Notes on the development of psychologically, emotionally and sexually healthy boys.

How Common Is Sexual Violence?

Some speak as though sexual violence is a rarity, overhyped by sensationalist news stories and prejudiced notions of male sexuality. Others assert that we are immersed in a misogynist rape culture that invites men to engage in relentless sexual persecution of women.

When faced with such extreme discrepancies in opinion, it is often valuable to look to research to clarify. However, statistics on the prevalence of sexual violence are quite varied. Thus, Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) can claim that a negligible number of women are raped, while their interlocutors could cite studies showing that two thirds of women experience serious sexual violence at some point in their lives. Although few would disagree that rape, child sexual abuse and other forms of sexual violence should be prevented, such strategic use of research can skew the perceived urgency of the issue. MRAs pronounce that we are criminalizing male sexuality and blindly accepting false accusations of rape. Feminists argue for urgent, sweeping cultural and legal changes to impede the persistent and commonplace acts of violence against women (and, less commonly, men).

Efforts to determine rates of sexual violence are relatively new, but have proliferated since the 1990s. Today, enough studies exist that results can be compiled to yield overarching, aggregate data in the form of meta-analyses or systematic reviews. This allows for a somewhat broader and more stable estimate of sexual assault prevalence across different populations. However, despite a wealth of data, inconsistent results continue to muddy the issue.

One major cause of incongruity in the research is that sexual violence can be defined differently from study to study. If a researcher defines sexual violence as any unwanted sexual contact, it is likely that more participants will endorse experiences of sexual victimization. Alternatively, if a study only asks participants if they have been raped or experienced forced penetration, numbers will likely go down. The political leanings of researchers can influence results before the questions are even asked. Is all unwanted sexual contact violent – or does this line of questioning vilify normative (albeit awkward) attempts at intimacy? Is it only violence if there is penetration or if the victim feels she has been raped – or do we, as a culture, fail to recognize and respond to sexual aggression in all of its forms?

Another complicating variable in sexual violence research is the source of the data. Many prevalence statistics are derived from criminal justice institutions, such as the FBI or Bureau of Justice Statistics in the United States or the RCMP in Canada. The problem with these sources is that rape and other forms of sexual violence are notoriously underreported crimes (approximately 68% of sexual crimes in the U.S. are never reported to the police). With this in mind, it is difficult to put much faith in statistics drawn from police reports or criminal proceedings. Alarmingly, even self-reports of sexual violence can be minimized, as many study participants seem reluctant to label experiences “sexual abuse” or “sexual assault”, even though their description of the event seems an obvious instance of victimization to the external observer.

Furthermore, the sample population used in many academic studies is not always representative of everyone’s experiences. Out of convenience, many researchers use university students as test subjects. This practice has the unfortunate result of excluding many, if not most, of the world’s population (less than 7% of people worldwide hold a post-secondary degree).

Some good work is being done to overcome these limitations and derive more accurate and inclusive data on prevalence. One such innovation is the development of standardized questionnaires that ask participants about sexual experiences in behavioural terms. For example, the Sexual Experiences Survey, developed by Dr. Mary Koss (et al.), asks the respondent specific questions about non-consensual sexual experiences without using words like “rape” or “sexual assault”. Instead, questions are related to behaviours, such as, “A man put his penis into my vagina, or someone inserted fingers or objects without my consent by [t]hreatening to physically harm me or someone close to me.”  Each question in the SES focuses on a different kind of sexual behaviour, from non-contact, to attempted sexual assault, to forced oral, anal or vaginal sex. Sub-questions for each category ask the respondent about how the offender forced the behaviour – from verbal pressure, to intoxication, to threats of or actual violence. Such explicit and clear questions make it difficult to debate whether or not a person is accurately reporting an experience of sexual victimization. It also allows study participants to acknowledge a non-consensual sexual experience without using terms like “rape” or “sexual assault” or facing the potential shame, repercussions or roadblocks that can come with reporting to the police.

Some of the questions on the SES relate to the use of verbal, rather than physical, coercion. The study authors clearly state that these verbal acts of coercion are not always regarded as crimes. Nevertheless, they view any forced or coerced sexual activity as within the “sexual assault spectrum”. For the most part, this approach makes sense – insults, dishonesty and threats of social repercussions are coercive, cruel behaviours and cannot be considered part of healthy, consensual intimacy. The only questionable items on the SES ask about attempted (i.e., not completed) sexual coercion via the expression of “displeasure”. Most of us are likely to express some kind of displeasure after being sexually rejected without necessarily becoming coercive. It is unclear whether or not responses to these questions are categorized as sexual assault or attempted sexual assault in prevalence studies.

Researchers have now begun to look beyond North American college campuses to investigate the prevalence of sexual violence in more diverse populations. Enough of these broader studies have been published to allow for systematic reviews of sexual assault prevalence amongst visible minorities, homeless youth and other under-researched populations. Systematic reviews of worldwide sexual violence rates have also emerged. Unfortunately, these studies still suffer from some limitations, such as the use of non-standardized measures of sexual assault. International data is limited by the fact that the definition of sexual violence varies from country to country; for example, some countries do not legally acknowledge that a woman can be sexually assaulted by her intimate partner. Some governments have even refused to participate in any assessment of sexual violence rates.

Massive meta-analyses and systematic reviews compiling responses of tens of thousands of participants demonstrate that sexual violence is not at all a rare phenomenon. Larger (although less diverse) reviews show that approximately 13% of women have been raped (that is, had their vagina penetrated by a penis through the use or threat of force). Close to a quarter of women describe experiences of sexual coercion, assault or unwanted contact. In many cases, experiences of sexual violence occur in childhood. Between 8 and 31% of women have experienced some form of sexual abuse before their 18th birthday.

In international studies, prevalence rates appear to vary, although they typically remain in the high teens for women. Sub-Sarharan Africa showed the highest estimates of nonpartner sexual violence (17-21%), while southern Asia showed the lowest (3.3%). Rates of victimization also appear to be higher amongst visible minorities, homeless youth and economically disadvantaged populations. In Canada, Aboriginal women generally experience more frequent and more severe forms of victimization.

Although rates of victimization amongst men have been studied far less extensively, some reliable data suggests that between 3 and 7% of males experience some form of sexual victimization in their lifetime. Bisexual and homosexual men appear to be victimized more often than heterosexual men.

The outcry that sexual violence has been overestimated to advance a political agenda does not fit with the overwhelming body of evidence. Some might argue that false allegations of sexual assault have skewed the statistics, yet it seems absurd for someone to invent experiences of sexual violence on an anonymous self-report survey that has no bearing on the alleged perpetrator. Prevalence rates demonstrated in these studies constitute a major, worldwide public health concern for both women and men.

Abrahams, N., Devries, K., Watts, C., Pallitto, C., Petzold, M., Shamu, S., & García-Moreno, C. (2014). Worldwide prevalence of non-partner sexual violence: A systematic review. The Lancet, 383(9929), 1648-54.

Barth, J., Bermetz, L., Heim, E., Trelle, S., & Tonia, T. (2013). The current prevalence of child sexual abuse worldwide: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Public Health, 58(3), 469-483.

Craner, J. R., Martinson, A. A., Sigmon, S. T., & McGillicuddy, M. L. (2015). Prevalence of sexual trauma history using behaviorally specific methods of assessment in first year college students. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse: Research, Treatment, & Program Innovations for Victims, Survivors, & Offenders, 24(5), 484-505.

Decker, M. R., Latimore, A. D., Yasutake, S., Haviland, M., Ahmed, S., Blum, R. W., … Astone, N. M. (2015). Gender-based violence against adolescent and young adult women in low- and middle-income countries. Journal of Adolescent Health, 56(2), 188-196.

Harrell, Margaret C., Laura Werber, Marisa Adelson, Sarah J. Gaillot, Charlotte Lynch and Amanda Pomeroy. A Compendium of Sexual Assault Research. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2009.

Heerde, J., Scholes-Balog, K., & Hemphill, S. (2015). Associations between youth homelessness, sexual offenses, sexual victimization, and sexual risk behaviors: A systematic literature review. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(1), 181-212.

Koss, M.P., Abbey, A., Campbell, R., Cook, S., Norris, J., Testa, M., Ullman, S., West, C., & White, J. (2006). The Sexual Experiences Long Form Victimization (SES-LFV). Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona.

Peterson, Z. D., Voller, E. K., Polusny, M. A., & Murdoch, M. (2011). Prevalence and consequences of adult sexual assault of men: Review of empirical findings and state of the literature. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(1), 1-24.

RAINN (2009). Statistics. Retrieved from

Spitzberg, B. H. (1999). An analysis of empirical estimates of sexual aggression victimization and perpetration. Violence and Victims, 14(3), 241-260.

Statistics Canada (2013).  Measuring violence against women: Statistical trends. Retrieved from

Wilson, D. (2010). College Graduates Spur Global Economic Growth: Chart of the Day. Bloomberg Business (online).

Yount, K. M. (2014). Worldwide prevalence of non-partner sexual violence. The Lancet, 383(9929), 1614-1616.

Posted 214 weeks ago

A New Direction...

I left my last blog post promising a review of the text Evolution, Gender and Rape edited by Cheryl Brown Travis. I have to admit, I could not make it through this one. I was pleased to see that there was a fulsome response to Thornhill & Palmer’s reactionary, brutal text on rape, but the writing in this text was dry, academic and hard to engage with. It is unfortunate, as the social sciences are often critiqued about their opaque prose and how alienating it is for non-academic readers. As a rebuttal to a “pop” science book by Thornhill & Palmer, Evolution, Gender and Rape will fail to reach the same audiences and, thus, is resigned to “preaching to the converted”.

From what I did read, the collection of essays in Travis’ text did offer some valid points. Thornhill & Palmer were critiqued for their reliance on shaky research, their inflexible definition of evolution, their apparent inability to consider how gendered power can bias “hard science” and their unsupported conjecture on the conditions of human relationships over the course of our history. I am fully behind these arguments and made similar ones in my review of Thornhill & Palmer’s work. However, I wish the authors would have made an effort to make the text more accessible and engaging.

Another reason why I may have bailed on Travis’ text is that I have decided to change my approach in these blog posts. My ultimate goal has always been to collect thoughts, perspectives and research here as incremental steps towards writing a book on healthy male sexuality. My reading and review of books on the topic, although it has been enlightening, seems like a potentially endless task. There are so many relevant books out there! I have also discovered that I am simply reading people’s opinions or interpretations on research, which, although interesting, may not help me in developing my own perspective on the subject.

Instead, I plan to move towards using blog posts to answer specific research questions related to the topic of my book. I will determine which questions are important to answer and dive into research and literature reviews until I feel I have found an “answer” (or answers).  This way, I can feel I am going to the “source” of the data and making extrapolations from well-designed studies. I hope to develop a more personal understanding and perspective on how men develop healthy sexualities and how we (as parents, therapists, teachers, activists) can encourage and foster such development.

So, please keep reading and, if you have comments or suggestions, please let me know. Tumblr is a little awkward for commenting/messaging, but you can always reach me on my Twitter: @grahamwatsonmsw.

Posted 216 weeks ago

A Natural History of Rape

Oh boy, this book. You could peel paint with this book. It goes without saying that rape is already a pretty intense subject matter, but this is only the beginning for Thornhill and Palmer. Brace yourself.

The authors are evolutionary biologists, Thornhill primarily specializing in entomology and Palmer in anthropology. The premise of their text is this: since rape seems to be a persistent, widespread behaviour in humans and some animals, there must be an evolutionary cause. In other words, males who rape must have had some advantage in creating offspring that survive to reproductive age – perhaps not as much of an advantage as males who do not rape, but enough to propagate the trait across our evolution. Thornhill and Palmer are non-committal about the actual mechanisms of this natural selection of rape, but offer some possible explanations. Men who would otherwise not have access to enduring sexual relationships may use rape as an alternative reproductive strategy. Aggression and high sex drive have been naturally selected in males and rape may simply be a by-product of these traits. And so on.

Similarly, the authors argue that women have adapted mechanisms to avoid being raped, as being impregnated by someone who is not a long-term partner creates an evolutionary disadvantage for their child (although this is kind of contradictory reasoning to the above, if we are simply considering the prospects for the offspring). Females need to invest a great deal of time and energy into rearing children, while males, especially those who rape, do not. So it makes sense that women would evolve to desire a mate who will remain with them and assist in child rearing. Being impregnated via rape leaves a female alone to raise the offspring or, worse still, may cause the loss of her current mate who would refuse to invest his resources in the rearing of another male’s child. Thornhill and Palmer cite studies showing that women in their reproductive prime appear to be more distressed by rape than women at other ages (even compared to prepubescent child victims – which seems a pretty dubious claim to me).

That’s the idea. Not implausible, it makes some sense that sexual aggression could be an evolved trait and it is useful to get the perspective of evolutionary science on the issue. It is quite an unpleasant way to think about sexual violence, but – as the authors argue – just because something is part of our evolutionary makeup does not make it acceptable or good.

However, theories of sexual violence are actually a fraction of the content of Thornhill and Palmers’ work. Most of the text is dedicated to a vitriolic, condescending, almost childish attack on the social sciences (read: feminism). They pronounce that social scientists are wholly ignorant of the theory of evolution and ridicule their interpretations of rape. In fact, the book seems more focussed on demolishing social science than anything else – it is as if they chose rape as the topic simply because it would be the best way to troll feminists. Thornhill and Palmer accuse feminists of a dogmatic, unsubstantiated allegiance to a theory of rape as an act of power, not sex. They mock the view that rape is learned in a patriarchal society, given the evidence of the “universality” of sexual aggression in all polygynous/pair-bonded species (I’m not going to go all Foucauldian here, but let’s just keep in mind how the physical sciences tend to find “universals” when they go looking for them). The authors suggest that feminist interpretations of rape have led us astray in our efforts to prevent sexual violence. In viewing rape as a learned behaviour, we fail to respond to it as something deeply seated in our evolutionary make-up.

This last bit was exciting – I trudged through all the cattiness in anticipation for some evolution-informed prevention strategies. Unfortunately, the recommendations at the end of the text were brief and underwhelming. For instance, we are urged to enforce educational programs for males who are at high risk to rape (i.e., young men, particularly those from families with low parental investment and few positive male role models). We should also offer educational programs to women to teach them how to avoid victimization (as it is inevitable that there will be potential rapists out there). Social activity between young men and women should be highly supervised. The legal system involved in investigating and prosecuting rape should not be dominated by males (since men have evolved to mistrust claims of rape to weed out potentially unfaithful mates). None of this is earth shattering. In fact, none of the authors’ recommendations are too dissimilar to what a social scientist might suggest from a social learning theory perspective.

Thornhill and Palmers’ animosity towards the social sciences seems excessive to me. I do understand how an evolutionary perspective challenges the feminist notion that rape is solely about power, rather than about sexual/reproductive drive. However, viewing rape as an act of power is not anti-evolution – we have evolved to desire power as much as we have evolved to desire sex. In fact, evolutionary science’s dismissal of power dynamics has led down some pretty dark paths in the past – the most inhumane and horrifying practices of eugenics were founded on the wilful ignorance of how social power, rather than biology, might contribute to perceived “inferiority” of one group compared to another (the authors even suggest eugenics as a possible solution to rape, but dismiss this as “impractical”).

It is always easier to accuse others of dogmatism than it is to reflect on our own biases. Having an empirical scientific theory as a foundation does not guarantee that your argument is dogma-free. For example, in attempting to show how females have evolved to make false allegations of rape (so that their partners would not abandon them for acts of infidelity), the authors quote a single study, which found a whopping 41% of all rape reports were fabricated. This is blatant cherry picking to fit their narrative – plenty of studies have shown much lower rates and we really don’t know the prevalence of false reporting. The authors also almost entirely avoid addressing male on male rape, other than stating that men are distressed by being raped because it lowers their status in the eyes of others (so it is about power after all?). To me, there is no greater evidence of a power-based motivation for rape than the sexual violence that occurs between (often heterosexual) men in prison. But this phenomenon does not fit the authors’ purely sexual-biological theory, so it is never mentioned. It is scary to me that this kind of unfettered structuralism still exists in academia. The evolutionary sciences seem particularly vulnerable – I think of Richard Dawkins’ xenophobic diatribes as another example of an absence of self-critical thought in the field.

In any case, it seems I am not the only one who was troubled by A Natural History of Rape. In fact, an entire book was written in response to it! Evolution, Gender and Rape is a collection of essays challenging Thornhill and Palmer’s work – and it is next on my list, so keep an eye out for my future blog post.

Hunt, E. & Safi, M. (2015). Richard Dawkins links Isis child who beheaded man and ‘clock boy’ Ahmed Mohamed. The Guardian (online).

McArdle, M. (2014). How Many Rape Reports Are False? Bloomberg View (online).

Meikle, J. (2013). Richard Dawkins criticised for Twitter comment about Muslims. The Guardian (online). 

Philip N.S. Rumney (2006). FALSE ALLEGATIONS OF RAPE. The Cambridge Law Journal, 65, pp 128-158. doi:10.1017/S0008197306007069.

Thornhill, R., & Palmer, C. T. (2000). A natural history of rape: Biological bases of sexual coercion. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Posted 220 weeks ago

A Billion Wicked Thoughts

Originally published in 2011 Ogas and Gaddam’s text proposes to illuminate the often hidden sexual desires of our species. Early on, the authors lament the fact that, although the study of human sexuality has been pursued in earnest for over a century, little progress has been made relative to the other sciences. They argue that modesty, conservative mores and slippery ethics have interfered with a comprehensive analysis of human sexual interest. They believe that a study of the unspoken sexual “kinks” of humanity has now become a possibility, given the fact that so many use the Internet to seek out, explore and satisfy their deepest sexual urges. Ogas and Gaddam describe their work as the “world’s largest experiment” given the shear volume of Internet search data they collected and analysed to develop this book. They have unprecedented access to information on human sexuality via the searches, comments and behaviour of men and women online.


A Billion Wicked Thoughts is divided quite clearly along gender lines. The authors make a strong argument for deep, evolutionary differences between the brains of women and the brains of men, at least when it comes to sex (although such an approach has come under serious fire as of late).

Pornography use shows that men are strongly visual in their desires. The authors argue that this is due to women having evolved more “ornamental” sexual features to compete over the resources of men (typically, male animals are more ornate, except amongst species in which females compete over shelter, food, protection or other “non-genetic resources”). The most common porn searches focus on breasts, bottoms and feet. The authors attempt to show how these three areas of the female body are markers of estrogen, youth and fertility. The penis is also an enticing visual cue for many heterosexual men, which makes less immediate sense from an evolutionary point of view. However, Ogas and Gaddam hypothesize that seeing an erect penis might stimulate a drive to compete with other males for the insemination of a female (and thus lead to intense sexual arousal and desire to copulate). Men’s sexual searches also show that “youth” is a highly desirable trait. According to the authors, this is because men have evolved to seek out sexual partners who have the most reproductive potential over time, given the assumption that human sexual relationships have historically been pair-bonded or polygamous. However, men also seem to have significant sexual interest in older women, given the high frequency of searches for “MILF” or mature pornography. Ogas and Gaddam postulate that this is evidence of a twofold sexual strategy, i.e., males seek out young women for long term reproductive relationships, but also pursue any potentially fertile sexual partners for one-off sexual encounters (particularly an older mate who is likely to be connected with a male who can assist in child-rearing). Both strategies could lead to increased reproductive success and offspring survival; thus, both are potentially part of the human male’s evolutionary makeup.  

As for women, Ogas and Gaddam concede that online pornography searches provide less generalizable data, given the fact that a minority of women are regular consumers of porn. However, they propose another data set for the study of female sexual desire – erotic fiction. Romance novels are apparently a bigger industry than Internet pornography (at least they were back in 2011) and a new form of amateur erotic writing has emerged in various “fan fiction” sites online. Women are the primary consumers of both online and traditional sexy stories. The male object of desire in this medium is a complex one. He is an “alpha” male with power and influence – sometimes even violent and coercive in his sexual expression. However, he also shows an ability to be vulnerable, but only with the woman he desires. This archetype of female desire is evidence, in the authors’ opinions, that women have evolved to want dominate males who can protect and provide resources. However, women also need to feel that a sexual partner will remain with them throughout the birth and rearing of their offspring; thus, women are aroused by a man who is overcome by his passion towards them. Although attractiveness is an important element of female mate selection, the physical takes a back seat to markers of power, aggression and commitment.

Ogas and Gaddam are very much in the evolutionary biology camp and, I think, fall victim to narrow, deterministic explanations of human sexuality and gender differences. For instance, they postulate that the feminist critique of pornography stems from women’s instinctual fear of losing the resources and protection of their mate. This ignores the fact that the pornography industry does have a history of oppressing women, either through representations of male power or through more direct injustice towards female porn actresses. It is not simply jealousy that drives resistance to traditional pornography, but a desire to end the oppression of women. Similarly, the authors argue that women experience body dismorphia due to their evolved need to feel irresistible. This may be true, but, again, it ignores the impact of a culture that inundates women with unrealistic, male-centric and prescriptive messages about their bodies.

I also wonder if the data Ogas and Gaddam have used is actually reflective of “universal” sexual desires in men and women. Certainly not all women read romance novels and there is no real evidence that the characters in these works are archetypes of female desire – they might just be titillating entertainment. The behaviour of men who go online looking for porn may not be representative of the entire male population. The authors also obtained most of their data from a somewhat obscure search engine called “Dogpile”. I have some faint memory of Dogpile, but never used myself. It is very possible that this search engine attracts a certain kind of person and this might skew the data. Nonetheless, this is quite an impressive study and does use a bounty of information to investigate human desires on a scale that is unparalleled to date. In their defence, Ogas and Gaddam do try to supplement their work with research findings on sexuality from around the world. 

I did really appreciate the authors’ approach to sexual media. There were no shaming, moralizing messages about our consumption of porn or erotica. Using an evolutionary approach, Ogas and Gaddam showed how unsurprising men’s porn habits are and how some more fringe “kinks” might make sense. Although they ignore how power enters into the representation of women in pornography, the authors do take some steam out of the puritanical opposition to porn as a driver of male perversity and violence against women. For women, porn might appear to be intrinsically objectifying, but it may simply be a reflection of how men process sexual information. The authors make the clever observation that there is not nearly the same public uproar or marital friction over romance novels, despite the fact that these are widely consumed by many women. No one kink is holier than another!

Ogas, O., & Gaddam, S. (2011). A billion wicked thoughts: What the world’s largest experiment reveals about human desire. Dutton. 

Cover image from the Washington Post.

Posted 224 weeks ago

The Male Brain

The Male Brain is Dr. Louanne Brizendine’s follow-up to the bestselling The Female Brain. The text aims to shed light on the complexity and sophistication of the male brain. Dr. Brizendine expresses her hope that this book will help men and women gain greater tolerance, understanding and appreciation of the many facets of masculinity across the lifespan, leading to “more humane and civil societies”.


Dr. Brizendine is a very established figure in American psychiatry and has done an incredible amount of work to produce this text. Her reference list takes up 82 pages – a good third of the book.  Her sources range from neurology, endocrinology and evolutionary biology to developmental psychology, sociology and sexology. Her approach is one of genuine, nonjudgmental curiosity and she translates complicated science into accessible, engaging prose.

The Male Brain is organized across the lifespan, showing how hormones and brain functioning impact male worldviews and behaviours from birth to old age. As with other texts I have reviewed here, Dr. Brizendine notes that boys seem designed for rough-and-tumble, competitive play. They also need more intense sensations to stimulate their brains’ reward centres and thus seek out thrills from an early age. Dominance and aggression are simply normative elements of boys’ play and should not be discouraged in and of themselves. In fact, Dr. Brizendine argues that the rougher, more unpredictable style of play fathers engage in with their children actually helps boost confidence and interpersonal flexibility. The majority of the text seems geared toward helping mothers, girlfriends and wives understand the men in their lives. Why is my son so rough and competitive? Blame testosterone and evolutionary drives for territoriality and dominance. Why can he not sit still? Well, boys’ brains are fine-tuned for “embodied cognition” – learning through action and movement is highly important to them. Why is my teen boy so sullen and aggressive? Blame huge surges of testosterone and vasopressin in adolescence that leads to increased territorial defensiveness, a tendency to perceive others as aggressive or even an aversion to his mother’s scent. Why is my boyfriend a sex-obsessed, ogling maniac? His brain area dedicated towards “sexual pursuit” is 2.5 larger than the average female and he has a fast, highly active response to visual sexual stimuli. Why can my husband not just empathize with my problems? It may be that he has learned for years to suppress his own intense emotional responses to “fit in” or because his empathic response is much shorter than in women and quickly switches to the part of the brain responsible for “fixing the problem”. Why is dad so strict with the kids? There is an evolutionary advantage for the firmer, more direct discipline of fathers – in the wild, more aggressive male parents are better able to steer their children away from danger.  

I found a lot of the book very enlightening, but Dr. Brizendine takes a strongly nature-over-nurture stance that, at times, feels reductionist. Male behaviours are stereotyped and then explained away by biology and evolution [1]. Many men do not play rugby to seduce a woman, punch people out over territory or relish in competition. I, even as a straight guy, found that I did not identify with some of the “typical male” behaviours and worldviews described in the book. It can make you feel a little insecure, especially when the framework is based around an idea of a “alpha”, dominant male, rather than the fluid spectrum of what masculinity can and should be. I cannot imagine what a transgender or gay man might feel reading this. I am consistently disappointed with how little attention is paid to gender or sexual diversity in these texts on masculinity. Dr. Brizendine has a three-page appendix discussing homosexuality that feels very much like an afterthought.

Criticism aside, I really found this book to be meaningful and impactful. It was so refreshing to be exposed to such a compassionate, genuinely accepting perspective, given all the negative things written about masculinity lately (or at least what I have been reading). Dr. Brizendine seems to have approached this project with a real love and fascination. Despite being somewhat reductionist, The Male Brain really normalizes masculinity as something that can be very positive, loveable and good. 

Although it is a bit off topic, this got me thinking about a major focus of my research at present - reducing sexual violence. Although she unfortunately does not address sexual violence herself, Dr. Brizendine’s approach made me wonder if the current, highly shame-based movement against “rape culture” might be doing more harm than good. Boys are not seeing examples of their sexuality as a source of pleasure and joy for themselves and others – they are seeing the public shaming of Bill Cosby, the Steubenville High School students, et cetera [2]. Young men are not seeing how women (and men) enjoy and delight in male sexuality, rather than simply being victims of it. Will such a campaign against rape culture actually reduce sexual violence? Or, does it simply push away boys who are at risk and solidify the notion that their sexual drive is violent and shameful? I wonder if Dr. Brizendine’s normalizing, strengths-based approach to masculinity might make the dialogue about sexual violence more accessible and acceptable to young men and build upon the good aspects of male sexuality, rather than try to scare off the bad. This might get the message to young men in an acceptable, compassionate manner and make some real difference.

[1] The New York Times Sunday Book Review published a particularly cutting critique of Dr. Brizendine’s somewhat biased research methods 

[2] I am not arguing that these men should not be held accountable for their horribly violent acts, but I do see the shame-based response in the media to be not only unhelpful, but a form of collective violence in and of itself. Jon Ronson has been doing some great work lately on the culture of public shaming. There is also some research indicating that the experience of shame can actually diminish one’s capacity for positive change.

Brizendine, L. (2010). The Male Brain. Three Rivers Press/Crown Publishing. 

Cover image from

Posted 229 weeks ago

Boys Adrift

What do kindergarten, video games, plastic bottles, Ritalin and Homer Simpson have in common? According Leonard Sax, they represent the 5 factors that have created a generation of disengaged, unproductive and aimless men. He argues that a shift in focus of early education towards “knowing about” rather than “knowing how” has made elementary school tedious and meaningless for young boys who are slower in their cognitive development than girls and who typically prefer learning by doing. This causes boys to disengage from school, discovering early on that there is little reward in it. Often, boys’ drive for control and hands-on experience is fulfilled instead by video games, which cause further alienation from the ‘real world’ and its responsibilities. Parents and teachers might mistake this lack of productivity as ADHD and pursue medication, which, according to Dr. Sax, may actually damage a part of the brain responsible for motivation. In addition, Dr. Sax cites research that endocrine disruptors in many common plastics and fragrances may be changing boys’ chemical and hormonal makeup – which he believes are factors behind a rise in childhood obesity, reproductive issues in men, ADHD prevalence and overall male apathy. Finally, a general lack of positive male role models (read: Homer Simpson over Andy Griffith) in the media and a devaluing of masculinity in North American culture further contribute to an “epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men”.  


My first reaction when I hear popular media refer to something as an “epidemic” is to ask – is this really the case? Are we actually seeing an increase in lazy, irresponsible young men since the mid-twentieth century? Some of the hard evidence Dr. Sax offers includes declining male participation in postsecondary school since the late seventies, decreases in male grade school performance in relation to females, recent declines in IQ test scores, skyrocketing diagnoses of ADHD in boys and lower heterosexual marriage rates (because ambitious young women want nothing to do with men). These numbers seem to hold up, although they do no necessarily prove Dr. Sax’s 5-factor model. Two alternative explanations that come to my mind are the economy and the women’s movement. The tradition of marriage has become less important in our culture, due to the influence of feminism. People are marrying later (or less) because financial stability now requires both partners to be educated, experienced and employed. As for school, boys may be less motivated because of declining employment prospects – particularly in traditionally male-dominated industries like manufacturing.

Some of Sax’s arguments rest on anecdotal examples and less solid research. For instance, he posits that many boys are disengaging from the workforce altogether. However, OECD statistics[1] show that the number of men not looking for work in the U.S.[2] was relatively steady from 1994 until the 2008 recession, after which there was a steep increase (which was 2 years after Dr. Sax’s book was published). Furthermore, men continue to be the higher earners in most households and more likely than women to start their own business[3]. 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs are male[4], as are 83% of major corporate board members in the U.S.A.[5] While these stats are more a reflection of gender inequality than anything else, they certainly pose a challenge to the argument that there is an epidemic of male slackers out there. Sax points to the trend of male children returning to their parents’ home in adulthood as another indicator of male apathy and freeloading. This phenomenon is somewhat more complicated than Sax makes it out to be - have a look at this chart[6] to get an idea of the trend since 1984:


So, the number of younger men staying at home decreased before the recent rise (around the time of the 2008 recession) and is now sitting at slightly below the 1984 levels. 25-34 year old men do seem to be returning home more now then they used to be (especially after the recession). Again, is this evidence of Sax’s epidemic or more a reflection of economics? It is hard to tell.  

A more troubling assertion in the book is that young men are becoming more violent. Sax bases this on (questionable) data from three American cities. However, youth violence has markedly decreased across the U.S. since the 1990s, especially amongst males[7],[8],[9]. Dr. Sax also makes an unequivocal statement that the link between violent video games and real world violent behaviour is proven fact – but different studies have said different things. I won’t get into the debate here, but Kotaku has a particularly good article on the Anderson versus Ferguson camps of video game aggression research (Anderson is Sax’s primary reference on gaming). I am no statistician, but the correlation between increased violent video game use amongst youth and decreased youth violent crime over the past few decades seems to belie Sax’s assertion.

In Sax’s defense, school engagement, particularly at the post-secondary level, is declining amongst men at a concerning rate. Men in the contemporary U.S. also appear to be slightly less “civically engaged” than women (i.e., volunteer, donate to causes, participate in groups, et cetera) – but the difference is minimal[10]. Although there is not a lot of clear research on the impact of phthalate exposure on humans[11], at high doses they do cause reproductive issues in animals and could explain some of Sax’s stats on accelerated female puberty and declining male fertility (although the American Chemistry Council states otherwise[12]). There has been an undeniable rise in ADHD diagnoses amongst boys (and girls) in the U.S., but it is hard to make definitive statements about why this is happening – is it because of greater awareness of the disorder? Pharmaceutical marketing? Psychobiological changes in the population? Increased school demands and sedentary lifestyles? The American Psychological Association has a great article with some theories about the rise in diagnoses, but more research is needed to really know for sure. I agree with Dr. Sax that there are some ways our culture makes us less psychologically healthy, but I am also cautious about attributing mental health diagnoses to lifestyle alone. It plays into the stigma around mental illness – that with just a little effort you could ‘get over it’ and not need those meds. This minimizes the very real suffering that mental health issues can cause. Sometimes medication is helpful or needed and this should be okay. I think that Dr. Sax would agree, but some of the explanations for ADHD in his book do devalue the diagnosis as a real medical issue. That being said, if the stimulant medications being prescribed are damaging youth’s brains in the same manner they do some laboratory animals, this is highly concerning. However, research on primates, our closest genetic cousins, have not shown stimulant medications to be detrimental at therapeutic doses[13]. I should hope that more research is being done into the long-term impacts of these medications on humans, given the ubiquity of their use.

Sax’s book ends with a somewhat nostalgic waxing on the erosion of masculinity in our culture. He names a number of his male icons, whom he sees as of a bygone era. I have to say that I found this poignant as well, as I think there are some really positive aspects of traditional masculinity that are less tolerated and accepted today. No doubt, these feelings have something to do with two old white guys scrambling at their slipping hold on power, but I think there is some genuine value in the good-old-fashioned strength, inwardness, chivalry, industriousness, bravery, exuberance and roughness of boys and men. I think we should encourage and foster these qualities in boys (including queer and trans boys, whom Sax neglects to mention altogether). In addition, I have come across many young men and boys in my practice who do feel lost, aimless and hurting and we do have a responsibility to find out why and help them succeed. However, I do not share in Dr. Sax’s alarmist vision of a masculine decline – in fact men are still very much on top and are still very much abusing this position all over the world. Some change and some growing pains are in order. Let’s be men about it. 

[1] OECD (2015). Dataset: LFS - Discouraged Workers. 

[2] I refer primarily to American statistics, as they are more readily available and Sax’s book focuses, for the most part, on men in the U.S.A.

[3] OECD (2015). Women taking risks: closing the gender gap in entrepreneurship. OECD Insights Series. 

[4] Fairchild, C. (2015). Why so few women are CEOs (in 5 charts). Fortune Online.                              

[5] Twaronite, K.L. (2013). Women on Boards: Moving from ‘Why’ to ‘How’. Forbes Online.

[6] United States Census Bureau (2014). Living Arrangements of Adults

[7] Centre for Disease Control (2013). Trends in the Prevalence of Behaviors that Contribute to Violence National YRBS: 1991—2013. 

[8] Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (2014). Juvenile Arrest Rate Trends. 

[9] National Centre for Juvenile Justice (2014). Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2014 National Report.

[10] Kawashima-Ginsberg, K. & Thomas, N. (2013). Civic Engagement and Political Leadership among Women – a Call for Solutions. Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement. 

[11] Centre for Disease Control (2015). Phthalates Fact Sheet.

[12] American Chemistry Council (2015). Phthalates: Biomonitoring Data.

[13] Volkow, N.D. (2012). Long-Term Safety of Stimulant Use for ADHD: Findings from Nonhuman Primates. Neuropsychopharmacology 37, 2551–2552.

Sax, L. (2007). Boys adrift: The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men. New York: Basic Books.

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Posted 232 weeks ago

From Diapers to Dating

I was hesitant about this book, simply because of the cover image of the second edition. The author looks so square and conservative that I was doubtful that the messages within would be particularly progressive. Talk about judging a book by its cover. With a little more research, however, I learned that Haffner is quite an established force in the area of sexual health in the United States. Her resume includes a 12-year stint as president and CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SEICUS).  She has also had roles in Planned Parenthood in Washington and various governmental and nongovernmental health agencies. She is currently an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and co-founder of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing in Connecticut.


The book has some useful guidance for parents on helping their children navigate and understand sexual development throughout their childhood. This, in fact, is a key message in Haffner’s text – that sexual development is life long and sexual education should begin “in the delivery room”. The “big talk” that many parents feel the need to give at the start their child’s adolescence is not enough to foster sexual health. Haffner compels parents to find “teachable moments” to talk about sex and intimacy throughout their children’s lives. She also encourages parents to reflect on their values at each stage of development. In fact, most of the sexual health education she describes in a child’s preverbal years is about educating the parents. Some of her words would likely offer a great deal of comfort to parents who are confused about their infant’s – and their own – sexual responses during these early months. Each of the chapters, which are organized chronologically by developmental stage, includes a “values exercise” to help parents think about their own beliefs and values before trying to communicate these values to their child. This is an excellent idea and such an important part of the process of teaching our children about sex. The book goes on to offer suggestions for navigating early sexualized behaviours, responding to sexual abuse, supporting children through divorce and helping preadolescents establish a healthy sexual self while they are bombarded with sexual information from all angles. Oddly, the book stops at 12 years old, before many youth actually start to become sexual with others.

There are some major concerns I had with this text that would make me unlikely to endorse it as a useful tool for teaching sexual health. Conservative and intolerant values, although quite subtle, pervade Haffner’s work. Early on, she makes the rather excluding statement that she is “like most of you reading this book”, i.e., heterosexual, white, female, an ordained minister, a former CEO of a major NGO, et cetera. Despite her politically correct language, you get the sense of Haffner’s discomfort with homosexuality and transgender issues. She seems to suggest that parents should be accepting of sexual diversity because science has shown there is not much that can be done to change it (rather than acceptance for its own – or for the child’s own – sake). At the same time, she advises parents to tell their young children that “all boys have penises and all girls have vulvas”. Comfort for a young boy’s anxieties about his sexual development can include telling him he will grow up to “marry a terrific woman”. It is a bit of doublespeak that I imagine Haffner herself is unaware she is doing (perhaps she should have done a few of her own “values exercises”). Shockingly, Haffner says not one word about how to teach consent to children and youth, although she devotes a fair amount of time to discussing the advantages of abstinence.

So, for sexual health educators and parents/caregivers out there, this is not my top recommendation for teaching kids about sexual health. I would, however, refer to the values exercises, as they are a very useful tool in helping caregivers get in check with their own feelings and opinions on sex before they broach the topic with their child.

Haffner, D. (2000). From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children 2nd Edition. New York: Newmarket Press.

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Posted 236 weeks ago

Raising Cain

A bit of an oldy, but a goody, I just finished Kindlon and Thomspon’s Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. At the time of publication (1999), Dan Kindlon was a psychologist specializing in “behavioural problems of children and adolescents” and a professor in Harvard’s Psychiatry and Public Health departments. Michael Thompson was a child and family psychologist in Massachusetts and a faculty member of the National Association of Independent Schools (USA). They state that their years of experience working with young men in therapy compelled them to write about the inner lives and struggles of boys in the contemporary U.S. 

The book is at times quite touching. Kindlon and Thompson sketch out how boys are hardened and closed-off by their early experiences of the world. A paucity of emotional education leads to boys who are inept at voicing or even understanding their affective responses, never name the emotions of others. A socialized fear of homosexuality and a discomfort with male physical affection leaves boys longing for touch and intimacy, which they try to fulfil through masturbation or even sexual aggression. A slower maturity process causes boys to experience failure and low self-esteem in the early years of their schooling, while the more physical “nature” of boys makes them bigger targets for discipline, hostility or even physical abuse. On top of this, Western culture depicts male heroes as stoic, independent and fearless. All of these influences are seen as contributing to high rates of violence in boys, high suicide completion rates, sexual aggression, alcohol and substance abuse and empty intimate relationships. Interestingly, the authors view social and familial factors as the primary influence on boys’ development and work hard to dispel biological or genetic explanations of maleness (apart from the slower maturity rates and higher physical activity levels). For instance, they note that testosterone does not appear to have much of an effect on aggression, as is commonly assumed. Furthermore, they cite studies that show the competition for “alpha male” status is not an explanation of aggression, given the fact that it is usually boys who are low in social status who become violent (although, one could argue that this is still evidence of a competition for dominance). They also argue that boys’ emotional reservation is not something biological, citing studies that show infant boys are often more “emotionally reactive” than girls.

I was troubled by some of the book, however. I do have somewhat of a reaction to this type of work, in that I am always cautious about entering into the “Male Rights Movement” nonsense that often undermines the indisputable gender balance in favour of men in many aspects of our society. However, I did not find this work to be dismissive or hostile to a feminist perspective. That being said, I could not help but think that many of the deleterious influences they describe in the lives of young men are really no different in the lives of young women - high expectations, low tolerance for emotional expression and independence, distant fathers, too-close-yet-not-close-enough mothers. In fact, the descriptions of mothers’ and fathers’ roles are still quite separated along gender lines in the book. I also found the authors’ impressions of the boys they have worked with as oddly conservative - often a piercing or a certain haircut is a marker of delinquency or ill-health in their perspectives. Most of their case studies were pretty tame, in fact, with very few of the boys they describe experiencing much more than some identity or adjustment issues (not to minimize these experiences, but I think there are cases out there that could more clearly speak to a crisis of masculinity). On the other end of the spectrum, Kindlon describes a case of a 15 year old in a sexual relationship with a 12 year old, but does not appear to have reported this to social services, which I found very concerning (I am unclear on the consent law and duty to report in Massachusetts, but this would absolutely need to be reported here in Ontario). Certainly more disturbing behaviour than a nose ring, in my mind.

The authors devote a fair amount of the book to sexual and intimate partner violence. They attribute these behaviours to boys’ the emotional illiteracy, low empathy, difficulty reading cues and hostile interpretations of others’ behaviour - all of which are learned from boys’ early experiences with family, peers and the culture around them.

To conclude, the authors offer some concrete recommendations for parents or others tasked with the care of young boys. We should foster and encourage the emotional lives of boys, while honouring their pride and masculinity. Teach them that courage also means emotional courage. Our caregiving of boys should recognize and accept that they are simply more physically active beings and thus should be allowed opportunities to be physical in their daily lives. Have more patience with boys’ academic progress in their early school years, given their slow maturity. We must model manhood that is emotionally attached and empathic and avoid shaming, harsh discipline for misbehaviour. Finally, we are encouraged to teach boys that there are “many ways to be a man”. 

Kindlon, D. J., Thompson, M., & Barker, T. (2000). Raising Cain: Protecting the emotional life of boys. New York: Ballantine Books.

Posted 238 weeks ago

Harding Rolling Stone Article

An article on “Rape Culture” featuring activist and author Kate Harding is making the rounds. Harding has written a very timely book on this subject, all the more relevant given the upcoming return to school and the issues of sexual assault on campus. The headlines on the Old Dominion University fraternity members’ behaviour could not make the issue more in-your-face (though I wonder if the media just ignored such obvious attention-seeking behaviour and let the school respond appropriately, the motivation for these provocations would disappear. Perhaps I am putting too much faith in universities).

The article is some very important reading and I think Harding’s book will be on my reading list. She tackles the very harmful myths about rape, such as the view that rape is a rare occurrence or that false accusations of rape are common. Her tone is one of building empathy and awareness for the real experience of women in a culture where rape is often excused and ignored.

Unfortunately, Harding’s sensitivity does not extend outside of her own identified gender. She states that “every American boy is at risk of growing up to become a rapist”. She suggests that men who get angry or upset about sexual assault do so out of a sense of entitlement over women, rather than because they share in Harding’s empathy for victims or disgust towards rape culture. She accosts parents for thinking that they have raised a good son when they just as likely have raised a rapist.

Harding’s struggle against our “bleak” view of women has resulted in an even bleaker depiction of men. Rape culture, here, is not a social influence we all participate in, but an inherent entitlement and violence inside of every male body. Every little boy you see is a rapist-in-waiting. One has to wonder who the audience for this piece is - reaching out to parents and young men seems like the best way to counteract cultural and familial drivers of “rape culture”. However, Harding’s view of masculinity, apart from being offensive in its own right, is alienating, fear-mongering and shaming of the very people who need to be a part of this conversation.

Posted 240 weeks ago
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Posted 240 weeks ago