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Viktoria Sim/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

After six months of social distancing and the suspension of physical contact, teenagers are going back to school and hook-ups are on the horizon. As #MeToo continues to ripple through Canada, it’s an important moment to talk to our boys about sex.

But before we start lecturing them, it’s worth getting a clearer picture of what’s actually going on with boys’ sexuality. Peggy Orenstein’s recent book, Boys & Sex, provides a rare glimpse into the experiences of boys today. Based on extensive interviews with racially diverse (but mostly middle class) U.S. boys, the book contains many surprising revelations.

“Dick School,” her opening chapter, shows how depressingly little has changed since I went to high school in the eighties: The jocks are still toxic and locker room rape jokes and sexism are rampant. “Catching feelings” – developing an emotional connection to a partner – is talked about like an STI. But beneath toxic teen masculinity lies a rarely discussed world of sensitivity, vulnerability and emotional needs.

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Internet pornography, ubiquitous long before COVID-19 plunged our teens into even more screen-time, is accelerating damaging expectations of girls. But Orenstein’s conversations show how porn also messes with boys’ sense of themselves. Many are aware that they are caught in a compulsion that promotes insecurity about performance and size, leaving them afraid to be seen naked, and sometimes unable to get erections. They want to quit, but can’t.

Mason, a sophomore at a big U.S. university, realized he had a problem when he found himself watching extreme fetish videos. For years Mason was afraid to kiss a girl, and when the chance for sex arose, he couldn’t get an erection. What finally worked was conversation: talking with a girl about his anxieties, his nerves disappeared and he realized “if I can’t be fully vulnerable, mentally and emotionally, it stops me from being able to be vulnerable physically.”

These are the lessons boys won’t find in the toxic bravado of high school or on Pornhub. What’s most surprising about Mason’s story is that he wishes his dad had talked to him more openly about the pitfalls of pornography.

Teen hook-up culture has become a ruthless competition between boys for social status. But Orenstein reveals an important fact: Boys are often deeply unsatisfied with their experiences. Many find themselves depressed after one-night stands. One sexually experienced sophomore answers Orenstein that the most intimate thing he’d ever done was “holding hands.” They get an ego boost from “scoring,” but intuit that this doesn’t fulfill some deeper desire – for which they have no words. In part, this is our own cultural failing. Orenstein cites sociologist Amy Schalet’s finding that parents in the Netherlands assume their boys want emotional connection, while U.S. parents view their boys as motivated only by hormones. Hook-up culture does not provide boys (or girls) with the experiences needed to learn how to be intimate and to develop emotional connections. And, as Orenstein observes, it doesn’t even provide joyous casual sex. And we can’t just blame pornography and Tinder: We are not giving boys any information about their own needs for emotional connection.

“It’s uncomfortable to talk to your parents about sex,” says Liam, pointing out that his parents gave him no sexual guidance, “but it’s also one of those things that I wish they had forced me to do.” Orenstein observes that boys are “eager to have their fathers talk to them about their own experience with sex, love, even regret.” As fathers, we can discuss the real details of our own emotional-sexual experiences: the fears, failures, joys and lessons learned. What do we actually want from sex? How does sex connect us emotionally? And what is the healthy way to have casual sex? Perhaps we don’t pass on this knowledge because we haven’t asked ourselves the same questions.

My generation of men was raised in the same “Dick School” as boys today. I only got two pieces of sexual advice from my father: first, in high school: “If you know it’s gonna rain, wear gumboots.” I assumed that was code for condoms. And then, when I left for a year in Israel: “Don’t come back with anything you didn’t leave with.” I wasn’t sure if he meant a disease, or a baby, or both.

Some boys will learn these lessons on their own – as some of their fathers did. Orenstein doesn’t investigate how the proliferation of pornography gives easier access to bi-curious and queer desires, or how contemporary hook-up culture and increased LQBTQ+ acceptance contain possibilities for more liberated sexualities. But while we could let them figure it out themselves, there’s another reason we need to talk to boys: girls. The same cultures of masculinity that disconnect these boys from their own emotional lives lead to an objectification of women that can blind them to the emotional needs and physical boundaries of girls.

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Orenstein’s book has a continual eye on the damage boys do to girls. “In so many of the encounters boys described to me,” she writes, “it seemed like the shadow of a girl hovered behind them, a girl who was furious or traumatized or rolling her eyes, one who would have told the same story very differently. The question was how to get the boys to see that too.”

The penultimate chapter of Orenstein’s book documents a tragically ordinary case of college date rape. Sameer is not an ill-intentioned monster: When he realizes that Anwen is traumatized he feels terribly guilty and does his best to repair the situation. It’s worth having boys and girls read this chapter to see how non-consensual sex can happen, and to see the devastating after-effects on girls – as well as on boys.

Liam, the boy who wished his parents had forced him to talk about sex, realizes in conversation with Orenstein that he too had coerced a girl into non-consensual sex. “I suppose there was something in the back of my head that I wasn’t fully listening to,” he admits.

So how do we help boys listen to this voice in their heads – when Dick School and Pornhub have trained them to ignore it?

In part, through listening to the voices of other boys. Minoritized groups understand dominant cultures of masculinity in ways that all boys can learn from. Orenstein’s conversations with trans boys illuminate the way that masculinity is constructed, practiced and performed. Interviews with gay boys provide a critique of consent culture: instead of making yes/no proposals, they learn to ask “what are you into?” Her discussions with Asian- and African-American boys show how white masculinity limits various boys in different ways. Asian boys – hyposexualized in the white imagination – wonder if they’ll ever be loved. Black boys – hypersexualized – talk about feeling objectified (especially when minorities in white colleges). Discussing these experiences with boys will help them understand the real effects of Dick School on others.

By their teens, most boys have developed a healthy immunity to the older generation’s moralizing. Perhaps a more effective route to getting boys to listen to the voice in their head – and to empathize with others – is to connect them to the emotional realities that Dick School has silenced in them. In the chapter “All Guys Want It. Don’t They?” Orenstein undoes a pervasive myth: that all boys want is sex, all the time. Some boys admit to feeling “used” after hook-ups. Some only accept oral sex because they’re afraid of insulting the girl. Some fake orgasm to avoid hurting girls’ feelings. Some only have sex because they are pressured – by threats like “I’ll tell everyone you’re gay.” Many of these experiences are similar to girls’ – though they are not usually backed up by the spectre of physical violence, which explains why boys end up less traumatized than girls. These stories are important for boys to hear: they will help develop empathy for girls, while simultaneously enabling boys to connect to their own emotional desires and sexual boundaries. If boys don’t know how to say no, how can they hear it?

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Dylan recounts a story of finding out that a girl had had intercourse with him while he was passed out. Upset, he confronted her, because he had been a virgin and wanted his first time to be special. “Don’t give me that. … All guys want it,” she retorts. When Dylan finally overcame his fears and was able to have sex again, “it was exactly as he’d hoped his first time would be,” Orenstein reports. But afterwards, he broke down in tears. Discussing these taboo experiences is important, because as Orenstein observes, “the inability to recognize or process negative experiences ultimately robs boys of choice and, potentially, of empathy.”

Educating our boys requires more than telling them “not to be jerks” and “not to rape.” Let’s take COVID-19, and the upcoming return to school, as an opportunity to talk with boys about the things they’re trained not to talk about. Sharing our own experiences – both good and bad – we can help them learn to listen to themselves, and to their desires for intimacy, connection and pleasure.

Three more reads to help you understand the boys in your life

The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks, Washington Square Press, 2004. Way ahead of its time, this book looks at how patriarchal culture blinds boys to their emotional needs and offers an alternative vision that will help them live more fulfilled lives.

Boys by Rachel Giese, HarperCollins, 2018. Weighing in on contemporary debates, Giese debunks various myths about masculinity and asks a fundamental question: “How do we create more liberating and expansive forms of masculinity for boys and men?”

Manhood in America by Michael Kimmel, 1996, revised 2017. This resource provides a longer historical perspective on how cultures of masculinity have developed and shifted in the United States from the 1770s until now.

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