Michael Abrahams

THESE days I am being invited to speak to boys a lot, an opportunity I embrace with much gratitude.

One of my last sessions was with a group of grades five and six boys from a school in the Corporate area. It was Boys’ Day at the institution, and some men were asked to speak to the youngsters about issues that concern them.

I have learnt that the attention span of boys is not mighty long. As a matter of fact, it is quite short. So, in situations such as these, I try not to address them for more than about 20 minutes. At the end of my talks, I will open the floor and allow them to speak. I have also learnt that when I give children the opportunity to speak, I learn a lot. And this day was no exception.

What I learnt was that bullying is an issue for the boys. This was not surprising, because bullying in schools is a global concern. What surprised me, however, was that many of the incidents of bullying reported was bullying by girls. Of course, there were incidents of bullying by other boys, but boy after boy related stories of being bullied by their female peers.

When the boys related the stories, others would nod in agreement and applaud, suggesting that this is a real and highly disturbing problem for them.

During the session I looked across at the vice principal and the guidance counsellor and asked them if they were aware of this issue, and they appeared to be just as surprised as I was.

There is a lot said and written about same-gender bullying, and boys who harass girls. We know that boys will bully other boys, girls can be very mean to one another and that many girls are victims of sexual harassment and assault by boys. But very little is said about girls who bully boys.

We are accustomed to hearing that boys should be respectful to girls and that hitting a girl is wrong. When I was a boy, those principles were drummed into my head. But do we tell girls to be respectful to boys and to not hit them, too?

That question occurred to me during the session, as several boys described incidents ranging from verbal and emotional abuse to physical assault. One boy told me that girls are told that boys are not supposed to hit them, and because of that, some feel they can do anything they want to boys and not suffer any consequences. And he is right.

I have seen this scenario being played out over and over again with girls and women. They know it is socially unacceptable for boys and men to hit them, so they will insult, persecute, goad and even hit them because they know they are unlikely to retaliate by physically striking back.

The issue is compounded by the way many of our boys are socialised. Toxic masculinity is real. Boys are often told to be tough and are discouraged from crying when they are hurt or expressing emotions, such as fear.

Many of the boys who are victims of bullying by girls just suck it up, as complaining goes against their perception of masculinity. But tolerating these assaults can have deleterious consequences and take a toll on our boys, affecting their perceptions of not only girls, but also themselves. Such negative encounters have the potential to erode the self-confidence of these youth, a situation which may persist into adulthood and contribute to misogynistic attitudes and behaviour.

When we also take into consideration the fact that a significant percentage of households with children in Jamaica are headed by single mothers, that corporal punishment is part of our culture, and that boys are beaten more than girls, we can see how a combination of these factors can damage our young men.

I am very concerned about the marginalisation of our men, and it occurred to me that the emasculation of our boys may very well be a significant contributing factor.

Girls should be taught to respect boys, too. It really goes both ways. I understand and accept the fact that males are often the aggressors. But female aggression affects us, too. It is an uncomfortable fact for us to deal with, but girls do bully boys.

Complaints by boys about girls should not be taken lightly or dismissed. Incidents of bullying, regardless of the gender of the perpetrator, can have lasting harmful physical, mental and social effects of the victims.

—Michael Abrahams is a

gynaecologist and

obstetrician, comedian and poet

—Jamaica Gleaner

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