Opinion

Danny Wallace on why "boys will be boys" is not a valid excuse

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Danny Wallace
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Danny Wallace on why "boys will be boys" is not a valid excuse

“It puts the blame on women for not appreciating the epic bants”

I was watching the news this morning, and in among all the horror and evil and pain was an excuse.

With a shrug of the shoulders, a TV news commentator said “boys will be boys”. Just like that. “Boys will be boys.” She had a look of faint exasperation on her face, as if to say, “What can you do?” and she was referring to the actions of a grown man, standing with a bunch of other grown men.

They were all wearing man-suits, these men – by which I mean work attire, not specially created prosthetics. And they were chuckling and nudging each other and laughing it up, because one of their number had seemingly gotten away with something particularly awful against a woman. And while the whole world seemed outraged, nothing could be done. Because – well – boys will be boys.

This wasn’t a boy, though.

This bloke was in his fifties. I’ve checked, and you don’t get a 50-year-old boy. Unless, of course, he was startlingly underdeveloped in the ‘gentleman’s agreements’ department, which I’m not at this stage ruling out, and might in fact be probable.

Two things. The magnifying glass that everything from MeToo to the Supreme Court has placed on men’s behaviour has revealed something horrifying. But also, and of course less importantly, this idea that boys will be boys is some kind of valid excuse is confusing to what I imagine must be quite a lot of men. Men like you, probably.

And I say confusing, because I didn’t think people ever took that excuse seriously. I thought it was supposed to be about stealing apples from a vicar’s garden, or smashing someone’s window while playing cricket in the street.

I thought “boys will be boys” referred to a sort of cartoonish knockabout humour, such as knocking a bobby’s helmet off.

I did not think it could be used as an excuse for the very many minor and major daily creepy nightmares women face, and I did not think it could be used as an excuse for sexual assault.

And I say confusing, because I just don’t see any of the boys I grew up with in men like these.

I don’t see any of the men I hang around with now in men like these either. Perhaps I need to take up more sports, because there is very little locker-room talk in my life, and I think I might struggle to keep the conversation flowing.

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But here’s the thing: I know men who subscribe to “boys will be boys” exist, because I have met men like this.

The problem is, I’ve ignored men like this.

I’ve ignored them because they’re boring. Witless. The braying, charmless “banter” merchants, where “banter” translates as “jokes without humour”. The men who confuse having a loud voice with having something to say. The men who make a joke about a woman, but deliver it with an eager smile, as if to say, “Don’t pick me up on this, mate, it’s a joke, it’s banter; I don’t mean anything by it.” And though you cringe and should say something, you’ve maybe just met them, or you don’t want to embarrass them, and you just smile briefly and move the conversation on.

I’m not sure what I should have done, but I know it wasn’t that.

I think I know why I did it, though. I think it’s because up until now it’s been too easy for me to pretend they don’t exist, or that they exist somewhere specific.

Or to just avoid them.

(At this point it sounds as though I’m saying I should have exposed myself to more men, but writing that might land me in court. Still, boys will be boys. And at least it would have given them a taste of their own medicine.)

But I don’t meet them at work, because I work alone. I don’t meet them in the pub, because I choose who I go to the pub with. My life is almost entirely idiot-free, which is lucky, because idiots are idiots. And while I’m not saying any of these specific men ever did anything bad to a woman, what I do know is that this attitude of “boys will be boys” is a constant uncomfortable and insufferable low-level thrum that seems to excuse that culture and puts the blame on the totally humourless woman for not appreciating the epic bants.

We all have to look at our own behaviour. And that, I think, includes the boys who don’t think that boys will be boys. And to tell those other boys that “boys will be boys” just doesn’t wash. Because wouldn’t it be nice if we could reclaim that phrase? Or to point out that boys don’t have to be boys; boys can be men.

And this isn’t a case of being #woke or a social-justice warrior or a virtue-signaller, or any of those other disparaging spoilsport labels designed to attack logic and decency in order to protect those ever-crumbling bants. It’s just a case of realising that at the very least, boys don’t have to be d*cks.

And they should know that.

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