Why the phrase “boys will be boys” is so damaging

‘Urban Dictionary’ defines the phrase “boys will be boys” as an idiom that “feminists, in order to perpetuate their hatred of men and boys, have attempted to claim”, expanding that it is “used as an excuse for sexual assault, attempting to imply that sexual assault is a ‘normal activity for boys”. The ‘dictionary’ then goes on to say that “feminist’s [are] attempting to corrupt the phrase”.

“Boys will be boys” has become a somewhat controversial topic, with extreme arguments coming from either side about the damages, or lack thereof, when using this phrase and how it should be handled in modern society.  I intend to highlight the actual issues with this phrase and prove that the feminist perspective is not calling all men perpetrators of sexual assault.

Originally, “boys will be boys” comes from the Latin proverb, “Children are children and do childish things”. This was first written in the English language in 1589 and, over time, has developed into what it is today. I am not arguing that the origin of the phrase is innocent, the idea that children are childish is more fact than anything else, the damage comes when you start associating this idea with gender and contemporary stereotypes. My first encounter with it was in primary school, aged seven, where the boys would come back from break time covered in mud and the teachers would laugh it off with “boys will be boys”. I don’t think there’s anything terribly damaging about this as an isolated incident- at the time I certainly did not feel this was unfair because I didn’t want to be running around in the mud. That, in my school, was typically only fun for the boys. The damage here is for girls who are not like me. The girls labelled a ‘tom-boy’ for all their childhood and girls who wanted to run around and get dirty. The emphasis “boys will be boys” has on gendering boisterous, messy activities as ‘male’ has negative impacts on girls who also do those things (in reverse you could argue that being constantly told to be ‘lady-like’ has the same effect on young girls, and is more damaging to them because it addresses them directly- but that’s another article altogether). The damage done here is to gender-stereotypes and affects young girls.

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This is also damaging to young boys who do not fit this gender stereotype. By enforcing that this is ‘boys behaviour’, boys who do not want to behave in this way become alienated. Forcing stereotypes on children leads to their confusion, feelings of not belonging and feeling not normal for acting certain ways.

Not only this, but this also pushes the idea that being loud, rude and messy are traits that all boys should have. If you are teaching your children from a young age that this is the way they should be, if you are not punishing your boys for being disruptive and mean to the girls in their class because “boys will be boys”, you are not teaching them morals for the future. A child that knows they can get away with something will do it again and again, push it further and further until they receive punishment for it. “Boys will be boys” is more than just a phrase, it represents the way all of society treats children of different genders.

This is then taken into adult life which is where I believe the phrase causes the most damage, where we, as a society, do not hold men accountable for their actions. The mentality from childhood stays with us, allowing men to get away with behaviour that a woman would not if she were louder and more outspoken. The issue of ‘man-spreading’ on public transport, while a trivial argument, stems from this mentality of boys not being held accountable for their actions. Men are not having to be punished for taking up space in the same way women are. They were taught “boys will be boys” while I was taught that certain behaviours weren’t ‘lady-like’.

Today, there is a lot of links between this phrase and cases of sexual assault, a very extreme example of certain men not being held accountable for their terrible crimes.  The most famous of which is the case of Brock Turner, an 18-year old who raped a woman at a party. The judge gave him six months to not ruin his athletic career, suggesting he was just trying to have fun and took things too far due to his alcohol consumption on the night of the crime. While these events are awful, the sentencing of Turner is somewhat more so. A lot of criticism about the case and the hearing mention the phrase “boys will be boys”, which is where, I assume, the ‘Urban Dictionary’ statements come from. I think the confusion comes from believing that all boys will sexually assault because of this phrase, which, of course, is untrue and feminists are not arguing that. The reason this phrase is used to critique Turner’s case is because of the mentality that the judge had- the mentality we teach children today. Turner didn’t commit sexual assault because he’s a young boy, but he certainly got away with it because he is one.

The issue is our attitude towards young people. Teaching children that “boys will be boys” does not benefit either gender, so maybe it’s time we stop doing it.

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