“The Boy Code puts boys and men into a gender straitjacket that constrains not only them but everyone else, reducing us all as human beings, and eventually making us strangers to ourselves and to one another — or, at least, not as strongly connected to one another as we long to be.” -William Pollack, Ph.D.
What is the boy code and does it still exist? Gender ideology is the hot topic we all can’t help but sink our teeth into, and the boy code is deeply imbedded in it.
Long before birthing two boys, I kept a book from my mom called Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood written by Ph.D. William Pollack. I believe she picked it up in hopes to better understand her teenaged son who had stopped communicating with her and started an inveterate addiction to drugs and alcohol, instead. We had both read Reviving Ophelia which brought us greater understanding about the plight of teenaged girls, but we (society, included) needed a male answer to Reviving Ophelia. Real Boys was it. Finally, a male psychologist was addressing the social pressures put on boys and offered us an alternative to the gender straitjacket.
In the book, Pollack describes “the boy code,” a message we are all guilty of sending our boys, whether it's unconscious or not. In a nutshell, that message is, “toughen up.” He even points out that, while more parents are encouraging their sons to lean more towards sensitivity, boys still receive mixed messages from us, thus ending up entangled in a mess of debilitating confusion.
The male race has been wearing a mask of toughness since time immemorial, but it’s only become more and more nuanced which can and has lead to life-threatening danger and sky-rocketing suicide rates. There is a staggering difference between the rate of suicide amongst teen boys versus teen girls. According to Reuters, 17.9 per 100,000 teen boys committed suicide in 2017 versus 5.4 per 100,000 teen girls. Any suicide rate is devastating, but the difference in numbers between boys and girls should be a wake-up call and require some serious action.
Where is our boys movement? Is it because we’re all under the impression that men and boys have it all? If that's what we think, we’re severely wrong. The burden of following the Boy Code, I believe, has become so heavy on boys that the roof has finally collapsed. We’ve rescued them from under the debris, but we've hardly handed them a thing to recover. Perhaps for some boys the remedy that seems most appealing is to ditch the Boy Code, entirely, and join the Girls Club. Thank God we live in an age where kids have the liberty to explore their identities. However, I do wonder whether the trans movement has unintentionally gone so far as to ignore the suffering of teens that goes beyond gender dysphoria. In addition to the trans movement, what would happen if we got rid of the Boy Code? Think about all the damage it's done to us as a whole. The effect of getting rid of it can last millennia and have a universal effect in healing boys, girls, women, men, trans men and trans women.
In case you’re wondering, yes — I’m in the camp that’s circumspect of minors undergoing gender-affirming medical treatments. I think it's very telling that countries with socialized medicine are beginning to step back instead of fervently pushing for gender-affirming therapy. On the contrary, there's a huge push from doctors in the US who, ultimately, make a large profit from their practice. I am aware of the very real threat that parents face - that their depressed trans child, if not granted gender-affirming treatments, may commit suicide. I’m also aware of depression rates going down after receiving such treatments and that there’s currently a meager 1% rate of regrets after transitioning. However, I do find that statistic to be lacking. After going so far into altering one’s body and hormones, who would be willing to face the shame from everyone who supported them all that way? And to have to face those who didn’t support them would only send a message that the enemy won. Not a good look for a movement, and one that I've supported since childhood.
In this heated topic and oftentimes combative argument, it’s important for people to know that I was raised in an LGBT community in the famous (and infamous) WeHo of Los Angeles. My mom came out to me when I was nine which allowed me to confess that I had a crush on a girl at school. I marched with my mom in the Pride Festival every year, and throughout my youth I got to meet her trans and gender-fluid romantic partners who I thought were absolutely badass. So, you can only imagine how weird it is for me to have to explain myself in a landscape that is second nature to me. That said, the trans movement today would agree that gender-affirming therapy is not the panacea to a child’s depression and suicidal ideations. There is a much larger issue that needs to be addressed, or even several larger issues. The gender straitjacket is one of them.
Recently, I spoke with a mother whose daughter was a trans boy for three years. The mother told me that her daughter, before becoming trans, suffered bulimia and absolutely hated her own genitalia. Her daughter revealed to her mom that if only she were a boy, she could be any weight she chose and would never have to worry about being skinny. So, her daughter attempted to escape the burdens of her female body by slipping into a boy’s without undergoing gender-affirming therapy. Somewhere down the road, she ended up making peace with her female body and went back to identifying as a cis-gendered woman.
We all went through it as teenagers. Ever-changing hormones swirling around our entire physiology. Constant self-doubt cascading into self-hate. Feeling betrayed by our bodies that launch into puberty without our consent. We think cognitive anarchy is over by 18, but women’s brains don’t reach peak development until 21 with men following four years behind. Kids have teachers who aren’t any older than 25.
We can strongly empathize with Gen Z’s intolerance of the stereotypes affixed to their birth genders, which I think is what this gender war is actually all about. At first glance, the stereotypes are merely boring and passé. When one looks closer, though, those stereotypes are actually painful for many kids. For those born a boy, it means following an impossibly nuanced code racked with mixed messages on how to be the ideal man so you’re accepted by society and loved by your parents. For those born a girl, it means having to look a certain way that’s sexually appealing according to the media’s flavor of the day, and much more. Let’s not forget the terrifying trickeries of puberty. One day you have a flat chest, you’re still feeling like an innocent kid, then the next day you have these lumps on your chest that involuntarily signal lascivious behavior in others. Oppositely, a boy has to brace himself for drastic changes of a different nature. Changes that may seem absolutely grotesque to his childish state of mind. With all of this going on, is there anyone more mature than themselves helping them through it?
I often wonder if some of the progressives of Gen Z are actually undoing the laces of the gender straitjacket and burning it with the bras as they should be. Sadly, I think the opposite is happening. Unwittingly, they're actually tightening the laces...
While I empathize with the reasoning behind identifying as neither male or female, I can't help but see the subconscious fixation on gender stereotypes extolled by the non-binary worldview. Denouncing both genders because one is dissatisfied by what those genders represent, basically implies that women dress and behave a certain way and men dress and behave the opposite of women. For instance, I'm a cis-gendered woman who sometimes dresses in masculine clothing. I know other cis-gendered women who only dress like Stevie Nicks and have a masculine approach to money and relationships. Does that mean we ought to consider a non-binary identity? Women are beautifully diverse; each woman possessing their unique concoction of the masculine and feminine much like our universe of masculine and feminine planets and our earth of masculine and feminine plants. The world can thank all the women before us who fought tooth and nail for us to have that freedom today. Now, we need to give men and boys the same freedom.
Let's imagine a world without the Boy Code...
A boy who is raised in a society without the code is confident. He cares little about how he measures up in sports, and when he experiences big feelings he can openly talk about them to his friends and family the way we expect and encourage girls to communicate. Without the existence of a Boy Code, mothers are not told to make sure their boys don't become too attached, "otherwise they'll become mama's boys." When a boy gets hurt, he can have his moment to just cry in his mother's arms. There is no such thing as "crying it out" in the crib, alone in his room. If he rejects preschool or kindergarten on a level that's remotely heartbreaking (some kids will even vomit after so many days of crying for their parents), he and his parents are not encouraged to tough it out. Instead, they acknowledge that he's simply not ready and they find an alternative for him that works for the whole family. If they can't find an alternative, then there's something wrong with our system. Most importantly, we schedule our quality time with our children as top priority, which doesn't involve looking at our phones. Quality time is, after all, when we learn the most about them. Simply put, a world without the Boy Code is a world where boys' feelings and interests are treated just the same as we treat girls' feelings and interests.
Ultimately, we want our kids to look to us as their protectors; as the ones who will listen when they're going through something. This approach is not coddling and it's not to be confused with helicopter parenting. Providing emotional support doesn't produce helpless boys who can't defend themselves in school. It does the exact opposite. The more devotion we show our kids, the safer they feel; and the safer they feel, the quicker they become genuinely independent. If we force independence on them before they’re ready, they’ll only fake it to make us happy, and the consequences down the road are not pretty. Our boys are trained at an extremely young age to give up on communicating with us, especially when they see we're more devoted to our work, phones and/or self-image on social media. Yet, we want them, so badly, to just tell us what’s going on. The fact is, they are telling us what's going on but in a way that's like unlocking an Enigma code.
It is wildly unpopular and considered politically incorrect to do the psychological research before a child undergoes medical treatments that will change their life forever. But if we don't look into it, the Enigma code we send back to them is that we don’t care enough to ask what they’re going through. When my brother was an angsty, rebellious teenager meeting the “boy code” of his time, his attention-getting tactics were hardly designed for his friends and mostly designed to grab the attention of our parents.
Boys, especially, are silently screaming to be saved from the gender straitjacket; for them to lose whatever mask it is they’re hiding behind and communicate whatever has been eating at their beautiful, tender hearts. For my brother, the mask was one of toughness to hide a pain that involved his father amongst a myriad of trauma. For a kid I know, the mask is that of the ever-so popular gender dysphoria, for the pain involves an incapacitating fear of puberty and neglect on many levels from his mother who suffers her own demons. What better way to grab your parents' attention while finally be seen and welcomed, only into the popular group at school where almost everyone else is trans or non-binary? I'm all for the pendulum swing of progress, but not for the cost of ignoring an issue that's been eating away at society since lord knows when.
The goal is not to reverse gender dysphoria by inaccurately claiming it can be "cured" with psychology 101. Rather, the goal is to address deep-seated, emotional pain whether it has any link to gender dysphoria, or not. More than likely, that pain has something to do with society's skewed, rigid and incorrect ideologies of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. The flaw in attaching any assumptions on gender roles is that "masculine" and "feminine" have fluctuated throughout history and continue to be inscrutable down to a cellular level. Bob Ostertag - writer, historian and musician based in San Francisco - explains the complexities of endocrinology in his book Sex, Science, Self: A Social History of Estrogen, Testosterone and Identity. Some of our ideas about behaviors attached to estrogen and testosterone are still being challenged as scientific revelations continue to rise to the surface. Whatever we continue to discover and unlearn about sex and gender, we need to have one thing established first: that the sex we're born with should not be stigmatized with social conditions. Then, not only will trans people be liberated; cis-gendered people will, too.