In college, I have heard many stories like the Daily’s investigative article last week into the University’s policies for responding to reports of sexual assault. These stories are usually framed as tales of “crazy parties” leading to all manner of wild, often public, sexual escapades that men laud each other for. The issue of women (or men) actually wanting to partake is never brought up, the word “consent” being little more than a presumption.
I have heard these stories, and I have felt equal levels of confusion and disgust. I can’t explain why men rape women, as much as I wish I could. I also can’t explain why people in these stories I have heard wanted to partake in loveless, public acts of (presumably) consensual sex. But as I have sat and heard these kinds of wild party stories, my confusion and disgust has been tinged with a dull ache of jealousy.
As much as it makes me ashamed to admit it, that jealousy is something I might be able to explain.
I was a boy once, a boy who had few friends and many gnawing insecurities. I wasn’t athletic, being that dreaded last-picked kid when we made teams. For similar reasons, I knew that girls were not interested in me, and I grew to hate my body and the way I looked. I had good parents, but my father was emotionally distant while my mother’s feelings swung between intense love and intense spite. My sister was the epitome of perfection I could never be, and while I loved her dearly, I knew that anything I did was immediately compared to the absurd precedent that she set.
I spent a lot of my time alone; drawing, reading, daydreaming, contemplating. I would imagine what it would be like to one day have all these things I was lacking, to be popular among boys and sought after by girls. But these were only dreams, and the continued difficulty of reality led me to be deeply depressed. Over time, my depression spilled over into bitterness and, at times, uncontrollable rage.
As I got older, the concept of being a man was largely shaped by these emotions. Some of the feelings I experienced translated into important pieces of my personality, especially empathy and sympathy for the pain of others. Some of these feelings have only led to more pain. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote: “Part of any adult’s maturation must be keeping the idiot in them under wraps. But I can’t kill the boy. Nor should I … The boy reinforces the man. But he needs guardrails.”
My guardrails have taken time to build, and on plenty of occasions over the last four years, they have melted away completely. The boy comes out, seeing the world in black and white, following his most extreme feelings into the abyss. He wants to impress people, he wants everyone to like him and he wants women to want him.
The man in me knows that out-posturing men and sleeping with women will not fill the craters in my heart. The man in me also knows that these craters, even the ones created by my father’s early death, do not have to define me. But the boy is blinded by his fear, his depression and his anger; this is where jealousy comes in.
My guardrails are much firmer than they once were, but they are still finding their place. I have made terrible mistakes while I’ve been in college. I have hurt myself and others around me, and I often didn’t know why. Many of the worst mistakes I have made revolved around a woman, and nearly all of them occurred while I was drunk. But these mistakes have trailed off precipitously in the last two years, a time when I chose to leave my fraternity and greatly reduced how much I drink.
This, I suspect, is not a coincidence.
Alcohol and Greek life are not to blame for the many mistakes I made while in college, but their role in uncaging my inner demons is unmistakable. Being drunk knocks down many different personal boundaries for different people, as does being in a superficial, overly masculine environment. But for me, they tear away at the reasonable, empathetic man I aspire to be, replacing him with an amoral boy trying to out-gun everyone else. I’m proud of myself for recognizing this, and for increasingly translating my awareness into avoiding binge drinking and checking myself when I start seeing women as tools to improve my self-esteem.
In the stories that I have so often heard, from the wild sex at parties to the most brutal rapes and assaults, the males are often associated with some hyper-masculine group, be it the military, the football team or a fraternity. In these stories, alcohol has almost always been present, as well, usually in the body of the male.
This, too, I suspect, is not a coincidence.
My path to manhood has been a difficult one, to say the least. The culture of this campus, especially when it comes to sports, Greek life and other male-dominated institutions, was not going to smooth my transition, but steer it into a black hole instead. But the consequences of our culture of hyper-masculinity and binge drinking are not limited to males.
Far too many of my female friends have been raped, sexually assaulted or beaten — not by men, but by boys. Boys who want to prove something or fill some alcohol-soaked gap in their soul. Boys like me who have gone one step further.
To quote Ta-Nehisi Coates again: “After the boy has his moment, the man must take the weight.”
While these words have guided much of the way I see my transition to manhood, a sort of trial by fire where I learn from my mistakes, I feel it needs to be altered.
Too often, it is not the man who takes the weight, but the woman.
James “Trip” Brennan can be reached email@example.com.