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Teenage boys with progressive attitudes about gender are less likely to be violent, study finds

teen boys
Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash
The boys with more progressive views about gender and masculinity were about half as likely as those with more traditional views to have engaged in violent behavior.

Teenage boys with progressive attitudes about gender are much less likely to bully or engage in violent acts than their peers with rigid, traditional views of masculinity, according to a study published recently in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The study also found that teenage boys who report that they have witnessed their peers abusing women and girls are significantly more likely to bully and fight with others.

The findings “support violence prevention strategies that challenge harmful gender and social norms,” the study’s authors conclude.

“The Me Too Movement brought to light how pervasive sexual violence and derogatory behavior toward women is in our society,” said Dr. Elizabeth Miller, the study’s lead author and chief of the division of adolescent and young adult medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, in a released statement. “Our findings highlight the wide-ranging impact that witnessing sexual harassment and dating violence has on our teenage boys, and present an opportunity to teach adolescents to challenge negative gender and social norms, and interrupt their peer’s disrespectful and harmful behaviors.”

How the study was done

For the study, Miller and her co-authors analyzed survey data collected during a two-year period (August 2015 through June 2017) from 833 adolescent boys, aged 13 to 19, living in lower-income neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, Pa. Unlike previous studies on the topic of youth violence, this survey was conducted in community settings, such as youth clubs, libraries and churches, rather than in schools or health clinics.

The survey, which was anonymous, asked questions designed to assess the youths’ views on gender and violence, including bullying and sexual harassment. The teenagers were asked, for example, how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as  “A guy never needs to hit another guy to get respect” and “I would be friends with a guy who is gay.”

They were also asked about whether they had participated in or witnessed nine different verbal, physical or sexual behaviors toward women and girls, such as making disrespectful or rude comments about a girl’s body.

The responses were troubling. They revealed that “violence perpetration was highly prevalent,” Miller and her colleagues write.

Two-thirds (68 percent) of the teenagers surveyed said they had been in a physical fight or had threatened or injured someone with a weapon. Also common were bullying (73 percent) and homophobic behavior (76 percent).

More than half (56 percent) said they had engaged in sexual harassment.

Of the 619 boys who said they had dated, a third (33 percent) reported using abusive behavior in the relationship.

In addition, a third (34 percent) of the boys said they had witnessed at least three incidences of their peers being verbally, physically or sexually abusively toward women or girls within the previous three months.

Harmful stereotypes

The researchers then compared the boys’ attitudes about gender equality with their history of violence and how willing they were to speak up and intervene when their peers spoke or acted abusively toward women and girls.

The boys with more progressive views about gender and masculinity were about half as likely as those with more traditional views to have engaged in violent behavior.

The study also found, however, that boys who had witnessed at least three recent instances of their peers acting abusively toward women and girls were two to five time more likely to have been involved in some kind of violent act, including ones having nothing to do with women or dating.

“This reinforces that pressure to conform to stereotypes about masculinity that perpetuate harmful behaviors toward women and girls is also associated with getting in a fight with another guy,” said Miller.

“These behaviors aren’t happing in silos,” she added. “If we’re going to stop one, we need to also be addressing the other.”

Not believing in masculine stereotypes did not appear to have an effect on homophobic bullying, however. Such behavior was just as likely among boys with more progressive attitudes about gender as among those with more traditional views.

“It’s a puzzling and troubling finding,” Dr. Alison Culyba, a study co-author and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said in a statement. “We believe it may be because these teens have normalized homophobic teasing. It is so commonplace, they may see it as a form of acceptable, possibly even pro-social, interaction with their peers.”

Limitations and implications

The study involved teenage boys living in “low-resource” neighborhoods in a single city. The findings may not be applicable, therefore, to youth in other geographical areas, including those in rural or suburban neighborhoods.

In addition, the study is based on the boys’ own reports of their behavior — reports that may or may not be entirely accurate.

Still, many other studies “have demonstrated the associations between males’ gender attitudes and behaviors that degrade women and reinforce rigid stereotypes about masculinity with the perpetration of sexual and partner violence by males,” the study’s authors point out.

The current study suggests that engendering healthier, more progressive gender attitudes among young people and encouraging them to speak up when they witness disrespectful or harmful behavior toward women or girls could help reduce that violence. Its authors are currently evaluating programs designed to do that.

The need is great. According to a 2017 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 in 10 female high school students say they have experienced some kind of physical dating abuse.

And almost one in seven of those students say they have experienced sexual violence, whether from an intimate partner or someone else.

For more information: The study can be read in full on the American Journal of Preventive Medicine website.

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