Bestselling author Peggy Orenstein talks about her new book, “Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity.” Here is an excerpt of her conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Q: For your book, you spent more than two years talking to young men about masculinity and their attitudes, expectations and early experiences with sex and intimacy. What were the biggest surprises?
A: How much they wanted to talk to me. They were eager to have this protected space where they could work out their ideas around not only physical intimacy and pornography, but their feelings about growing up in a culture that has contradictory expectations for boys.
The MeToo movement has created this imperative to reduce sexual violence, but it’s also created an opportunity to engage in authentic, long-overdue conversations with boys about vulnerability and gender dynamics. When I wrote “Girls & Sex,” it was clear we didn’t talk to girls about sex and intimacy, but we give boys even less support.
Q: What are you hearing from older boys?
A: It depends on the boy, the context and how their parents talk to them. Some feel they have to be super-careful about consent and fear being accused by a girl who is “crazy,” some think it has nothing to do with them, and others are wrestling sincerely and with open hearts about what this means for them.
Other boys are asking, “How do you stand up to kids saying vile things in the locker room?” It’s not easy. You do get rewarded for following the script and flak for going off of it, but we also know the script has dire consequences for boys and girls. Boys who hew to it are lonelier, more prone to suicide, binge drinking, being in car accidents, to violence in their personal relationships, to being harmed themselves. It has a cost to physical and mental health, and obviously comes at cost to the young women around them if their ideas about sex include misogynistic language and bragging about sexual conquests.
Q: What are some of the other rules of that script?
A: I’ve talked about how we’ve systematically disconnected girls from their bodies, but I think we’ve systematically disconnected boys from their hearts. They would tell me, “I trained myself not to feel. I’ve learned to confide in no one.”
Q: What can parents do to help our boys grow up emotionally healthy?
A: From the get-go, boys grow up in a more impoverished emotional landscape than girls. Research shows that mothers talk in more emotional language with daughters than they do with sons. With sons, they focus on anger more than grief, sadness or hurt.
That’s an easy fix. Especially with little boys, parents can help them recognize what they’re feeling. There’s evidence that as boys grow up and become men, they not only learn to not feel, they can’t identify their emotions. When you say, “That must have been really scary,” or “You must be sad,” you’re giving them emotional vocabulary they can use later.
We’re at a tipping point and starting to realize the cost of the status quo is greater than the reward of it, and parents of boys are wanting to raise their sons to be able to have the positive, emotionally connected relationships that they deserve.
Q: How can parents empower boys to speak out against that kind of behavior?
A: Start talking about it. With girls we’ve recognized that the media is full of harmful messages about their body, weight and sexual availability. We arm them from the start when we give them their first Ruth Bader Ginsburg action figure, make sure they have positive protagonists in their books and try to develop a counternarrative.
Boys are getting the same messages about females being valued for their appearance and sexual availability, but we don’t provide a critique or counternarrative. We need to talk about the scripts they’re learning from music, pornography and the mainstream media. We don’t want to overemphasize sexual misconduct; what we want is to emphasize to boys and girls is what healthy, ethical, pleasurable, reciprocal, physically and emotionally intimate relationships look like.
Q: We know that boys are getting exposed to porn at younger ages and that for many it’s their primary source of sex education. How is porn impacting them?
A: The script of basic pornography would not be pleasurable to women. It creates a lot of misunderstanding about sex. One boy told me they are never kissing or laughing or holding hands in porn, but even when kids know it’s not a realistic portrayal, they think it is. Boys who use porn regularly are less satisfied with their sex lives, their partners, their own performance and their bodies.
Have appropriate resources in the home as boys grow up, show them videos on Amaze.org, and make sure they have accurate resources about what healthy sexuality is so they’re not thinking it’s porn.