Among my oldest and best friends are men I became friends with when we were teenagers. For the most part, like teenagers today, we thought of ourselves as equals. We went to the same schools, socialized together, participated in sports meets at the same time, eventually worked in similar jobs and generally assumed that our lives were very much the same. Once in a while though, I still have conversations with one of these friends, or with my husband or brothers, and I am genuinely taken aback by some of the jarring gaps in our understanding of the world. Our lives, beginning when we were teenagers, have distinctly different aspects and are affected in ways that teenagers today are usually still not talking about. As young as 11 or 12, different rules and double standards based on gender begin to alter our day-to-day experiences in subtle, and often not-so-subtle, ways.
Just as your physical horizons are expanding, those of the girls you know are usually shrinking, something that girls have as much interest in as you would if it happened to you. The U.S. has a double-digit safety gap, meaning there is very big chance that in many places where you feel safe, the girls you know simply don’t. There are places and activities that you might take for granted, such as going for a run in the evening or at night, along a park path or a river, that girls often cannot engage in. It’s very frustrating to be told you are equal, to feel independent and strong and to have to adapt to a specific kind of vulnerability.
Rape is prevalent, real and girls have to think about it. Most boys do not have to think about being raped, or adapt their behavior. Even though girls might not consciously be thinking about this, by the time we are 13 or 14 we have already been socialized to quietly adapt. Recently, I heard a group of 14 and 15-year old boys openly make fun of a girl who’d expressed fear after they, as a “joke,” refused to let her out of a room. When she started to panic, they laughed and mocked her for being over-sensitive. It would be foolish for a girl to not be alert to this reality, but it is one that many boys, and girls, are blissfully unaware of. One in five girls will be sexually assaulted in the U.S., almost 50 percent of sexual assaults happen before people reach 18 and the vast majority of victims are girls, and perpetrators boys and men that they know (82 percent of assaults are perpetrated by non-strangers). One of the worst aspects of rape culture is that it’s impossible for girls and women to know who is and isn’t actually a rapist. These numbers are repeatedly verified and although boys are also raped, the fact of rape functions to affect the lives of all of the girls and women you know. Yes, there is a risk of false rape accusations, but while most people think 50 percent of rape allegations are false, the number is consistently, as comprehensive reviews show, between 2-8 percent, similar to the number for other crimes. I have stopped counting the number of times I’ve heard teenagers, raised with widely circulated rape myths, deny these numbers or, in a recent case, say that because a girl didn’t seem upset enough, she must have been lying.
You have the luxury of laughing off sexual double standards. Even when boys are called sluts, it doesn’t really apply to you as a boy or man, in a denigrating way meant to control your behavior or punish you for being interested in sex or just appearing to. If it’s used in a tongue in cheek or even vaguely negative way, the source of the insult is that you are like girls, whom you always have the privilege of being superior to on the basis of sex. The double standard is particularly vicious in cases involving sexual assault, when a girl is blamed and called a slut after she is raped. Case after case after case shows exactly how extreme, and deadly, this form of bullying can be.
Girls, and a lot of the LGTBQ kids you know, are being harassed regularly in public. For teenage girls, and many of your LTBQ counterparts this is already a reality, and it can have serious physical and psychological consequences. Street harassment starts at a very early age, but mostly no one talks about it, certainly not to boys.
Traditional school dress codes and enforcement of dress codes are optimized to ensure, for the most part, that you aren’t “distracted,” by girls. No one seems to care what may be distracting girls or LGTBQ kids. Dress codes are still often written and enforced in ways that mean teenage girls are supposed to wake up in the morning and think about whether or not they are dressing in ways that will make it, in theory, turn you on.
You will be paid more for your work because you are male. Girls may be doing better in school, but it’s proven not to matter in several meaningful ways once you graduate. Someone may have told you that the wage gap is fake and that women’s choices lead to their making less. First, the wage gap is sexed and raced, which means that you’d have to believe that Hispanic women and black women, who make 54 cents and 64 cents to a white male dollar, are making worse decisions than white and Asian women and all men.
Second, labor is sex segregated and prioritization is given to what men do because they are doing it. The U.S. ranks 67th in the world for “wage equality for similar work.” Third, women’s labor is systemically undervalued. Studies show that when women make different choices and move into traditionally male, higher paying fields, salaries decline. When men move into female-dominated fields, salaries tend to go up. Fourth, your first year out of school, your salary will probably be at least $1,000 higher, regardless of grades, probably because you’re more likely to negotiate. “Just ask for more,” is a fatuous response to gendered socialization that means your asking is seen as ambitious, but a girl’s asking is seen as selfish and aggressive. Nice girls don’t ask. Implicit bias means that you have a greater chance of having a mentor, of getting a job, of getting a good job review, of getting a salary increase (especially after having children) and of becoming a senior person in your employment of choice.
Girls do not accumulate cultural credits from seeing themselves represented in culture that you do. You can, especially if you are white, see yourself disproportionately reflected everywhere — from our currency to experts, children’s books to sports and films. Consider, for example, if you are an athlete, that coverage of men’s sports out-numbers coverage of women’s sports 23 to 1. Studies of television show that only one group of kids walks away from watching TV with agreater sense of self-esteem, young white boys. Even popular apps offer free male avatars as standard, but charge for female ones.
People are more likely to believe you, think you are competent, and to let you speak uninterrupted. Observations of parents and teachers consistently show that they are far more likely to interrupt and talk over girls and women. Primary among the differences that transmen report is the amazing experience of not being interrupted constantly when they speak. They also report being taken more seriously and being thought of, at the same time, as funnier. As Joan Roughgarden, a biologist at Stanford who lived as Jonathan Roughgarden for most of her life puts it, “men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise.”
When you experience pain, doctors will take you seriously and not say it’s all in your head or, worse, your own fault. Girls experiencing physical discomfort or symptoms of illness are more likely to hear, “”There’s nothing wrong with you.” “Your only problem is that you’re fat and lazy.” “You’re too pretty to be sick!” “You brought this on yourself. Your pain is your fault.” Additionally, when you face a medical problem, solutions will meet your needs because medical research is still using male bodies as the norm. So, for example, today’s artificial hearts fit 80 percent of men, but only 20 percent of women. Treatment for lung cancer, depression, cardiovascular diseases and more are similarly affected.
You may not be having a lot of sex, but male sexual entitlement in our culture is real and a problem for the girls you know. Boys are under a lot of pressure to be “real men,” which includes being taught to go after what you want, not take no for an answer, be assertive and expect a certain measure of control. Our culture sends very strong messages that boys and men are owed sex. Cajoling, coercing, shaming and treat girls like property, or getting angry when they don’t respond nicely enough, are way for boys to bond with other boys or get a status bump. And, if you stop and think about it, just because people laugh at rape jokes doesn’t actually mean they are funny. All of this is happening at the expense of the girls and women you know.
Lastly, to state an obvious one, girls cannot walk away from pregnancies or their outcomes. Access to safe, affordable and legal contraception for most boys means running into a pharmacy and picking up a box of condoms. For girls the realities of reproduction are much more complicated, expensive and, sometimes, dangerous. For a girl who has sex it is entirely possible that her parents, teachers, counselors, legislators, doctors and others all have a say in what happens.
While I’ve written in terms of binaries here, to illustrate some differences, teenagers who don’t conform to gender and sex binaries are even more subject to the effects of bias, the enforcement of gender stereotypes and multiple forms of intersecting discrimination. They face the highest rates of bullying, harassment, depression, suicide and other forms of violence.
Which is all to say, as John Scalzi so clearly explained, Straight, White Male is the Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is. None of this means that teenage boys are not also subject to huge social pressures, violence or oppressive gender norms. Nor does it mean that girls are superior to boys or that you are somehow to blame. It just means that you have, generally speaking, even if you don’t feel like it, higher cultural status, and that you and you girl friends are probably having very different experiences of what constitutes equality in America.
Soraya Chemaly is a feminist, writer, and satirist (not always in that order). Article originally appeared on Huffington Post Women. Photo graphic from Pixabay.com.