Understanding and Escaping Guyland
Photo by Joshua Michael.
What’s the deal with guys?
Recent research warns of the chronic underachieving, emotionally drifting, and irresponsible “Guyland” of male adolescence. But most of us in youth ministry don’t need research to tell us that there are new challenges inherent in working with boys.
Youth pastor and blogger Jeremy Zach recently voiced an ache many of us feel when it comes to the guys under our care:
Talking to a high school male about spiritual stuff is like basically talking to a wall… And trying to motivate a high school guy to pursue righteousness is a tough, tough task. 1
Clearly something isn’t connecting for guys in many of our ministries. How can we as youth workers better equip ourselves and parents to face the current realities of boys and help them engage God and others? Given that we’re also each raising a son, this is a question we wrestle with every day.
Excuses and Fears
Much of our culture’s collective anxiety about adolescent guys is caught up in various excuses and fears. Excuses like “boys will be boys” or “it’s a guy thing” have become cultural blankets to cover all sorts of irresponsible and destructive behaviors from young boyhood through adulthood.
Meanwhile we’re overwhelmed by the fears that arise from the behaviors that prompt these excuses in the first place: boys are emotionally closed off, spend too much time playing video games and hanging out online, are too sex-obsessed, lack motivation, and often drift into adulthood with little direction.
More than a few of these fears are valid, but we struggle to find reliable lenses through which to interpret what’s going on with guys. We should say up front that not every boy is the same (thank goodness!) and not every boy lives by the excuses and fears we describe below. But these research trends are worth taking time to understand and respond to, for the sake of the guys—and the girls—in our ministries.
Guyland: The Secret Underworld
According to sociologist and gender studies expert Michael Kimmel, young men ages 16-26 live in a secret world of Guyland that resembles an uncertain holding tank. 2 His interviews with over 400 guys led Kimmel to conclude:
Guyland is the world in which young men live. It is both a stage of life, a liminal undefined time span between adolescence and adulthood that can often stretch for a decade or more, and a place, or rather, a bunch of places where guys gather to be guys with each other, unhassled by the demands of parents, girlfriends, jobs, kids, and the other nuisances of adult life. 3
Similar to the research of our Fuller Seminary colleague Chap Clark, 4 most of the guys in Kimmel’s study believe that they are completely on their own to chart a path through Guyland. By the time they hit high school, they can’t trust their parents or other adults—and most feel like they can’t trust each other either. This is in large part because of the “Guy Code,” learned in boyhood and expanded in adolescence.
The number one rule in the Guy Code is, you guessed it, “Boys don’t cry.” Kimmel observes, “Masculinity is largely a ‘homosocial’ experience: performed for, and judged by, other men.” 5 And it’s driven by homophobia—defined in Guyland code as the fear that others might think you’re gay. “That’s so gay” is one of the most common put-down guys use in high school, and it can refer to anything—something you say, wear, or do. So guys spend a lot of their energy attempting to prove (primarily to other guys) that they aren’t gay, that they are masculine enough to warrant independence in the “real man’s” territory. In other words, while many maintain that our version of masculinity is simply hardwired by biology, few account for the way the masculine code is “coerced and policed relentlessly by other guys.” 6
High school has become the boot camp for Guyland, raising the stakes for the “boys don’t cry” code they have already learned and making the consequences for breaking it more severe. “How do I measure up?” is the daily question boys ask in the face of the guy code, and most guys we know feel like they fall short every day. Breaking the dependence on that code starts with working on rule number one. Boys are taught that they’re acting like girls—in overtly cruel as well as implicit ways—any time they express emotions, but also even when they feel them. As a culture, we leave boys isolated and detached, essentially numb to any kind of emotion. “Be tough. Shut up and take it. Don’t be a sissy.”
In fact, there’s some evidence that although boys express emotions less, they feel them more intensely, at least physiologically in measures of perspiration and heart rate. 7 Far beyond the biology of guys and emotions, the truth is that masculinity is multilayered and multifaceted, and to force a masculine profile into one specific box—whatever the box—is to deny part of the beauty of God’s creation of maleness (and femaleness, for that matter).
This denial of feelings also manifests itself in an anti-woman sentiment that runs as an undercurrent through Guyland. The objectification and degradation of women is pervasive in the ways guys talk to one another, use and share pornography, and of course treat women. So as they follow the Guy Code, guys not only fail to relate to themselves and one another, but also young women, with any authenticity.
Those of us who feel called to help guys experience all God intends can take heart. Just as research helps us understand the pull of Guyland, it can also give us some tips for helping guys find an escape.
Fostering Emotional Resilience
Kimmel suggests that one of the antidotes to perpetual Guyland is encouraging emotional resilience in guys—the development of an ethical and emotional core that helps guys bounce back in the face of adversity. 8 From his research, there are at least four factors resilient guys share:
1. At least one adult who made a difference, who believed in them and invested in them.
2. Parents—mothers and fathers both—are critically important, even to late adolescent males, to stay connected and help usher them into manhood.
3. A passion or interest area in which he can develop a competence. This is even better if it broadens his set of social connections beyond high school.
4. Real, enduring friends. Guys need at least one other guy to balance the opinion of the crowd and reduce the isolation inherent in the guy experience. Further, nurturing female friendships cuts down on the objectification of women because guys learn to relate to real girls. Either way, one genuine friendship can be enough to make a real difference for guys who are really struggling through adolescence.
Redefining Manhood: Just Guys
Having spent over 25 years studying and working with boys, psychologist Michael Gurian poses the question, “What is the purpose of boys?” The answer from our culture seems to be, “We don’t know.” 9 No wonder, then, that adolescent boys seem to lack a sense of direction. One of Gurian’s key insights in his book The Purpose of Boys is that boys often need to be led to purpose before they can lead themselves or others in purposeful ways. They need communities of purpose around them to help them develop a purpose as boys—and as men.
Men, for better or worse, will define manhood to our boys. And if men aren’t around to define, model, and usher boys into manhood, other boys will do it on their (and our) behalf. Boys initiating boys into manhood (fraternities and sports team hazing offers plenty of ripe examples here) plunge males deeper into the abyss of Guyland.
Together with dads and other men in our church, we as both male and female youth workers can create meaningful rituals that help answer the question, “What does it mean to be a man?” One all-boys’ school in Maryland defines this through a five-week service trip each year to the Dominican Republic, during which time the boys learn to work hard and live simply, all for the sake of others. The answer to the question about purpose becomes “using your strength in the service of others.” 10 Giving all we have to serve others doesn’t sound like an all-American definition of manhood, but it does sound an awful lot like the Bible.
On that journey, we can help guys learn to speak out against injustice in their own communities and around the world. As Kimmel concludes, “Guys who are ‘just guys’ can become just guys—guys who are capable of acting ethically, of doing the right thing, of standing up against the centripetal pull of Guyland…They can actually become men.” 11 The perpetuation of the worst behaviors is fed by our own silence and our inability to help guys speak out. Instead, we can help them see God’s heart for the oppressed and set them free to advocate and act on behalf of others.
A big key is to get boys connected with older generations. If mentors aren’t jumping out of the shadows to nurture adolescent boys, go hunting for them. Explore opportunities for guys to serve the senior men’s group at your church in some way, or to volunteer at a local nursing home. Find fathers whose sons have left home, and invite them to join another boy on his journey.
Leading Forward: Alternative Paths
Below are a few more ideas for inviting guys to crawl out of the darkness of Guyland and engage each other, girls, adults, and God in new ways:
- If you’re a guy yourself, model a countercultural reality for guys. If you’re still in the under-30 crowd, find ways to live out a Guyland alternative. If you’re over 30, and especially if you’re a dad of an adolescent guy, consider your own actions, words, and choices and the ways they feed into or react against the “Guy Code” script. What are your true passions, and do the young men in your life know about them and see them lived out?
- Both male and female youth workers can give guys outlets for expressing emotion and then talk about it together. Sports are one place—and currently just about the only acceptable place—for guys to express emotions. Guys come alive emotionally in sports, and feel more free to feel and show joy, sorrow, pain, even tears. Tap into that reality by going to games together or playing sports together, and let these become teaching moments as you debrief the experiences, talking about the emotions elicited by sports.
- Help guys build a moral compass that will actually lead them somewhere beyond Guyland. Foster a vision for integrity that values the image of God in others—both girls and guys.
- Stop the gay jokes and comments in your youth ministry. Seriously. Any time we participate, laugh, or fail to speak or act in response, we approve of the code that cripples guys from showing any genuine emotion or sensitivity. Your theological position on homosexuality itself is actually irrelevant here, because as Kimmel observes, the term “gay” refers to anything “not guy” enough. 12 Talk with groups of guys about phrases like “That’s so gay” or “You’re such a fag” and ask them questions about what they’re really thinking—or fearing—when they make those statements. Chances are good you’ll have to start with your adult ministry team first on this one.
- Help parents understand that guys desperately need them—moms AND dads—to stay connected and involved throughout the “guy” phase, and give parents tools to keep communication channels open.
- Advocate for and with parents in local school systems for anti-bullying and anti-hazing policies that help diffuse some of the more violent behaviors that guys carry out against one another in Guyland.
- Encourage parents to engage boys in finding a way to care for someone or something else every day—a grandparent, a pet, a neighbor—to help build compassion and a sense of purposefulness as boys learn to channel their power for the good of others.
- Help boys discover something beyond themselves to live for, to fight for, to serve. Channel these purposeful desires into seeking justice for the oppressed and poverty-stricken. Raise their awareness of world concerns like AIDS orphans or child slavery, and give them tangible ways to engage in both global and local care for others. Help them experience the joy and sense of purpose that comes from being “just guys”.
- When you think of or hear the phrase, “Boys will be boys,” what comes to mind? What’s encouraging about that? What’s disturbing? How is your perspective challenged by the insights in this article?
- How have our youth ministries fed into and perpetuated the “Guyland” mentality? Read this article with your team, then make two lists together of the ways your youth ministry both contributes to guy stereotypes and builds an alternative reality for guys and girls. Most likely you’ll find items on both lists you’d like to respond to as a team.
- Pick one or two of the “alternative paths” listed above to focus on for the next two months, creating an action plan for how you will implement that path. Then evaluate how your team is doing on addressing guy culture and discipling the boys in your midst, and perhaps choose another change to implement in your ministry with guys.