I find it exhausting to live in a world that has such rigid ideas about gender roles. I’m convinced that our world is essentially so out of whack because of patriarchal ideology that has been indoctrinating our thinking in to many ways, from earliest childhood on. The yin and yang is totally out of balance, so to speak, and I believe if people begin becoming more rounded as individuals (meaning nourishing their so called feminine and masculine qualities) this will have a positive effect on the condition of the world overall.

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Rick Segreda September 7, 2016 at 2:24 pm

The poor duke: The name “John Wayne” has now come to mean “impossible conservative standard of masculinity to live up to,” despite the fact that few, if any men born since the Duke’s death in 1979 have actually seen a John Wayne movie.

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Chinaza September 28, 2016 at 7:35 am

Nice post. The idea of the default characteristic behavior of men and women is not entirely correct. I am a student of the University of Nigeria Nsukka. Here is our link : http://www.unn.edu.ng

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