How We Can Improve Sex Ed for Boys

boys sex ed, boys dating, boys education, boys relationships, boys sexual assault, boys domestic violence prevention

Justin Cascio talks to Elizabeth Schroeder, executive director of Answer, about why boys are tuning out in sex ed classes, and what they want to know most (but aren’t telling us).

The Answer website offers some grim statistics on the state of sex ed in the schools today: “One in four teens has an STD. Yet sex ed by and large still focuses only on the needs of girls.”

The Boys and Sex Ed: Beyond Statistics and Stereotypes online workshop that the video above is from is produced by Answer, a national organization that is dedicated to providing and promoting comprehensive sexuality education to young people and the adults who teach them. I spoke with Elizabeth Schroeder, executive director of Answer, to find out more about how “sexuality education”—which focuses on feelings and relationships rather than just biology or birth control—can help provide the answers our boys so desperately need.

Porn is designed for adult fantasy, which is abstract. Teens are concrete learners. So when they watch porn, they are learning, “This is what sex is and what we should look like.”

Is sexuality education as it’s taught in schools today really biased toward the needs of girls?

 ES: Yes, there is a bias. The challenge is, it’s unconscious. As a culture, we think ‘boys will be boys,’ so we concentrate on girls and make them the sexual gatekeepers in their relationships with boys. As a result, the methodology and language being used in sex ed classes today still focuses—sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly—on girls. For example, I blogged about a research article on “girls’ condom use.” I found this amusing when (most) girls don’t have penises. There’s nothing in the article about their male partners. This is unfair to girls, and does a disservice to boys. Rendering guys invisible in sex ed reinforces stereotypes about them and contributes to negative statistics.

Could sexuality education better serve both girls and boys?

 ES: Absolutely. Educators say, “I’ll just make sure to mention guys from time to time.” This is not sufficient. Occasionally mentioning guys is comparable to some well-meaning educators who will use the term “partner” to offer a nod to non-heterosexual orientations—as if this fully addresses heterocentrism in sex ed . Similarly, a sex ed activity might present a guy and girl in a relationship who are thinking about having sex, but then the activity focuses in on what the  female partner might feel, do or say in this situation—again setting girls up as the gatekeepers, without fully exploring what the male partner might be feeling and thinking.

What in particular are boys looking for and not getting from sex ed?

ES: There are two different questions: what are boys looking for, and what are they not getting because there are strict policies in many places about what can and cannot be taught. Although there’s a diversity in learning styles, boys tend to be visual, kinesthetic learners, and they’re looking for concrete information about sexuality. Educators who teach lessons on safer sex, but who can’t bring actual condoms in for the boys to see, touch and feel, will not be as effective with male learners. What you teach them becomes hypothetical until they have opened the package, felt the condom and know how to use them. They’ll say they get it, but they don’t.

Dr. William Pollack’s “boy code” speaks to this: we’ve seen for decades that boys are socialized to want to have sex and are consistently sent messages that they should want to and should have sex. Lessons that don’t acknowledge and address these messages won’t  meet boys’ needs. Imagine a mixed-gender sex ed classroom activity that’s about abstinence or waiting to have sex.  Since guys are hearing from the majority culture that they should want to have sex, conducting the lesson without acknowledging and discussing the gendered messages and how they are different for guys than they are for girls makes the lesson irrelevant to the male learners.

 This is a major reason why guys look to porn for sex ed, which is problematic because what they see in porn is not designed for their age group. Porn is designed for adult fantasy, which is abstract. Teens are concrete learners. So when they watch porn, they are learning, “This is what sex is and what we should look like.” Whether it’s about race, gender, penis size, a lot of myths and stereotypes are being reinforced through porn. Now, the jury is still out on the extent to which porn can potentially harm young people; it’s pretty clear, however, that it misinforms them.  But porn is easily accessible and far more explicit than anything they’d get in a classroom setting. So they go to porn, which is not the right place for them to learn.

What is?

 ES: The location is less important than the content. One thing we really tend to leave out when we teach sex ed to guys is anything about the emotional aspects of being a human being. Far too many adults say boys don’t care about emotions, but they do. In mixed-gender classrooms, it can be much more challenging to get boys to talk about feelings. When I have worked with single-gender groups with guys, the work we did on emotions was phenomenal. There’s this stereotype that boys don’t have emotional capacity. We have to challenge that stereotype head on. They need to be taught that it’s not just acceptable, but important to have and express feelings, and that “real men” are not afraid to do this. We have to stop gendering  the human experience so that young people don’t feel like they can’t behave a certain way just because of their gender.

We need the right educators to deliver the right messages. If we dislike teen boys, we’re not the right ones to do the work. If we fear teen boys, we teach them that they are to be feared.

What Dr. Pollack says about the boy code is that these proscriptive messages aren’t just passive messages. They’re part of a proactive campaign to keep boys (and girls) in a rigid gender box.   It’s ironic that we, as a culture, seem to be more comfortable with hyper-violent men that we have to find ways of controlling than with men who are hypersensitive. Sensitive men are “feminine” men, and we’re still a homophobic society, although it’s been exciting to see that start to change a bit at the macro level.

What do boys want to know to prevent rape and domestic violence?

ES:  First, they want people to know that it’s not just guys assaulting girls. I went to teach a rape and sexual assault prevention workshop in the Bronx to a group of all guys a number of years ago. Before I could say my name, one of the guys stood up and said, “We’re not going to stay to listen to you tell us not to beat on our girlfriends. We want to know what to do when they beat up on us.”

Second, they’re pushed to learn how to get girls to say “yes” to sex (regardless of their sexual orientation), and they’re still being socialized that when a girl says “no” it means “maybe.” We need to be clear and straightforward with guys instead of assuming they’ll “figure it out.” It’s tough to figure things out when you’re getting conflicting messages. We have to directly and clearly say, “It’s never okay to push someone else to do something sexual they don’t want to do. When someone says “no,” respect that no—the first time, and every time.”

Adult professionals walk into a room with assumptions and stereotypes: we need to check these at the door. I taught a group of professionals in an urban New Jersey workshop on working with boys and young men. They were all female, and many of them believed horrible things about boys, such as “They’re all potential rapists.” We need the right educators to deliver the right messages. If we dislike teen boys, we’re not the right ones to do the work. If we fear teen boys, we teach them that they are to be feared.

Speaking of assumptions, another big stereotype is that only male educators can be effective with boys and young men; I know from years of direct experience that that just isn’t true. It’s not true that only men can relate to boys. The most important thing to young men is respect; start from there, and your gender is far less relevant. A sense of humor doesn’t hurt either!

Sex ed isn’t as simple as providing one hour and fifteen minute workshop and thinking you’ve counteracted all the stereotypical messages guys received about gender and sexuality. It’s a lifelong campaign that involves parents, educators, religious leaders and many other adults. It has to start earlier than high school. Adolescence is way too late to counteract the values and messages kids have been receiving since birth that are gender-based. Even Toys R Us tells you what aisle you can shop in based on the gender of the child!

What question can parents answer that our boys want to know but aren’t asking? How can we be proactive and anticipate their questions and needs regarding sexuality education?

ES: This depends on the age of the boy. For adolescent boys—and they’d never cop to this—the question a lot of them probably most want to know the answer to is, “Why did you stop hugging me?” When guys reach puberty, we start touching them less. Then they withdraw.  But that doesn’t mean they don’t still need love and support and don’t want to get some guidance about how to get through what’s a really challenging time.

The question they probably would cop to wanting to know the answer to is, “Am I okay?” We hear that at Answer from teen guys all the time. Some guys ask, “I know all my friends are talking about sex and I’m not interested. Am I normal?” They are also really concerned about penis size—another culturally imposed bias that’s reinforced by what they see in porn.

The boy code says that boys want to differentiate themselves from their peers through one-upsmanship, humiliation, and leadership, but they also want to fit in and be like other boys. This extends into adulthood and becomes “the man code.” And while there are lots of different kinds of men, a very masculine man is as much of a man as a gentler, “feminine” man.  When boys feel they don’t have any choice other than to be one certain type of man, then it’s problematic. Understanding boys’ socialization and working with it instead of railing against it is more effective.

rape prevention campaign, sex ed for boys, boys learning styles, boys education, gay boys, boys in abusive relationships, sexuality education

 For example, I really like the Strength campaign from Men Can Stop Rape. It’s boy code—both visually, and in terms of the tagline—“My strength is not for hurting.” That’s the kind of message that acknowledges the value of being strong without reinforcing the harmful stereotype that you cannot control your strength. The campaign emphasizes that boys have strength, rather than that boys are reckless.

My son is an early adolescent. The language that resonates with him and his friends is not negative language or admonishments of what they should not do. Developmentally, if you tell an adolescent not to do something, whatever it is, they will want to do it. I focus instead on what they should do. I say, “Be a leader. Be the one everyone looks up to. When someone’s being bullied, the leader gets a teacher to stop it.”

To find out more about how to provide better sexuality education for all of our kids, check out the Answer websites at answer.rutgers.edu and sexetc.org. You can follow them on Twitter at @sexedhonestly, @sexetc, and @drschroe.

 

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Image credit:  db Photography | Demi-Brooke/Flickr

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About Justin Cascio

Justin Cascio is a writer, trans man, and biome. His most recent publication is a short memoir, "Heartbreak and Detox," available on Kindle.
You can follow him on Twitter, Google, and Facebook.

Comments

  1. JustAMan says:

    Justin, I loved your question to Elizabeth: What do boys want to know to prevent rape and domestic violence?

    She started to answer by saying:

    ” I went to teach a rape and sexual assault prevention workshop in the Bronx to a group of all guys a number of years ago. Before I could say my name, one of the guys stood up and said, “We’re not going to stay to listen to you tell us not to beat on our girlfriends. We want to know what to do when they beat up on us.” ”

    But she then veered off the track and neither gave her answer to that guy’s question, nor really addressed your question directly.

    How did she answer the guy’s question quoted above? I think it is very important question and would like to hear Elizabeth’s response. Can you let us know what her response was to that question?

    Could you ask her to provide additional responses to your question as well?

    Thanks in advance, JAM

    • I definitely will! Thanks, JustAMan.

      • I’ll second JustAMan and add that I was really impressed with Elizabeth Schroeder.

        Second, they’re pushed to learn how to get girls to say “yes” to sex (regardless of their sexual orientation), and they’re still being socialized that when a girl says “no” it means “maybe.” We need to be clear and straightforward with guys instead of assuming they’ll “figure it out.” It’s tough to figure things out when you’re getting conflicting messages. We have to directly and clearly say, “It’s never okay to push someone else to do something sexual they don’t want to do. When someone says “no,” respect that no—the first time, and every time.”

        What isn’t mentioned, and based on my impression of Elizabeth Schroeder so far it’s not because she hasn’t thought about it, but rather that the interviewer didn’t ask about it (sorry Justin), is that boys are also taught/expected to always want sex themselves and what and how we should teach boys to reconcile that expectation with their own actual feelings on the matter and that their consent are equally important and that having a conscious awareness of your own consent is important.

        The part JustAMan quoted hints at it with by using the DV example. But how does she address boy’s consent and how does she help boys to prioritize their own consent over the expectation society, peers and partners have of them?

  2. OirishM says:

    I’m pretty sure I used porn in my teens to get off, not as an alternative source of sex ed.

    Sex ed for me was entirely academic because I was convinced I was unattractive to the opposite sex, and I knew all the biological stuff anyway. It’s great that people want to broaden advice to those who may actually be having sex, but to those that aren’t it’s just another turn of the knife.

    • wellokaythen says:

      Good point.

      And, for those having sex, many of the forms of sex they’re already having have no chance of resulting in a pregnancy, so the reproductive part doesn’t seem so important to them. Oral sex means not having to worry about where babies come from.

  3. TheBadMan says:

    There are condoms for girls. As a sex educator, you should know this already.

  4. I agree with Ms. Schroeder that discussions need to start earlier than high school, but am also left wondering about the gap in the student’s initial assertion and her not expanding further upon what, if anything, was addressed.
    Though there are rough norms in terms of juvenile behavior, and there is a group think mentality among them. Additionally, each come from different circumstances, some more on the troubled side, whether they be familial or social, neither of which can be foreseen.
    The fact that the student felt either defensive or entitled enough to make such an assertion is proof. Porn aside, teens are getting social cues from entertainers, many of which are sore pressed or refuse to control themselves. Young people perceive this as success or power and are reluctant to give that notion up as it seems real as well as attractive to them.

  5. wellokaythen says:

    One problem is that in some schools, sex ed is still not much more than information about the basics of human reproduction. Then, added to that the students get the facts about sexually transmitted diseases. So, sex ed becomes all about having babies (or not) or getting a disease (or not). Period. You would never know from these classes that people actually enjoy sex or get any satisfaction out of it or see it in complicated, sophisticated ways. They know that adults are having sex for more reasons than just babymaking, so the class rings hollow.

    That probably leaves a lot of students somewhat alienated, because they know that there’s something clearly going on that’s not just about having babies and swapping germs.

    Also, it would take a lot of courage, on the order of career suicide, for a teacher in most schools to talk openly and objectively about masturbation as part of human sexuality. In some schools, it’s inconceivable to talk about any sexual act at all that is not PIV intercourse. I think a healthier approach to masturbation would make a big difference in the lives of many young men.

    Finally, don’t forget that there is a large percentage of high school students who are NOT having sex and who don’t anticipate having sex anytime soon. Hard to believe in this day and age, but possibly some people are tuning out because they don’t see sex anywhere in their near future. You may as well be teaching them about home mortgages and retiling the kitchen. I remember feeling very discouraged about this in high school, even depressed about it, so I probably came across as inattentive in that class.

    • When I look back on my sex ed experiences in school, you are right, it was all about biology, pregnancy and STD’s. The message I took away was that sex was incredibly scary and that if I let down my guard for 10 seconds with a boy, I’d probably end up date raped, pregnant, and infected with incurable herpes.

      I think it is very, very difficult for adults to talk to teenagers about sexual pleasure. Certainly, the women who taught sex ed to us knew about sexual pleasure, but I sympathize now with their utter inability to discuss that aspect of it to a group of 15-year-old girls with raging hormones. What they told us, basically, is that boys would pressure us for sex all the time, and we shouldn’t have sex until we were “ready” and we should only do it in a way that was “safe.” The implication was, having sex was extremely unsafe and no one was “ready.” I wish someone had raised their hand to say, “Well I feel safe with my boyfriend and I feel pretty ready right now! What should I do?” That would have freaked people out. The truth is, a lot of teens DO make horrible decisions that can have lifelong consequences, so adults want to scare the pants off of them. Ok maybe not the best analogy.

  6. Yes, there is a bias. The challenge is, it’s unconscious. As a culture, we think ‘boys will be boys,’ so we concentrate on girls and make them the sexual gatekeepers in their relationships with boys. As a result, the methodology and language being used in sex ed classes today still focuses—sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly—on girls. For example, I blogged about a research article on “girls’ condom use.” I found this amusing when (most) girls don’t have penises. There’s nothing in the article about their male partners. This is unfair to girls, and does a disservice to boys. Rendering guys invisible in sex ed reinforces stereotypes about them and contributes to negative statistics.
    More than just a disservice to boys but downright unfair. For the most part the only time you see mention of boys when it comes to sex ed is just as JustAMan’s question asked. They are only brought up when its time to lecture on how not to do bad stuff to women/girls. We see plenty of material on how to prevent male against female rape. Don’t get me wrong preventing male against female rape is a good thing but that leaves me wondering.

    How well can you expect to reach out to boys when the only time you acknowledge their existence is when you want to stop them from doing harm to girls?

    You may not mean it but such heavily biased messaging is basically telling them that as long as they aren’t hurting girls no one cares about them.

    Dr. William Pollack’s “boy code” speaks to this: we’ve seen for decades that boys are socialized to want to have sex and are consistently sent messages that they should want to and should have sex. Lessons that don’t acknowledge and address these messages won’t meet boys’ needs.
    Yes they have been socialized to even throw common sense, logic, and safety (and by all that is holy not just the girl’s safety) to the wind in order to pursue it. Those messages need to be addressed. Badly.

    . Before I could say my name, one of the guys stood up and said, “We’re not going to stay to listen to you tell us not to beat on our girlfriends. We want to know what to do when they beat up on us.”
    I’ve seen how this goes. Oddly enough even people that consider themselves progressive will take the presumption that men are larger and stronger than women and give an answer they would not tolerate if the genders were reversed. “Why doesn’t he get away from her.” Not only do we need to work on acknowledging the potential vulnerabilties of boys but also acknowledging the potential violence of girls.

    That guy that wanted to know what to do when “they beat on us” could have been trying to ask for help. Did anyone extend a hand to him?

    About that poster.

    For example, I really like the Strength campaign from Men Can Stop Rape. It’s boy code—both visually, and in terms of the tagline—“My strength is not for hurting.” That’s the kind of message that acknowledges the value of being strong without reinforcing the harmful stereotype that you cannot control your strength. The campaign emphasizes that boys have strength, rather than that boys are reckless.
    While I agree with that language is there any language also telling them, “Just because she’s a woman and I’m a man, that doesn’t mean I can’t say no.” or “I don’t have to say ‘yes’ to maintain my manhood.” or “When my strength isn’t enough, can I reach out to others without being blamed for what she did to me?”

    I’m starting to wonder if people just don’t think boys/men don’t need to hear these messages, or if they are assuming the boys/men are getting these message, or what. But I think its clear that they are not getting these messages (or at least they are not getting the entire message).

    You can’t use one stereotype to fight against another.

    • If they are showing that poster without other combinations of relationship such as a woman raping a man then it goes to further shame men into the feeling of potential rapist. Is it no wonder a man would tune out to anti-rape speech when it’s framed nearly universally as man against woman? Just like that guy didn’t want to hear not to beat his gf (probably for the thousandth time) but what to do when she beats you (probably first time he’s ever heard advice on it) we need to just drop gender from who we define as the perpetrator or mix it up and cater to all people.

  7. Danny I really loved your last paragraph it was spot on.

  8. “Similarly, a sex ed activity might present a guy and girl in a relationship who are thinking about having sex, but then the activity focuses in on what the female partner might feel, do or say in this situation—again setting girls up as the gatekeepers, without fully exploring what the male partner might be feeling and thinking.”

    We are told repeatedly in articles on this site that men must contain 100% rock solid consent when having sex. In what way are girls not the “gatekeepers” of sex if this is the preferred way of doing things? If every guy who does the right thing is just waiting on a woman to say “yes/no”, than I don’t see the issue of “setting girls up as the gatekeepers”. It seems to me that’s what women basically argue for in every single article I see here about consent.

    • Interesting question which I suppose depends on whether boys are more likely to want sex at any given time in the relationship than girls. The more ambivalent party is generally the gatekeeper.

      • Good point. My first sexual experience was with a girl who took ME to bed not the other way around. I also had a good friend whose experience was almost identical – and she was very demanding.

        • I said “you can touch it if you want” and she was far more confident than I was with my first sexual experience, I was nervous as hell. We were both virgins. Men aren’t always the go-getter for sex…

  9. An interesting subject and one that is highly charged in our society. The viewpoints on sex run a spectrum from puritan repression to open license. So, I think the message young men are receiving is a mixed one, and as such it leaves them confused and misinformed. This is to the detriment of all (including the puritans even though they are unable to honestly confront the subject).

    However, because of diametrically opposed viewpoints (Puritan vs. Libertine) we have what amounts to a blackout on any thorough discussion of sexuality in the Publik Skools. As well is an underlying question, “How much license do we wish to allow public schools?” Not an inconsiderable hurdle is that those who view sex as somehow dirty still have a very strong voice in what is allowed into the curriculum. Some of them are so extreme that they are offended even by the mention of the word.

    Certainly porn is the wrong place for young men to be learning about sex, but it is also ubiquitous in the in the age of the internet and curious (and horny) young men will look. I started reading Playboy when I was 13 or 14. (My mother, an open minded sort, merely found it amusing.) “Playboy” however, while preaching license, did not promote the kind of abuse one sees in porn.

    While we can intellectualize the idea all day long little will change in the curriculum as long as it remains under puritanic restrictions conflated with femno-centric curricula devised by people who have the viewpoint that “all men are created evil”. Lets be completely honest – a lot of the femno-centric bias in curriculum is, in essence, dictated by hard core misandrists who assume that all men are potential rapists. So, is the highly politicized arena of the Publik Skool even the correct place to speak of the subject beyond a neutral detailing of human biology as a matter of disease prevention and health?

    Certainly there should be room for an exploration of the ethics of sexual interaction, but that lies in the realm of philosophy which is a subject that has also become almost taboo in the Publik Skool curricula. The “why?” on that is something better explored in another essay.

    So, where can we find a solution? I would think the same place young men (and don’t kid yourself girls watch porn too) are turning for information and stimulation – the internet. While it would be politically impossible for a Publik Skool to set up an educational site on sex it is perfectly doable by a private foundation or entity. And when I say that I am envisioning a complete treatment of the subject from nuts and bolts, to ethics, to “how to”, to a discussion of the different viewpoints on sexual morality (from a neutral point of view that encourages the reader to think for themselves). It should answer the questions of young people without telling them that they are evil for feeling normal sexual urges, but it should also teach that they are responsible for them and for how they are expressed. If the subject is to be taught, and I agree it should be, then it should be taught completely.

    Such a site could provide honest and frank answers. Of course the puritans would still writhe in contortions of agony at the prospect that someone might use the information to lead a more pleasurable life, but then to satisfy them you would have to go back to the “know nothing” days of human sexuality, and that ain’t going to happen.

    Puritanism, n. “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.” ~ Henry Louis Mencken

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  1. [...] This Comment of the Day was by wellokaythen on the post How We Can Improve Sex Ed for Boys? [...]

  2. […] There’s also much more helpful information on “raising boys” on the internet. One example is this featured blog on the Good Men Project website: “How We Can Improve Sex Ed for Boys.” Here’s the link for that: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/the-good-life-how-we-can-improve-sex-ed-for-boys/ […]

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