In her groundbreaking book, ‘Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity, NY Times best-selling author, Peggy Orenstein, well-known for offering a window into the secret lives of teen girls in books like ‘Girls & Sex’ and ‘Cinderella Ate My Daughter,’ and ‘Don’t Call Me Princess,’ takes a look at the other side and asks ‘What about the boys?’
The result – based on over a hundred one-on-one interviews with young men – is equal parts gripping, alarming, hopeful, and deeply insightful. It reveals how much boys feel constrained by traditional notions of masculinity and uncomfortable with expressions of emotional vulnerability. As she described in an interview with NPR, “When I was doing the girl book, the kind of core issue with girls was that they were being cut off from their bodies and not understanding their bodies’ response and their needs and their limits and their desires. With boys, it felt like they were being cut off from their hearts.”
The fact that so many parents and adults feel nervous or ill-equipped to talk to their kids about sexual and emotional intimacy exacerbates the problem.
What can we do as parents to address this?
The issues covered in her work go far beyond “just sex.” This is also about our ability as men and boys to have good relationships. Relationships between parents and their children, between friends, and between romantic partners. It’s also about how the Man Box (or “toxic masculinity, or – as Orenstein prefers – “precarious masculinity”) harms men – and by extension, their partners – and what we can do about it.
We are grateful to Peggy Orenstein for taking the time to sit down with Good Men Project Director of Special Projects, Mike Kasdan, to talk about it all, and we are pleased to share their conversation below:
On parents talking to their children about sex, sexuality, and intimacy
Mike Kasdan, Good Men Project:
You’re a Mom, and you have a teenage daughter. When you come at this topic, how much of this ibook, ‘Boys and Sex,’ is intended to be advice for other parents, and how much influence and control over these issues do you think parents actually have?
I always had two ideas in my head when I wrote the book.
One, is parents. My hope is that parents can read it and get a sense of kids’ worlds that they normally don’t look at or even consciously try not to know, so that we can start a better dialog around these issues with our kids.
The other piece I know from the girl book is that a lot of young people read my work as well, because it’s accessible, and it’s journalistic, so it’s easy to read. It does go down easy, so that encourages readership. So, the other group I had mind were teens and young adults reading the book, and that it might give them the ability to see their own selves reflected or get a window into others’ experiences that might help them to understand their own world better. A lot of times it’s not visible when you’re swimming in the sea of it. So I hope that can help them to make some different choices or to help them feel supported in making some different choices outside of the script that’s just handed to them.
In terms of how much parents influence kids, I think we do have a huge influence and the research on things like talking to kids about sex shows that we absolutely make a difference. And even to ask that question, would assume that we’re already talking to kids and able to monitor or influence what’s going on. In fact, it seems pretty clear that for most of the issues that I’m writing, nobody is talking to young people.
It’s just this big dead zone.
There are conversations about it. Maybe one small conversation could have an enormous impact. But we have no way of knowing, because nobody is even having that conversation!
After all your writing about girls, why boys? Why now?
I know you’ve written and done a lot of work on girls and I read some of your prior books. Could you talk a little bit about the motivation for writing this one, and how you think it fits into your prior work?
When I imagine it in my head, this book feels like sort of an obvious path. I guess it seems as I am walking down a little road, like The Yellow Brick Road. My books, particularly since Cinderella Ate My Daughter, seem like they are naturally leading into each other. After writing about girls for all this time, it became clear that we weren’t bringing boys into the conversation and that we had been having all these conversations about girls and the changes in their lives and how to support them in being the full people that we wanted them to be, because the changes in their lives were so obvious.
Compared to my generation, but certainly if you go back fifty years, there’s been rapid change in women’s lives. And the expectations that we have of ourselves and our daughters have changed in really positive ways. And it’s caused a lot of contradiction and conflict and all kinds of fallout that was expected and unexpected.
But we haven’t really looked at the impact of all of that on on men and boys in the same way. And there hasn’t been the same level of conversation or concern about boys, and particularly when I was looking at these issues of intimacy, I realized I’d only had one half of the conversation. So basically, that’s the short answer; I realized after I thought I had got all the way through it that, ‘Oops, I’d only had one half of the conversation.’
That makes a lot of sense. From our perspective, one of the things that I found in kind of talking to people and writing about these issues is that a lot of this is kind of two sides of the same coin.
We talk about ‘boys issues’ and ‘girls issues’, and we talk about addressing one or the other. And it seems to me that by addressing issues for men and boys, we’re at the same time addressing issues for young women and girls.
Well, that’s absolutely true. Just look at the ways that boys are discouraged from connection, or the ways that they’re taught to look at sex as status seeking, or any of those things. You’re not only talking about allowing boys to express themselves, but you’re also making things better for their romantic partners.
What was the most surprising thing, the scariest thing, and the most hopeful thing you learned in the course of writing this book?
You talk to a lot of boys in connection with this book. What was the most surprising thing that you learned across your conversations?
You know, the number one most surprising thing, which wasn’t so much a conclusion, I guess, but it was just how much they wanted to talk. I really didn’t expect that.
I have to say that my biggest resistance to writing this book was I just didn’t think the boys would have anything to say. And I worried that I would say, ‘Okay, I’m going to go do this book.’ And then I would go into the rooms with the boys and they would just stare at me. I really did worry about that!
I’m sure. But especially with that age group, right?
Yes! I thought ‘Hmmm, I’m not sure I want to take the risk, because it just seemed like a really big potential for it not to work out.’
So the fact that we would start talking and suddenly two hours would go by, just kind of stunned me and it also reenforced how rarely we sit down with young men and talk to them about how they’re thinking about sex and intimacy and gender and power, and particularly at this moment.
I really feel like this is such a pivotal moment in in history, because you’ve got a bunch of things going on that are making us question in different ways:
You have the entire conversation about sexual consent and what that means.
You have our country’s leader who is kind of the apotheosis of that precarious masculinity, like a giant bull in a china shop destroying everything in its way, which makes guys kind of look at those rigid norms and think, ‘Huh.’
He really is the perfect avatar for toxic masculinity in ways that sort of boggle the mind …
…and in ways that are horrible in an overarching way that is incredibly destructive.
But that also really offers an opportunity for constant discussion about what that means. And I think that’s been a positive for us, in a way.
For a lot of boys who might otherwise have just been silent, who would just try to kind of look away, I think as boys and as men are now kind of looking and thinking, ‘We can’t ignore that.’
It’s interesting what you said about going into the conversation and fearing that you might get a blank look, and how much there actually is a craving for this type of conversation.
It can kind of go two ways. We’ve gone into schools and talked to boys about these issues, and we’ve had some really good conversations.
I’m guessing that one thing that you provided – and I think there’s a certain segment of the population that will make fun of the word – was a ‘safe space.’ They weren’t surrounded by their peers and worrying about what other people would say or think. It was one-on-one, and that really provided an open opportunity to talk about this stuff.
I think that’s really right. People always ask me how I got the boys talking like it was some trick or something or some magic or some kind of spell!
I think the advantages that I had were, first of all, I’m a journalist, so they know why they’re coming to talk to me.
But also I’m offering anonymity and providing a kind of safe space where they could just explore in this way that they aren’t normally allowed to explore. That doesn’t mean they would take advantage of it. But they really did.
That is great, and it’s really hopeful.
I think one important thing I learned in terms of approach, which is something that people can think about with their own kids and I know I think a lot about with mine, is how important it was to have an attitude of open curiosity, trying not to betray judgment, and really listening — and not jumping in and trying to fix the thing or whatever they were talking about.
I think it’s really hard to do as a parent for sure. I know I struggle with it.
Definitely. I do, too with my teenage kids.
Yes. You want to go ‘WHAT!? YOU DID WHAT?!’ So trying to, sort of, squash that impulse or even coming back and saying, ‘I’m really sorry. I was so reactive. Let’s try that again.’ I think that can really help. But as much as one can, just listen and reflect and go like, ‘Wow, what did that feel like?’ or ‘Tell me more about that.’
Without panicking. That whole ‘OH MY GOD! WHAT THE HELL!’ reaction, you just have to push that away for a minute. You’ll hear a lot more.
For sure. For me, as a parent, I’m very open and want to connect to my eighteen year old son. For a long time he would say, ‘I don’t want to talk to you about this stuff. This is my own business.’
But then earlier this year, he came to me a few times and we had these great conversations. And it was pretty amazing.
It really can be. It’s certainly not what our culture teaches them to expect. So when you make that shift – they always talk a lot about the importance of the men in boys lives, being able to be that open person to them – its a powerful thing.
It may feel awkward or uncomfortable to either one of you. But, you know, it’s a muscle you practice, and when its strong, it works.
Yes. I totally, totally agree.
I had asked you earlier what was most surprising. I also want to ask you what was the scariest thing, as well as what was the most hopeful thing you learned in the course of writing this book?
The scariest thing was that kids are growing up in such a highly sexualized, commodified, transactional culture, a popular culture that just tells them over and over these ideas that sexual conquest makes the man, that men should be dominant, that there’s a male sexual entitlement, and that women are submissive and sexually available.
And they are just bombarded with that message.
Absolutely. We’re all swimming in it culturally.
We are. And whether we are talking about porn – that is definitely an issue and something that is really important to wrestle with – but mainstream media is nearly as bad. Mainstream media is giving the same message and same values and messaging and maybe even in some ways more so because ‘It’s mainstream media, you know, so it must be OK.’
And I feel like one of the big differences and one of the places that is so scary to enter with boys is that with girls we have done a much better job of at least trying to counter those messages and give them some kind of critical lens.
I mean, there’s media literacy stuff for girls everywhere. Parents are worried about it. Activists, advocates, teachers; there’s groups that specialize in it.
And nobody is talking to boys about the stew that they’re swimming in. And in some ways, the temperature is higher. They’re playing video games. They’e looking at porn more. They watch music videos more.
All those things keep giving them skewed and distorted messages about men, women and intimacy.
In terms of what I found hopeful, it was fact that the boys that I spoke with, even the ones that I would never have expected to — the boy who was going into the military, the boy who was a football player at a big time college — were wrestling with ideas of what it meant to be a man and some of these ideas about precarious masculinity, men standing up to locker room talk, and thinking about consent.
And even when they had done wrong, even when they were talking about something like sexual misconduct, they were wrestling in a nuanced way with their behaviors in ways that I honestly can’t imagine a boy would even have thought twice about ten years ago.
That was really super hopeful and interesting and exciting.
What is it about ‘precarious masculinity’ that makes it so entrenched and difficult to change? What is the pathway to change for the better?
Yes. You know, we spend a lot of time talking about – I don’t know what the right word choice is – but ‘the Man Box’ or ‘toxic masculinity’ or whatever term you prefer…
Precarious masculinity. I like that.
We talk about how that model of masculinity that has given men a lot of power over time, patriarchy, but also looking at how it harms men in terms of loneliness and isolation and connection and these issues of intimacy. And I think a big part of it is how it’s been so widespread in culture and messaging. But what do you think it is about this issue, about ‘masculinity,’ that makes it so entrenched and hard to deal with?
Well, I think partly because it does have its rewards. I think that’s part of it. And some people aren’t willing to let go of that on a pretty fundamental level. So it can appear to be serving men. And there are also some real risks in trying to change that. There’s a lot of fear.
I see that too. Writing for the Good Men Project and being a man, I’ve seen the whole gamut of that in the comments section and articles. If you look at the comments to articles about undoing toxic masculinity what you see is a bunch of, ‘Oh, this is going to turn everyone into servile sissy-men. I wonder who that benefits.’ Its a zero-sum point of view – a false one, I think, but a deeply entrenched one – where this is all some sort of win or lose contest between the sexes.
Also, I watched your recent interview with Jared Yates Sexton, who I also talked to for The Good Men Project. He wrote a book on the subject of toxic masculinity, and he mentions that we’re seeing this big change, but we’re also seeing this very aggressive pushback.
That makes me want to ask you about what you’re seeing and whether you see change happening, because the pushback is aggressive.
Right. That is kind of inevitable. As I said before, there’s that fear of change.
And, you know, it’s not really all that different than what happened with feminism. The pushback was hideous! And even today, obviously, there’s still pushback. But I think about young women’s embrace of feminism right now. Because now, you know, they all identify as feminists, right? Well, twenty years ago, it would have been like social suicide to say that. So, with these things sometimes change takes a really long time and then suddenly it happens overnight.
I think that when you’re going up against something that is so entrenched as, say, ‘The Patriarchy,’ it’s going to be a back and forth thing. You’re going to have pushback, but simultaneously you have very hopeful things, as we discussed above.
And I’m also aware that while I’m having these conversations and while I’m going through this whole thing and while I’m seeing boys wrestling with things and boys feeling really excited and engaged by these conversations, that there’s also this other polarized world going on that is trying to double down on those rigid, masculine ideas and precarious masculinity or toxic masculinity or Man Box or whatever you want to call it.
That’s why I feel like we’re at this kind of inflection point. Which way are we going to go? What are we going to do? Are we just going to split in half?
But again, when I think about women,when I was growing up, there were people like Phyllis Schlafly or Anita Bryant or these very right-wing types who were saying things like ‘Women should be in the home’ and ‘Women have no business in the workplace.’ Ideas like that now just seem insane. Do you not think women should have credit cards in their own name, or be able to own property? Which part of that are you against, exactly? Should we not be able to wear pants? What’s the problem? Now so much of that seems really crazy, because we’ve gotten over the hump.
And that doesn’t mean that we’ve solved all the issues with women. The more freedom and power that women gain, the more misogynist popular culture seems to be, the more we reduce women to their bodies and sexualize them. There’s this whole ugliness that keeps hanging on, because those ideas are not going to go away gently. So you just have to keep pushing on them.
And when there’s a point of collectivity when a large group of people are saying, ‘Yeah, you know, we’re not going to do that anymore,’ things change. It doesn’t even have to be a majority of people. Things can change a lot.
Let’s talk about…relationships.
One thing I also want to ask you: Is this really all about parents doing a better job talking to their kids about intimacy and sex and relationships, or is it more than that?
And when I say ‘more than that,’ I think about my friend Mark Greene, who I met through The Good Men Project, and who writes a lot about masculinity. We had a conversation one day, and he asked, ‘What’s the one thing above all others that you’d want your kid to learn? You know, more than anything. You send your kid away to college or high school, what do you want them to learn?’ And it’s not any subject. His answer, which I agree with, was, how to have good relationships. But we don’t really teach that very well. So I wanted to touch on some of these bigger issues.
Right; its all about relationships. If we talk about it, we talk about sex, and if we talk about sex, we talk about risk and danger. That’s what we think that it means to talk to kids about sex. In the last chapter of my book, I really talk a lot about this point.
After all these years of writing about these issues, I wanted to talk about the sorts of conversations that we need to have with young men. And to a degree, these are relevant for young women, too. So, yes, it’s about sex. Yes, it’s about consent, but it’s not just about that. I think a lot of it is about making gender dynamics visible to young men, because I think they’re not. They really don’t think about it. So really this is about understanding the socialization that goes into them as guys and how that can blind them to certain dynamics and undermine their capacity to have the kind of relationships that we want them to have and that they want to have.
I think these conversations about the media are really important. Like I said, we do a much of a better job with girls in showing them how to deconstruct the media so that they can question and fight back a little bit. We’re completely passive with boys on that subject.
So there’s a lot of little conversations that I talk about. And you can’t sit down and just have one talk with your child. That’s not going to work any better than telling a kid to say ‘Thank you,’ one time, will work. It really needs to be a series of interconnected conversations.
And when we talk about this as adults and as parents, we tend to think of it with kind of dread and awkwardness. But I think you saw this in your relationship with your son. It can be hard. It can be awkward. It’s really important to know that actually, especially for men, you don’t have to be perfect and you don’t have to know all the answers and you don’t have to know all the questions and you don’t have to have the perfect relationship yourself.
But in having these conversations with your son over time, you’re building a better relationship and you’re building a more authentic relationship between the two of you, in addition to everything else, which is what you hope to have when he is an adult so that you have that relationship where you can talk to one another, the kind of relationship that you wish you could have with men in your lives.
I was going to ask you, and I think we’ve touched on it, but what is the highest impact thing you think we can do to address this and push towards change? Maybe a part of it is all of us working to open up these types of conversations?
I think it’s a combination of educating yourself around the issues in young boys lives, because otherwise you don’t really know what the conversation needs to be about, and thinking about your own life and perspective around them. And then, yes, having the conversations.
[‘Sex Education’ SPOILER ALERT!]
If you’ve watched the Netflix series Sex Education, there’s this great moment that I think of that really goes to the heart of this. It’s about the main character, Otis and his father. His father is supposed to be the jerk; he abandoned Otis, he’s a sex addict, etc. They have a conversation in the final episode where Otis goes to him and asks ‘Why did you leave me?’ Not just why did you leave mom, but why did you leave me? Why did you disappear from my life? And first he started to try to do the thing he does, acting like a disconnected guy. But then he stops and looks at his son and says, ‘Because I’m an asshole. That’s why.’ And this is what it means to be an asshole. And this is what it’s cost me. And this is why I hope that you never are that guy.
It’s a really poignant moment. It’s what Otis has to learn through the season, what he’s struggling with are his own defenses and his own vulnerability and his own fear about what it means to be an adult man based on a horrible model he had in his own father. And then he realizes that he is absolutely walking down that path. And he goes to his father and says, ‘I’m walking down this path. Is this what you want?’ And the father just looks at him and says, ‘No, it’s not what I want for you.’ And he’s really emotionally open and honest.
I just look at that and think, this really encapsulates everything that we’re talking about here! In this one amazing little scene!
That’s really incredible. Very cool. That show is terrific. I’m a big fan.
And it lands with the kid clearly. It changes everything for him.
That’s incredible. I love when you see what you’re studying and talking about in pop culture and how powerful that can be.
And I think part of the reason that I can have this conversation with my son is he is more aware of these issues than I ever was, for sure. So I think more of that we do, the better.
Since we are on this ‘Sex Education’ tangent, I should mention that there is another character, Adam, the gay boy who was in the closet. At one point, Ola, Otis’s former girlfriend turns to him and says, ‘I love you.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, you know, I’m bisexual. I don’t really love you that way.’ And she says, ‘No. I’m not talking about that. I’m saying, I’m your friend.’ And he looks at her and says, ‘Nobody’s ever said that to me.’ And then he stands there for a moment, looking in that sort of affectless way that he does. And then he just embraces her, he just flings himself at her. And she’s like, “OK, you can put me down now.’
So you see this whole thing in him where he is trying to figure out who he is and how to get on the road to being a more connected person. It’s what all teenage boys are trying to figure out. I remember talking to a group of kids in a high school once and the girls asked the guys a question about how they expressed sexuality. The guys looked blank and asked what the girls meant. One of them said, ‘Well, we express our sexuality with an outfit or makeup or how we wear our hair.’ How do you express your sexuality?’ And the guys shrugged. Finally one of them said, ‘We have sex?’ And that’s the crux of the problem, isn’t it?!
What I love about ‘Sex Education’ is that shows in so many different ways and through so many different prisms and in a way that I hadn’t expected, the impact of that disconnected masculinity versus what happens when that’s challenged and when that challenge is accepted. So it was really exciting.
It also shows that disconnected masculinity doesn’t discriminate by showing totally different kinds guys whose ideas about masculinity are undermining their families. It’s not just that super straight conservative Headmaster. It’s also the super liberated guy. And the impact on their two sons and how their two sons work through it and come out the other side in different ways, but equally powerfully, is really incredible.
And apparently, I should be writing something about that show!
Yes, that’s really, really powerful. I think you probably should!
I don’t know how I got off on that, but I guess it was such a really beautiful illustration of the harm that those ideas, whether it’s about sexual conquest or whether it’s about emotional rigidity, cause to the person.
And the piece that always has to be added on to that is the way that they then radiate outward and harm romantic partners and children.
How can we – as parents, as coaches, as role models – change the culture?
One of the other things that we have talked about is how all those “locker room talk” moments always seem to happen in spaces where girls and women are either de facto not allowed or just not present. Places that exclude women tend to be kind of a breeding ground for precarious masculinity, because its reinforced by the culture. So we’re talking about locker rooms and board rooms and other spaces.
How do you think we talk to boys about that power dynamic and how we go about changing it?
You know, that’s so hard. That’s something that boys ask me a lot.
There’s not a magic bullet around that, although there’s a kind of a magic bullet in a program called ‘Coaching Boys Into Men,’ in sports. They just had a new study out about that program and its impact on middle school boys. It’s really powerful and shows again that coaches have such a strong influence on young men.
When they get involved in trying to challenge that script – and the Coaching Boys Into Men intervention is a very light intervention – but when the coaches get involved in discussing these issues and making these dynamics visible, it actually makes a huge difference in boys lives.
That’s really fascinating. I’ll have to read more about that. I actually came to the Good Men Project writing about sports and still do quite a bit of writing about sports. And some of the most interesting work that I see happening is using sports and coaches to foster education and not only Education education, but, also relational education. So that sounds really interesting.
Definitely. Studies on the program have found that when they followed the boys out that they had a much lower expecting rate of sexual violence and relationship violence and other similar boys without those interventions.
So I do really believe that are all-male enclaves, like sports, can be smokescreens for the worst kind of bro culture. But I think and hope that they can also be kind of crucibles of change.
Wow. That’s can be really powerful.
I think so. It’s about adult men being role models and mentors. If you look at the Man Box studies and that sort of thing, most of them will say that the source of ideas about restrictive masculine roles are their parents and especially their fathers. Well, if that’s true, that means that fathers can change that. Or coaches or male figures that are offering some other way.
We often say in the girl world, “She needs to see it, in order to be it,‘ when talking about representation. Well, the same is true with boys! How can they know what a more expansive kind of masculinity is unless somebody is being that for them and showing that to them?
So I think that is a really big piece of how to how to shift how we talk or the way that we enforce those ideas.
I think that’s a really powerful observation that sports or other all-male conclaves could be turned around and used in that way. And we are seeing it starting to happen slowly. Look at the NBA. There are players talking about issues like depression and mental health.
I think twenty years ago, NBA players would have never done that. So there’s definitely a trend towards people being more open and authentic as role models in these different spaces.
That’s pretty exciting.
I think that shift is exciting and powerful. As is the ability to tap into coaches and other men as role models to effect change.
Of course, the trouble in giving direct advice to individual boys is when the coach is part of the problem, then what do you do? That makes it a lot harder, you know?
That said, if I were to pick the first line of what to do to make change, it would be going to your coaches and adult men to establish overarching community norms that are different.
That’s really great. I love it.
Thank you SO much for taking the time to talk!
Photo Credit: Peggy Orenstein (with permission)