Friday, 24 February 2012

Sexuality and Competition among Teenage Males

In the previous post, we determined that bullying over sexuality in high school is a serious problem with complex roots, no simple solution, and potentially disastrous consequences. Let’s try to get right inside this phenomenon by imagining what our feelings might be if we were in the positions in which many high school students find themselves.

Imagine you’re a teenage boy attending a KPR high school. You and your crew compete with one another to impress the girls – to see who can crack the girls up laughing, who can be the most outrageous or gutsy, who’s got the best moves on the playing field, or on the dance floor.

This competition doesn’t stop even when you succeed, because the girls themselves are like prizes to compare. Who’s been seen with the cuter, sexier, or more popular girl? You don’t want to get stuck dancing or hanging out with a girl the other guys think is unattractive for whatever reason – too fat, too thin, too geeky, too masculine, too dark, too light, too poor – even if you yourself do find her attractive.

The effect of such a saturation of competitiveness among groups of young men is paradoxically to create an intensified camaraderie. Competition can’t be allowed to get out of hand, or there would be fist fights every day. “Bro’s before ho’s” becomes the principle of some groups, a “gangsta” style slogan emphasizing the importance of maintaining ongoing friendships with other males and not getting distracted by fickle females who may be making you delirious today but who might upset or bore you tomorrow. Besides, your friends can help you look good. Your friends’ coolness can rub off on you. Your friends’ girlfriend’s friends get added to your roster of female aquaintances. The whole “dating game” becomes a group effort.

What happens when there’s a male in the group who is actually attracted more by other guys than by the girls? A gigantic wrench is thrown into the works. The word “queer” captures this effect in its Germanic root’s meaning of “oblique” – that is to say, “athwart,” like the thwarts running from side to side of a canoe.

Suddenly, there’s someone who’s not fully on the team. Worse yet, you yourself might be the object of their desire.

Suddenly, you’re not just a hunter anymore – you’re the prey. Which not only puts the guy who likes you in a position a female is supposed to be (i.e. desiring guys), but also puts you in a female position (the prey rather than the hunter). Since most boys have been socialized for their entire lives to define themselves in contradistinction to girls, your entire identity seems to be under assault.

Even if you’re not the immediate object of another guy’s desire, you can’t help feeling like you could be at any time. Even the threat of being made to feel like sexual prey is enough to scare you. Worse still, what happens when you consider the possibility of sexually-charged interactions with another guy? Now you’re frightening yourself! What if there’s a chance you could actually tap into the kinds of desire inside yourself that are already making you uncomfortable when you encounter them in someone else? Don’t go there, you tell yourself!

You realize that you can’t even be associated with anyone expressing same-sex desire, because even if you’re just friends, all the rest of the guys will suspect that something might be going on. It’s a downward spiral as the rumours of homosexual desire spread through the peer group, making even second-hand association with someone thought to be “gay” problematic.

The two typical reactions are to either entirely osctracize anyone thought to harbour desire for other guys, or to entirely deny the existence of any such desire, and ignore any feelings one might have in reaction to it.

Now imagine that you yourself are a young male who has a feeling that you like the idea of getting close to the bodies of other males as well or better than the idea of getting close to female bodies. Maybe you just don’t feel attraction to females, for whatever biochemical reason. Maybe you often feel a bit like a female yourself, in one way or another. What if you don’t find that females are attracted to you – but that some males are? What if you just really want to be with a body that’s like yours instead of one that’s different? How will you know until you try? What if you don’t have any desire to mate and have children, or are put off by female psychology, but you still want love and sex? Then how do the situations described above appear?

You sense the immediate change in dynamic in your peer group the moment anyone gets a hint of how you’re feeling, so you’re afraid to express your feelings to anyone. Your old friends start to avoid you. It dawns on you that laws discriminate against you, and churches call you a sinner. You realize that you’re a laughing stock in the mainstream media. You’re sure your family will freak when they find out. You feel like you’re living a double life not talking to anyone about it. You’re desperate to find friends with similar feelings, but when you do find a few, you’re afraid to draw attention to yourselves.

Now let’s go back to pretending we’re typical heterosexual guys. How we handle the queer element depends on how desperate we are to impress girls. Why? Because that’s the key factor driving our competition for status in our groups.

If being associated with a suspected “fag” is going to erode our chances with the girls, then we’ll pounce on any opportunity to make fun of him. If someone makes fun of us for acting “gay” in some way, we’ll get him right back with a zinger that makes him out to be even more gay. If we’ve been taught to devalue femininity, we’ll counter any situation in which our “effeminate” qualities are revealed with as much macho posturing as we can muster. And if we sense that our own status is precarious, or if we’re desperately afraid that deep down we might somehow harbour our own homosexual desires whose expression would make us into pariahs with our friends and families, we’ll lash out with anger at anyone who even reminds us of that possibility.

Now combine any of the feelings described above with the general feelings of powerlessness any young person might have due to failing grades, poverty, abusive siblings, high-pressure parents, illness or death in the family, or other reasons. The option to elevate ourselves at the expense of others rears its head. I may be poor, stupid, scrawny, and a crappy hockey player, you might tell yourself, but at least I’m not a fag. Thank god there’s someone lower on the pecking order, you whisper to yourself, trying to ignore the accompanying shame you feel in realizing how lacking in self-confidence you must be to resort to such a strategy. Now you find yourself seizing every opportunity to lord it over some of only “fair game” left in our society – the queers.

In the next post we’ll make an imaginary gender switch, and see how things look from the females’ side.

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