In the age of #MeToo, how do we talk to young men about sex and consent?
For parents, talking to their sons has taken on a new urgency. Rachel Giese asks how it can be done better
Years ago, a friend of mine bravely launched into what he thought was the ultimate "cool dad" sex talk with his then-middle-school-aged son. He covered all the bases, all the sex acts, all the body parts, the merits of all the forms of contraception, in as candid detail as he could muster. When he was done his lecture, he asked his son if he had any questions. The boy meekly said: "I kinda just wanted to know how to tell if a girl likes me. And if I could kiss her if she does."
The sex talk is daunting enough for most parents. Conveying the technical details can feel excruciating, but, like my well-intentioned friend, in our attempts to give children information, we sometimes overlook the intangible psychological and social aspects of sex and romance.
Kids are coming of age in a climate in which graphic images can be instantly accessed on a smartphone, but in which the emotions, ethics and power dynamics of sex and relationships are not often a part of their sexual education – save for what they pick up from porn, which is not the most reliable teacher.
And if you're a parent of a boy in this #MeToo moment of reckoning, talking to him about sex and consent has taken on a new urgency. When powerful, prominent adult men are groping their co-workers' breasts and exposing their penises to interns, how can we expect teenagers to act any differently? These men, after all, demeaned women with impunity, while others looked away or abetted them. Recall that it was just more than a year ago that a man who was publicly accused of abuse by a dozen women and who bragged about "grabbing them by the pussy" was elected as U.S. president.
Now that we can no longer deny the prevalence of these behaviours and attitudes, how do we prevent young men from engaging in it? Because they are engaging in it. By now, stories of sexual harassment and abuse in high schools and on university and college campuses are depressingly common.
There are the high-profile cases – such as the tragic assault and bullying of Rehtaeh Parsons, which ultimately led to her suicide – alongside day-to-day aggressions and humiliations. In 2008, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health surveyed 1,800 students in 23 Ontario high schools and found sexual harassment was rampant. Nearly half of the Grade 9 girls said they were the subject of sexual comments, jokes, gestures or looks; among Grade 11 girls, 27 per cent said they felt pressured into doing something sexual when they didn't want to, with 15 per cent reporting they had performed oral sex just so they could avoid intercourse. This abuse continues into college and university, where sexual misconduct is pervasive – ranging from rape and voyeurism, to stalking and "stealthing" (surreptitiously removing a condom during sex without consent). According to the U.S. National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 5 women (and 1 in 16 men) report being sexually assaulted during college.
For parents of boys, these are sobering statistics.
None of us want to imagine our sons capable of harming women, but we can't ignore that possibility, either. For young men, meanwhile, the surging public consciousness about exploitation and gendered power dynamics has provoked a mixture of confusion, resentment, defensiveness and shame. It's not surprising this situation is fraught. Boys are conditioned by a culture that condones violence against women – from the routine deployment of "bitch" and "slut" on social media to judges who tell rape victims they should keep their knees together – and are now being urged to resist this status quo. The trouble is, most young men have been given very few tools to do so. It's not enough to tell them to do better; we have to teach them how.
So how do we talk to boys and young men about sexual violence? We can start by admitting that university and college is much too late to start, and that the typical frosh week one-off workshop on consent isn't nearly enough. A 2014 review evaluating the efficacy of various sexual-violence prevention strategies found that the best programs shared key qualities. They were comprehensive, meaning they began in elementary or high school, ran over multiple sessions and were socioculturally relevant to participants. Perhaps most importantly, the curricula took into account the broader social norms of the boys they were teaching, understanding that their attitudes about sex and gender don't exist in a vacuum, but are shaped by biases expressed among their families and friends, and within school, sports, media and pop culture.
What this might look like in practice are conversations with boys and young men that are deeper and more nuanced than "no means no." Consent isn't a single moment of yes or no, it's an always shifting negotiation that requires the capacity to recognize other people's boundaries, have empathy for their perspective and experience, and to understand your own needs and level of comfort. To teach this, we need to encourage boys early on to express their feelings and listen attentively to others. We should teach them to think critically about images of girls and women in media and pop culture, and to be aware of the power imbalance between men and women that is created by broader social attitudes and structures. And crucially, we must give boys and young men space to air their anxieties and questions about sex, without fear of being judged or ridiculed.
Right now, parents aren't having these sorts of discussions with their children. Harvard University's Graduate School of Education released a report this month, based on interviews with 3,000 18– to 25-year-olds, looking at how adults can help young people deal with misogyny and sexual harassment. The majority of the young people in the study said they wished their parents had talked to them more about the emotional aspects of romantic relationships. Most also said they had never spoken to their parents about the meaning and practice of consent, or about how to be a "caring and respectful partner." And although 87 per cent of young women surveyed reported having experienced some form of sexualized harassment, 76 per cent of respondents said they had never had a conversation with their parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others.
Putting the onus on parents is not foolproof, however. Our own grasp on these concepts can be hazy, too, making it all the more important for kids to get their information from multiple sources. However, the lessons young people receive in school about sex and relationships often aren't much better. Beyond the birds-and-bees basics, a lot of sex-ed curricula is based on what sexual-health experts call the "disaster model" – an approach to sex that emphasizes everything that can go wrong, such as unwanted pregnancy and rape. Much like showing driver's education students gruesome movies about car crashes, this method aims to frighten. The takeaway is this: Sex is scary, and likely bad, so do what you can to protect yourself. (And this is only what's taught about straight sexuality. The needs and concerns of LGBTQ2 kids are barely addressed or even acknowledged in most mainstream sex ed.)
No wonder young people are reporting that their sexual experiences are miserable. In a 2016 University of New Brunswick study of more than 400 young people aged 16 to 21, 79 per cent of young men said they experienced low desire, low satisfaction and erectile dysfunction; while 84 per cent of young women reported experiencing pain and an inability to reach orgasm.
As a result of the failings of sexual education, young people are turning elsewhere for information. By the time boys are in college and university, they've been exposed to a lot of dumb and misleading ideas about sex they've picked up from two of their most common sources of information: porn and other teenage boys. Not only that – they've also absorbed a slate of gender stereotypes and sexist attitudes from the broader culture that underlie many sexual offences: beliefs that guys are entitled to sex, or that girls who get drunk should have known better. Taken together, these common tropes imply that the pervasiveness of sexual assault is natural. Why do we expect so little of boys as to assume – and, to a degree, accept – that they will be a threat to girls?
When it comes to confronting these misperceptions, adults must also challenge their own biases about young people. For instance, sexual violence on campus is often attributed to laxer social mores, namely a hook-up culture facilitated by alcohol-loosened inhibitions. Alcohol is definitely a factor in sexual assault. But often the responsibility for prevention is placed on potential victims, with warnings that girls should avoid binge drinking.
But there is a bigger issue here, too, about men, alcohol and mental health, in the way that young men use booze to "cope" by suppressing or numbing themselves. This reduces both their inhibitions and their capacity for empathy – drinking to excess increases the likelihood that they will assault someone. In late adolescence, young men are already prone to high-risk behaviour that puts themselves and others in danger. Given this, dismissing their drinking or normalizing it as "boys will be boys" is irresponsible.
As for the notion that colleges and universities are sex-crazed bacchanals? It's just not true. Young people today are actually having less sex now than those in previous decades. The difference is that when they do have sex, they're having more casual encounters. And because the connection is less intimate and less emotionally safe, it's harder to talk about what you enjoy and how far you wish to go. Sometimes that inability to communicate leads to bad sex, but other times to assault.
Sociologist Lisa Wade, author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, says that media stories have exaggerated the extent of sexual activity on campus, obscuring the more complicated social dynamics at play. But the myth of campus hedonism, she says, means that there are young people who feel embarrassed if they don't live up to what they imagine is the norm. "Students find that their sexual experiences are distressing or boring," she writes. "They consider the possibility that they're inadequate, unsexy, and unlovable." Those feelings, in turn, can incline them to engage in sex when they don't want it, or aren't ready.
For boys specifically, there is a pressure to live up to the stereotype that men are innately and uncontrollably horny, a belief that's often used to countenance and excuse sexually aggressive and abusive behaviour. A recent Pew Research Center survey of attitudes on gender difference found that millennial men, much more so than their older counterparts, felt a pressure to express and display their maleness in conventional ways, particularly when it comes to sex: 60 per cent say there is some pressure on men to have many sexual partners; and 57 per cent say there is pressure to join in when other men are talking about women in a sexual way.
These masculine myths are used to argue that young men shouldn't be held accountable for their crimes. Consider the words of Dan Turner, whose son Brock, a former Stanford University swimmer who was convicted on multiple charges for the 2015 sexual assault of an unconscious woman behind a dumpster outside a fraternity party. In asking the judge for leniency, Dan Turner said that sending his son to prison was "a steep price for 20 minutes of action."
Given these expectations about men and sex, assault can also be a way for young men to prove their masculinity. There is research indicating that sexual violence has increased on university and college campuses where women outnumber and outperform men. Young women's achievement has been met by a backlash meant to put them in their place, through sexualized slurs on social media and through acts of sexual harassment and assault.
And in macho, tight-knit societies, such as sports teams and fraternities, abuse and assault are woven into group-bonding and hazing activities. While athletes and fraternity members aren't more likely to be accused of sexual assault, they do appear to engage more frequently in ritualized acts of violence, according to one report. Student athletes were almost three times as likely to be involved in gang assaults and men in frats were more likely than men outside of fraternities to be repeat perpetrators. What this suggests is that these kinds of assaults are not about the victim, or even about sex – but rather about young men proving themselves to other young men.
Which is why when we talk to young men about sexual violence, we need to take these toxic dynamics of masculinity into account. And in addition to encouraging young men to have healthy relationships with women, we also need to teach them to be better influences on one another because peer connections carry tremendous weight. Studies have shown, for instance, that if a young man's friends support violence against women, he's at a higher risk for committing assault.
But here's the good news: Having male friends who are opposed to violence against women will reduce a young man's likelihood of assault. Positive bystander initiatives that teach boys the skills to disrupt sexual violence – such as shutting down a degrading joke, or getting help for a girl at a party who seems intoxicated, or reporting acts of revenge porn (sharing explicit images online without consent) – are proving to be successful.
In our conversations about male violence, we need to remind young men of this, too: that this moment is calling for men to be agents of change. In the Brock Turner case, the rape was interrupted by two male students riding by on bicycles. They recognized that the woman was unconscious, they understood immediately that it was not a consensual encounter – and they acted. They tackled Mr. Turner and called the police.
In her powerful statement about the impact of the attack, the woman acknowledged how their actions helped her maintain a sense of faith and trust, amidst the trauma. "I sleep with two bicycles that I drew taped above my bed," she wrote, "to remind myself there are heroes in this story. That we are looking out for one another."
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