"I've been thinking long and hard about 'boy culture.' If you remove the toxicity from my upbringing, what is it that remains?" asks the author. Art by Samantha Bumanlag
Culture Spotlight

All-boys schools have a tradition of breeding toxic masculinity—will La Salle Greenhills get it right?

Catholic all-boys schools are not the best breeding ground for men—but it’s not easy letting go of years of raunchy homecomings and other school boy stuff. What can we do? By GIAN LAO
ANCX | Jul 03 2020

Every once in a while, the public gets a glimpse of the underbelly of all-boys schools.

In late 2018, a young graduate of Xavier School in San Juan—Steven Sy—wrote a Medium post that criticized “the appalling misogyny” of the Xavier School Grand Alumni Homecoming. He cited the photos of men playing beer pong with “sexy” usherettes as the latest manifestation of a tradition of misogynistic homecoming themes.

The responses from some alumni were disproportionate and toxic. In the comments section of his own Facebook post, Mr. Sy drew attacks from all angles: people questioning his sexuality and calling him a disgrace to his alma mater, and older men ranting about how the youth don’t understand “the real world,” and how they are all talk and no action. How dare he attack the institution in public, argued one commenter. How ungrateful.

The Xavier School in San Juan made it to the news recently after a graduate wrote about the misogyny in its homecoming activities. Photo from Xavier School on Facebook

These past few weeks, there was another flare up, this time from another traditionally all-boys Catholic school—La Salle Greenhills. Inquirer reported the school was opening its senior high to female students, and detailed the unhappiness of the LSGH community at this development. One of the reasons cited for this unhappiness: “Paano na ‘yung homecoming natin? Our homecoming has a reputation for being raunchy.”

Boys and their homecomings, I guess.

The conversation prompted writer Angela Natividad to write an opinion piece on When In Manila called: “The tradition of toxic masculinity in all-boys-schools,” where she asked valid and necessary questions about the kind of environment in which many young men grow up.

The response to this article basically proved Ms. Natividad’s points. Over a Zoom call, she shares that she has received aggressive messages from LSGH alumni for basically the entire month since the article was published.

An alumnus of LSGH even attempted to coordinate an online attack through a Lasallian Facebook Group “so Facebook will shut her up.” The alumnus’ post continued: “Lets teach this bimbo a lesson on respect. You dont mess with LSGH and get away with it.”

You know, like a bad guy from an 80’s movie.

The toxicity of Catholic all-boys schools is not endemic to the Philippines. It’s a global phenomenon. Look at this article from Canada’s The Walrus, where the author reflects on the “toxic sexism” of his exclusive all-boys school after members of its football team were caught trying to sodomize another student with a broomstick. And here’s another opinion piece from New Zealand, with a title that leaves no room for interpretation: “All-boys schools breed toxic cultures.” It seems I am not unique. There is a rich tradition of guilt-ridden, complicit alumni writing about their alma maters.

Objectively speaking, the answer is yes. All-boys schools do breed toxic cultures.

La Salle Greenhlls turning its senior year coed this year sparked many unhappy reactions from students and alumni. Photo by Anya Ang on Wikimedia Commons

I spoke with Dr. Danielle Ochoa, a developmental psychologist and Assistant Professor at UP Diliman’s Department of Psychology, to inquire about the origins of toxic masculinity in all-boys schools.

She begins by saying it’s difficult to pinpoint a single source of toxicity. Social groups that are in power—men, in this case—are naturally inclined to maintain the status quo, and one of the systems that preserve this status quo is one of reward and punishment. Those who ascribe to gender stereotypes are rewarded, and those who don’t are punished.

In the Philippines—and in many other places around the world—men who are strong and dominating are rewarded, and those who aren’t are—in my words—shit out of luck. This effect is amplified in all-boys schools.

“When you have a single gender category, the norms become intensified,” says Ochoa. “When you put boys together who have been raised to believe that they should be strong and that they should be dominant, that’s where the toxicity tends to tighten.”

In an article published by the American Association for the Advance of Science, we find a claim that supports this: “…there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism.”

One thing Dr. Ochoa suggests as a way forward is a reprogramming of sorts.

“One way of reshaping that identity is talking about boys’ and men’s strengths as fighting for what’s right—for justice—and looking for neutral things they can enjoy that will not bring harm to others,” she says.  

It’s a worthy discussion. It poses an age-old question—one that websites like this are supposed to spend their entire existence answering: What is it, really, that makes a man?

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IN SIXTH GRADE, my class invented the Rico Virus.

It supposedly spread from our classmate, Rico*, who had a clear developmental disorder. We would transmit the infection as a joke—wipe it onto our classmates’ faces. Rico Virus! “You have to pass it on or you’ll end up just like him!”

That same year, I heard two classmates pick on someone for not having a father. “Wala ka bang tatay?” one of them said. The boy being bullied, normally outspoken and cheerful, kept evading the question. He turned it into a joke. “Wala akong magulang. Hehe.”

The worst thing I heard during that era was a boy raising his hand during Christian Life class, just to share with the teacher how excited he was to rape someone one day. We all turned silent. “Gago, manyak!” someone said. It was important that someone spoke out—a reminder that there were other ways to be a boy.

Toxic masculinity has obviously managed to creep into the digital realm. One boy anonymously recounts that, these days, some all-boys barkadas have groups where they share involuntary porn—intimate material sent by their girlfriends or exes with the expectation of privacy.

These practices are clearly horrible. But you can’t really talk about them for too long until somebody says: “Well, not all boys are like that!”

Or: “Not all all-boys schools are bad.”

Believe me, as a graduate of an all-boys school, I get it.

It’s natural to feel attacked. When people criticize your school, you feel like they are criticizing—by extension—your upbringing. They make your childhood and adolescence feel tainted—as if you did not receive the right kind of love or attention. And who wants to feel that way? Some of us even feel like it’s an attack on our identity—on our freedom to be boys or men.  

There is a psychological reason for why we hate hearing these stories: the idea of precarious manhood, to which I was introduced by Dr. Ochoa. The basic finding is that manhood is so difficult to attain, and so easy to lose—and that men usually turn to aggression to defend this status.

We remember works like “If,” by Rudyard Kipling.

“…If you can fill the unforgiving minute

with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.”

Notice the capital “M.” Notice that the status of manhood is valued more than the ownership of the entire world. Supot ka pa ba? Can you sustain an erection? Did someone you love betray you and turn you into a “beta cuck?” Have you gotten a vasectomy? Can you act professional even in the presence of a beautiful officemate? Becoming a capital “M” Man is so difficult and arbitrary that we could interpret almost anything as a threat to our manhood, including valid criticism.

Lourdes School of Mandaluyong is an all-boys school. Photo from official website.

The point of these stories isn’t for us to cancel ourselves as a gender, grovel for mercy, and swear off being a Man. It’s for us to acknowledge the problem, so we can help our schools do better. It’s for us to rethink what it should mean to be a Man. And for us to realize that—way before these all-boys environments helped inflict toxicity on other victims—the first victims were us.

TWO THINGS CAN HAPPEN when you write an article like this. The first is that no one reads it. The second is you become the eye of a macho shitstorm stirred up by a misguided sense of school loyalty, as evidenced by Ms. Natividad’s case. I will say here that this is not an attack on these Catholic all-boys schools. It is criticism from a loving place, and a call to improve the way we nurture students.

It’s actually the exact thing our schools would want us to do.

Men for others (the Jesuit schools). Men fully alive, endowed with a passion for justice and skills for development (Xavier School). A Brotherhood of Christian Gentlemen who live and promote the values of faith, service, and communion (The De La Salle Alumni Association). These are worthy—even if cliché—declarations of institutional values.

How do we justify attacking those who put these values into practice? Why are we seeing people “defending our schools” by writing off “social justice warriors?” Aren’t these mission-vision statements actually a clarion call to fight for social justice?

By attacking well-meaning critics, aren’t we the ones who are embarrassing our schools?

Many of these institutions are actually trying their best. Yes, it is part of the community’s duty to criticize them, but sometimes we need to be reminded of a sad, universal truth: that most agents of change have to contend with agents of keeping things the same.

I gathered insight from at least four all-boys school administrators and teachers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. To no one’s surprise, they are all actively trying to nurture a less toxic environment, even if there are a number of external forces they have to manage.

“We don’t want to form assholes,” says one anonymous school leader. “We want to form students who are kind, sensible, and who have a sense of justice.” He even makes it political—saying they want to produce more graduates like Maria Ressa, and fewer graduates like the judge who delivered her guilty verdict.

PAREF Southridge School. Photo from Official Website

The administrators lament the state of the homecoming. Attendance goes down when you don’t allow booze and sexy dancers, they say. The alumni beg for leeway. But if they allow alcohol and misogyny on school grounds, how could they plausibly teach their students not to drink in school, or not to objectify women?

All of the administrators acknowledge the toxicity in their schools, and mention how they try to quietly push for better: how they urge homecoming organizers to include activities for kids—so that the fathers are forced to good; how they establish rules about not getting the school in trouble on social media.

Most acknowledge that these reforms are too slow and indirect, but they caveat it by saying they are going as fast as they can without alienating their communities. Private school enrollment has gone down these past few years, they say. And it seems set to go down further, given the pandemic. The existential threat against schools is real.

The toxicity in all-boys schools is a system-wide problem. Schools need to do better—but school administrators occupy just one slice of the problem pie.

Education is a home and school partnership. This is one of those things you’ll hear 300 times in every seminar on education. And a major pain point for the all-boys schools of Manila is this: Most of these all-boys schools also happen to be all-rich schools.

In Xavier, I was taught mostly by good teachers. The best ones changed my life, and even the worst ones still did their jobs, never shared any of that “golden era ang panahon ni Macoy” nonsense. But one thing many of them had to navigate was the income class disparity between them and their students—and the parents of their students.

Drop by Xavier at dismissal time and you’ll see legions of house helpers waiting for their alagas, or strolling their heavy stroller bags for them. Bodyguards here and there wearing polo barongs or checkered Duterte-core polos. We were boys with staffs. Service and self-sufficiency were external to us.

The difference in income class—and sometimes political class—leads to some truly cringeworthy situations: Parents thinking they know better than teachers because they work in large corporations, or are owners of a bottle cap manufacturing plant. Parents defending bad behavior. Parents hiring lawyers when their children are disciplined for serious offenses.

Do you see the pattern here? Yes, schools need to do better, and teachers need to do better. But when they do better, parents need to get out of the way. Who organizes school homecomings anyway? Who writes the moral code at home?

In the halls of these schools are sons of presidents, senators, and governors; heirs and magnates and CEOs—which makes it even more important to educate them right, given our regrettable tendency to treat power and influence as heirlooms.

There are many righteous fingers pointed at many right directions: school, student, surrounding society and—yes—family. It’s a microcosm of the great Philippine problem. Schools should reform first! No, it’s the parents! Oh, and what about the accountability of the boys themselves? It’s media, really! When the only correct answer is: Everyone in the orbit of these all-boys schools needs to change—and that’s why it’s so hard.

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THE PROBLEM WITH diagnosing a problem of this magnitude is that it can make you feel hopeless. Toxicity lives in the very fibers of all-boys schools and of patriarchal society-at-large. But we are seeing progress. One thing that most veteran school administrators and teachers told me was this: The boys are getting better.

In 2016, Ateneo Senior High School turned co-ed. This was major news in all-boys school circles. Some of the administrators I interviewed told me things didn’t go very smoothly. I figured I’d ask some students, who will remain anonymous, about what happened during the “integration.” Note that, of course, these are all anecdotal.

In many ways, what transpired was very predictable. In the year before Senior High, the Ateneo boys were excited. “Soiree every day!” was an initial reaction. And in the early months of co-ed senior high, they did treat it like a soiree. Boys would tell each other: “I’m planning to talk to this girl tomorrow. Hehe.”

As for the girls, some of them would bring self-defense items to school. The ones mentioned to me were a particularly sharp bookmark and a small taser concealed in a flashlight. It was to protect themselves during the commute home, one of them said.

One source of tension was academics. In the beginning, the girls wiped the floor with the boys. Those who were used to being in the top ten were suddenly miles away from making the top ten.

There was also one story that was a little painful to hear: A girl who transferred in—who had a history of student leadership—was brave enough to run for a student council position in her first year in Ateneo. It was divisive. Her detractors would say: “It’s her first year. What does she know about our school?” A few of them repeated a problematic argument: “Let’s keep it pure!”

It shouldn’t be surprising that some high school teachers compounded the problem, especially given the recent revelations about sexual harassment in some high schools in Manila. Some of them argued, in internal meetings, that they would have preferred that Ateneo stayed a single-sex senior high school, because “boys are easier to teach than girls.” One interviewee talked about a particularly problematic teacher who clearly still held antiquated views about women. “Don’t speak like that. You’re a lady,” the teacher would say. “Brush your hair straight,” he would tell girls with naturally curly hair.

In 2016, Ateneo Senior High School turned co-ed—a major piece of news in all-boys school circles.. Photo from ABS-CBN News

Clearly, women have to work harder than men to achieve a workable harmony—this is true in newly co-ed schools as it is in wider society. The girls who transferred to Ateneo were brave, but should the simple act of going to school really necessitate so much bravery?

One body of research done by Dr. Ochoa is men as allies.

“I think that’s something that would be important to maximize in this situation,” says Dr. Ochoa. “It shouldn’t be all up to the girls. It might be asking for too much at this point to have the buy-in of all the boys, but to have a solid group that will act as allies to facilitate the equal treatment would be very powerful.”

“In our research on allies, something that’s important is for boys to be able to identify with girls—to take on their perspective and be emphatic to what they’re going through. That identification leads them to feel a stronger sense of moral conviction—that something has to be done, that this is wrong. At the same time, they have to feel that their actions can actually change something—we call this collective efficacy. Putting those together could have the potential to change the situation.”

According to the students I spoke to, this could be exactly the process brewing in Ateneo Senior High. When one girl transferred in, she said she received a warm welcome from a few senior boys. “Some bad stuff happened last year,” said one of them. “Don’t be afraid to tell us if you need anything.”

Another pair of students—who are dating each other—said that they could count the number of actual misogynistic boys in their batch on one hand. “Our class is lucky,” one of them said. “I think everyone wants to be a better person.” The other student (a girl) follows: “I didn’t know I could have friendships like this, where you fight for each other. You protect each other.”

I wanted to cry. It’s probably a confluence of factors—the stamina and the progress of the feminist movement, the evolving social media landscape, the increasingly popular virtue of wokeness, and schools trying to do better—but even just hearing about boys who want to be better men is reason for hope.

The other day I spoke to Bro. Dodo Fernandez, the President of La Salle Greenhills, who was the main talking head in the much-shared Inquirer article about LSGH going co-ed. While the social media conversation portrayed the LSGH students, alumni, and the eventual cyberbully as the main antagonists, Bro. Fernandez also received criticism for saying “the more important reason for switching to co-ed is also the holistic formation of the boys.”

Bro. Dodo Fernandez. Photo from official website of De La Salle University

“Women are not rehabilitation centers for men,” said Ms. Natividad in her When in Manila article.

This time, Bro. Fernandez brought the vocabulary of someone who brushed up on the ever-progressing conversation about gender equality.  

“Inclusivity is the key word here—to open up LSGH education to all,” he said, about going co-ed. “The less homogenous a group is, the better. Diversity engenders healthy thinking.”

During our conversation, Bro. Fernandez seemed to be searching for the right words. As you know, administrators are in a unique position, where they need to manage the emotions of students, teachers, alumni, and staff—many of whom have strong opinions on the direction of their institution. Eventually, he finds a message that satisfies him. He quotes Florence Luscomb, an American architect and women’s suffrage activist. Listen, he says, asking me to understand what he’s trying to say. Then he shares the quote.

“The tragedy in the lives of most of us is that we go through life walking down a high-walled lane with people of our own kind, the same economic situation, the same national background and education and religious outlook. And beyond those walls, all humanity lies, unknown and unseen, and untouched by our restricted and impoverished lives.”

“That’s how I feel,” Bro. Fernandez says.

I do sympathize. The reason we need diversity is that homogeneity affects us in ways that we don’t notice. It can make our language exclusionary (my language still is, and should improve). It can make our perspectives narrow, and our decision-making naïve.

Bro. Fernandez isn’t alone in his belief that inclusivity is the key. Other school administrators agreed, and shared anecdotes about how higher gender, ethnic, and income diversity have improved student behavior. There is research that claims that interacting with a diverse set of people forces people “to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints, and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.”  

“Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not,” the article says.

But diversity is not a magic missile. Schools still need to do everything they can to make sure that the majority is prepared to welcome people from different backgrounds, especially in the case of going co-ed.

“It will always depend on how [co-ed] is implemented,” says Dr. Ochoa. “If the boys aren’t well prepared for that transition, it could also backfire. Diversity initiatives without changing norms could potentially backfire. It’s important that you provide many opportunities for cooperation instead of competition.”

It seems that while the transition is already ongoing for people like Bro. Fernandez, the hardest parts of the job still lie ahead.

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I’VE BEEN THINKING LONG AND HARD about “boy culture.” If you remove the toxicity from my upbringing, what is it that remains?

There is still the NBA. I can still listen to Guns N’ Roses and Stone Temple Pilots and Taking Back Sunday. I can still run to the computer shop in Crisanta after school to secure a PC for a couple of hours and play Counterstrike. I can curse like a FlipTop rapper. I can work out and attain a six-pack or nurture a belly made purely of Pale Pilsen. I can watch anime all day. I can get a barbed wire tattoo on my arm. I can play Pokemon, read comics, or smoke a cigarette while mounted on a horse, watching the sunset. I can get really into knives and guns and spend hours in a shooting range. I can learn to cook the perfect steak, or grill the perfect liempo. I can be open about my sexual desires without treating women like pieces of meat. Excising the toxicity from my boyhood still leaves behind so much that I treasure. Criticizing our toxicity is not a threat to boyhood.

In sixth grade, my friend Adrian whispered a question from the seat behind me. It was a boring class. The teacher was saying something that I can only remember as gibberish.

“Gian, totoo ba?”

“Ano?”

“Nagse-self lubricate daw mga babae during sex?”

“Oo ata? Nabasa ko lang din.”

“Shit. E di ang sarap nun!”

That incredibly dumb conversation about sex is something I still treasure, especially since Adrian passed away a few years ago. We were talking intimately, vulnerably about sex as young boys—about a goodness we wanted to feel. There was no objectifying—only a shared curiosity about our shared biology. We were boys, excited about our being boys.

Don Bosco Technical College Mandaluyong. Photo from Don Bosco Technical College on Facebook 

The bonds we share go deeper than bad behavior. They are deeper than not being a snitch. There can be many beautiful moments, growing up as a boy, especially if we remove the toxic bits. If this conversation is about defending boy culture, then the argument I pose is that addressing toxic masculinity would actually deepen our brotherhood, not diminish it.

What would boy culture look like if we stopped objectifying women, if we eradicated homophobia, if we didn’t tear each other down so much that our egos grow frail and fragile? How much could we enjoy a brotherhood that is deeper than rape jokes and forming an angry mob to defend our right to say hurtful things? Wouldn’t our beers taste better then? Wouldn’t that be liberating instead of limiting?

The road ahead is long, but I don’t think it’s hopeless. I think many men out there want to be better. The goal now—as we learned earlier—is to be better. To act. To find each other, build a community, acknowledge the problems we are a part of, and tackle them head on. How about it? Doesn’t that sound like something men ought to do?