Understanding 'Guyland'

Leaders of colleges for traditional-age students spend a lot of time worrying about the behavior of male undergraduates -- and specifically the misbehavior of many through excessive drinking, hazing, and abusive behavior toward women. A leading sociologist and gender scholar, Michael Kimmel, has just published a new book that offers an inside look at this young male culture, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (HarperCollins).

August 21, 2008
 

Leaders of colleges for traditional-age students spend a lot of time worrying about the behavior of male undergraduates -- and specifically the misbehavior of many through excessive drinking, hazing, and abusive behavior toward women. A leading sociologist and gender scholar, Michael Kimmel, has just published a new book that offers an inside look at this young male culture, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (HarperCollins). The book covers male development from ages 16 through 26, and features extensive discussion of campus life. Kimmel responded via e-mail to questions about his work.

Q: As colleges welcome a new crop of freshmen, what should they be aware of about their new male students that perhaps they aren't aware of now?

A: What I call “Guyland” is both a developmental stage and a social space. Young adults, age 16-26, are taking about a decade longer to complete the transition to adulthood than did their parents and especially their grandparents. 30 is really the new 20. Guyland is also the world that young people -- male and female -- inhabit. After growing up with helicopter parents micromanaging every nanosecond, they enter a world in which colleges have backed away from the old “in loco parentis” model, so that young people increasingly define themselves through media images and peer groups. And on campus, guys rule.

Q: Many colleges are worried that their first-year classes are increasingly female. How do the trends in your book relate to this trend? What kind of behaviors will being a distinct minority on campus encourage in men?

A: It’s not only numbers: young women are coming to campus with better grades, more honors, and seem more directed and motivated than many young men. Women’s equality has been confusing to many men, and some become defensive and angry about it. A friend titled her book about sports The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football. The “Guy Code” to which men are pressured to conform, is defiantly anti-PC, dismissively anti-intellectual, and derisively sexist. “Bros Before Hos” is the motto of Guyland.

On the other hand, we can’t forget that women’s equality on campus has many salutary effects: cross sex friendships; guys’ assumption that their wives and partners will work and be committed to their careers; an increased interest in fatherhood.

Q: What are the key ways you noticed that white male students different from male students of other races and ethnicities?

A: Guyland saturates campus social life at pretty much every campus I’ve visited. There are some differences among campuses (large and small, public and private, elite and mass). On just about every campus, though, Guyland is largely a white thing. For example, in our survey of hooking up (more than 13,000 undergrads at 17 campuses), it was white students who did the majority of hooking up. While everywhere, Asian students followed more traditional dating scripts, for black students it depended on their numbers on campus. On overwhelmingly white campuses, they hooked up little, in part because there were so few of them, and in part because if the black men hooked up a lot with white women, their black friends would be extremely disapproving. On racially diverse campuses, or historically black colleges, black students hooked up far more often, but still not as much as white students. (That’s equally true of binge drinking and hazing.)

Q: You talk about the codes that promote and protect binge drinking and hazing. Is there anything colleges can do about these problems?

A: I think most colleges and universities are keenly aware of these problems and are sincerely trying to develop strategies. There are many obstacles: angry alumni who block efforts to reform campus culture; the need to attract male students with sports and parties; the yawning disconnect between academic life and student life, and many others. Expanded first-year orientation, first year experience programs, and stricter controls are only a start. Campuses and the local communities must identify what the issues are, and collectively begin to talk about these issues.

I’m inspired by three examples:

(1) Fraternities that have eliminated hazing and even pledging, who dare to believe that a brotherhood cemented by torture is more like Guantanamo than Georgia Tech.

(2) University administrators like John Wiley, chancellor at University of Wisconsin at Madison, who has implemented a new alcohol policy that includes intervention;

(3) Education-based programs like social norms research, that enable students to monitor their own behaviors relative to other students.

Q: While campuses are known to promote (officially) progressive values about the mutual respect of male and female students, your chapters on gender relations/sex/pornography paint a very different picture of male college students. What do you make of your findings on gender relations? Will guys just be guys, or is something seriously wrong?

A: I find the notion that we should do nothing because, as you put it “guys will be guys” to be a case of premature resignation. As if guys are biologically programmed to be rapacious predatory beasts. I think that’s “male bashing" – and sets the bar far too low. I believe that guys can be men – ethical, responsible, and resilient in the face of the pressure to either conform to Guyland, or, at least, be bystanders who look the other way (and enable the few actual perpetrators). Guys need our support to stand up and do the right thing.

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