In the late nineteen sixties a team of sociologists lead by Royston Lambert conducted an in-depth study into boarding schools. They conducted interviews, gave out questionnaires and were shown countless diaries and personal writings, entirely voluntarily on the part of the pupils. They published an in-depth analysis of their findings, but they also published The Hothouse Society, a collection of the quotations from the boys, some four hundred pages, and it is in this remarkable volume that I have been immersed for some time in the quiet solitude of the national library.
Largely without commentary or explanation, these voices are haunting, they portray a world which is at once surprising and familiar: they echo many of the preoccupations of the accounts I read from the nineteenth century to the present day, and the often high-brow style of writing is reminiscent of my husband’s teenage diaries. And they always back me up, if I have an idea about something I can count on these boys to give me a dozen quotations more perfect than I can possibly imagine to illustrate it. My notes marked “WOMEN” for example were so extraordinary that all I could think of was that they could just be listed simply, with Batman-comic-style captions. But alas my technical abilities do not allow such a thing. Here follows a selection of insights from public school boys aged seventeen and eighteen, asked how they think single-sex boarding education has effected their response to women:
It makes us more masculine. If we are to be males, for god’s sake let’s go the whole hog. Lets learn to understand, command, live with males. We MUST understand our own sex fully and cannot if females are tripping and flirting around. (BOOM!)
One comes to view women as an optional extra – in my view the right attitude. (KaPow!)
I haven’t become a rabid homo nor do I avidly collect pictures of nude women. I find a game of darts and a drink in the pub with your friends releases most tensions. (Splat!)
Most mature boys with sufficient intelligence should not be interested in such dull creatures. Those who are infected in this way are obviously only those who are incapable of controlling their carnal desires. (OUCH!)
They are an unknown quantity – one imagines them as too perfect, idealises them, they seem godesses far away. Girls are human beings: segregation for long periods warps the mind. (crunch!)
One tends to look at a girl and say ‘oh, she’s good enough to go to bed with…’ and that’s that. Sexual experience is the ultimate goal. Knowing a girl for the sake of knowing a girl is practically never the case with me or my friends. (BAM!)
I have a girl-proof screen around myself . I can’t break out of it and life at school re-inforces it. (ZAP!)
It has just accentuated my contempt for them – school dances make me feel they are just sex-machines. I realise this is not true but I feel that not seeing them has shown me quite well that one can do without them. The only girl friend I had gave me up while I was away in term time – ‘frailty thy name is woman’. (SHEESH KEBAB!)
It pretty chilling stuff isn’t it? Of course it is only a selection, but broadly speaking the boys comment that single sex education either makes them feel completely unable to relate to women, or makes them view them only as sexual objects. For pupils who board before the age of nine, the number who have either one of these extreme views rises to 80%. A number of the boys also referred to women when asked what worries them most, and I find the following account incredibly uncomfortable, my stomach quietly churns in empathy for the poor girlfriend:
“I have enjoyed being here – its mainly the people you meet, but I’m not sure boarding is good over a long time. You don’t see many girls and I feel awkward. Life with my girl friend has been difficult. I was very fond of her for three years but never really said anything, you couldn’t say that you loved her, in fact it took me ages to put my arms round her. I felt that I would die with embarrassment. In fact, we just used to sit and look at each other… I just don’t seem to be able to talk to people. I went to bed with my girlfriend but though it all went all right I just couldn’t talk to her and afterwards I just sat and looked out of the window in a daze, she burst into tears. We had a row in the end. She said I was too self-sufficient and cleared out. I haven’t heard from her for ages. I worry about this sort of thing a lot, there are sorts of high walls that separate parts of your life. I can be affectionate to my parents, they’re both quite old seem very sort of tired and you can be kind by just sitting and talking but with people your own age it is much more difficult. I get in a bit of a panic sometimes and feel that there is something wrong with me.”
This is textbook boarding school syndrome, as is the following:
What worries me most is that I can’t be natural. How do you show you like someone, what sort of kindness do you give to parents and relations without seeming utterly soft and wet. Sometimes I feel I am empty and unable to feel things.
Of course, feelings, emotions, family, women, all belong to the world of Softness, all can be condemned as wet, that horror of all horrors, to be avoided form early childhood. I leave you with the worlds of an eight year old prep school boy, perhaps the most haunting in the collection:
If a boy cries everyone laughs at him or goes away because he is a baby and very wet.