Feminism may have afforded girls an escape from the constraints of conventional femininity, offered them alternative identities as women and a language with which to express the myriad problems-that-have-no-name, but it has made few inroads with boys.1.
With that early quote Peggy Orenstein sets the tone for Boys & Sex. While understanding that we have a long way to go for women to get true equality across the board, she shows that many of the definitions of masculinity boys deal with are seemingly stuck in the 1950's where height and sexual conquest were the main predictors of your manliness and anything feminine was a direct attack on manhood.
One of the common themes through the book was that all the "locker talk" and behaviour exhibited by men wasn't about the sex, it was about asserting their dominance and masculinity2. The talk, cat calls, behaviours, were all about showing how powerful they were by showing that they could control a woman's body and take pleasure from it. When bragging about the number of partners it was signalling that they were more manly because of the amount of dominance.
When men use language regularly reserved for power tools in conjunction with their sexual exploits, they are showing that they have stamina and "sexual prowess" that should be the envy of their male counterparts. For men to find this funny they have to systematically ignore the humanity of the girls they're talking about3.
There are a few reasons that porn is appealing. On one hand it's easily accessible on the internet now4, but maybe even more important is the fact that it doesn't reject you at all5. In Jordan Peterson's terrible book 12 Rules for Life, we saw him talk about the rejection that women bring to men.
Women have been making men self-conscious since the beginning of time. They do this primarily by rejecting them--but they do it also by shaming them, if men do not take responsibility.6
This has become a common refrain as seen is iGen also, where Twenge talked about a generation that wanted to avoid any type of bad feeling. So to avoid any type of rejection, and feeling justified in this by people like Peterson, boys turn to porn for sexual gratification, but there is an terrible side to porn use.
Early porn use is tied with higher pregnancy rates, more partners, increases in "sexual agression" and viewing women as more negative, more there for male pleasure7. Both men and women view the unreal depiction of pornography as what sex should be. The erection that lasts for hours, which of course is from injections or drug use designed to stimulate an eviction, is now seen as the type of stamina that any man should be aiming for.
An interesting question that Orenstein encourages us to ask any men we know who are bragging about "nailing" a women is "well how much did she enjoy it?" When that was asked by men in the book it was often met by silence, because they truly didn't know and couldn't even begin to ask the questions to find out because they didn't have the language or understanding of what women liked to make that mental leap8.
Another big thing that is influencing the sexual lives of boys is "hookup culture". For men it's assumed that you just want to hookup and don't have the emotional awareness to have any capacity for love or a long term relationship9. This matches with the findings in iGen, which showed that most people feel trapped into hookup culture and don't want it. They want relationships, but figure that they're the only ones that want relationships.
The truth is that most boys prefer physical intimacy with someone they know and trust, they simply feel trapped by the assumptions that hookup culture makes about what they want10.
On sex in hookup culture, only 35-40% of encounters result in intercourse11. 35% of hookups are kissing and groping, with the rest of them divided between other ways of being intimate physically, like oral sex.
Another prevalent part of hookup culture is that getting drunk, really drunk, is a prerequisite for encounters to happen12. In Talking to Strangers, Malcom Gladwell, address drinking in hookup culture with some surprising facts. Today's heavy drinkers are consuming far more than those of past decades. In fact the "warm up" drinks are what used to be considered a full night of heavy drinking.
Going along with heavy drinking, Gladwell showed that when we're drunk our inner feelings don't match with our outer actions. We think they do, but they don't. Then for anyone seeing your actions, they simply can read them properly if they're drunk as well. It's similar to the issue with tunnelling as discussed in Scarcity. You get focused on the needs at hand and then can't think about future consequences. For men that means they focus on the upcoming physical encounter, and literally don't have the mental bandwidth to think about the results of not dealing with consent properly.
Drinking compounds all the issues that people have when it comes to communicating and reading each other poorly.
Then when it really comes down to it, women and men are both socialized to view male needs as most important13. Men will repeatedly ask for some sexual act while ignoring the firm no and taking it as a reason to convince a woman to do it. Women in turn may just give in to repeated requests as their value is repeatedly removed and just do it because it's easier. The men in this scenario won't see this, they'll figure they convinced her to want it. In fact Orenstein has an entire chapter late in the book dealing with exactly this type of scenario.
Often in these sexual encounters men get their pleasure and then the encounter is over. When asked how the girl was sexually pleased most men couldn't think of a way and hadn't even thought about that aspect until challenged when relating a sexual encounter. It's highly unusual for a woman to receive pleasure in a sexual encounter while a man goes without.
African American students are, in general, less likely to drink to excess than whites and more likely to endorse gender equality, negating two essential preconditions for casual campus sex.14.
Black men have an even bigger hurdle to jump in sexual encounters because of the highly sexualized predatoril view that African American men have associated with them. They need to do way more consent work than someone with white skin would or else they will be much more likely to suffer accusations of inappropriate sexual conduct15. For Asian men it's almost opposite due to "Yellow Peril"16 and other similar ideas of them being less desirable than men from other racial backgrounds17. Asian men have a hard time finding partners.
At the end of all of the issues that boys see with poor models of sexual behaviour, and verbal conduct about sexual behaviour, Orenstein offers a few ways to help men act in a way that is better for gender equality.
For parents of boys, surround your boys with strong female books and role models18. This is something that happens to girls, but not to boys. It's far to easy for boys to grow up having no strong complex female characters in their life unless parents put the work in.
As they get older, boys need strong role models that don't make sexualized jokes to show conquest of women's bodies19. Be the guy in the running group that stops and tells another guy that some type of discussion is not okay. Boys are socialized into this, and it's up to us as men20 to give them other socialization that works against the dominant man paradigm.
When confronted with behaviour that doesn't fit your own "I'm a good guy" model, don't change your model to expand and fit your actions. Yes this is something men do. When confronted with their actions as having been done by other people, they condemn them. When those same actions are shown in their life, they make excuses and expand their definition of "good"21. It may be hard to see that you're failing in some area of your conduct, but use it as a chance to get better. Don't dismiss it.
The boys also tended to equate enthusiastic participation in any sexual act (such as kissing) with enthusiastic consent to vaginal intercourse.22.
We also need to increase talk around consent and sexual education. No abstinence only doesn't count. No it's not a one and done conversation23. You remind your children about their manners or washing their hands for years. Talking about sex in an age appropriate way is the same. Have the conversation over and over and force it. Most boys wish their parents forced talking about sex lots instead of one odd conversation24.
Orenstein talks briefly about the Dutch model of sexual education, which begins early with proper body part names and continues throughout school talking about consent and different sexual activities. Dutch parents are also open to teens in relationships having sleepovers where they share a bed25. In this model they see less teen pregnancy, later sexual activity, less unwanted sexual activity, and less STD transmission. Maybe North America needs to stop being prudes and start talking about sex openly.
Let's finish with a final quote pointed towards the emotional shrivelling that men have by the time they are adults.
By adulthood, the majority of men have difficulty not only expressing but identifying their emotions.26
If you're raising boys, is that what you want to hear? If you are a man, does that statement make you proud of your own emotional development?
Many of us are living in a shadow life with part of ourselves cut off and inaccessible. The emotional part of us is stunted, and if it's around at all we rely on women as our only outlet
Now on to the book recommendation, much of it was hard to read, particularly the chapter on pornography where little was held back by Orenstein. Most men have viewed it at some point (myself included) and getting a better understanding of what it does to our brains, and what the women involved almost always dealing with in the profession, was gut wrenching. I had to take a break after reading that chapter.
So, I think you should read the book and it's going to be hard. If you're a women that has dealt with any type of abuse, maybe don't read it. At least understand that it's going to talk about subjects that will be very hard and take appropriate precautions for your mental health.
For men, read the book and then make a change in your behaviour towards women in any place you interact with them.
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As an aside, in 18 years of marriage and sex, it's always the best when I work to ensure that my wife is getting what she wants. Those nights are the best nights of sex we have without a doubt ↩︎
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And of course wider society ↩︎
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