Why we need to talk to boys about sex, porn, consent

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A couple kissing. Credit: Pixabay.

Journalist Peggy Orenstein spent two years talking with more than 100 young men ages 16-22 for her new book, “Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity.”

“They were really eager to talk, and nobody really ever asks boys these questions. I was asking them about their ideas and experiences around sex, around intimacy, around masculinity, gender dynamics, porn, all that stuff,” Orenstein tells Press Play. “And I think they took it as a real opportunity because … they grow up in this kind of silence.”

What does it mean to be masculine?

Orenstein says boys are wrestling with new and old ideas of masculinity and sex. “On one hand, they have female friends and they see young women as … worthy of opportunity in professional and educational life and all of that,” she says.

“On the other hand, when you ask them what an ideal guy is, they talk about dominance, and aggression, and athleticism, and sexual conquest, and stoicism. So it was really looking at how those things were creating tension in boys lives.”


The cover of “Boys and Sex.” Credit: Harper.

Taboo around vulnerability Orenstein says she thought a lot about what happens when boys are asked to avoid vulnerability -- a basic human trait and what researcher Brene Brown calls “the secret sauce that holds relationships together.”

Orenstein says the inability to express vulnerability is reinforced by a culture of sexual conquest. She sees this culture in locker room talk.

“What do they say in the locker room? They say, ‘I pounded, I banged, I hammered, I nailed, I hit that, I tapped that, I piped that.’ It's like they went to a construction site, right? Not like they engaged in an act of intimacy,” she says.

Orenstein notes that some boys tried to disrupt that kind of locker room talk, however; and her conversations with them largely centered on what they couldn’t say and didn’t say among their peers. “And certainly all of that does play into creating that kind of rape culture dynamic,” she says.

The impact of porn

Orenstein says porn -- now easily accessible 24/7 -- often portrays sex as transactional and commodified.

“It tends to show sex as something men do to women, and female pleasure as a performance for men. … And when we're not talking to kids about what's real, and not real, and missing, and ought to be and all of that, basically that has become the de facto sex educator, and they're bringing those ideas into the bedroom,” she says.

“The narcissism of male desire” and misperceptions

Porn and mainstream media reinforce the ideas that men are the center of desire, and men’s pleasure is more important than women’s feelings, Orenstein says.

It’s important to make gender dynamics more visible to boys, she emphasizes. She gives the example:

“Guys, particularly when they're drunk, tend to overperceive ‘yes’ in a woman; and actually to perceive any act as friendliness, as meaning ‘it's on.’ Or to perceive consent to kissing as meaning consent to intercourse. Or consent to the place, like if you're going to a dorm room, as being consent to intercourse,” she explains.

“So understanding sort of how that socialization works … I think can help young men who do want to be more conscious actually be more conscious,” she adds.

Good guys doing bad things

“We tend to talk about sexual assault in particular as something only monsters do. … And when we do that, we kind of deny and deflect from the kind of everyday coercion and misconduct that ordinary good guys can engage in. Because a good guy can do a bad thing,” Orenstein says.

“One of the things that the research shows is that guys actually do understand consent. But when their actions don't meet their definition, they expand the definition, rather than looking at their actions,” she adds.

Accountability

Orenstein says it’s important to create pathways to accountability, because she met guys who wanted to take responsibility for their actions but didn’t know how or where to do so.

“I think a lot of times when somebody's been assaulted, [on] a college campus in particular, it's not so much that they want somebody jailed or expelled or suspended. They might. But they might really just want the person to understand the harm they caused, and to hear it, and make amends for it and not do it again,” she says.

The restorative justice process leads to true accountability, healing, and making amends, Orenstein says.

Parents: Talk to your kids

Orenstein advises parents and kids to have many small conversations about consent, accountability, media, pornography, etc.

“I know it's hard. And I know that a lot of parents would rather poke themselves in the eye with a fork than have these conversations. But we don't really have the luxury of silence at this point because of the world our kids are growing up in,” she says.

She notes that you don’t have to know all the answers, or have the perfect relationship with your partner. “But you just have to start somewhere. And we just have to get into that little crack in the door and start having these conversations with boys.”


Peggy Orenstein. Credit: Tia and Claire Studio.

“Boys & Sex” is a follow up to Peggy Orenstein’s 2017 book, “Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape.”

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson