I talk a lot about toxic masculinity with my 10-year-old. But I’m having trouble figuring out how to respond to the way he and his friends act when they get together, especially the masculine habit of “ball busting.” Around video games in particular, there’s a lot of trash talk. Sometimes it’s skill-specific (“You got me killed, you noob!”), but at other times they degrade each other’s manliness, which can veer into sexist or homophobic taunting. (One boy was teased about wanting to get into bed with a friend at a sleepover.) I hate this. My son says it’s normal and that all boys do it. I’m not a guy, but I think it’s as unhealthy as “mean girl” talk. Any suggestions?
As the mother of a 13-year-old boy, I feel this question, as well as your caveat (“I’m not a guy”). Seeking answers for both of us, I called up C.J. Pascoe, a sociologist at the University of Oregon and the author of Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Like all kids this age, Pascoe notes, your son and his peers are developing closer friendships as they gain independence from their parents. But because of still-rampant homophobia, she says, even platonic homosociality is fraught with anxiety: “So they manage it with aggressive joking. Ironically, doing this gives them the space for intimacy.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that homophobic or sexist teasing is OK. Such taunts can be extremely painful for boys struggling with their sexuality and horrible for girls and women to overhear. When boys speak cruelly about feminine or gay people, they may also limit their own sense of who they can become.
You should tell your son not to tease his friend about the sleepover. But it’s best to respond to his more subtle jibes without overt judgment, finding ways to encourage him to look critically at these interactions. When it comes to discussions with her own kids, Pascoe likes the formulation “Isn’t it interesting that…?” You might try: “Isn’t it interesting that you and your friends love hanging out together, yet are always insulting each other?”
Do look for ways to emphasize or praise more inspiring examples of guy bonding. Pascoe recommends watching the new Queer Eye episodes together and discussing them. My son and I watch a lot of sports. “I like how they all hug when someone scores a goal,” I’ll say, or “Aaron Judge is so supportive of his teammates.” You can also point out how nice it is when your son and his friends treat each other kindly: “What a fun group of kids, and you all were so respectful.”
In my personal experience, one of the hardest things about “ethical polyamory” was sustaining our household financially. Attention tended to be focused more on chasing sexual experiences than on paying the electric bill. But looking for paid work is as consuming as finding new sexual partners.
As a working-class woman, it infuriated me when my (now ex-)husband would go out on costly dates with women when we were struggling to clothe my daughter. Now he tells people that I was a jealous freak. In reality, I was pissed that my daughter had stopped asking us to take her to the movies because we never had any money.
We broke up three years ago, but I’m still sad and angry about this. I should get over it, right? But should he apologize? And how can I make sense of this?
Your ex acted like an asshole. Regardless of the sexual terms of the relationship, married people must share responsibility for the household finances and especially for the well-being of any kids who live with them. It’s not the sex that made his behavior so wrong; a person who puts anything—art career, addiction to Alex Jones videos, even political organizing—over their family’s survival shows a reckless indifference to their marriage.
Had your ex been a real nonconformist, he could have been polyamorous and still treated you well. He could have tried much harder to find work to help support the family. And a man willing to reject the social norm of monogamy should be more than capable of challenging the heteronormative practice of taking women on expensive dates. He should have told his girlfriends that he needed to spend time with them in ways that didn’t cost money: walks in the park, bike rides, cooking together—or sex (which is free!).
Yes, you do need to get over this and move on with your life. But he should also apologize.
It’s important to note that, while your ex sucks, capitalism sucks more. In an economic system that guaranteed security, everyone in your household could have gotten what they wanted, and you might have stayed together happily. In her new book Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence, Kristen Ghodsee argues that, under capitalism, women’s struggle for economic survival impedes our sex lives. Your letter provides a heartbreaking example of how this is so: Presumably, you liked the idea of a polyamorous relationship, but the material reality of supporting a child made it impossible for you.
Your ex was an irresponsible cad, but capitalism also burdens working-class people with too many responsibilities and delivers too few pleasures in return. Neither of you should have had to choose between taking your daughter to the movies, the family’s economic survival, and adult fun. You didn’t have the freedom that your ex had, and neither of you enjoyed the freedom that a well-off couple does—or that anyone might in a socialist society. You both deserved better—but especially you.
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