Risky behavior in adolescent males ranges from self improvement to suicidal, but the reward is the same.
“Tis very rarely that a man loves, and when he does, it is nearly always fatal.” —Hugh MacDiarmid, “The International Brigade”
After the incalculable joy provided by Amanda Bell at my 14th party, my subsequent birthdays, up to and including my 17th, had been something of a let-down. But the omens for my 1987 summer barbecue were excellent.
For one thing, I was starting to feel a little more self-assured. Since returning from Germany, when Patrick’s devotion to his libido had left me with nothing to do but play with his dumbbells, I’d bought a set of my own, and had now developed something approaching a physique. I was no longer the scrawny wimp who got sand kicked in his face; I was the slightly bigger wimp who watched as the scrawny wimp got sand kicked in his face. What’s more, my new-found economic independence—the £5 a week I earned for four hours’ work a week at the shoe shop—had given me a little more confidence and a little more control over my wardrobe.
Secondly, for some undiscovered reason, all the cool kids had deigned to attend. Well, all the cool kids and Chris Sprigg, the gurning, preening, posing sleazebag with badly permed hair and a kink in his nose.
Most importantly, Louise, who had been seeing an older guy from Young Farmers, was recently single again. And the week before, on the bus on the way home from school, she’d kissed me for the first time.
It was going to be one hell of a night.
Things went well to start with. I had just about maintained that fine balance between keeping the guests entertained and preventing them from microwaving their own vomit. There was a screaming row between Naomi and Dean, but since this was a twice-daily occurrence, no one batted an eyelid.
Then, a couple of hours in, I heard noises in the spare bedroom. I opened the door a crack and peeked through to see Chris Sprigg in a passionate embrace with Louise.
I’d never lost control before. But that night, at that moment, I flipped. I ran up and down the stairs in a blind rage. I shouted and screamed and threw things and broke things (and still Chris and Louise didn’t come out). Most of the guests sloped out, embarrassed. Naomi had only just managed to calm me down by the time my parents got back.
A few days later, I went out with Craig, an older friend from the shoe shop, and drank more than I’d drunk for a very long time. We ended up at someone’s house until the early hours. When the time came to leave, Craig asked if I wanted a lift. Even though I knew he was drunk, and he drove a crappy Triumph Herald, I said yes.
Halfway home, in the middle of a tiny village at three in the morning, he stopped the car. “You’re taking your driving test soon, aren’t you?” he said. I nodded. “How about a quick lesson?”
I weighed things up. Although I was drunk, he was probably drunker. I could do with the practice. And anyway, what threat were we to anyone in the middle of nowhere? So we swapped seats, I put the Herald in gear, and we bunny-hopped into motion.
And at that exact moment, a police car came the other way.
The copper clearly noticed something was awry, and slowed down to turn round. I panicked. Craig panicked. “Turn right down there,” he bellowed, leading us into the maze of country lanes. I couldn’t even find second gear in his stupid rustbucket, but I made the turn. “Now left!” At this point we were doing 40 miles an hour in first gear along narrow lanes in very poor visibility. “Right!”
When you have a drunk and terrified 17-year-old learner driver at the wheel of an unfamiliar car, it’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong. I turned too fast, too late, and the car crashed straight through a drystone wall.
I was wearing a seat belt. Craig wasn’t. He catapulted into the windscreen, shattering it, before landing back in his seat. I turned to see if he was OK. “Run,” he said, apparently oblivious to the blood bubbling from his mouth. “I’ll say it was me.”
Craig was not a guy you argued with, even in his condition. I got out of the car and ran the four miles home. By the time I reached the front door, I’d started to calm down. Then I looked down at my T-shirt and saw it was soaked in blood.
I’m not sure quite what happened after that. The evidence suggests that I rifled through the kitchen drawers, took out all the knives and ran off into the woods, where I found myself a small clearing and started sawing manically at my wrists.
I woke up in A&E a couple of hours later. Apparently I’d been trying to saw my arteries the wrong way. Craig was in the next room down; he’d lost some blood and his two front teeth but would otherwise be OK. The car was a write-off and we were charged with a list of driving offences as long as a Stephen King first draft, but we were both alive – and the policeman, God bless his soul, didn’t breathalyse us.
After the doctor, my parents and my friends left, I tried to sleep. But as I closed my eyes, the male nurse came in to plump my pillows, tutted, and said, in a caring and rather camp voice: “There’s more to life than girls, you know.”
We have seen that in most species, while most females generally get opportunities to reproduce, a relatively small proportion of men father most of the offspring in each generation. Under these conditions, the male who sits around and “plays safe” is highly unlikely to win, or impress, a female. The best way to maximise your mating potential is to take risks: to scheme, to declare war, to take down the mammoth, to carry out brave, dangerous acts that increase your social status. There is a chance, of course, that you will die in the process; but the benefits of success are so huge that any genes promoting risky behaviour in males are likely to spread.
In his seminal book on evolution and sex, The Red Queen, Matt Ridley says: “Men have evolved to live dangerously because success in competition or battle used to lead to more or better sexual conquests and more surviving children.”
Men are far more likely than women to have fights, drive cars at unsafe speeds, drink, smoke, take drugs and generally engage in reckless behaviour.
In 2010, researchers at the University of Queensland went to a skate park to examine the links between physical risk-taking in young men and the presence of attractive women. They noticed that young male skateboarders took more risks when being observed by an attractive female experimenter than when they were observed by a male experimenter. This increased risk-taking led to more successes—but also more crashes—in front of the female observer.
According to the Office of National Statistics, in 1971, men accounted for 56% of all suicides in England and Wales. By 2003, the proportion had risen to 75%, where it has remained ever since. For every woman who kills herself, three men do the same.
If you have had suicidal thoughts or know someone who has, please talk to someone about it. Consider calling Samaritans on 08457-909090, check out their website at www.samaritans.org, or visit Papyrus.
In Canada and the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
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