Here we are again, with all my cards on the proverbial table. You see, I’ve written this post about a hundred times since the events chronicled herein occurred and I’m still not sure I’ve said all I want to.

So, humour me and imagine you find a jigsaw piece. You recognise what’s on it and by itself, it looks harmless enough. As you would, you add it to the puzzle and step back to take a look. The picture you’re met with is hateful – it’s offensive to basically everyone. My question is this: Do you leave the jigsaw piece there – because on its own it seems innocuous – or do you remove it because you want to dismantle the whole?

I’m pretty certain that you’d take the whole damn jigsaw apart, right?

Last week, a friend of mine found exactly this kind of jigsaw piece while she was doing her shopping – not a literal, squiggly bit of wood, but something that is seemingly innocent and actually awful.

Some of you will have seen the original post – expressing outrage at a sweater in Asda with the words, “Boys will be Boys,” stencilled across the front. Some of you will have seen the subsequent “articles” on the topic in publications such as The Sun, The Daily Mail and LADBible. Most of you won’t have seen the stream of abuse my friend suffered as a result of her post.

Since said friend made the post, I’ve spent hours trying to explain why the phrase is so incredibly problematic, and I will cover that below, but first, I’d like to ask those of you who have jumped to Asda’s defence:Why do you need the phrase, “Boys Will be Boys”? Is it really that profound? Or, if you really think it is as innocuous, as banal as you say it is, then why fight so vehemently to defend it? 

At its most basic level, it’s a platitude – one may as well say, “Tables will be tables,” or “Glass will be glass.” If we take it literally, it doesn’t actually say anything.

The problem with language, though, is that so few things are taken at face value – “Boys will be boys,” is no exception.

So what is it that we’re reading into these words if, at their core, they don’t actually mean anything? As so many people on the original post pointed out, the phrase is as old as the hills – “People have been saying it for years.” Well, according to the Cambridge dictionary, we use the phrase to, “emphasise that people should not be surprised when boys or men act in a rough or noisy way because this is part of the male character.”

In that definition, I see many problems:

  • The phrase is not limited to children – the definition states clearly, “boys or men.” That the phrase could be used to excuse Friday night drunken brawling (“rough or noisy” behaviour) removes it from the realms of innocent fun.
  • “Rough or noisy” behaviour is not unknown in women. The very traits this phrase gives gender to are not exclusively male. This alone removes any truth from the statement – how can you claim that this “part of the male character” when it’s simply part of human nature?
  • That the phrase only covers “rough or noisy” behaviour as male is insulting – men are wonderful fathers, husbands and carers. They are creative, funny, kind and giving. Diminishing the men in our lives to a series of traits – which society generally views as unfavourable – is inaccurate at best.
  • The phrase implies that these negatively-perceived traits are “part of the male character”. This is the most dangerous aspect of the whole thing. By saying that this is simply ‘how men are’ it absolves them of the responsibility to be better.  It does not hold them accountable for the “rough and noisy” behaviour.

The last point is the one that most of the discussion on my friend’s post centred around – namely, the phrase’s place in the ugly jigsaw that is rape culture (see – I did full-circle analogy things there… and it wasn’t a bit cheesy, was it?)

By saying that men can’t help themselves – that unfavourable behaviour is simply part of “male character” – it shifts the blame in a situation onto the victim. If men are absolved of their responsibility to act in a decent manner, then when atrocities like assault and rape occur then logically, it must be the fault of the other party. Victim blaming is never OK.

No one is saying that every little boy who wears a shirt with the words, “Boys will be boys” on will become a rapist. No one is saying that every little boy who hears their behaviour excused with this phrase will go on to hospitalise another person in a drunken assault. We’re saying that this phrase and the outdated, tired rhetoric behind it will make it easier for those who do go on to do these things.

A seed can’t grow to a plant without soil or water. A man capable of rape, or assault, can’t get away with these things if the environment is not right. By removing phrases such as “Boys will be boys” from our vocabulary, we make the climate less hospitable for these crimes. Yes, they’ll tragically still happen, but hopefully there’ll be fewer cases and the consequences will reflect the severity of the crimes.

Up until this point, I have discussed male perpetrators and male perpetrators only. As people on the original post pointed out, women rape too. But phrases like ‘boys will be boys’, in combination with the fact that male rape is so seldom discussed – and consequently is near invisible – help to perpetuate these crimes too. So-called ‘lad culture’, which celebrates the sort of behaviour that ‘boys will be boys’ describes, leads people to believe that all men are only ‘out for a good time’, that ‘they don’t care who they shag’, that ‘no sex is bad sex’. Jokes about ‘double bagging’ ugly women reinforces the idea that men are base animals and only care about conquests – imagine trying to admit to having been raped by a woman in this environment. Aside from the usual sexist slurs like ‘throw like a girl‘ or ‘whining like a girl’ which portray women as being lesser than men, and so incapable of dominating them, male victims of rape have to combat an environment in which they’re expected to welcome any sort of sexual advance without question.

So whilst on its own, ‘Boys will be boys’ seems like a nothing phrase, it’s loaded with harmful undertones. It’s part of that ugly, ugly jigsaw which benefits neither woman not man.

Let me ask you again: Why do you need the phrase, “Boys Will be Boys”? Is it really that profound? Or, if you really think it is as innocuous, as banal as you say it is, then why fight so vehemently to defend it?