Dr. Sharon Maxwell Logo


Helping parents raise healthy and responsible kids.

Boys Can Have Bad Reputations Too


Boys Can Have Bad Reputations Too

Review by Barbara F. Meltz, Globe Staff, The Boston Globe, April 3, 2003, H3.

There are two big ways a boy’s reputation can be hurt. One is to be called a boy slut, the other is to be called gay.

The first rumor usually gets spread in the high school years by girls, often as a warning to other girls that this boy is casual and cruel in his sexual relationships. This reputation may crimp a boy’s social life even if it’s not true. Almost always, it buys him status among other boys, so much so that some boys lie or go out of their way to earn it.

The second rumor is usually spread by other boys, often as early as sixth grade. By the end of middle school, researchers estimate 80 percent of boys have been called gay and close to 100 percent have participated in spreading the word about someone else. The words are damaging, true or not.

For all preteens, becoming a sexual being first and foremost is a matter of establishing sexual legitimacy among peers.

“For girls, it’s proving that you are powerful enough to get a boy,” says psychologist Sharon Maxwell of Canton, who specializes in teen sexuality. “For boys, it’s fiercely proving that you are not gay. One way to prove it is to have meaningless sexual encounters.”

“It’s the worst rumor, to be called gay,” says Kevin Tatalias.

He knows. It happened to him in middle school, causing him to lose friends and feel isolated and paranoid.

Now a senior at Plymouth North High School and editor of the school newspaper, Tatalias says rumors are a dangerously escalating fact of life at his school.

“If you walk down the hall a certain way, the next thing you know there’s a rumor that you’re gay,” he says. “So then maybe you get drunk at a party and do something stupid, just to prove the rumor is wrong.”

Boys’ transition into sexual beings can begin as early as fourth grade. That doesn’t mean they are having sex or even that they’re interested in it; that typically doesn’t come for years, says child and adolescent psychologist Michael Thompson of Arlington, an internationally recognized expert on boys’ development. They are, however, having thoughts and feelings about their sexuality, typically beginning with this question: What does it mean to be masculine?

The answer most of them come to has been forming for years.

The culture sets up a very proscribed script that they are aware of, beginning when they are toddlers: If you don’t want to have sex with girls, something is wrong with you,” says human sexuality researcher Meg Striepe of Wellesley College.

“By first grade, the word ‘gay’ is slung around as a word you don’t want to be. It means ‘being like a girl,'” says Maxwell.

By eighth grade, the internal conflict every boy struggles with is in full swing. On one hand, he has a powerful urge to fit in. ‘There are very strict, unspoken rules about how to do that,’ says Striepe, from how you walk and talk to how you treat girls.

“The point is,” Striepe says, “if you play along, you’re masculine; if you step outside of the box, you’re in jeopardy.”

Playing the game can do a lot for a boy’s image in the eyes of his peers, but it may put him at odds with himself.

“The typical boy wants to prove himself as a man, but he also wants something tender and intimate and loving,” says Thompson. In a study of eighth-grade boys, Striepe found they want the same thing from a relationship that a girl wants: someone to talk to, someone they can trust and with whom they can have fun.

“Sex is not high on the list,” she says.

So why do so many boys behave as if it is? “Because they think that’s what they have to do to be accepted by peers,” she says.

Kevin Tatalias says, “You learn early to put on different faces for different people.”

There are two other factors:

The typical boy worries he’s gay, not just that a peer might think he’s gay because he doesn’t talk the talk, but a deep-down, inside fear that he really is homosexual, and therefore abnormal.

“Forty percent of middle-school boys feel attracted to other boys,” says San Francisco adolescent psychiatrist and author Lynn Ponton. (About the same number of girls this age feel attracted to other girls.) The feelings are normal and translate to sexual preference only in 6 to 7 percent of boys, somewhat less for girls. Boys, however, panic.

“They call the next boy gay to deflect attention from themselves,” says Ponton, author of “The Sex Lives of Teenagers” (Putman).

Of course, this issue takes on different significance for a boy who, indeed, may be gay. For a fuller discussion of this, look for an upcoming column.

The typical boy’s introduction to sex is self-centered. “Long before he ever puts a hand on a girl, a boy has had a sexual relationship with himself for some time,” says Thompson. He says the typical 13-year-old boy has seven erections a day. “Masturbatory sex is a big part of his life. Huge.” Thompson is author of “Speaking of Boys” and co-author of the best-selling “Raising Cain,” both published by Ballantine.

The combination of masturbation (which boys also need to be reassured is normal) and the cultural stereotype of girls as objects paves the way for boys to think of sex as easily available, uncomplicated, and not mutual, says Thompson. When the opportunity for real sex with a girl comes along, especially sex that only pleasures him, it seems perfectly reasonable, particularly since it gives him status among other boys.

“There’s definitely a competitive edge to this,” Thompson says. “A reputation for having experience will never cut against a boy unless he’s arrogant or boastful, hurts a girl another boy likes, or gets found out to be a liar.”

There are obvious dangers for boys in this, of course: sexually contracted diseases, unwanted fatherhood, and psychological pain. A boy’s self-esteem can plummet if he feels bad for taking advantage of girls, for spreading rumors about another boy, or because he’s the victim of rumors.

The most important role for parents in all of this is to talk to their sons. Boys have plenty of sources of information about the mechanics of sex, but Thompson says they are sorely lacking information about sexuality or about feelings about sex. Striepe says, “When there is silence from parents, boys not only are left to wonder, ‘Is there something wrong with me,’ but there also is tacit approval for shaming another boy.”

Tatalias says that when he was the object of rumors, talking to his parents was a source of support, even though “I told them they couldn’t do anything about it.” Mostly, he says, “I decided, ‘Let kids think whatever. I know who I am.'” That’s clearly a higher level of thinking than most middle-school boys have. By high school, the rumors disappeared. Three years later, Tatalias is willing to open up old wounds in the hope that it will spare other boys some pain.