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Blake Spence, a program co-ordinator and educator with WiseGuys, leads a class of Grade 9 male students at Georges P Vanier Junior High in Calgary. (Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
Blake Spence, a program co-ordinator and educator with WiseGuys, leads a class of Grade 9 male students at Georges P Vanier Junior High in Calgary. (Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

In the age of Internet porn, teaching boys to be good men Add to ...

What is a nymphomaniac? And is it okay to have a relationship with them?

Is it wrong or weird to think of someone else while having sex with someone?

Why is it okay for guys to have multiple sex partners but not girls?

Is it okay to masturbate five times a day?

Deep questions – at least if you consider they're being asked by 14- and 15-year-old boys.

More related to this story

In Blake Spence's class, no topic is off-limits, especially when a boy has dropped it anonymously into the “question box.” Mr. Spence, 28, co-ordinates the WiseGuyz Program, now on offer to Grade 9 boys in two Calgary high schools. In 14 two-hour sessions offered once a week, the guys talk – yes, talk, without girls in the room – about everything from reproductive anatomy, sexually transmitted infections and birth control to relationships, values and the media.

WiseGuyz, run by the Calgary Sexual Health Centre (which gave Mr. Spence his training), isn't just sex ed with an update. It's part of a new wave of initiatives to intervene in a young, male culture that is giving many adults cause for concern. Long-term, the aim is to combat the rates of domestic violence and sexually transmitted infections. Short-term, the goal is to tutor young men in healthy relations with women and non-destructive masculinity.

A U.S. study of 1,430 Grade 7 students published last month found that nearly one in six (15 per cent) reported being physically abused by someone they had dated; one in three (37 per cent) said they had been victimized psychologically or electronically in a romantic context.

“The script about what sexual relationships should be has been written for young men – that they have to be the aggressors and that it's about their pleasure, not necessarily their female partner's,” Mr. Spence says.

He also points out that boys in Grade 9 today “consume a lot of pornography.” Thus, “they need a lens to understand that those messages can be harmful, and that they're actually not realistic. We're giving them a context to consider.”

At a time when media and college-campus chatter seem to celebrate binge-drunk sex, disposable partners and protracted adolescence as the norm, critics such as Wendy Shalit and Laura Sessions Stepp have raised the alarm about “girls gone wild,” while seeming to neglect the other half of the equation.

But educators, at least, are increasingly shifting their focus to the masculinity script.

They say they need to start early: As young men construct their sexuality, they are being presented with myriad misogynist offerings, from the blatantly sexist attitudes of Tucker Max's “fratire” bestseller I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell or on TV in Two-and-a-Half Men, to a “pickup artist” scene that has spewed out countless “seduction manuals” and boot camps for guys eager to try out techniques such as “negging,” which involves bulldozing a sexual prospect's self-esteem to break down her resistance.

On campus, disturbing signs of what feminist critics call “rape culture” have emerged, including a 2010 late-night march by a Yale University fraternity that saw pledges walk around a female-freshman-housing area chanting “No means yes! Yes means anal!”

Equally queasy messages can be found in advertising: Earlier this month, a Facebook ad for vodka manufacturer Belvedere showed a man pinning down a frightened woman in his lap. “Unlike some people, Belvedere always goes down smoothly,” the tagline read.

Most of all, perhaps, hard-core porn is now also seeping into the way adolescent and teenage boys navigate sex.

“Two clicks away and you're watching people have sex, all kinds of ways of women being degraded,” laments Pam Krause, executive director of the Calgary Sexual Health Centre. “Is there a message in urinating on a woman's face? If your parents aren't talking about sex with you, and you aren't getting good sex ed at school, that might be your first and perhaps only context for sex and sexuality for a while.”

A British survey published by Psychologies magazine in 2010 found that 81 per cent of 14-to-16-year-olds (regardless of gender) had looked at porn online at home, while 63 per cent called it up on their phones; a third of them had seen sexual images online when they were 10 or younger. A 2006 study involving rural Alberta youth from 17 schools found that 88 per cent of Grade 8 boys had viewed porn online, while 60 per cent had watched sex videos or DVDs.

“The availability of free Internet porn means not only that pornography is instantly available to anyone of any age, it also means that porn has permeated the culture to the point where its dominant messages about women, men, sex and power have permeated areas that we don't think of as porn: advertising, film and television,” says Michael Messner, a sociology and gender studies professor at the University of Southern California.

“A challenge facing any adults working with boys is just to get them to think about and talk about these images, while not falling back on the guilt-loaded, anti-sex strategies that have proven so unsuccessful in the past.”

WiseGuyz was first piloted in 2010, and it will be adapted into a non-mandatory curriculum available to schools this fall. (Students need consent from their parents.) Teachers and administrative staff nudge into it the boys they think would benefit most: “It might be guys already in relationships, guys that get into trouble often, guys that have potentially negative attitudes about women or about someone from the LGBTQ community,” Mr. Spence says.

Whether it's boys-only sex ed such as WiseGuyz, hockey coaches slipping in gender studies during practice or anti-sexism campaigns for college guys, educators hope that young men will begin asking themselves: “What is masculinity, and why do I act the way I do?”

It's a fine tightrope walk, to discuss these subjects without vilifying men, emasculating or using the dreaded F-word – feminism. That's tricky, given that the new programs for guys only “exist because of feminism,” according to Prof. Messner, author of It's All for the Kids: Gender, Families, and Youth Sports. He argues that although few young men today would self-identify as feminists (and neither would many of their female peers), a lot of them would agree with feminist positions on issues such as equal pay or violence against women.

“The trick is for these guys to come to see these issues not just as women's issues but as their issues, too,” he says. “Feminism as a movement is stalled partly because of backlash against it, but also because we have not yet taken the next step, which is to involve boys and men in seeing how feminism promises to broaden their lives in healthier directions.”

A CASE FOR SEX-SEGREGATED SPACE

Most of these new initiatives involve segregating the sexes, which is something of a throwback, as co-ed is the gold standard in contemporary sex education. But proponents suggest that it lets young men talk about their shared experiences from a more specific, gendered perspective.

“Eventually you bring the two [sexes]together, but they need to build self-understanding, self-confidence and comfort on their own,” says University of Windsor sociology professor Eleanor Maticka-Tyndale, who holds the Canada Research Chair in social justice and sexual health.

Programs catering exclusively to adolescent and teenage girls have existed for years in Canada, including Girl Time for Grades 7 and 8 and Starburst, which promotes “resiliency” in girls through Grade 7 to 9, working to bolster their self-worth and help them build and navigate personal boundaries.

In the male versions, “it's about looking at the male experience and helping them to redefine that for themselves,” Ms. Krause says. About sexist images in pop culture, for example, she says: “They don't have an opportunity to explore what that means, or have values around it, because we've never said to boys, ‘What do you actually think of that?' That's what we want to do – start the conversation.”

In many ways, these programs are a junior version of the Men Of Strength (MOST) Club: Now a decade old in the United States, the 22-week curriculum for 11-to-18-year-olds emphasizes “healthy, non-violent masculinity.” A college incarnation, Campus MOST, is now pushing bystander intervention in sexual assaults.

“It does a good job of portraying the well-rounded, healthy, chivalrous man, the real masculinity. It's not just your jock – the media portrayal of what a man should be,” says Adam Middleton, a freshman at George Washington University who attends Campus MOST.

Mr. Middleton, 19, started taking MOST sessions in Grade 10; he would go at lunch on Fridays, and he recalls that they were “compelling conversations.”

MOST is the brainchild of Men Can Stop Rape, a Washington, D.C., non-profit founded in 1997 that this year launched a highly publicized call for college men to intervene against sexual harassment and rape. Its “Where Do You Stand?” campaign stood out for its images of beefy jocks taking on would-be date rapists. “When Kate seemed too drunk to leave with Chris, I checked in with her,” read one such image, which 22 schools from Miami to Montana have already ordered on posters, bus shelters, sweatshirts and wristbands.

The organization is also hosting workshops in which guys are called on to discuss, as Men Can Stop Rape executive director Neil Irvin puts it, how “dominant stories of masculinity impede men's emotional intelligence.” They critique celebrations of binge drinking and putdowns of “cock blocking” (getting in the way of another guy's attempts to “score”) – “the frat-boy culture.”

While that kind of machismo might have been more acute in decades past, “it's not a lot better either” today, Prof. Messner says. “We still contend with sexist hyper-masculinity as a dominant force on campuses.”

Windsor's Prof. Maticka-Tyndale argues that such boorish behaviour goes in and out of style: “We're on a bad swing right now … a more raunchy swing of the cycle.” At least, she says, the jocks sneering from the back rows of her gender-studies classes in the 1970s were replaced in later decades by guys who “came in with an honest desire to address issues of sexuality and gender,” and that remains true, at least inside the classroom.

An anti-sexist men's movement arose in answer to second-wave feminism and “has had a low-keyed life since the eighties, but is still around,” says Gary Cross, a professor at Pennsylvania State University and author of Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity.

But where that movement might once have been negative about “conventional ideas of masculinity as strong and heroic,” as Prof. Messner puts it, today's programs tout male strength as a resource that guys can use to resist peer pressure and stand up for women.

Even some fraternities have taken an interest in rehabilitating their images, as evidenced by the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes campaign, which sees burly dudes donning stilettos to fundraise for rape-crisis centres and domestic-violence shelters. Founder Frank Baird says that “tens of thousands” of U.S. postsecondary male students have participated, with roughly 40 per cent of the walks now being organized by frat houses, a number that, to his surprise, has risen annually since the event was launched in 2001. During the walk, guys shout anti-rape slogans and hand out pamphlets on drinking and sexual consent, among other issues, while teetering around in heels.

“It's a very dramatic way of showing, ‘I want to be a good guy,'” Mr. Baird says. The frat members do the walks to fulfill the community-work requirements in their charters, he says, but they are also occasionally spurred by assaults on campus.

Might the appeal be more in the attention-seeking than the activism? Mr. Baird acknowledges that for some it might be, but he points out that to do the walk, the young men first need to connect with a rape-crisis centre or a domestic-violence shelter: “That's when they start to get educated. ... These guys are directly interacting with the mostly women who are working there. Under what other conditions would they come together?”

After all, he says, “men don't often get a chance – many of them feel like they never get the chance – to say anything about gender. ... What happens when men get beat over the head is they shut down. We need to do this in a way that doesn't make men defensive.”

WANT BOYS TO TALK? ENLIST A JOCK

Reaching young men in a way that doesn't make them leery takes a particular type of role model, but parental efforts have long come across as too prying. In the case of intimacy and sexuality, many parents are still simply too squeamish for the job.

“It depends on each family, but often parents are relieved not to have the conversation with their kids,” WiseGuyz's Mr. Spence says.

One place many advocates are looking to find positive role models is in sports.

“In school, there's a lot of pressure to be sexually successful, have lots of girlfriends and be a jock, an athlete, a man's man,” says Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology at SUNY Stony Brook University and author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. “Which is why using athletes and coaches to bring men into the conversation is so valuable. They really have the credibility.”

The high-school athletics program Coaching Boys into Men, for example, brings gender studies into team practices. Now used across 20 American states as well as by junior hockey coaches in Alberta, the program started out as a playbook for coaches who wanted to take advantage of teachable moments when they overheard troubling talk in the locker room, some of it about sexual assault. Now, it's free for anyone to download online.

“In our pilot work, we found athletes saying that coaches are like a second dad: ‘Whatever coach says, I listen to,'” says Elizabeth Miller, chief of the division of adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh who helped to develop the program.

A study published last month in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that young men who went through the sessions were more likely to intervene when they witnessed their peers disrespecting or abusing women than other boys. By the end of a season, Dr. Miller has seen teen males calling each other out in the presence of women: “When they caught each other being disrespectful, they'd say, ‘Yo! Boys to men.' ”

While they're not coaches, the facilitators at WiseGuyz aren't exactly stodgy either: “We're not teachers. We're young guys,” Mr. Spence says of his three-man team. (A female instructor helps with some sessions.)

“The more we can connect with them, the more we're going to respect them,” agrees Collin Anda, a 15-year-old student at Calgary's Georges P. Vanier Junior High School, where WiseGuyz is currently halfway through the 14-week course.

The curriculum includes sessions on sexual diversity, fatherhood, emotional stress, sexual consent and conflict resolution, among many others. The boys discuss cases such as that of Matthew Shepard, the young Wyoming man murdered for being gay in 1998, and watch feminist Jean Kilbourne's Killing Us Softly, a film about gender stereotypes in advertising.

“It's a laid-back class, but it teaches you a lot,” Collin says, such as “how to keep a manly life but also be responsible and respectful” and “how she'll feel in certain situations, and how you can change that – how you can make a relationship better at a young age.”

Does Collin think the exercises have the potential to groom him into a better boyfriend, when he has a girlfriend?

“Yes, actually, I do,” he says. “It makes you think about how you are. It makes you look into the mirror. It just gets you thinking.”

In fact, Collin's mother, Thais Anda, says she has noticed a change already. Before WiseGuyz, Ms. Anda would hear Collin chatting girls up via Skype and “shake her head” at the things he would say.

“Now I notice that he talks differently,” says Ms. Anda, a 38-year-old administrative manager at Dell Canada. “He doesn't talk in a way that's demeaning. He doesn't try to make the girl like him by acting stupid. He talks more maturely and wisely.”

Zosia Bielski is a reporter for Globe Life.

Follow on Twitter: @ZosiaBielski

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