In the movie "Love Actually," a widowed father, played by Liam Neeson, asks his morose grade-school son what’s bothering him. Is it his mother’s death? Problems at school? Bullies?
"You really want to know?" answers the boy. "Well, truth is — actually — I’m in love." His father is surprised but expresses relief that it’s not "something worse." The son fixes him with a look of disbelief: "Worse than the total agony of being in love?"
Prepubescent boys aren’t supposed to be tormented by romance, and neither are their adolescent brothers. Popular culture fosters an image of teenage males as shallower than a plasma TV, with little interest in the opposite sex beyond meaningless hookups. We often see them as goatish slaves to their hormones, or as predators eager to exploit the emotional vulnerability of girls.
Some of them no doubt aspire to be cold-hearted players, but not as many as you might think. At least that’s the conclusion of Bowling Green State University sociologists Peggy Giordano, Monica Longmore and Wendy Manning, who took the trouble to ask high school boys to reveal their feelings about romance and got some surprising answers.
This is a mission whose difficulty cannot be overstated. As the father of two college men (as well as a high school girl), I can attest that trying to find out what is going on in the minds, much less hearts, of young males can be like trying to liberate gold from Fort Knox. A casual observer might surmise that the only times their emotions are stirred are when the highlights start on "SportsCenter."
But through a combination of computer questionnaires and personal interviews, the three sociologists managed to elicit a good deal of truth-telling about intimate matters. The key finding is that boys place as much importance on romance as girls, though they feel less confident navigating it. They apparently are also just as likely to get all soft and gooey on the subject.
"Boys and girls report similar feelings of love" in a relationship, the authors note in an American Sociological Review article, and those feelings don’t hinge on having sex. Beneath the bulletproof manner they affect, a lot of young males have hearts made of cotton candy.
In interviews, guys said things like, "Every time I was around her I couldn’t talk, I was getting butterflies in my stomach," and "I wouldn’t want to live without Jenny," and "I ain’t never, like, felt that way about somebody." One boy recounting a breakup confessed, "I wrote her a letter, front and back, crying the whole time, and then I handed the letter to her the next morning." Another filled up 74 pages recounting his romantic history.
What do these boys value most about their girlfriends? Not their toned midriffs. The interviewers got such responses as, "It was like I could talk to her and she could talk to me," and "She always comforted me when I needed a hug."
These are not the sort of lines you hear in movies aimed at this particular demographic segment, which tend to be heavy on explosions, grossout humor and airborne serpents. But having once been an adolescent male, I can attest that high school boys can fall prey to romantic impulses that would make Anna Karenina look about as passionate as Alan Greenspan. And my experiences as a father don’t make me doubt the findings, either.
But wait a minute — aren’t these hearty young males, raised in our overly sexualized culture, supposed to be perpetually on the prowl for fleeting conquests in the back seat of a car? In fact, fewer than half of male high school students have lost their virginity. The number of womanizers, Giordano told Time magazine, is "smaller than everybody believes."
Some guys take pride in resisting the pressure to behave that way. "I rather focus on one girl than a whole bunch because I don’t think that I’m some player or something," one said. Few boys, however, are inclined to share the hearts-and-flowers stuff with their buddies, fearing they are the only ones cursed with tender feelings.
They may be wise to guard their inner lives. But they, and we, should take heart knowing that even in an age of sexual liberation, what makes the world go around, still, is love.