Young men behaving sadly
In a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, I have spent almost a year conducting in-depth interviews with 39 males aged 11 to 21, asking them how it feels to be young and male today. I encountered turmoil, fear, embarrassment, confusion, inarticulacy, churning sexuality, and a sense of pressure. But there was also pride, humour, satisfaction, learning and emotional warmth - aspects of experience that can be overlooked in the frequent problematising of youth.
The bad news was their sense of isolation. They appeared to have no one to turn to for information, advice or support on personal matters. Asking for help was seen as weakness. There was a risk that peers would "take the piss", that parents might be upset or angry, and "You just don't talk to a teacher, do you?" As one group of 15-year-olds said: "If you have a problem, you bottle it up and hope it goes away."
The typical route to knowledge about sexuality was, as ever, through experience. They dismissed formal sex education as useless, and their friendship groups were too competitive for useful information exchange. They were keen to impress me (and each other) that "we knew it all anyway" - while sometimes inadvertently showing limited knowledge.
Often the onset of their troubles coincided with the move to secondary school. "Life totally changes. (Before that) we had no worries in the world." Suddenly the presence of near-adult older pupils, the threat of increased violence, emphasis on qualifications for adult life, the perceived imperative to find new ways of relating to girls, plus physical and emotional changes, all combined to shift their focus from the present to the future. And the future was worrying, uncharted territory.
All this is depressing, though perhaps not surprising. However, the good news was that the boys appeared to be dealing with their anxieties on two simultaneous fronts: working to build both a public and private self. Within their private selves these boys were exploring concepts such as doubt, independence, fear, romance, uncertainty, academic pressure, and anxiety - building a personal moral code. Within the group they appeared to be learning solidarity, trust, judgment; learning the banter of affability; learning to be part of a team.
Yet the friendship group, while giving a sense of structure and belonging, could feel an inappropriate place to voice individual thoughts. The private selves they were building had to be modified to fit into the group ethos. They also were learning things about their private selves within the public sphere. Here they tried out images and explored talents they took back into their private selves and which became part of the people they were. Similarly it was a way of discovering what they were not good at, and could therefore reject.
They were conscious of shifts of gear between their public and private worlds. As one young man said of finding a new group of friends: "That's when I started to build the jokey, laughy, get into a bit of trouble, he-smokes-the-odd joint, kind of thing, you know? . . . That's really when I found the identity of a young person, I suppose. It was negative and non-productive in certain ways, but it was very productive in getting a feeling of self, I think."
Of course, not all young people are group members. Some may have interests, experiences, or sexual orientation that set them apart. Nevertheless, loners are aware of the group culture around them and can still relate to it. In any case, this is a continuum. Perhaps all young people feel that they don't quite belong within a group. And it's at this boundary that the formative self-work goes on.
For the older boys, the gap between public and private selves seemed to be narrowing. They said they were more confident and felt more responsible. Group rules were losing their tyranny and there was more scope for individual expression.
Frequently, the first steady girlfriend (or close female friend) had helped them reach this point. Finally the boys had someone who would listen, with whom they could share their private selves, helping to clarify their thoughts and attitudes. Then, armed with her acceptance, they could venture back into the group.
They might find, though, that the group was changing anyway as more members acquired a similar confidence. Public selves were becoming more private, and private selves could begin to come out into the light. As one 21-year-old said: "I'm more honest with myself now."
In many ways the boys were talking about the lack of fit between formal support systems and those they construct for themselves. No wonder sex education is perceived as ineffective, since it attempts to speak to the private person within a public context. We need to find ways to engage with boys' private selves and to comprehend their public selves, building on the positive in both.
Barbara Walker is a senior research associate at the University of East Anglia.