Sexist Boyhood in Urban NJ

500_Real attraction

I actually really love talking about sex with my parents. From that special moment when I was watching Bernadette of Lourdes and asked what an ‘immaculate conception’ was and was informed more about ‘conception’ than my 9-year-old mind could take, my parents have always been pretty open about sex, and I as well. Though we don’t always get along or agree, I respect the two of them a lot, and as awkward as it sounds, am happy that they still have a sex life after twenty-three years of marriage, and are looking pretty damn good for their age.

I went out to dinner with them last weekend; my dad was in town to run the Marine Corps Marathon. I’m not exactly sure how it began, but we started talking about societies’ views on sex and nudity – how boys don’t shower together in gym like they did when my dad was my age, about an conversation that my mom once had with her students, while teaching a study-skills class back in New Jersey.

Hey, Mrs. C, we got a question.
What is it?
Do you think it’s okay to go for it if the girl is drunk?

My mom sat down with a sigh, about to humor their question.

Why are you even asking that. Do you really want to go for it and have sex with a drunk girl if you’re sober?
No, no, no! You don’t understand, don’t get me wrong, I want us both to be drunk!

Where I come from in New Jersey is almost a majority-minority town. The public high school, which I attended for two years, was 75% Latino, and speaking from observation, Spanish girls tended to be more willing to be submissive to their men, and the young men were extremely masculine – willing to fight, take risks, carry weapons, and dominate women and each other. My mom found it tough sometimes, especially when she had to deal with study-skills sessions, which weren’t the smartest or most well-behaved kids, but they respected her enough to give their honest opinions, one guy said—

Well, girls should be careful when they get drunk, they should know what us guys are like.

As my mom had said later, even if she had wanted to slap him for his words, or even if every other person we knew had scorned him for the statement, it was undeniably his honest opinion, and right or wrong, that’s what he felt and that’s how he acted in his life – that guys are a certain way, and they can’t control themselves when it comes to girls.

Feminism wasn’t something I considered back in New Jersey as ever having an impact on my life. I lived in a town where women seemed to be subservient to men by culture, and I went to an all-boys Catholic school, where the only talk of women was in the most objectified way possible – even more so due to our lack of opportunity to interact with women in school.

When there’s no girls around, it seemed that there was no check on the misogyny and masculinity of eight hundred teenage boys. But I knew something was strange, as I didn’t adhere to the beliefs of my peers, who talked about the newest bitties of the weekend, and called out at young female teachers in the hallway. I dated in high school, and was in a long-term relationship with an older, extremely artistic and open-minded girl for two years. We were inexperienced, but I couldn’t imagine an arrangement in which we were anything but equal. Other relationships I saw and witnessed in high school struck me as so foreign – how could some of these girls be so blind as to not realize how little he cared for her? How could they even call this a relationship?

In college, things are different. People are feminist, and queer, and polyamorous, and unconcerned with gender roles in a way that was impossible back in New Jersey. (There were also hipsters, a very rare sight in Bergen and Hudson Counties.) When I came back in the summer and began delivering at a local restaurant, it was a return to the masculinity of working-class New Jersey, and a culture shock for me. During the day I worked in urban Hudson County with men who called at women on the street, customers who would be abusing their wives when I rang their doorbell, and every vulgar thing said about lesbians who ‘just need to get fucked in the ass to make them straight,’ but at night I’d be in a whole new world, whether with my amazing feminist friend Carmyn in the leafy northern suburbs, or with my open and egalitarian family, or with my friends who disavowed the kind of sexism that seemed to be so pervasive in the city.

I don’t know where to go from here, and I don’t fully feel comfortable singling out the black and Latino people who always seemed to be the most sexist and the most spiteful towards women. For every Salvadorean man who would be coming into the restaurant barking at his wife and daughters there would be an equally repulsive white man throwing his wife into walls right in front of me, the delivery boy. For every Blood that came in with a sneer, his girlfriend weeping, there might be a Norteño covered in tattoos smiling at his wife and taking a sincere interest in what his daughter had to say.

Generalizations mean everything, and nothing. I don’t have enough experience in all-white areas to say whether they’re just as sexist – but I don’t think it really matters. In any population you can find good and bad.

It’s hard for me to imagine a world where sexism is dead; we hope for every generation to be an improvement on their parents’, but I see no clear improvement in mine, decades after the civil rights and first- and second-feminist movement was relevant. The people of my generation associate feminism more with the hateful ideals of Dworkin rather than the tolerance of Paglia or other modern feminists. Personally, I keep it real with the people I work with, and even if I can’t change their minds, I will never agree with their views on women for the sake of fitting in with them, or even endearing myself to them. I’ll continue trying to treat every girl I interact with, whether romantically, as friends, or even just in passing, with all the respect I can afford.

What was it like growing up in your town?

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16 Comments on “Sexist Boyhood in Urban NJ”

  1. 1 Carmen said at 12:15 pm on November 9th, 2009:

    I love feminist shout outs!

    BRB making sure this pings the blogosphere.

  2. 2 Nancy said at 2:01 pm on November 9th, 2009:

    I’m glad that the take-away, after observing all of this negativity and sexism, is that you’re committed to being more respectful to women. Do you think now -the older and wiser you- would want to intervene if you saw this going down? Do you feel like you have the tools to speak out, or is that still part of the confusion?

  3. 3 Meg Hatch said at 3:44 pm on November 9th, 2009:

    Thank you. If only more HUMAN BEINGS, not men or women, could adopt this attitude the world would be a better place.

  4. 4 Ronan said at 12:50 am on November 10th, 2009:

    I have the tools, but a lot of times people have decades of negativity and sexism reinforced, so it’s not worth fighting people over it sometimes. I’m not saying it’s a lost cause, but that in some cases you need to pick your battles.

  5. 5 Gia said at 1:19 pm on November 10th, 2009:

    Although there are cultural stereotypes that pervade childrens’ minds as they grow up around certain sexist behaviors, it does not mean they cannot correct their behavior. I live in an urban neighborhood that is primarily Latino. Although it bothers me to see that in some cases, Latina women in my neighborhood do seem more submissive to the men in their lives, there is still a mutual respect present between partners and the women do not necessarily seem powerless or abused. In fact, it seems to me that boys in my neighborhood are brought up to be way more respectful of their mothers than in the more suburban area where I grew up. I am not sure whether or not this correlates to how they behave as teenagers toward girls, or as young men toward young women For some boys that may depend more on the father or male figure, if there is one. But it definitely depends on the involvement of the parents in the child’s life, and how aware they are of what behaviors their child is learning from his peers. I strongly agree that we need to look beyond stereotypes and statistics to see who is really disrespecting women, and why. I really don’t believe it has only to do with cultural or ethnic background, and I believe education – not just anti-rape education, but ALL education – is key in preventing violence against women.

  6. 6 Jonathan Grove said at 11:48 pm on November 10th, 2009:

    I applaud Ronan’s speaking out about his struggle as a male person negotiating “Manhood” with a commitment to social justice. Sexism, racism, homophobia and classism are the cancer of our culture and the sooner those of us with privileges acknowledge both the negative impact that has on those who are marginalized, as well as on ourselves, the better and less painful the world will be.
    As a male person who grew up with and fully defensive about all but class privilege, I understand that coming to a place of recognition without defensiveness and learning from the discomfort is difficult and it’s a process that requires a courage and strength much more meaningful than the traditional “Manly” version. A critical part of that process is the hard work of really hearing critiques and then incorporating that into who we are. I hope that in that spirit, I might offer suggestions about ways in which those of us who wrestle with this process might reconsider views expressed in Ronin’s post. I do so not to shame or minimize, but rather to celebrate the willingness of all of us who struggle to be a better person… I am no different and have no place to criticize without recognizing my own failings along the way.

    In my experience, it has always felt easy and reassuring to point out the sexism, racism, homophobia of others, who don’t get it and aren’t “safe” like me. However, we all are socialized in the same way relative to privilege, and we (speaking as a person with multiples privileges) all have done things that cause women (or other marginalized groups) harm. Given the spectrum of harmful male behavior, from taking up physical or vocal space, the impact of the male gaze, to the “try, try again” model of sexual encounter, men have created a pretty inhospitable world for the women in our lives to inhabit – even if we (as a group) weren’t raping, killing and stalking women at the obscene rate that men do.
    A key step for privileged folks is to recognize this when they see it, to take responsibility for it and to work to change that behavior. This, you might imagine, is much easier to do when we can take responsibility as we blame “other” men who have less privilege. There is an intersectionality or layering of privileges, which works to allow middle class, white men the opportunity to blame poor men and/or men of color for the sexism and misogyny, racism and homophobia in our culture, while simultaneously dodging their role in both sexism and the racism and classism which impact other men, all while appearing to be a great savior. The impact of this, is that those men who hold less privilege are at increased likelihood of exhibiting an increasingly hegemonic manhood as they seek to hold as much power as possible, given their privilege deficits. What must be understood is the relationship that multiple layers of identity privilege has on the insecurities that drive abuse of that power, and how privileged men increase the collective harm by passing the buck.
    I personally find the view that Dworkin expressed hateful ideals, rather than the pain of a population, which has been systematically and violently oppressed, problematic. From my experiences in being on the receiving end of classism, I can understand how my pain around that may sound hateful to those whose privilege (mostly) unintentionally caused me pain. As someone who identifies as a male person, I am also aware of the terrible consequences that others who are navigating the expectation to conform to hegemonic masculinity experience. We also do not fit neatly into the box given to us, and trying to scars us. The sad reality is that as we hurt ourselves chasing a mold that gives us great power, and we cause others even greater trauma in doing so.
    The less we define traditional men as “other”, the less insecurity and fear they will have about their value as a male person. With more confidence, people are much more likely to question the way that they see masculinity, privilege and their role in the world. Above all, we have to remember that we’re not so different. The pursuit of acting out hegemonic masculinity is a common experience. Sexism and misogyny is pervasive, and until those of us who have been taught hegemonic masculinity actively start working to understand the costs both to ourselves and to those who are then oppressed by us, we will never change the culture. We have to be aware of our own role in this, while continuing to reach out to others not with a message of condemnation, but as difficult as it sometimes is, a message of compassion and understanding directed at their own self-interest. That is what will broaden the support and make real social change a reality.
    The traditional college age population this author represents is increasingly exploring and expanding gender roles and intersecting privilege in ways that older generations have not. We must be willing to not only do the hard, and sometimes hurtful work of self reflection and creating change, but to celebrate the victories we do have. It is such difficult work, with such a high cost for failure that we need to ensure that we maintain our strength of purpose with some joy. This population of young people gives great hope for the new healthier world ahead of us… and that is certainly deserving of celebration.

  7. 7 Stefanie said at 2:49 pm on November 11th, 2009:

    This is such a breath of fresh air in times like these. Hearing positive feminist viewpoints from men is something wonderful and I hope it becomes more common. Thanks for being brave enough to write this.

  8. 8 Joe said at 6:03 pm on November 12th, 2009:

    I would just like to add my support for men and women sharing ideas and thoughts such as done here. It is wonderful as mentioned to see such honesty around these issues, and these are the dialogues that need to keep happening as the number of pro-feminist men in this work continues to grow.

    Ronan I appreciate greatly your story, and Jonathon as a colleague and someone I am growing to admire more and more, I really appreciate your honesty as well as the awareness and courage to hold yourself and others accountable for our words and beliefs, especially in such a compassionate and open way. I will say as a white guy doing gender-based violence myself, one of the most important steps I have personally taken in this work is to force myself to more proactively engage around my white privilege – I am lucky enough to live and work in a place where there are resources and support for me to do so (white anti-racist organizations/trainings/etc.) This has helped me immensely to begin to understand some of the similarities and the differences between anti-sexism and anti-racism work, and how crucial what Jonathon talks to is – that if we do not place our work to prevent gender based violence firmly in the context of other oppressions, then it lacks integrity and effectiveness, and really in the end is not anti-oppression work. Rob Okun said it well in re to homophobia and heterosexism at the conference….

    Anyway, one more recommendation for men at the level of awareness of Ronan is to get involved with this issue in a more structured way (not assuming Ronan is not!). Whether joining a pro-feminist men’s organization, writing regularly for a blog, starting a men’s group at your local school, etc this can be a way to continue to grow as a feminist, be challenged in ever deeper and more meaningful ways, and will be a HUGE contribution to a movement that still needs a lot more involvement (Stupak anyone? sigh…) from men as aware and open to engaging on these issues as Ronan and Jonathan. Keep up the great work all and thanks to Nancy for giving us the space to hash this stuff out!

  9. 9 joe said at 6:04 pm on November 12th, 2009:

    Ok, it is official. We talk too dang much 🙂 guess we have a lot to say! Bout time!

  10. 10 Courtney Martin said at 4:25 pm on November 13th, 2009:

    Thanks for this revealing, thoughtful, courageous post Ronan. As more voices like yours get out into the public sphere, more men will feel like they can look at their private lives through this feminist lens. This is critical and much-needed work.

  11. 11 Gregory A. Butler said at 12:06 pm on December 18th, 2009:


    I’m glad you shared your actual unvarnished opinions, without editing yourself (at least so far as I can tell).

    With that said, you seem kind of racist and snobbish – you have this broad brush view of African American and Latino men as all being sexist brutes, Latinas all being submissive and working class people in general being crude, crass and abusive.

    It’s truly unfortunate that the main thing you seemed to have learned from going to college is to look down on those less privileged than you are – and, quite frankly, the racial and class bigotry tend to cancel out your feminism (unless, of course, you only believe in equality for upper class White women).

  12. 12 Nancy said at 12:33 pm on December 18th, 2009:

    Thanks for hopping on to share your thoughts, Gregory, and I hope you’ll be inspired to create your own post sometime. I do think there are more constructive ways to bring up the issues of privilege and power (versus “bigotry”) in Ronan’s post, for example, Jonathon Grove and Joseph Samalin’s comments. We all need to be compassionate about where people come from and where they still need to go … That’s how we can all move forward. Folks like you, Joseph, Jonathan, can lend a hand. I hope you’ll continue to add your thoughts and perspective here, always with a mind to keep it constructive.

  13. 13 Ronan said at 3:11 pm on December 18th, 2009:

    I have to disagree with you Gregory, though I appreciate your stance against subtle racism and classism. I explicitly made reference to the perception of racism or classism that could be read into this, and said it was not my intention, just as it would be wrong to blame the black community for Prop 8 passing in Cali.

    Obviously not all people of color are sexist – Carmen is Puerto Rican herself, and there are a huge amount of black and Latino people at college and elsewhere I’ve met who are tolerant and open minded. I’m not discussing them in this post, I’m discussing the sexist people of all ethnicities I worked with, and mentioning “oh they’re not all like this!” is pandering to political correctness for its own sake, and a more offensive use of white privilege in its condescension.

    I grew up with working class people of all colors around me, and I could write books on their positives and the things I like about them, and friends have told me stories about how rich families can be just as sexist; it’s not constructive to this post on a feminist blog.

  14. 14 Carmen said at 11:32 pm on December 19th, 2009:

    I think the idea that references to communities in this post are somehow racist/classist might be a little too based in the atmosphere of political correctness that we’re all used to. It is a common observation that communities with less privilege and communities/cultures of color tend to be more traditional in their gender roles and values and less progressive. Women of color face a much different set of challenges than women of racial privilege, just as women of varying classes have different perceptions of gender’s impact on their lives. I don’t think Ronan meant any harm, especially because the post structures those observations as just that- observed tendencies of people in his geographic community.

    I do, however, agree with Nancy- a post about intersectionality would be a great contribution to this blog, and I think that the want for a broader voice in feminism and this movement would be a wonderful impetus for that.

  15. 15 Miranda said at 2:02 pm on July 19th, 2010:

    Ronan, I lived in NJ for a while, and I really liked this entry — until the very end where you called Camille Paglia “tolerant.” This baffled me. I realize that this is completely out of the scope of your entry, and I apologize for that, but Camille Paglia is a rape apologist and a textbook anti-feminist.

    Observe, from It’s a Jungle Out There: “Feminism… does not see what is for men the eroticism or fun element in rape, especially the wild, infectious delirium of gang rape.” Yeah, so sorry that I can’t get down with that necessary, giddy component of male bonding, crazy lady.

    Sorry again, Ronan, but I really felt compelled to say something given the nature of this forum.

  16. 16 Ronan Conway said at 2:07 pm on July 19th, 2010:

    I do apologize for that – this was written a year ago for a friend, when I was not really involved with the Line and not as knowledgeable about feminism as I am today. Rape apology is disgusting, and I disavow anything positive I said in my ignorance about Paglia.

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