She asked them about their perspectives on hooking up, using porn and seeking consent, and heard stories of men both experiencing and perpetrating assault. Orenstein spoke to TIME about her discoveries and how parents, schools and young people themselves can foster a safer and more fulfilling culture around sex.
Orenstein: What I ended up feeling when I was talking to girls was that they were systematically disconnected from their bodies, and with boys it was that they were systematically disconnected from their hearts. That was completely blown out of the water. Given how little instruction and counsel boys are given, can we expect them to know better from the start?
Some do. The MeToo movement revealed that these problems exists across every sector of society. And most of the guys I spoke to really wanted that. They wanted a broader idea of what it meant to be a man. They wanted to have a more connected, fulfilling emotional and sexual life. The boys I was talking to were so young that I would not want to say that about anybody.
There were boys I was concerned by. He assaults a girl—and, in retrospect, he thinks more than one. And he ends up going through this restorative justice process with her, and it transforms him. I was tempted to think when I talked to him that he was a unicorn, but he was just a regular dude. But because there was some interruption, and some support and change, he got it, and he changed. Do you think that root cause can be fixed?
But it was really interesting to talk to boys about hookup culture, because we think of that as being something that advantages them over girls. One of the boys I talked to said he would really like to ask a girl out, but it would be so weird to just ask.
The psychologist Andrew Smiler, who I quote in the book, suggests you can say to boys: Do you want to just be masturbating into another person? What is the context you want for that orgasm? What is the relationship you want around that? There was a bunch of research that came out and showed that the combination of all those old ideas, layered over with all these new ideas that girls could be anything they wanted to be, was causing this deep contradiction in girls, and that it was really harming them. Why do you think young women continue to hook up with men even when the resulting sex is so dissatisfying and even harmful?
Gay guys were so much more evolved on consent, and they could not understand why straight guys were so resistant to having open discussions about sex with their partners. But several gay guys I talked to described situations where they were expected to be constantly engaged in a nonreciprocal encounter, and they would not have it. How do you express your sexuality? What do you do? Well, it can be. Why would girls participate in nonreciprocal relationships?
Sometimes it was status. Sometimes it was to improve a relationship. Sometimes they thought that it would protect them from emotional intimacy.
One of the things I talked about with girls was faking orgasm. I was surprised to find out that boys did that, too, and for the same reasons. We think of that as being something girls endure. In fact, young men have a lot of unwanted sex and again, for many of the same reasons. Are you gay? All kinds of reasons.
And sometimes I thought, if the roles were reversed here, people would be taking this conversation a lot more seriously. You write about the common expectation that men be the ones to initiate and escalate sexual encounters with women, and some boys told you that they felt pressure to be innately sexually capable.
If there was a culture of more shared responsibility for initiation and escalation, would that help ease some anxieties? One of the things boys talked about a lot was this idea of experience.
What kids see in mainstream media and porn is not that. Do you have suggestions for where young men could learn from realistic depictions of sex? For one thing, you have to broaden the idea of sex, right? Sex is kissing. You should have information for your child that is accurate and realistic. No, you should not. But you can let him know that there are other ways and places to find sensuality and eroticism than porn. We talked about how gay boys have practical solutions to the matter of consent and nonreciprocal sex, yet it seems that they receive even less instruction than straight boys do.
They had to develop a language to discuss those subjects. But the super concerning thing with gay guys was that, because of the rise of swipe apps, under-aged boys were on Grindr, lying about their age and having sex with adult men. Otherwise, it kind of marginalizes and makes mysterious and possibly negative what two people of the same sex do with one another.
Do you believe that parents generally, or just elder generations overall, have particular wisdom and knowledge about sex? I mean, nobody talked to us. You just have to take a deep breath and do it. But we have to have conversations, not just about risk and danger, but about gender dynamics, personal responsibility, pleasure and joy.
That means parents, schools and coaches; and ideally, kids talk among themselves—I think they are more. But the ultimate result was that it made for really strong relationships with them. Oh, totally more. Because they were so forthcoming.
I saw so much in them that was so interesting and valuable. They were really ready and eager to engage in all of these issues and to think about how to be the men that we want them to be. Contact us at editors time. By Nate Hopper. TIME: Did you have any notions about boys that fell apart while reporting this book? Related Stories.
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