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Dear Young Men

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Dear young men,

I want to tell you what I wish I’d been told, as I bumbled through the awkward years between 15 and 25. This whole letter might sound self-important, coming from a 34-year-old who writes mostly about how he’s just beginning to get the hang of adult life. Maybe it is, and you can take it or leave it.

All I know is that when I was negotiating that stretch between junior high and full adulthood, I could have used some guidance from men who were old enough to be done with that phase, but who were too young to be my dad.

But I didn’t have that, so like most of us, I picked up my strategies from the similarly confused young men around me. Even though that’s pretty normal, in terms of instructions on how to be a mature and respectful adult it’s hard to do worse than that — so I hope I can offer you a bit of insight you might not find among your peers. You’ll still have to choose who to believe and who to ignore, I just want to offer a different voice than the ones you may be hearing.

Some of what follows applies particularly to straight young men, because I’m pulling it from my own experience, but I think the principles behind it are pretty universal.

You will constantly have people telling you, both implicitly and explicitly, that you have to be a man. What that even means, in the 21st century, I don’t quite know. It certainly has a less specific meaning than it used to, and that’s a good thing. Machismo was never a good fit for many of us guys, and it clearly doesn’t make the world a more enlightened place.

Still, if you are male, you will be forced to relate to this increasingly irrelevant concept of “being a man” in some way or another.

Even though we humans are (thankfully) moving on from seeing ourselves as two distinct kinds of creatures, there’s nothing wrong with being a man, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There’s nothing wrong with doing traditionally “manly” things. Don’t be embarrassed by them. If you want to watch football on Sunday, or train in MMA, or grow a handlebar mustache, or buy a pickup truck, make no apologies. 

No, there’s nothing wrong with masculinity — until it’s used as a gauge for measuring and excluding people, whether they’re women or other men, or people who don’t identify as either. Regardless of whether masculinity appeals to you, either as something to embody or to simply admire in others, understand that it’s purely a matter of personal taste and has nothing to do with personal value.

Don’t worry about how your sexual experience (or absence of it) stacks up. At about age 14, boys feel like they have to start bullshitting about their sexual exploits in order to survive. The pressure on these kids is just too great for them to speak frankly about it. Ignore what everyone says about their sex lives. They are lying, all of them, at least a little.

Forget the word “virgin,” as a descriptor for both yourself and others. It’s an archaic, irrelevant word, meant to stigmatize and shame people. It oversells a person’s first sex act as some grand, transformational experience, which supposedly vindicates a young man and spoils a young woman. It’s an obsolete, religious, judgmental word. Let’s leave it behind.

Failing to “fit in” in school is a good thing. It means there’s some element of individuality in you that will not be squashed. God help you if your self-esteem peaks in high school.

Nobody knows who they are at that age anyway. People start to get an idea of what’s important to them and who they want to be in their late twenties or early thirties. Just try not to cause too much damage in the mean time. Simply survive those awkward years. Get good grades and make some friends, but don’t worry about being cool. Successfully achieving coolness in high school is like being knighted by Ronald McDonald.

All young men will encounter the “seduction community” at some point. Beware. While there is some genuinely well-intentioned dating and self-improvement advice to be found there, so much of the discussion is absolutely riddled with misogyny. It isn’t always overt, but it’s always there. If you start referring to women as “targets,” you crossed the line a long time ago.

Think of women as being just like you, rather than some other species. You don’t learn to approach women, you learn to talk to people. Those forums are filled with young men who never learned how to talk to other people. When you’re thirty, come back and read this stuff. It will make you sad.

If there’s a real secret to “seduction,” here it is: Always be building a life that turns you on, represent yourself as honestly and straightforwardly as you can, and have conversations with a lot of people. That’s it. Connections will happen. If you’re bad at those things, give yourself as long as it takes to get good at them. You have time.

On the matter of “sluts” — there are none. Nobody is a slut. The number of sexual partners a person has had, or is rumored to have had, is a) none of your business and b) indicates, by itself, absolutely nothing about the character of that person. If you want to know what kind of person someone is, talk to them. If you believe in personal freedom you cannot believe in sluts.

Throughout your life you’ll encounter sexist attitudes, even from your favorite people. Much of it will come in the form of what you are supposed to do, think and say, in order to be a man. And unless you’re not paying attention, you’ll almost certainly discover some of these attitudes in yourself. Sexism isn’t confined to bigots and wife-beaters. It’s too common, too normal for that. It is often subtle, unintentional, even well-meaning.

You have a responsibility here, whether you want it or not. Some of the very normal expectations that will be placed on you as a male — to distance yourself from femininity, to be tough and stolid, to laugh at certain jokes, to use words like “slut” without irony, to deride ambitious or non-traditional women, to dominate and emasculate other males — are keeping even the most enlightened parts of this world less hospitable for women than for you.

Learn to recognize and violate these expectations. Don’t be another dead billiard ball, passing this nasty energy on to your peers, and eventually your sons. We need new norms, and creating them will take the help of defiant and thoughtful young men. That’s you. The problem of sexism isn’t a women’s issue. It’s a matter of ensuring personal freedom for everyone regardless of sex.

And a lot of your pals (and even your heroes) aren’t going to help in this department. Most of them will be embarrassed to talk about it, because they’re too afraid of saying something that will disqualify them from successfully being a man, based on their current strategy.

If you believe you should have the freedom to pursue happiness within your rights, it’s only sensible to believe in that freedom for everyone, and that means making sexism your problem too, even if it never seemed like it was.

At the root of it all is our lingering capacity for violence — the unfortunate biological reality that even a physically unremarkable man can knock out the average woman, if he thinks it will help him more than it will harm him.

So from the dawn of humanity, whenever there has been a disagreement between a man and a woman, both of them knew from the start — no matter what kind of reason or sense either side brought to the table — which one must eventually back down. Unlike the woman, the man could expect to get his way without having an intelligent argument, without considering the needs of others, without being right at all, without any sensible reason for things to go his way.

This expectation — that power over others is a viable, noble path to happiness — lingers in the way we talk, in the way we define manhood, in the expectations males place on each other. This is especially influential on high-school and college-age males, because they do not yet feel like men, and they believe they’re supposed to.

The forces of civilization and education are very slowly discrediting this stone-age approach to life, and dismantling the power imbalance that has grown around it.

For us to get there, young men need to understand as early in their lives as possible that men have a long history of getting their way for no good reason. This advantage comes, of course, at the expense of fellow human beings, and we need to learn to be aware of it and eliminate it wherever we see it.

Is it your fault? No. But whether you want it or not, you’ve inherited the responsibility of creating a new answer to the ancient question of what it means to be a man. The old answers are no good.

***

Photo by Lisa Schaffer
2K Shares
Tallgirl1204 September 29, 2014 at 11:38 pm

I am going to print and save this for my son, who is in third grade now. I would only add the advice my friend’s father gave him, which sums up the last part of your post: “When you’re arguing with a woman, keep your hands in your pockets.”

Thank you. This is the sort of essay that I hope goes viral.

Karl-Mikael Syding September 30, 2014 at 12:44 am

Great post.

I wish I had read it 30 years ago.

I felt the need to highlight and circle several sentences and paragraphs. I’ll simply have to copy them and write a post about your article instead :)

Allison Koberstein September 30, 2014 at 2:19 am

Thank you.

Rose September 30, 2014 at 2:56 am

Pretty much what I came here to say.

Cat September 30, 2014 at 2:33 am

I loved this one, thank you. I agree that we need a new norm, and agree that everyone needs to have the personal freedom to create the life that works for them. I hate that this thing we call ‘society’ has the power to make choices for us, lest we face the wrath of our collective peers if we choose differently. If I had one thing to add it would be: “Don’t let other people’s opinions be your only source of self-esteem. They will only feed you their own fears.”

Jack September 30, 2014 at 3:11 am

I’m a 22 year old guy. I’m going to save this article, it speaks to me so much and it’s so hard to find men who are this open minded and willing to talk like openly like this.

Elle October 1, 2014 at 10:16 am

Hang in there, Jack. It gets better.

DiscoveredJoys September 30, 2014 at 3:41 am

If you believe you should have the freedom to pursue happiness within your rights, it’s only sensible to believe in that freedom for everyone, and that means making sexism your problem too, even if it never seemed like it was.

This so much. When people see me as an old white male they will say I’m privileged. They are right, of course, and equally wrong. Just as I have to be aware of my ‘-ist’ thinking I also have to be aware that other peoples’ expectations of me are not necessarily true. Awareness gives you choice.

A lifetime of social norms about men and women are tough to think around, but they are not absolutes.

Nikki September 30, 2014 at 4:04 am

David,

I can’t express enough how happy this article makes me. I feel like I have been battling covert sexism my entire life, most frustratingly because many of the most underhand sexist comments come from my own close friends. This is the first time I’m reading an article written by a man that expresses so well the way in which men can dominate women and impede their progression in society.

With regards to your first paragraph, I’m actually in the process of trying to set up a mentor scheme. There are so many young people who feel immense peer pressure to suppress who they really are and try to “fit in”. If only they could have a mentor, someone who is not their parent, who can guide them through the tough period in their life and remind them that life isn’t just about becoming prom queen. I really hope it works!

Thanks again for a great article.

Nikki

Ric September 30, 2014 at 4:06 am

I think the underlying sentiment (“If you believe you should have the freedom to pursue happiness within your rights, it’s only sensible to believe in that freedom for everyone”) equally applies to racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination. Great post, thanks.

David Cain September 30, 2014 at 7:57 am

You are definitely right about that, and that’s why ethnic majorities should care about racism, straight people should care about homophobia, et cetera. It’s about everybody.

George September 30, 2014 at 4:32 am

“Successfully achieving coolness in high school is like being knighted by Ronald McDonald.”

Ha, great.

David September 30, 2014 at 4:59 am

Wow, did you ever nail this one, David!!
The term “be a man” has irked me for years and I see no place for it in an enlightened world.
I want to shout your message from the rooftops!
Thank you for this post, my good man.

interestingreadinglist September 30, 2014 at 6:18 am

Wow. This really hit home.

Being tough or misogynistic is quite often something we do to try be accepted by other males, rather than actually believe in, it seems.

David Cain September 30, 2014 at 8:09 am

Yes, I think so. I mean, there’s not much logical basis for being misogynistic, so it must come from emotional reinforcement. When a boy is rewarded with feelings of acceptance and okayness for embodying machismo, then he’s going to gravitate towards that.

Tobi September 30, 2014 at 6:33 am

David, I think you might enjoy looking into something called the Brony Movement. If you’ve ever heard of the show called My Little Pony it’s basically young men who really enjoy that, incredibly girly show. It was actually my ex boyfriend who got me into it! Things are definitely moving forward.

David Cain September 30, 2014 at 8:00 am

There is a documentary on Netflix about Bronies. I’ll take a look.

Jen September 30, 2014 at 6:39 am

Thank you for sharing this!

holly September 30, 2014 at 7:03 am

This was beautiful. I feel so moved by your words and thoughtfulness. How I wish the boys had this wisdom when I was in high school, back when, oh, the dinosaurs roamed the earth.

David Cain September 30, 2014 at 8:10 am

Dinosaurs still roam the earth :)

Diane September 30, 2014 at 7:18 am

Posted on my FB timeline immediately!

David Cain September 30, 2014 at 8:00 am

Thank you Diane.

chacha1 October 3, 2014 at 1:22 pm

mine too :-)

Meg September 30, 2014 at 8:22 am

Simply spot on. I’d like to add that it also applies to class and/or economic discrimination, the assumptions the Haves make about the Have Nots: “welfare queen,” “lazy,” “ignorant,” etc. Of course, not every 1%-er thinks this way about the rest of humanity, but enough do to create a cultural problem (and here I’ll stop before it turns into a dissertation).

Erika September 30, 2014 at 8:24 am

Wow…..great article. I’m actually going to send it to my 20 yr old daughter. Great article for women also. Thank you. I always enjoy reading what you share.

MouthyGirl September 30, 2014 at 8:25 am

My son is 17 and has not had the benefit of a decent male role model, so he’s been socially awkward and with my smart assery around all the time, he has wit, but not quite tact. Long story short – this post is just right on time and I am so happy to have read it. I know that he struggles with machismo and all of the bs his idiot friends tell him, I’ve told him hundreds of times to follow his own path, but coming from mom.. I think we know how that goes.

Thank you, so so much.

David Cain October 1, 2014 at 9:39 am

Sadly, part of the pressure to be a man is to not do what your mom says, even when she’s right.

Michael Nazari September 30, 2014 at 8:37 am

This article couldn’t have come at a more optimal time in my life. As a young male I have been noticing more and more the issues you’ve addressed in this article. I have even had a good amount of arguments with my male friends haha. Luckily I have never been the misogynistic type nor am I too invested in creating a masculine image. I think those kinds of things just take you further from who you actually are.

Great article, thanks!

Michael Nazari

Kory September 30, 2014 at 8:48 am

Thank you, again for writing such a clarifying piece, i always post the good ones on my FB page. Do you ever feel like you are a lone voice in the universe? Even the most enlightened folks I know are very busy handling their own business, and don’t have a minute to share these nuggets of wisdom with the masses~Thank You!!!

Josephine September 30, 2014 at 8:59 am

This is a great article, I wish my classmates in high school would have read or known this. I hope this can somehow get popular also with guys who usually don’t read your blog.. Thank you David!

David Cain October 1, 2014 at 9:47 am

I would like this to be read by people outside of my regular audience too. Please share on social media, it really helps!

David Baur September 30, 2014 at 9:12 am

I think the line “young men need to understand as early in their lives as possible that men have a long history of getting their way for no good reason” is hugely important. It applies to ethnic majorities as well.The challenge with communicating this is 1) to most of us it doesn’t ‘feel’ like we are getting our way for no good reason. We’re not directly conscious of it or aware of how it plays out systemically. 2) getting our way so easily is deteriorating a little bit at a time, or at least it’s getting called out more publicly than ever before. This can feel confrontational if you’re not consciously aware of it in the first place. It makes too many young men instinctively defensive which I speculate leads down those dark, angry rabbit holes that the internet is keenly adept at fostering.

I don’t have much in the way of a solution for how to get that message across without making young men angry and defensive, but this post seems like a good start.

David Cain October 1, 2014 at 9:50 am

This is a good point. I think it is so important to be diplomatic with those we’re trying to convince. Once you put someone on the defensive they stop listening. That’s why I’m against accusatory activism. It just gives people all the more reason to dig in their heels, because they have to defend themselves before they can even consider a different viewpoint.

Norm Abbott September 30, 2014 at 9:25 am

Male Character needs to recognize (takes guts) its shame, energize and Live new Substance in Honor’s Goodness !!! New Creative Humanity will Flourish with incredible New Prosperity, and even master Space for Everyone !!!!!!!!!!!!

DividendDeveloper September 30, 2014 at 9:47 am

Thanks for posting this. As a 23 year old male, it’s really important to have these points sink in ASAP, so you become a well-adjusted member of society. I’m going to pass this along to all my male friends; God knows some of them can use it!

Anicet Heller September 30, 2014 at 10:31 am

Thank you David! You are truly a breath of fresh air in this stuffy society.
Todays social expectations are back in the middle ages.
Thanks again

Chris Nelson September 30, 2014 at 11:10 am

Great article, I will echo those above and say that I wish I had read this 20 years ago. Well written and much appreciated from this 34 year old male.

Bravo…

Linda Black September 30, 2014 at 11:14 am

I have two sons, ages 15 and 17. I talk to them about this all the time. I observe them trying to forge their own paths and still have friends and a group to be in. This is such an important topic – balancing what you say and do and considering how other people feel – especially other people not in your group. Thank you for this – it’s so important. We will read it and discuss it together.

Sam September 30, 2014 at 11:22 am

This is great and well put.

Joan Fennell September 30, 2014 at 11:26 am

I sent this to my great grandson who is 14. This is great!

Carl T. Holscher September 30, 2014 at 11:53 am

Absolutely incredible post. I want to link to it and quote every paragraph of it.
It’s one of those posts I wish I had written. It’s really spectacular. Thank you for writing it and saying it.

David Cain October 1, 2014 at 9:53 am

Thank you Carl, I really appreciate you sharing it

Klina September 30, 2014 at 11:53 am

Absolutely wonderful. I will be saving this for my son, when he reaches his teenage years. Everything is so well said. My only concern would be that some of the vocabulary and concepts might elude a teen. A slightly simpler version for young teens would be awesome!

Reesa September 30, 2014 at 12:14 pm

Great post. My friend Carl linked to it, and I’m glad I took the time to read it. Thank you for writing it.

Kevin Wallace September 30, 2014 at 12:51 pm

David:

This is everything. It is the definitive response, and the complementary puzzle piece to Emma Watson’s #heforshe. We can’t end overt or accidental sexism without valuing inclusion over exclusion, similarities over differences, and individual empathy over mob mentality.

As a mother of both a boy and a girl who are just burgeoning into individuality amidst the cruel anonymity (and mob-think) of the Internet, I thank you most sincerely for doing the hard work of putting my feelings into prose.

Georgina September 30, 2014 at 1:55 pm

Thank you a million times, from a mother of a 5 month old son.

JP September 30, 2014 at 3:16 pm

Lots of good advice that I wish I had read a few years ago, or rather read and related to somehow. That’s one of the major problems with reading good advice like this, it’s almost impossible to assimilate unless you already have some kind of familiarity with both perspectives, which then prepares you to receive the message. Even if some supernatural being could describe and map out the optimal way for me to live my life, the first thing I would do as soon as it left would be to act completely out of line with what it told me.

David Cain October 1, 2014 at 10:02 am

Right. I probably would have done the same, until it stopped working. But the seed would have been planted, and eventually I’d rediscover it.

Erwin September 30, 2014 at 3:16 pm

I agree with this article. The one thing I wanted to discuss was our male “lingering capacity for violence.” It is a dangerous tool in the male repertoire but it is also a very natural one and it should be handled carefully. Many times, we are given some advantages at the expense of others. In our male case, I believe we are given the advantage of physicality while being weaker in our communication skills when compared to females. I’m a married man and speaking from experience, I believe that women have the also dangerous tool of arguing more effectively; being better able to persuade and to affect emotionally but also to hurt verbally and cut deep emotionally. When I argue with my wife, I sometimes feel helpless, defenseless, and overwhelmed. Both sexes need to keep their dangerous advantages at bay and keep from hurting each other at all costs.

Velvet September 30, 2014 at 7:14 pm

Great stuff, David. As per usual. Insightful and pointed. I couldn’t agree more, and you are right. We can explain to girls and women why they benefit from feminism-but without progressive boys and men moving the conversation too, it is a canoe with a broken oar.

Erwin- that might be the most eloquent explanation I’ve ever heard for the way evolved relationships exist with power in both parties’ hands. Many women are far better at argument and can forget how deeply it can affect others. Good for you for reminding me of ‘fighting clean’ going both ways.

David Cain October 1, 2014 at 10:07 am

This is a great point, and I think it extends to all of our advantages over others, even those we only hold as individuals. If we know we have the capacity to bully, we have to be careful not to lean on it. I know I am capable of bullying others with words, and it’s important that I stay aware of the power I have in that regard. When I’m around others with a dominating personality, who have the power and skill to take over the conversation and make me feel small, it’s easy to see why it’s so important.

PH September 30, 2014 at 4:56 pm

David – Absolutely priceless…as said above, I wish this would go viral. Thank you for your keen insight and rare courage – can we clone you? Keep doin’ what you’re doin’ – party on!

Susan September 30, 2014 at 5:07 pm

This is excellent. When my son was a teenager, I don’t know if I’d have actually shared this with him directly, but I’d definitely have tucked it away and subtly used pertinent portions as talking points and discussion starters. Incidentally, I posted the link on my Facebook page and within five minutes, two friends — one male and one female, each raising a teenage boy — had shared it. I doubt they’ll be the last. This is really powerful.

Kirsten September 30, 2014 at 5:12 pm

This is an exceptional post, David.

David Cain October 2, 2014 at 5:41 pm

Thanks Kirsten!

Sara Callaway September 30, 2014 at 9:51 pm

Excellent post. Now the question is how to get young men to read it, and believe it!

Free to Pursue October 1, 2014 at 2:59 am

This post brought me to tears. It delivered everything I was hoping for and more after reading the title. I hope this advice will make more men aware, especially young men who are defining how their generation will think and behave, of what it is to be the best man, indeed the best person, they can be.

In my opinion, the character traits you described are the most sought after by women. It is unfortunate that these don’t tend to be traits that are rewarded in the media, which values extremes over temperance. When it comes to real life, to forming lasting & meaningful connections with others, they are of paramount importance.

Thank you for another thought-provoking piece.

Charisse October 1, 2014 at 3:04 pm

This is amazing. Thank you so much- I will give this to every young man I know and save it for any I meet in the future. What a gift you are to this world- I love the way you are so “real” and you can distill things down to their essence.
Thank you so much!!!

guest October 1, 2014 at 7:57 pm

“And the kids who are actually doing it in their tweens probably aren’t doing it very well, and they’re probably not people you’ll want to trade places with in ten years.”

Why not? How do you think they end up?

David Cain October 2, 2014 at 5:39 pm

Yeah reading that back it does sound judgmental. All I mean is that it’s easy to think, as a teen, that others are moving past you in life, when in reality it’s unlikely that they’re actually outdoing you in terms of overall personal development. Becoming an adult makes irrelevant all these apparent shortcomings you may feel you have when comparing yourself to other teens.

Daniel R October 2, 2014 at 3:14 am

Thank you! This is true.

Debbi October 2, 2014 at 9:27 am

Reposting this for my boys aged 15 & 18. And also for my 13 yr old daughter. If you won’t listen to your Dad and I, maybe some sage advice from an obviously intelligent guy on the internet might do the trick!

Monica October 2, 2014 at 9:55 pm

David – This was awesome! I e-mailed AND printed for my 18 year old son who just started his senior year! I am amazed by the incredible young man my son is growing to be, but there are so many things I still want to tell him but know that coming from his mom, they would not be heard in the way that I intend. While I loved so much that was said in this article this was one of my favorites, “Think of women as being just like you, rather than some other species. You don’t learn to approach women, you learn to talk to people” GENIUS!

Kevin October 3, 2014 at 7:31 am

Excellent post.

Mike October 3, 2014 at 9:49 am

Was there ever a golden age of male role models in plentiful supply? I don’t think so. In earlier generations young men suffered from the stifling conservatism of their fathers, who typically reflected the institutionalized bigotry of their society. Now in late modern society we have greater freedoms of belief and expression, yet divorce rates are high and there are few fathers who stick around to provide a calm, guiding influence. It is one of the great tragedies of our age that there is such a lack of strong role models.

David Cain October 3, 2014 at 9:57 am

I think they are out there, and many fathers are great role models. But part of adolescence is defiance, and listening to your parents is so uncool. My father was actually a great role model — totally against violence, against sexism and discrimination against gays, and always encouraging me to make my own choices. But the influence of my peers was more prevalent and more immediate, because I felt like I had to fit in among them, and I knew my father would always accept me.

Randy Hendrix October 3, 2014 at 2:09 pm

If any of your posts were going to go viral and subsequently change the world, this would be the one. I now feel compelled to suggest to you a book that changed my life 18 years ago.
“Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood”, by William Pollack, Ph.D. It’s a good bet, David, that you will add it to your list of Life-Changing Books.

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