Things I Never Learned in Library School: Toxic Masculinity and Teaching Boys to Accept No for an Answer, Even in Our Libraries
The first time I ever learned what can happen when you tell a boy no and was afraid, I was a Sophomore in high school. A friend has asked me out and I told him no, I didn’t have those types of feelings for him. Later that night I did go out on a date, with someone else. I know he knew because he called me later to tell me in terrifying and no uncertain terms that he knew because he had sat at the end of my street. He could tell me when I left, who I was with, and when I returned home. He told me what he saw as he sat outside my house and I realized that this boy, whom I thought was my friend, was angry and that I was in danger.
It happened again at the age of 17 when I got my first job at a movie theater. This time it was my boss, a man over the age of fifty.
It happened again in college.
We live in a world of toxic masculinity which tells boys that they are entitled to women and that women don’t get to say no. We live in a world where men get angry when women say no.
You can search the Internet and find story after story after story of how a woman came to harm because she told a man no.
A couple of years ago, two local boys took something from my then 7-year-old daughter and they held her down. She came home crying, full of fear, as she explained to me that they had asked to play with her toy, how she had told them no, and they had taken it any way. I went to the home of one of the boys and explained what had happened to one of the moms and she looked at me and said, “my boys would never do something like that.” I went home and told my husband that she was raising a rapist. And sure, it seems like an extreme reaction to what can be construed as a normal childhood interactions, but it’s also what happens when we raise boys to believe that they can take whatever they want and that there are no consequences for their actions.
It’s what happens when we try to wave away entitlement and bullying and abuse with a simple expression: boys will be boys.
There is a lot to dismantle in that phrase. In it is the idea that we think that boys have no self control. That rough and abusive behavior is just the way that boys are. That of course a boy should feel entitled, that’s just how boys are.
Part of it is patriarchy. I come from a deeply religious background. I have an undergraduate degree in youth ministry from a conservative Christian college. Many denominations actively teach both boys and girls that girls are less than boys and that the female must be subservient to the men. That they can’t say no.
In Utah, the recently held a school dance where the girls were told they can’t tell a boy no if they asked them to dance.
In a recent discussion on the Teen Services Underground, there was a discussion about a boy asking a girl out in the library and how she had said no and he retaliated. The story is complex, but in the comments one commentor even suggested that the girl should say no but soften the blow by saying something like, “I’m just not interested in dating right now.” The thing is, though I don’t advocate being outright rude, girls don’t have to justify their no. They don’t have to explain it away and make it better. No is a complete sentence. And honestly, sometimes trying to soften the blow does more damage than not because the messages can get mixed up.
We have to teach our boys to learn to accept no as an answer.
This is something the media is horrible about, even the YA books that we read. We romanticize the notion of pursuit, of wooing. If a girl says no, you pursue her until she says yes. We celebrate those stories.
When I was young and just started dating my husband, we used to argue about Romeo and Juliet. It’s so romantic I would say. But they both died he would say. But they died because they loved each other I would say. But they’re both dead he would say.
I understand more now what it was he was arguing for. What we are taught is romantic is often part of the problem. I internalized those messages for a really long time. But then the behavior of the men I said no to really started to terrify me. I realized it wasn’t romantic, it was scary and my well being was in jeopardy.
You become afraid to say no because sometimes what happens after the no is worse than what happens when you just give in and say yes; sometimes saying no is more dangerous than saying yes.
This is part of the nuanced conversations people are asking us to have about sexual harassment and sexual violence.
But at the foundation of all of this is toxic masculinity and how men internalize rejection.
This is one of the reasons as a teen/YA librarian I am an advocate for having policies and procedures in place and enforcing them. The policies and procedures should be reasonable and help everyone receive a maximum benefit from and safety in the library. But having rules and failing to enforce them, that can do more damage then having no rules at all. It’s a delicate balance enforcing rules and knowing when to let them slide and give grace, but letting them slide can be damaging. The thing is, we have to do the work of making sure we have the right rules, for the right reasons, and consistently enforce them.
Having and enforcing meaningful rules and boundaries helps our teens learn to accept a person’s no, even in libraries. Sometimes, our failures to have and consistently enforce meaningful boundaries for our patrons can contribute to our cultural problems. Sometimes telling a patron no and holding them accountable is the right answer. That’s not something we always like to talk about in libraries, but we should.
Filed under: Things I Never Learned in Library School
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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