Why are adolescent boys and college-aged young men in America still so boorish and misogynistic?

Peggy Orenstein, a writer for The Atlantic, wrestles with this question in a recent feature-length article entitled “The Miseducation of the American Boy.” To her credit, she compassionately attempts to understand what is really going on in the souls of typical boys and young men in the wasteland of contemporary American secular culture by personally interviewing them.

What she finds is both intriguing and disturbing, but not very surprising. Most of the boys she talked to struggled with leading a kind of double life—on the one hand, they “could talk to girls platonically,” as a high school senior named “Cole” said (she uses pseudonyms to protect their identities). But then he admitted that “being around guys was different. I needed to be a ‘bro…’” Most of the other boys Orenstein interviews had similar views about the expectations their peers placed on them and the crushing pressure to conform to a hypersexual, misogynistic “bro” subculture.

So how did we get here? Orenstein admits that there seems to be a “void” in parental guidance of boys: “Today many parents are unsure of how to raise a boy, what sort of masculinity to encourage in their sons. But as I learned from talking with boys themselves, the culture of adolescence, which fuses hyperrationality with domination, sexual conquest, and a glorification of male violence, fills the void.”

It’s clear that Orenstein wants to find solutions for this problem. She prefaces her article by stating that “we need to give [boys] new and better models of masculinity.”

What are these “new and better models”? Unfortunately, Orenstein never really proposes any kind of coherent standard to which boys should strive for. After spending almost 7,500 words extensively quoting their frustrations, fears, and longings and cataloguing dozens of misadventures of boys hooking up awkwardly with female students, bragging about sexual escapades, laughing at rape jokes, and so on, she musters two paragraphs at the end of her article that offer some kind of path forward. She says that we need “models of manhood that are neither ashamed nor regressive, and that emphasize emotional flexibility—a hallmark of mental health.” She also challenges authority figures to step up: “Real change will require a sustained, collective effort on the part of fathers, mothers, teachers, coaches.” Her last tidbit of advice is this: “We have to purposefully and repeatedly broaden the masculine repertoire for dealing with disappointment, anger, desire. We have to say not just what we don’t want from boys but what we do want from them.”

Belief Systems Create Gentlemen

This is certainly all good advice. But what is striking about Orenstein’s guidance is what she does not say. It begs the question: what exactly do we want from boys? It’s all well and good to promote emotional flexibility and mental health, but if the goal is for boys to unlearn misogyny and start respecting girls more, as Orenstein and all people of good faith so desperately want, isn’t it going to take more than “emotional flexibility”?

The answer is unquestionably “yes.” Having respect for girls and women is an essential aspect of moral conduct that all boys and men should have, but obviously do not. That’s because it has to be taught and learned, just as all moral behavior must be, through a system of values, which must ultimately be derived from faith in a revealed moral order. In our politically correct culture, writers like Peggy Orenstein can’t seem to state this obvious fact, probably because they don’t want to be accused of promoting “religion.” It’s notable that the words “religion” and “faith” never appear once in Orenstein’s entire article.

It’s a sad but telling reality that in a culture still fully in the throes of grappling with the #MeToo movement and one in which boys are still so clearly gripped by a culture of sexual conquest, so many secular writers still can’t bring themselves to admit that certain belief systems have the antidote for misogyny built into them. As I have written previously:

[W]hat if more boys were taught from an early age that the context for the full expression of human sexuality is within the bonds of marriage between one man and one woman, as Christianity and other religions do? If this teaching were to be taught consistently throughout childhood and young adulthood, it would substantially increase the amount of gentlemen in our culture. Gentlemen treat women with respect, the kind of respect that inherently knows how to avoid looking at women with lust (see Matthew 5:27-28), the kind of respect that would never even consider making unseemly sexual comments in their company, much less harassing or assaulting them.

Since Orenstein never proposes a belief system with moral principles as an answer to counter misogyny, it appears that she along with most secular commentators are merely hoping that boys will somehow magically absorb sexual morality and respect for women from… friends who happen to have good values? Their parents who happen to be good people? Orenstein never says. She does at one point ask her main interview subject, a high school senior named “Cole,” why he doesn’t assert his “values” more with his peers. But what she never bothers to ask him is where he got his values from.

The Crucial Mentorship of Fathers

Who is it that should be the primary instiller of values in children? This most basic of questions is unfortunately passed over by Orenstein. The vital importance of a father in a boy’s healthy development into a gentleman is the elephant in the room that seems to escape the notice of many secular writers like her.

But perhaps Orenstein can’t be entirely at fault for this. As her article illustrates, the boys that she interviews don’t seem to think much of their fathers. “Cole” briefly describes his father as “a nice guy,” but he went on to say that “I can’t be myself around him. I feel like I need to keep everything that’s in here [tapping his chest] behind a wall, where he can’t see it.” Another 18-year-old named “Rob” described how his father merely told him to “man up” when he was having problems in school. “That’s why I never talk to anybody about my problems,” he said. Another young man, a college sophomore, described how he never felt comfortable talking to his father: “[T]here’s a block there. There’s a hesitation, even though I don’t like to admit that. A hesitation to talk about … anything, really.”

This is heartbreaking stuff. Is it any wonder our boys and young men are so lost and adrift when their primary role model and mentor—their fathers—never make themselves available to their own sons to just talk about life, about growing up to be a man, about anything?

Orenstein’s “The Miseducation of the American Boy” is revealing in a number of ways. Yet again, it reveals that when a belief system based on eternal moral truth is not instilled in boys from a young age, the secular adolescent culture of hypersexual narcissism and misogyny will fill the void. It also reveals that when fathers abandon their fundamental role as the primary mentor and confidant of their sons, their boys will be left emotionally numbed, less empathetic, and more prone to becoming a part of this secular adolescent culture.

Here at Family Research Council, we are doing our part to renew authentic masculinity and to help instill a culture of biblical manhood to stand as a bulwark against the dark cultural forces that promote sexual objectification and conquest, gender confusion, and emasculation. Learn about and consider attending our Stand Courageous men’s conferences, which are making a difference through teaching the principles of authentic manhood as providers, mentors, instructors, defenders, and chaplains.