- A gentleman does not look at pornography, because pornography is degrading, not only to the woman who is objectified, but also to the man who uses it. Tweet This
- Most boys want to be good men. But they are immersed in a toxic culture of celebrities who revel in profanity, in boasting, and in giving offense. Tweet This
- A gentleman: governs his passions, never strikes a woman, does not look at pornography, never touches a woman without her consent, and defends the weak. Tweet This
Editor’s Note: This week, the Family Studies blog is publishing a series of short essays addressing the meaning and purpose of healthy masculinity in today’s world. We asked contributors to consider the following questions as they explored this topic: what is healthy masculinity, can it exist in our culture today, what threatens it, and what should we be teaching young men about it? Yesterday, we heard from Aaron M. Renn. In this essay, Dr. Leonard Sax weighs in on raising boys to be gentlemen in a toxic culture.
I was speaking to the freshman class at Wabash College, a small all-male college in Crawfordsville, Indiana. "What does it mean to be a gentleman?" I asked. “Raise your hand if you’d like to share your definition of a gentleman.”
One young man offered: “A gentleman is someone who goes to gentlemen’s clubs and watches girls strip.” There were a few laughs.
“That’s very amusing,” I replied. “Would anyone like to venture a more serious answer?”
A few others raised their hands. A gentleman wears a three-piece suit, one said. A gentleman opens doors for women, said another. We discussed the origin of the term gentleman, which originally simply meant a member of the aristocracy who didn’t have to work for a living. As C. S. Lewis observed, in an earlier era one might have said of a particular man, “John is a liar and a gentleman,” meaning that although he might be an aristocrat, he is not truthful. But over time, the term came to mean something different.
Incidentally, I have found that asking “what does it mean to be a gentleman?” leads to a conversation much more fruitful than “what does it mean to be masculine?” or “what is healthy masculinity?” For better or worse, many boys equate masculinity with physical strength and endurance, weight training and football. As a matter of language, they can’t really get their heads around a masculine man engaging in visual arts or poetry or ballet: they start laughing, imagining an NFL offensive tackle wearing a tutu. But they can readily accept the idea of a gentleman who excels in visual arts or poetry or ballet.
However the term is defined, there are not many gentlemen to be found among young male celebrities today. Bruno Mars earned six Grammys for a song in which he tells a young woman “You and your a** invited” and offers her money if she will just “turn around and drop it for a player” because “That’s What I Like” (the title of the song). Drake conquered the pop charts last September with his album “Certified Lover Boy,” taking nine of the top 10 spots on the Billboard Top 100, a feat never equaled by any artist in history, not even the Beatles. Drake likes to boast “I’m undoubtedly the hottest and that’s just me bein’ modest.”
Boys are not born knowing what it means to be a gentleman. They must be taught.
Boys are not born knowing what it means to be a gentleman. They must be taught. My concern is that in our current era, many parents have little idea what to say to their son on this topic. So the boy looks to the Internet, and what he finds there is Bruno Mars and Drake, Eminem and Akon, or John Mayer boasting about his collection of pornography.
I have visited more than 460 schools over the past 21 years, and I have found that most boys are hungry to have a conversation about what it means to be a good man. I have led those discussions with boys, where I suggest the following definitions as a starting point for conversation:
- A gentleman governs his passions rather than being governed by them. As Supreme Allied Commander during the Second World War, Dwight D. Eisenhower would quote Proverbs 16:32: “Greater is he who can rule his own spirit than he who takes a city,” a verse his mother had taught him in childhood.
- A gentleman never strikes a woman, not even in self-defense.
- A gentleman never touches a woman without her consent.
- A gentleman does not look at pornography, because pornography is degrading, not only to the woman who is objectified, but also to the man who uses it. I have heard from boys at high schools across the U.S. that their teacher in health class encourages them to masturbate, and porn is a useful adjunct to masturbation. The teacher explains that masturbation is safe sex, without the need to worry about obtaining a partner's consent. Such advice reflects an impoverished view of what boys are and what they can become.
- A gentleman does not bully the weak; instead, a gentleman defends the weak against the bully.
Each of these comments inspires a lively response from American teen boys–especially the comment about pornography. These are conversations boys need to have with an adult man who has the courage to use the word “gentleman,” in defiance of the current mainstream disapproval of the term as reinforcing the heteronormative patriarchy.
How to inspire boys to want to be gentlemen, in a culture which celebrates crudeness and disrespect? Rather than preaching a sermon, I have found that boys respond best to stories about real men. In my book Boys Adrift, I recommend the stories of Joshua Chamberlain, the Bowdoin professor of religion who commanded the 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg, in which capacity he had to make an extraordinary decision of colossal consequence; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who in 1939 left a comfortable post in the United States to return to Germany to organize resistance to the Nazis, and was arrested and subsequently hanged in a concentration camp; and Itzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who tried to make peace with the Palestinians and was gunned down by a fellow Israeli Jew.
Most boys want to be good men. But they are now immersed in a toxic culture which offers Bruno Mars and Drake as role models, a culture of celebrities who revel in profanity, in boasting, and in giving offense. We can do better. We must.
Leonard Sax MD PhD is a practicing physician and the author of four books for parents, including Boys Adrift: the five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men (Basic Books, second edition).
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.