Boys Will Be Boys…Unless a Man’s Around?

Plano High School Football Team, 1900

It’s a story custom-made to scorch parental nerves: a teenage sex contest at an upscale high school that went on in secret for five years under the unsuspecting noses of the adults. The teens involved called it the “Fantasy Slut League.”

In this post, the Last Word on Nothing‘s Thomas Hayden tells the disturbing story of the adolescents’ competition and provides an intriguing (dare we say “zoobiquitous”?) approach to thinking about it.

The human side of the story took place at Piedmont High School in northern California. Hayden explains:

“In the competition, modeled after fantasy sports leagues, male students apparently “drafted” their female classmates and earned points for “documented engagement in sexual activities” with them, according to a letter sent to parents by the Piedmont High principal.”

An African Elephant

The animal side of the story comes in what Hayden chooses to juxtapose with the Piedmont students’ behavior: Elephants.

He writes,

“Male elephants famously go through periods of heightened aggression and sexual activity called musth. It’s apparently quite the hormone ride – testosterone levels can jump by a factor of 60, and stay that way for weeks or months. Pilanesberg [National Park in South Africa] was plagued in the late 1990s by a gang of young orphaned males, prematurely in musth and handling it poorly — by killing more that 40 white rhinoceroses, for example.

But something dramatic happened when researchers introduced six mature male elephants to the park: the young guns dropped out of musth, stopped terrorizing rhinoceroses, and presumably went back to being the elephant equivalent of nice young men.”

Hayden goes straight for the animal/human overlap. “Evidence,” he writes, “shows that in humans too, the young male impulse to gang up together and commit acts of violence – physical, sexual, emotional – is similarly damped by the presence and engagement of older men.”

While researching Zoobiquity, we also turned up stories of adolescent males behaving aggressively in bachelor groups and becoming calmer when mature males were a regular part of the social group. Sea otters groom, forage, and eat in multi-age groups where levels of aggression are low. Stallions are schooled in proper herd behavior by older males. We wrote about capuchin monkeys in whom the rowdy bachelor-group behavior of not-quite-fully mature males is quelled by older male members of the society.

(Incidentally, it’s not always dominant males who promote law and order. Female vervet monkeys, bonobos, and hyenas all play leading roles in teaching youngsters their roles.)

We also learned that animal “teens” aren’t the only ones affected by dominant, mature males. In some animal groups, the presence of alpha males can cut off lower-ranked males’ chances to breed—even when they’re fully mature adults. This so-called psychological castration has been seen in sheep and goats, deer and elk. It’s not clear to what extent hormones are involved, but what starts as a physical act of aggression—the dominant intimidating lower-ranked males—can progress into the secondary males’ eventually not even trying to approach females at all.

Piedmont school officials are understandably focusing on the girls involved, and addressing how they were affected by the League’s activities. But it would be interesting to look as well at another group that surely experienced the consequences of a secret sex competition at their school: the boys who weren’t a part of it. For every boy pulled toward the Fantasy Slut League, surely there were one (or more) who stood up to it and suffered shunning from the group or condoned it with silence out of fear of standing up to the dominant crowd. Perhaps the presence of mature males leavens hierarchies and protects other vulnerable groups as well.

We think and hope that comparative approaches like Hayden’s will bring human experts and animal experts together to find species-spanning help for teens navigating the sometimes treacherous terrain of emerging sexuality.

(Thanks to Jason Goldman of Scientific American’s blog, The Thoughtful Animal, for pointing us toward Hayden’s post.)

photo credits: Football team: Frances Wells Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Elephant: Martin Mecnarowski, via Wikimedia Commons

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