Why Boy Scouts Have Always Bothered Me

Boy Scouts of AmericaI live across the street from a family that is very involved with Boy Scouts of America. The father is a scout leader and two of the sons are Eagle Scouts. And they are all very nice people. One couldn’t ask for better neighbors. But here’s the thing: I find the Boy Scouts a deeply creepy institution. And this is not some liberal thing. I’ve always felt this way.

Although it might not be clear to look at me now, when I was a child, I was a very typical boy. I loved my army men and when I got older, I ran around with the other boys playing war with sticks fashioned into guns. So when my friends started becoming cub scouts, you would have thought I would have followed along. But I didn’t. Then, as now, I thought it was all very creepy.

It probably comes from the core of my being—my fascination with the Romantic hero archetype. But the idea of everyone dressing up the same way just wasn’t my idea of what it is to be a man. And more to the point, it wasn’t what my idea of what it is to be an American. As I noted last year:

It may be unfair, but I always associate the Boy Scouts with the Hitler Youth. I understand that the Hitler Youth basically took over what had been the Boy Scouts in Germany. But the uniforms, the paramilitary style, the right wing politics? It strikes me as downright un-American. But that’s just because there are two currents in America: the fierce individual and the belligerent conformist. I respect the first. But the Scouts reflect too much of the second, even if it is not intentionally bad. Its exclusionary policies alone reinforce the worst aspects of in-group/out-group politics. Hell, some troops were still racially segregated until 1974!

So I wasn’t exactly surprised to see an old article in The Atlantic by Jennie Rothenberg Gritz about the announcement that the Boy Scouts were going to let gay scouts into their club[1], Christopher Hitchens on the Mildly Fascist Founder of the Boy Scouts. I’m afraid she’s soft-pedaling it. Robert Baden-Powell was very supportive of fascism. And you can see why. Socially, fascism pushes the same kinds of ideas that that the Boy Scouts do: duty to the group and conformity.

Now let me be clear: I don’t think that the Boy Scouts of America are a fascist group. I don’t think that at all. But it wasn’t hard for Mussolini and Hitler to change the Boy Scout programs in their countries to fascist youth groups. And I think that is what is creepy about the group. But that is completely expected. I am the kind of person who rebels against authority. I am an equally bad leader and follower. A society made up of people like me would be no kind of society at all. So we need a lot of people who are willing to conform to create social cohesion.

Just the same, I think it is a major mistake to turn conformity into a fetish. The military does this because it is an unfortunate necessity, just as the very existence of the military is an unfortunate necessity. But to push boys into blind and ostentatious conformity before they are able to make the choice seems wrong to me. It’s too much like indoctrination. What’s more, it is a particular kind of paramilitary indoctrination. And for me, that’s what tips it from concerning to creepy.

[1] But they still aren’t allowing gay leaders. It is not clear what they think they are doing by this ban. Are they afraid gay leaders might rape the boys? Well, their straight leaders seem to already be doing that.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

24 thoughts on “Why Boy Scouts Have Always Bothered Me

  1. I did scouting for a few years in the early 1980’s and I remember it fondly, in general. It had, then, a sort of environmentalist ethos. A Teddy Roosevelt kind of conservationalist philosophy and respect for nature that comes out in their mantra ‘always leave the campsite cleaner than you found it’. There was a deeper expression of this ethic in the Scout Handbook, which was also a good reference for the skills, lore and handicrafts needed to live outdoors, than I got from the adult leaders. Their’s was a more disciplinarian ethic. To be fair, they were herding a bunch of boys. And children then were, I believe, less cooperative, less socialized than they are today. We learned practical skills: how to cook (not that Mom hadn’t taught me already), how to build and tend a fire, gun safety, etc. It was the kind of thing liberals mean when they wish there were sane conservatives. The scoutmasters, invariably religious Republicans, also belonged to the Sierra Club. What happened to people? I want to grab a Republican of my age and shake them, and say ‘Hey, I don’t care if the snail darters die. I would rather have the hydro power plant. But look an you. When did caring for our home become a traitorous plot?’ The fact that the Boy Scouts only make the news in terms of their place in the gay acceptance struggle tells me they have become a funhouse mirror image of what I knew. But the Girl Scouts are on our side. And, boy, do they get hated on by conservatives.

    • My experiences goes back further then yours, but I think you bring up some important points. One is that it really matters where you are a scout. It isn’t a monolith. Also, I have no experience with the camping trips and all that. I’ve been to a number of Eagle Scout events and I found them deeply troubling. To me, they came off very much like ROTC. And it doesn’t help that the two Eagle Scouts across the street are both heading into the army–one right now and the other after he finishes college next year. (Another Eagle Scout I grew up with went on to the Navy.) They’re both smart kids and I have no doubt that the Boy Scouts set them up to go in that direction. It’s a dirty job and someone has to do it, but it is not something that I would wish on anyone, even if they are (Of course!) looking forward to it.

      The Girl Scouts are quite different. For one thing, their uniforms don’t look like Junior Military. They are totally accepting and inclusive. Even though the program does go up to the age of 18, you don’t much see it. They don’t seem to have the stupid ranks that the Boy Scouts have. They are secular, although they’ve been a little funny about atheists until quite recently. In general, I think you can say that the Girl Scouts are ethically about a century ahead of the Boy Scouts. But then, everyone knows girls develop faster than boys!

      Plus, they sell really delicious cookies.

  2. I had one year experience in Cub Scouts in Ontario Canada.

    It was polarizing and secular compartmentalizing to the core with
    obvious ‘favortism’ and sporting of boys from the get go.

    I was always aware of others around me and never let people touch me. This was a reaction from being abused by my older brother and I was always frightened and deeply offended by ‘touchy’ people.

    This was something that must have been obvious with my stint at the scouts as it never seemed like a team organized effort which I did fantasize about, but it was about who was the favorite boys the adult men included and promoted through the cereal box prize ranks of badges.

    My last day at Scouts was at the year end few day camping excursion where there was a cloud over the entire thing and I was SECLUDED from whatever was going on at the camp ground being literally treated like a black sheep , which in RETROSPECT was a blessing after feeling hurt by this polarization – because knowing what I know now about the Men who were ‘leaders’ and what has become of them and some boys who have come out about their associations – I was spared some indignities which if I went through I would have blood on my hands today from chopping one of those bastards to pieces in rage. (metaphorically speaking of course) Boy scouts is a front for the Man Boy love association.

    • Wow. I’m sorry to hear that. I don’t have experience from the outside. Although there certainly has been some reporting. It’s all weird. And sad.

    • Any authoritarian system generates sexual abuse, I fear. I was in military school for a year and there were several sexual assaults everyone knew about (more we didn’t know about.) The response was grotesque — the assaulter was seen as a jerk, but the victim who reported to proper authorities was seen as “a victim,” aka a loser, weak, the worst. All the known victims (the ones who reported sex crimes) left quickly, all the perpetrators stayed.

      After all, if you know someone’s vicious enough to commit a sex crime, you’re going to be more scared of that person. So the victims’ lives were much more miserable (avoiding eye contact or conversation) than the assaulters (more fear from everyone, just as intended.)

      Then the inevitable happens — the known predator takes an interest in someone new. What choice does that person have? They avoid the predator, they get punished by someone with power they already know has no limits on cruelty. They want to stick in the organization, they have to play a terrifying game of seeming like they really appreciate the attention yet avoiding situations where assault can happen. Most, happily, leave. Some choose to submit and mitigate the damage of assaults.

      Incidentally I did nothing and called no cops. And I joined in avoiding the victims I knew, who were people I liked. What if I told them I cared what happened and someone found out I said that?

  3. So I know this thread is realy old but I wanted to post something anyways, if only for myself.
    I was and still am a very active scout. But ot in the US. I am German and as such part of a german scout group. I always found US scouts very… peculiar.

    First of some history: When the Nazis took power in Germany all youth organisations and clubs were incorporated into the HJ wether they wanted or not. Some liked it because the HJ had money and resources not available to normal youth groups. But many others hated it. They secretly continued and destroyed their insignia so they couldn’t be found. We still have many songs from that area were they talk about the “broken spear” (they destroyed their flagpoles, burt or buried their flags). They had secret passwords to identify each other. Many endedup in concentration camps others were killed straight out.

    So you can see German scouts mistrust authority. We’re also influenced by the “Bündische Jugend” and the “Wandevogel” who’re profoundly against Baden-Powells version of scouting. Many of us cultivate a romanticised drifter/gypsy image. We camp out illeagly, we disdain modern plastic tents instead using “Kothen” or “Jurten”, tents you can light a fire in, transport with ease and made from cotton. Even our most “militaristic” souts associations (theres more than 150 scout associations in Germany) are nothing compared to US groups.
    But what is realy different? Well our group leaders are next to never over 25. Each scout in his group is expected to lead a group of younger kids once he’s 14 years old. With guidance of 16-18 year olds first but then alone. They’ll go on “Großfahrt” extended hajking and camping trips through skandinavia, germany, and other countries (I’ll go to Poland tomorrow, last year my friends were in Romania) for 2 weeks.
    We ellect our club leaders from ourselves. Often the only adult in the clubs leadership is the treasurer.

    Our Philosophy is even evident in our name : Scout is a military word. We call ourselves Pfadfinder, (path-finder) not Späher intentionaly.

    Maybe some US scout groups could addept a bit of this philosophy of beeing a gypsy instead of a soldier, of roving thorough the Wild instead of doing drills. But then that’s only my oppinion

    Gut Pfad,

    • Thank you so much! That’s really interesting. And I do wish American scouts would move in that direction. What I’ve seen is more a funnel of scout to military. Attending events is very disturbing to me. At the same time, I’m very much in favor of many things about the scouts: learning skills, becoming independent, even moral teaching. The Girl Scouts seem to manage that.

      You’ve got me interested. I’m going to have to find a book on “scouting” in Germany. Thanks again!

      • Earlier in 2016 at the Star Wars Jamboree in Heath, Ohio my 8 year old son and I experienced the most unimaginable fright in our lives and a bone-chilling affirmation of my suspicions of the Boy Scouts of America that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. The BSA is a cult. Period. The Simon Kenton Counsel is the extreme wing of this organization which conjures up the worst stereotypes of what an amalgamated beast of belief systems and values of a truly anti-Christ system: para military-Neo-Nazism-survivalist sovereigns hate group.

        The details of me and my son’s ordeal cannot be put into words as I have attempted when I made my unresolved complaints with their coven and other outlets, including news sources.

        I can leave you with this WARNING: the rape/sodomy of young boys and men is done through an extreme/clever form of mind-control and adult/peer approval/acceptance. I thank Father God Almighty my son didn’t get to that level and my hope is others don’t as well.

        • You know I was going to write a whole long thing about how I am a boy scout and it is not a cult, but then I realized you are crazy and I am not wasting my time!

          • You are absolutely correct. While it is sad some people had bad to very bad experiences with the BSA it is by no means the norm. I was from the inner city and a broken home, the scouts were the best thing to happen to me. Unfortunately, it is the nature of human beings not to move past their emotions brought on by a bad experiences so they feel entitled to berate an entire organization.

  4. I earned my Eagle in 2012, (I know, I’m already in my early twenties. Crazy right?)

    Personally, I do believe that in some ways, boys who participate in the scouts learn skills which translate over to the military. Apparently, the Armed Forces think so too, since being an Eagle Scout will immediately bring you to E2 upon enlistment, after the completion of BMT.

    But just joining the BSA does not mean your child will be forced into a “military” future. I’ll admit, I’ve seriously considered it, even spoken to recruiters in the past. However, at the moment, it just isn’t right for me. With our current military drawdown, career options in our Military are very limited, and the wait list for enlistment is very long in some branches. If I knew I could secure the MOS, or at the least, MOS category, I might go for it.

    But at no time when I was a scout, did leaders ever pressure me to join the military. Recruiters didn’t come and talk to us on a daily basis, we don’t have “drill” instructors for scout masters, etc. In Fact, many troops and Councils sometimes go so far, as to ban camouflage and surplus gear.

    I’d say the biggest thing by far, that a successful scout troop will teach a young man is teamwork and leadership. A Scoutmaster’s primary role is to actually instruct, and guide, but never to order the boys. The boys themselves are supposed to govern the troop. You’ll have young men of any age between 12-17 working together towards planning a fundraiser, service project, or adventure trip, almost on their own. The scouting program creates a solid structure of both rank and seniority, which the boys can utilize to learn conflict resolution, management, and planning skills.

    I’ve had really good Troops, and really bad Troops. I moved tons as a kid, so I’ve experienced the best and the worst. Learned something each time though, sometimes about what not to say or do, or act, etc.

    Of course, they’ll learn how to swim correctly, how to tie knots, how to find safe drinking water, and first aid. The skills they learn are actually quite extensive, now that I think about it. As an adult, I’m often surprised how many people have ZERO CPR training, or don’t know how to treat for shock. Yes, often times these skills are identical to ones taught in the military, but that is because these methods work. So yes, a Boy Scout troop has significantly better survivability, when compared to the general civilian population. But you need this kind of thing if you want to enjoy Philmont Ranch or the Smoky Mountains in safety.

    As far as safety goes, the BSA takes youth safety VERY seriously. I remember that as soon as I turned 18, I had to go through tons of training to participate in any capacity, such as an Assistant Scoutmaster. You’re not allowed to tent with the boys, (except your own sons, unless the rules have changed.) You are never allowed to be 1-one-1 with a boy, in any situation. You must have another adult present. This really slaps you in the face, hard, at 18. (I was a bit naive, at 18 I didn’t even know why that rule existed.) It’s hard if some of your buddies are only a year or two younger than you. The BSA knows this, that’s why we had venturing until 21. Of course, I hear that they are lowering the age limit for that as well. (Unconfirmed)

    I just went on my first solo backpacking trip recently, and I have to admit that I lament the loss of built-in trail buddies. The love of the outdoors doesn’t just end because you’ve become an adult, (though my Dad, in his late 40s, says it’s getting less comfortable for him.)

    If anybody asked me to volunteer in a Scout troop nearby, I would. I’ve outgrown it, but it’s a great thing for the younger guys. (At 22 I have trouble calling 17-year-olds children. If there was a draft they’d take us both.)

  5. My experience with scouts so far has been an up and down one, when i first joined i was super excited it was 3rd grade and i had just moved to Colorado from Ohio. Cub scouts is mostly the adult leaders doing the work and letting the kids follow along, this changes in boy scouts. It requires you to do all the work, a very good thing in my view you will not progress unless you work towards your goals.

    I joined a troop and got acquainted with the other guys in my patrol there were 7 of us, 2 dropped out 2 swapped patrols and we gained 2 in the next year. We became a tight knit group camping together and doing other things for almost 6 years now 2 of the guys have made eagle and the rest of us are on our way. Attending high adventure bases is a good way for younger people to get out into the world and see places they would other wise never see.

    Onto the problems with scouting now. Patrols with scouts of the same age work well someone has to step up and become a leader in these patrols creating good candidates for senior patrol leader and patrol leader. (SPL is in charge of the troop with his assistant SPL) When our troop changed this by mixing age groups new leaders did not emerge, the younger boys sat back and watched the older guys set up events and run the troop. Year after year I sat on PLCs running events and watching this happen every time i brought it up i was shot down, after almost 6 years of boy scouts 9 if you count cub scouts i was watching a troop fall apart and was helpless to stop it. Eventually after 11 PLCs (Patrol leader conferences) which is a six month term of once a month conferences trying to get younger boys to take leadership roles i gave up went to the board one last time to try and come up with a plan to get the younger guys active and after that i quit. (the board is the group of adults that dictate what happens and also get the last say in rank advancement after the scoutmaster)

    Boy scouts is a great way to get a young man active and interested in the world, I went to many events in my adventure in scouting including but not limited to, Philmont, Florida Sea Base, Northern Tier, Okpik, and many Order of the arrow events. What i’m trying to say is Scouts works well until you add change and then it suffers all be it after maybe another 5 years my troop will either be gone or doing well i really don’t know but changing the way patrols acted made the troop suffer for almost 4 years now and it still is not fixed. I’m not saying gays should not be allowed in scouts but the changes that come with allowing them in might hurt scouting for a few years at least while troops get used to it. Because it will bring with it new rules for adult leaders and probably with the way scouts act around one another. Scouts already hate going on long trips with people they don’t like and i cant imagine what a trip would be like if you had 2 scouts fighting the entire time about gender issues. xD

  6. I used to feel like many of you vocalized….I thought boy scouts were a negative thing. That was until I became a mother of a little boy. I live in an area where the scouts are amazing. They go on exciting white water rafting trips, camping, and practice in ways that make a positive impact on the community. They teach respect for the environment, respect for others, respect for life and focus on building virtue amongst young men. I really think that these perceptions you may have are born of assumptions and lack of knowledge. I think a good boy scout troop can be both fun and educational. There is nothing creepy about instilling mutual respect for your environment and fellow human beings. I think those who doubt this should read the scout literature and attend meetings. It is really a positive thing.

    • I definitely see the good in Scouts. I’m just airing my general disease with it. There are forms of scouting that don’t include many of the things that I find questionable. But they aren’t that popular and thus are limited. If I were a parent, I would be forced to make a decision. But I do have an open mind. And the Scouts have made some positive changes over the past decade. I hope that it continues to become more inclusive. I’m less sanguine about its move away from militarism — at least for the immediate future.

  7. I think you are all crazy. I am a boy scout currently and I don’t feel safer anywhere else than beside my peers because I know they will look out for me. You say things about scouts getting sexually assaulted, I don’t know about other places but in my troop that could never happen. All of our adult leaders go through YPT or Youth Protection Training every year or they can not be in our troop. I think it is great that they are letting girls in scouting, but still, if the girls want a program more like BSA then make one. I know about the Hitler Youth and we are nothing like that. We always joke that the OA or order of the arrow (A advanced group that older scouts get elected into) is a cult but we all know we are joking. I am the outdoor ethics guide for my troop and I have been officially trained by BSA in outdoor ethics but I heard some crazy things. Apparently, the federal government is saying scouting is destroying land and is bringing inexperienced campers to delicate areas. I can see that but in my troop in Narraganset council that I don’t think is the case. Yes there are kids who think scouting is weird and that is ok, it is not for everybody. I see kids who only stay for a few weeks then leave but at least they tried it. We are a very active troop, we go on a camp out at least once a month sometimes more and we have many experienced scouts in our troop. We have about 65 kids in our troop and we try to make sure they get the first class rank(The fourth rank) in 18 months. We have many Jazems or Junior assistant scoutmasters. They are Eagle scouts who help lead the troop and help get the scout to the eagle. We have at least 2 kids get eagle a year. I don’t like what you are saying and frankly, it is because you are not in scouting now. I am having a great time and hope to make eagle and I hope you change your mindset.

    • Not much for nuance? I guess I will have to be clear.

      You didn’t even read my article!

      Much of what you wrote agrees with what I wrote. I’m not saying that the Boy Scouts is a terrible institution. I’m explaining why I have problems with it. If you had read the article, you would know that I have never been in the Scouts. And it hardly matters that your particular troop has no leaders who are molesting children. (Although really: how do you know?) This is an article about why I find the Scouts creepy — from the outside!

      I like the general idea of the Scouts. But there are a number of things that would make the Scouts more acceptable to people like me. There is a reason why people in an army all dress the same. There is no reason for a youth group to do so — other than pushing conformity.

      This article was never meant to be read by Scouts. It is a very personal discussion of my position about Scouts. Obviously, people in the Boy Scouts will be much too vested to see what I’ve written as anything other than a personal attack. But since you are here: are you saying that the Scouts couldn’t be any better? I’m saying that there are things that could make the Scouts better — make it more in keeping with American ideals. I’m not suggesting that the Scouts should be destroyed. For example, I love the idea of merit badges. Any way to encourage people to master skills is wonderful. My question for you: how could the Boy Scouts be more useful — more inclusive?

      Any group that thinks it is perfect has ossified. And it isn’t of much use to anyone.

  8. I used to be a boy scout for many years, and as soon as I was old enough to think for myself I felt the same exact way you did. Throughout my experience even from my first years as a cub scout, I was the “problem” child. I was always seen as the rebellious kid, but honestly all I really remember was questioning the way we did things and try and suggest a better way. Most of the time my responses involved me getting yelled at, or told I was being disrespectful and that I needed to just listen to whomever I was questioning. I’d also get told that I needed to work my way up in ranks, if I wanted to change stuff. That was kind of an incentive to stay (which at the time I thought was cool).
    So I ended up working my way up the totem poll until I was the SPL (senior patrol leader) and I remember even then I felt like I wasn’t really making any decisions. I understood that I can’t control the budget completely because I was a kid, but I really felt that I had no say in what we did. Once a year the troop would vote on where to go with camp outs, but that was it. I remember we weren’t even allowed to have cold breakfasts on Sundays if we wanted to make it easier to leave early. These were some eye opening experiences for me about the Boy Scouts, but there were two very eye opening experiences that I still remember. One was while I was SPL, I was arguing with a younger scout about how to do something, and during the argument he actually convinced me that he was right, so I wanted to change my mind and do things his way. Just then an adult came in and yelled at him, and I was too nervous to say anything about it. Another was my order of the arrow ordeal. I hated it. It was a very long weekend, they barely gave us any food, and made us do a lot of work, to build character? That part was annoying but it’s not really the part I take issue with. What I really took issue with was the rituals that we went through to get in, and that I had to dedicate more time to the OA to learn more about it. Whenever I asked someone even simple questions about it they’d say “we can’t reveal our secrets.” I felt very uncomfortable after that. Anyway when I was 17 I ended up deciding to quit, because the boy scouts didn’t allow atheists, and I didn’t want to pretend to believe in a god or higher power just for a title. Anyway, between that and my competing philosophy with the scouts I decided to quit, and my family won’t ever let me forget it. I was very close and they all think I’m stupid and lazy for not getting the rank. It really hurts that they don’t even care about my reasoning in leaving. I seriously regret spending twelve years of my life in this organization and would take it back in a heartbeat.

  9. Frank Moraes your individual experience and thoughts concerning the BSA by no means translate to the reality of the organization as a whole. The picture you painted in your article ( yes I read it ) is a gross exaggeration at best. As truly self centered person the truth means nothing to you. More than ever we need to unite as people, your article is just another weapon of divisiveness, get over yourself. Good day sir.

    • I really don’t know what you are talking about. The article is explicitly about me and my reaction to BSA. What did I say about the group that isn’t true? Your problem seems to be my opinion. If I rejoiced in the fact that the group was paramilitary, you apparently wouldn’t have a problem with it.

      As for the issue of divisiveness, that is itself a weapon people haul out when they want to stifle dissent. Am I to pretend to like the Boy Scouts in the name of bringing the nation together? Why isn’t the onus on the Boy Scotts to disband in the name of bringing the nation together? Why is it always those who question the status quo who are being divisive?

      “Good day sir.” LOL!

  10. well you would be absolutely correct in terms of the aim of both organizations – boy scouts are definitely a paramiiltary organization with the idea of preparing young hearts and minds for the structure of military service. In the same way that say, the film Top Gun was made to encourage recruitment of young aviators for the Gulf War etc. This is a fairly common thing in most societies i suppose. Good on you for your perceptions and openness

    • I wrote about it in exactly those terms two years later. But I really do have a hard time writing about the Boy Scouts. I have strong negative opinions about the group but not so much about the people in it. Well, when they are all together, they can bug me. I went to an Eagle Scout event and it was disturbing. But as individuals, they seem okay. I definitely don’t think BSA is the right group for a country that is supposed to be a great democracy. So maybe it is great for America…

  11. boy scouts is a cult. i got vebally abused. all scouting of the world should be abloshied. scouting is a far right wing agenda. FUCK THE BSA!!!!!!!!!!!

    • It’s never a good idea to have men meet alone. I think it would be better to have different kinds of scouting. I was never keen to go out in the wilderness but my sister was. She would have been good in the Boy Scouts, and I’m sure the Boy Scouts would have been better with her and other girls. I think integrating the genders will go a long way toward fixing its problems. But I suspect it will take a generation.

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