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What Today’s Teen Boys Really Think About Sex, Toxic Masculinity, and #MeToo

America's boys are caught in a bind: they understand the world is changing, but don't feel they have the tools to change their own lives.

In 2016, Peggy Orenstein published Girls & Sex. An essential reading, the book was based off interviews with 70 young women, interviews with psychologists and academics, and plenty of accounts about what girls think and feel about teens having sexhookup culture, assault, and how the messages they receive are altering their views of sex, relationships, and themselves. It pulled back the curtain and helped start a deeper conversation about what actual teen girls thought about today’s big issues. After she finished it, Orenstein was almost immediately asked to write a book about teen boys.  

Having spent more than two decades working largely on the interior lives of teenage girls, she was resistant. But, when the #MeToo movement broke and opened a wave of imperative conversations about consent, sexual violence, power, and intimacy, Orenstein changed her mind.

The resulting book, titled, unsurprisingly, Boys & Sex, delves into the complicated inner and outer worlds of boys. Interviewing teenagers and young men aged of 16-22, Orenstein asked them about everything from toxic masculinity and the cultural shifts happening around them to consent and the complications that arise if they want to step in when they hear “locker room talk.” It’s a unique, boots-on-the-ground look at what boys today think about the issues of our time and an important, nuanced look at the complexities of being a young man today. Fatherly spoke to Orenstein about what she learned about todays boys, the trappings of masculinity, and what parents can do to help them become more emotionally present. 

Conversations around toxic masculinity, consent, and the ways boys are taught about sex and relationships are extremely prevalent today. How have these conversations affected boys’ real lives? Or are they still dealing with the same trappings of masculinity and rape culture that they were 10 years ago?

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I think they’re slowly becoming more aware of them. Even the guys who you would think would never have heard the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ — a football player on a Big 10 team — would bandy that phrase about. So they all knew it, and many of them were starting to be able to recognize it. But that didn’t mean that [the culture] wasn’t there.

Boys now see girls as equal in the classroom, in leadership positions. They have female friends. Things have definitely changed. But there’s still a pressure to define masculinity.  When I’d say, “What’s the ideal guy?” It sounded like 1955. They’d say, “sexual conquests, dominance, aggression, wealth, athleticism and the biggie — emotional suppression, stoicism, never showing any feelings, don’t let people see you cry.”

That was still completely there, in that box that boys are put in. They weren’t necessarily that happy about it, but I don’t know that we, as adults, have been giving them the support that they need to expand beyond that.

Right. It appears that they are both recognizing how masculinity traps them but feel like they can’t do anything about it.

They recognize the damage that can be caused by those values and ideals. But they aren’t always necessarily sure how to get around them. And also, they see that you can get a lot of status from them. It’s not like they’re looking around them and saying that people who embody those things are not getting what they are trying to get. They are! Those boys are getting status and power and are becoming the president. 

Right.

There are rewards for holding and expressing those values. There’s also tremendous cost [in expressing those values,] not only for boys who can’t or don’t want to, but even for those who are successful in those rigid, masculine norms. They’re far more likely to sexually harass, far more likely to bully, and far more likely to have been bullied. They’re more likely to be violent and to be victims of violence. They’re more likely to binge drink, get in car accidents, to be depressed and commit suicide. So it’s a risky gambit.

You’re not allowed to acknowledge, or express, any emotion besides happiness and anger. One of the big things boys were struggling with was the idea of emotional vulnerability and that being emotionally vulnerable, on the one hand, was taboo. They were constantly talking about the wall they erected inside of them or teaching themselves how not to feel or learning to never cry. But the fact is that emotional vulnerability is fundamental to human well-being. 

Right, absolutely. Boys still brag a lot about how they “never cry.”

Brené Brown calls emotional vulnerability the secret sauce that holds relationships together. So, if we cut boys off from the ability to feel or express that, we’re basically cutting them off from the ability to have, establish, and engage in healthy relationships.

Beyond the fact that boys see men who exhibit these values of toxic masculinity, how else are these ideas reinforced for young boys?

It’s very hard to call them out. Guys have talked to me about attempts to stand up when somebody was engaging in so-called locker room talk, and how you would get targeted or mocked if you did that. And it was very difficult to do. One guy was telling me about how he and a friend tried to stand up to somebody and they failed. His friend continued to try, and he said he watched while the friend — this was on a sports team — was increasingly marginalized and nobody wanted to be his friend and he lost all his social capital. In his silence, he retained all of his social capital. He didn’t want to have to choose between his dignity and these guys. 

In the book, you discuss how the term ‘hilarious’ — which honestly seems pretty innocuous — serves, actually, to limit emotional expression among boys. What do you mean by that? 

I started noticing how often boys used ‘hilarious’ or something being ‘funny’ — those were the words they used — when what they really meant was that something was disturbing, that it violated their morals, that it was reprehensible, that it disgusted them. Hilarious or funny were a default position. If you see something as hilarious when you don’t know how else to respond to it, then you won’t be targeted or mocked.

It’s another way that boys are disconnected from what they truly feel. Their heads are disconnected from their hearts. Among other things, that also undermines their compassion for the target of whatever is hilarious, which, in a situation of sexual misconduct, is a girl. I noticed some of the really high profile assault cases with high school boys as the perpetrators. What those boys said when people said, “How could you have done this horrible thing?” They’d say, “Well, we just thought we were being funny. We thought it was hilarious.”

It is a distancing mechanism that allows them to also dehumanize the subject of whatever it is that is hilarious, that is actually not hilarious at all. 

This is a big question. But now that you’ve written this book, what do boys need right now more than anything else? 

I’ve written about girls since the early 90’s. We’ve done a lot of talking with girls about the contradictions that they face, and there’s been broad recognition of the harm of media messaging on their body image, or on their sense of self. There are organizations now. There’s an American Psychiatric Association report. There are books. There’s parental concern. It hasn’t made everything perfect for girls, but they have a much broader vision of their opportunities, and a much broader critique of what the culture tells them about who they are.

We have not supplied that to boys. We realize that the way things have been is unsustainable, but we haven’t stepped in, or said, “Oh, okay, there’s a tension, there’s toxic masculinity.” How can we support boys, not only in telling them what is wrong, but helping them develop their own critique? How can we talk to them about what they can and should do? About what healthy relationships and sexuality do look like and can look like? Talking to them about what they want from their personal relationships?

We’re letting boys flounder, and then wondering why the result is so confusing.

So, how are boys navigating the world of sex today?

The culture is telling them that sexual conquest is the measure of a man, and that the ideal is hooking up with as many partners as possible, with a sense of detachment, and not treating those partners particularly well. When you hear boys talking amongst themselves about sex, how do they talk about it? They hammer, they bang, they pound, they nail, they pipe, they tap that. It sounds like they’re at a construction site, not engaging in an act of intimacy.

Ha! 

A lot of the guys I talked to actually weren’t really thrilled about that. One guy said to me that hookups can feel like two people having really distinct experiences. That there’s not a lot of eye contact, often not a lot of conversation. It’s like you’re acting vulnerable without being vulnerable with someone you don’t care about or know very well.

So they did have a critique.  They’re thinking about what serves them and what doesn’t. But that was what was being held up to them as the cultural ideal, without parental or educational input. And, you know, what’s left? The sex educators become media and porn, basically. 

When we talk about this generation and having sex, there seems to be a tale of two cities. There’s the iGen, “no one is having sex, they’re all on their phones in their room, and they’re super depressed. And then there’s the other side that says “Hookup culture! Everyone is having sex!” What is actually true here?

Boys are having less intercourse than the previous generation. But, that’s partly because they are in more of a hookup culture and people, truthfully, don’t have as much sex in a hookup culture as you would if you were with a partner. Those surveys also often don’t ask about other sexual activities that have gone up in recent years. Meanwhile, the whole idea of kids bed hopping is based on hookup culture. We tend to vastly over perceive, and kids tend to vastly over perceive, what people are doing.

The word “hookup” is completely meaningless. It could mean kissing, groping, oral sex, intercourse. It’s intentionally ambiguous, so that you don’t have to say what you’re doing and everybody else overestimates what you’re doing.

That plays into the idea of the fear of missing out. It plays into an anxiety that you’re not experienced enough; it plays into a sense that you should be doing something other than what you’re doing. That can push kids to have unwanted sex or to be coercive when they are in a sexual situation so that they can also say that they hooked up with somebody.

I did sometimes feel like boys could be less reliable narrators than girls. They don’t perceive themselves, or they have justified, engaging in behavior that might be coercive or might actually be misconduct or assault. I would sometimes feel like, perhaps if I was talking to the other person involved in this encounter, I would be getting a different story.

How do the ideals of toxic masculinity intersect with race? Are boys of color experiencing something different than their white counterparts?

The boys of color that I spoke with were in largely white environments. so that was the world they were operating in. They would say that they would be perceived as the coolest dude in the room but it was a precarious position, because it could very quickly flip to being seen as a potential predator. So they were hyper-sexualized, but they were also seen with suspicion and that created a lot of anxiety.

Asian-American boys were seen as the least cool dude in the room. The smartest dude in the room, but also not masculine, and asexual. 

That came with a whole different set of psychological costs. One guy said to me that he matched with a girl on Tinder, and those apps are really rife with racism. He said they went back and forth for a while and she said, “Hey, we can be friends but no offense, but I don’t date asian guys.” He looked at me and went, “How is that no offense?” 

How can parents step in and right the wrongs of this culture of silence? 

Parents need to think about having [conversations about sex and not about sex], not all at once, but over time with their kids. Especially fathers and father figures. So often, if those conversations happen, it is mothers who have them. One thing that was really loud and clear with boys is that they wanted to talk with their dads, and to hear from their dads about emotional intimacy and about sex. They also wanted to hear from dads about their own regrets, and how they managed that.

I know that it is hard for dads. Their fathers never talked to them. It’s hard to make that leap. But I think it’s really important to know that you don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to do it all at once, you can go back and say, “Oh, you know what I said before? I’d like to add to that. You don’t even have to have a perfect track record yourself. You don’t have to be in the ideal relationship, or have done everything perfectly, or right in order, to have wisdom to impart to your son.