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How hookups and hang-ups delay manhood

Why is it so hard for men to grow up? Here, "Guyland" author and gender studies expert Michael Kimmel gets inside the male mind to explain why the Peter Pan complex is so hard to shake.
/ Source: TODAY

In this exclusive Q&A, "Guyland" author and gender studies expert Michael Kimmel illuminates the difference between "babes" and "bitches," between pleasure and just plain scoring — and also considers the roles of female identity and male behavior in relationships.

Q: What makes it so difficult for young men to have healthy relationships with women?

A: Young men are eager to "hook up" with women. And many say they have very good female friends.

But some of the emotions circulating among guys make it difficult to form and sustain healthy relationships. When you are encouraged to see women as "bitches" and "ho's," you see them as "less than" you see yourself, you may hold them in contempt. And when you are angry and resentful that women's changed roles in society make your life feel harder and less secure — because, for example, they are competing for the same places in the work force — then you may see them as "better than" you, and you may resent them.

It's like what you might call Goldilocks' dilemma in the old fairy tale. Young men see women as "less than" or "better than," but never their equals. And studies indicate that equality is the best foundation for a healthy relationship.

Q: Why do many young men’s personalities do a 180 when they are with a group of guys compared to when they are with their girlfriends or close female friends?

A: This is the most common question I am asked by young women. Their boyfriends or close male friends seem so different when they are by themselves, as opposed to when they are with a bunch of other guys. I think it has to do with the desperate desire on the part of guys to be seen as a "real guy" — a real man, a man’s man. So guys who are otherwise sensitive and thoughtful say and do ridiculously dumb things to impress other guys. It’s an enormous performance, but guys know that if they fail, they’ll be ridiculed as sissies mercilessly.

Q: Why don’t young men seem to have the same desire to get married that young women do?

A: Many guys see relationships with women as a zero-sum game: If she wins, he loses. Marriage is the ultimate contest: Her job is to get him to capitulate to marriage. So many men see marriage as the "end of freedom," the end of boyhood. That's why bachelor parties are supposed to revel in that boyish irresponsibility "one last time." So many guys figure, "Why rush into something that means basically that you'll be a prisoner forever?"

Ironically, survey after survey shows that married men are happier and healthier than unmarried men. Oh, and they also have more sex.

Q: How is sex in “Guyland” different from sex in healthy, adult relationships?

A: My colleagues and I have done a survey of 13,000 students on more than 17 campuses, and we found that while sex in college has always been a bit more casual, "hooking up" has pretty much replaced other traditional forms of dating. And few hookups, if any, ever take place sober. And while wearing "beer goggles" may make people appear more attractive, it doesn’t exactly make for sexual ecstasy! There’s always been a difference between pleasure and scoring.

Q: In “Guyland,” you say that pornography is a form of reassurance for young men. What does this mean?

A: Guys constantly talk about pornography in two ways: as revenge and as reassurance. When you live in a world in which beautiful, sexy women are all around you, in the same classes, on the same athletic field, competing for the same jobs, then the pornographic world — the world in which women thrill to male sexual desire — reassures men that although they may feel "one down," they’re still entitled to women’s bodies.

Q: You say that there are two choices for women in Guyland — to be the "bitch" or the "babe." Why is this?

A: The campus joke is that the difference between a bitch and a babe is that a bitch will sleep with everyone but you. Babes are compliant, and their strategy for living in Guyland is to go along with it and, at best, try to subvert it a little bit. Bitches, on the other hand, try and remain distant, but they may risk losing their social lives.

But I think there is another choice for women; it involves challenging Guyland and supporting each other.

Q: What role do women play in supporting the "guy" culture that treats them so badly? Why?

A: Some of the worst elements of Guyland rest on the twin pillars of men’s silence and women’s compliance. Playing along with Guyland may be the only way an individual woman might believe she has a chance at a social life or a relationship. Sometimes it gets pretty crazy, like a sorority requiring that all the pledges sleep with the members of the "brother" fraternity.

Q: How can women have their own identities without shunning men or making them insecure?

A: The good news is that women’s roles have changed so dramatically over the past three decades that women now expect to have careers, balance work and family, express their individual autonomy. But the pull of Guyland reminds us that women cannot accomplish this transformation alone. In the book’s final chapter I argue that just as men need to stand up, do the right thing and break the silence that perpetuates Guyland, so, too, do women need to support each other in resisting its pull.