A Fraternity of Men, Not Boys

By Scott Smith (Central Arkansas)

Michael Kimmel’s Guyland tells the (delayed) coming of age story of men in America.

Guyland cover_high resIn his book author Michael Kimmel takes the reader deep into the world he calls “Guyland,” mapping out the geography, influences, and behaviors of “guys” in what can be described as a new phase of life. Guyland has firmly rooted itself between the dependency of boyhood and the autonomy, sacrifice, and responsibility that characterizes manhood. It’s not a state of arrested development but more of a new stage where guys, not quite boys or men, hang onto the Peter Pan notion that it’s not quite time to grow up just yet. Guyland is characterized as both the time between adolescence and adulthood and those places where guys gather absent the demands of serious responsibility and outsiders like jobs, parents, kids, and girlfriends.

Stories of guys engaging in extreme behavior just before, during, and immediately following the college years are ubiquitous as are the media and personal accounts of psychological, alcohol-induced, and violent pseudo rites-of-passage. A fraternity-related hazing death has occurred nearly every year since 2000, Kimmel says. Hospital transports for alcohol overdose are a common occurrence Thursday through Saturday nights on college campuses across the country. One in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college, according to Kimmel’s research. He adds that high school students are bombarded with anti-gay comments, with teachers rarely intervening. More than half of college students involved in clubs, teams, and organizations experience hazing, and nearly half experienced it prior to coming to college, according to a University of Maine study by Elizabeth Allan and Mary Madden.

While Guyland is everywhere that males between the ages of 16 and 26 gather, it best describes the population of mostly white, middle-class, college bound/going/recently graduated males living together in groups and working entry-level jobs or not at all. Fraternity houses, dorms, and shared apartments are the predominant domiciles of Guyland’s inhabitants, Kimmel says in his book. This new social space is defined and ruled by The Guy Code – a set of attitudes, values, and traits that describe (inaccurately) what it means to be a man.

  1. “Boys Don’t Cry”
  2. “It’s Better to be Mad than Sad”
  3. “Don’t Get Mad – Get Even”
  4. “Take It Like a Man”
  5. “He Who has the Most Toys When he Dies, Wins”
  6. “Just Do It” or “Ride or Die”
  7. “Size Matters”
  8. “I Don’t Stop to Ask for Directions”
  9. “Nice Guys Finish Last”
  10. “It’s All Good”

Never show emotion, winning is imperative, compassion is taboo. These axioms govern behavior and are used to evaluate whether guys measure up. Guys inform their views of masculinity in light of the voices of the men in their lives. In the absence of men, they take their cues from other guys. Masculinity is essentially boiled down to performing for and being judged by other men, with the goal of being a “man among men.” The problem is that guys have a skewed internal sense of social norms, assuming that excessive behavior is average when it comes to things like sex, alcohol, and violence. College students regularly overestimate the amount their peers drink and then proceed to increase their own consumption in order to keep up. These misperceptions coupled with the lack of a playbook for becoming an adult leave guys to figure it out as they go along, typically with too much room for error.

Kimmel traces the sociology of Guyland across several spheres, filling out his observations from a four-year survey of over 400 males with a series of national studies, insights from over 30 years of his own research, and telling examples from the inhabitants of Guyland. Guyland covers high school, binge drinking, hazing, sports, media, pornography, the hook up culture, predatory sex and rape, the role of girls in Guyland, and a final chapter of recommendations for turning “just guys” into just guys. Perhaps the best summary of Guyland’s effects is in the rites of passage and initiation rituals guys put each other through. Whether it’s for a fraternity, sports team, club, or some other selective group, guys put up with ceremonial degradation in order to be accepted, liked, and aligned with the in crowd.

Such rituals provide ample evidence that hazing is less about younger males trying to impress their elders, and far more about the sense of entitlement that the older males have to exact such gratuitously violent and degrading behaviors from those more vulnerable than they.

While blaming the media is a poor strategy and lazy scapegoat, the constant barrage of sex, violence, and drugs being pumped from stereos, TV, magazines, and video games cannot be completely ignored. The hyper-masculinity of college and professional athletics, pornography, and virtual outlets guys fill their time with certainly have an impact on the version of manhood they are trying to live up to. Retreating to a fantasyland where they can adopt an avatar – an idealized version of themselves – and employ a skill and control not found in their everyday lives has become less entertainment and more of a daily priority. While many may not agree with Kimmel’s portrayal of the escapist nature of political and sports talk radio, video games, pornography, anonymous message boards, and online gambling, the fact remains that guys spend an inordinate amount of time in these spaces. Certainly there is a reverberating effect of this type of retreat into a “no girls allowed” and no consequences environment.

The typical transition to adulthood is marked by five life-stage events: leaving home, completing one’s education, starting work, getting married, and becoming a parent. Only 31 percent of men under 30 had reached those markers in 2000, compared to 65 percent just forty years earlier, providing further evidence that the transitional moment between adolescence and adulthood has become its own life stage, with adolescence beginning earlier and earlier for each generation and adulthood later and later. Adulthood is no longer marked by a series of experiences but rather a set of attitudes, Kimmel contends. When they are ready to “accept responsibility for their actions,” decide on personal beliefs and values independently of parents or other influences,” and become “less self-oriented, developing greater consideration for others” they then, in essence, feel like adults.

Not all of Guyland is bad, though. The advancing age of marriage, for example, benefits both men and women, giving them additional time to advance their careers and establish their identities before committing to a family. The reality is that most men do not commit rape or sexual assault, drink daily or to excess, think bullying and hazing are acceptable, or feel comfortable treating women as property or objects.

The problem remains that an uncomfortable individual, when faced with a silent majority led by outspoken extremists, has a tendency to go along for fear of being singled out or having his manhood and loyalty to the brotherhood questioned. Most guys do not participate in extreme behavior most of the time, but they know people who do, and most do not say anything about it. Edmund Burke’s famous line, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” perfectly summarizes the result of the bystander role most guys play. Kimmel explains,

[B]eing a real man isn’t going along with what you know in your heart to be cruel, inhumane, stupid, humiliating, and dangerous. Being a real man means doing the right thing, standing up to immorality and injustice when you see it, and expressing compassion, not contempt, for those who are less fortunate (p. 287).

Being a man is about being courageous, honorable, and ethical. Something that fraternity, when done right, is all about. Sigma Nu chapters are ideally positioned to advance this conversation among their membership; whether through LEAD sessions and other intentional conversations on topics like sexual assault, alcohol misuse prevention, values, and ethics, or in developing true mentoring relationships with “big brothers” and local advisor-mentors. Fraternity men and chapters should promote true masculinity – acting as beacons of love, honor, and truth – not a promotion of excessive behavior and delayed development. Guyland is a wake-up call to the realities and effects of the college experience and surrounding years on males. Advisors, fathers, and brothers can benefit from the perspective, analysis, and advice provided by Kimmel.

[Return to Table of Contents.]

One thought on “A Fraternity of Men, Not Boys

  1. Maury D. Gaston says:

    Excellent review of a pertinent topic.

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