On a sunny autumn afternoon, Jayden Castillo and Janelle Moore sit at a suburban Wendy’s, sipping strawberry lemonades and talking about the realities of sex for American teens.
The old friends, both seniors at Oxon Hill High School in Maryland, believe access to porn has warped their generation’s concept of sex — especially in the minds of boys. “They learn everything from online,” Janelle explains.
But on the question of sexual assault, the two are split. Janelle suspects things may have improved over the past few years. “Just because now, more than ever, it’s publicized,” she says. “You know you can get in trouble for doing certain things, so you don’t have a choice but to behave.”
Jayden shakes his head and lowers his eyes. “We both know it still happens,” he says.
“It still happens, but more and more people are getting educated. Now we have the Me Too movement,” Janelle argues. “I was 13 or 14 when I heard, ‘If the answer isn’t “Yes,” the answer is “No.” ’ ”
“But,” Jayden replies, “some guys want to think a ‘no’ is a ‘yes.’ ”
He is 17 years old, 6-foot-3, popular and athletic. And he knows that sometimes “no” is not enough.
Janelle is silent.
Relationships and sex have always been tricky territory for teenagers, but the landscape today is charged with fraught questions about coercion, culpability and consent. A young man such as Jayden Castillo stands at the center of the minefield.
Like boys all over the country, Jayden grew up in a world that taught him to be indomitable, tough and aggressive. Those are the traits so many spheres of society demand of boys and revere in men. And they are the same qualities that sometimes lead to trouble — for guys and others in their midst.
Gary Barker, chief executive of Promundo, an organization that enlists men in the effort to curb violence against women, says many young men feel there is a “real way” to be a man. Boys learn on athletic fields, at recess and through movies, music and video games that the “real way” involves not backing down from a fight and never asking for help. And, Barker adds, “guys who believe in that cluster of ideas about manhood tend to cause more harm to themselves and others.”
In psychology circles, that cluster of ideas has become known as the “boy box.” And boys keep getting pushed into it, even as the country is waking up to its violent ramifications.
Federal health and crime statistics stack up against boys and young men: They’re four times more likely than girls and young women to commit suicide. They make up 85 percent of juvenile delinquent rolls. Ninety-eight percent of sexual assaults against women are committed by men — a number that has remained constant over the decades. And boys — almost exclusively — have been the ones to take assault weapons into schools to murder their peers.
Suicide rate for males 15-24 remains far higher than that
Chart shows deaths per 100,000.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
National Center for Health Statistics, Underlying Cause
of Death 1999-2017 report.
Suicide rate for males 15-24 remains far higher than that of females
Chart shows deaths per 100,000.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Underlying Cause of
Death 1999-2017 report.
Suicide rate for males 15-24 remains far higher than that of females
Chart shows deaths per 100,000.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Underlying Cause of Death
As they become teenagers, the pivotal time when they grow from boys to young men, it is often the lack of meaningful connection, especially with male peers, that shapes them most.
“We tell our sons to not express their vulnerability,” Promundo’s Barker explains. “When they turn 14, 15, 16, they push their friends away. It’s ‘That’s so gay,’ if you look like you’ve got a really best guy friend.”
Gay kids, he adds, tend to internalize the homophobia they encounter, to the detriment of their mental health.
Jayden has deep relationships with female peers but wishes he could confide more in his closest male friends. “I kinda got used to it, but I don’t think it’s actually fair. Because I’m a human being, too,” he says. “I have really strong emotions. And sometimes when you have emotions that strong and you hold them in, it damages you. It messes up your mind.”
The previous Saturday night, Jayden slouched in an armchair at the rear of his parents’ vaulted living room in Fort Washington, Md. He’d been texting friends to make plans, but nothing seemed to be coming together. Jayden, an unattached guy with a muss of dark curly hair and a sparse goatee, could see on social media that some kids were working, others were out with significant others. So he pushed his phone away and turned up the volume on a college football game.
Two days earlier, 12 miles to the north, lawmakers held combative hearings that threatened to derail a potential Supreme Court justice’s nomination with allegations of a decades-old sexual assault. But the Brett M. Kavanaugh news didn’t hit Jayden’s Snapchat feed. “Was it something that had to do with taxes?” he asked.
Jayden isn’t blind to the kind of allegations Kavanaugh faced. And he knows sexual assaults still happen. Some guys, he says, misread girls as playing hard to get. With others there is no confusion. “There are definitely guys in the world who know that they have a physical advantage against girls,” he says, as men crash into one another in the football game still playing on the flat screen. “And they see it as a way for them to do what they want to do.”
Jayden’s mother, Norma Roman, is a retired D.C. police officer. His father, Luis Castillo, managed several successful car dealerships and now works in real estate. The couple, both Puerto Rican, met at a dance club in the District, married and had two children. Jayden, their youngest, attends a mostly African American school and believes he is smarter than his 1.5 grade-point average would imply. His mom taught him how, as a brown boy, he should safely interact with her former colleagues on the force. “ ‘Yes, officer. No, officer.’ Always comply,” she says.
This fall, Jayden is focused on pulling up his grades, getting in his mandatory service hours and making the varsity basketball team.
After high school, he wants to make a lot of money, so he can provide for a family as well as his father has.
As a child, Jayden was curious, sensitive, affectionate with his parents and older sister. When a second-grade classmate started pushing him around, Norma went to the school for help. None came, so she taught Jayden to punch back. “I gave him a little crash course,” she explains in her home, decorated with dozens of figurine angels — symbols of her deep spirituality. “I said, ‘Pow — you hit him in the stomach, too.’ And that’s exactly what happened. You can’t let people walk all over you.” After that, the boy left Jayden alone.
On the precipice of manhood, Jayden is still sensitive and affectionate. This year for Mother’s Day, he wrote 50 reasons he loved his mom and gave the notes to Norma in a Mason jar. Yet at school, in the workout room, with friends — especially guy friends — he doesn’t exhibit that kind of sweetness. He’s learned to hide his feelings. “Either they aren’t going to take it seriously or they’re just going to bounce it back to me,” he says. “Basically . . . I have a barrier.”
And he is starting to question the wisdom of other social constraints. Early on in high school, he fell in with a particularly tough crowd. One by one he saw his buddies diminished by drugs, risk-taking and violence. Jayden says he was lucky “because of my family,” and now, looking back, he wonders what he and all his friends were all trying to prove. “Always wanting to be the biggest and baddest — for what? Those types of things just mess people up,” he says, just out of earshot of his parents.
If hit, though, he will still hit back.
Over the summer, Jayden says, a woman he knows told him she’d been raped.
A generation ago — or even just a couple of years ago — Jayden might never have known about the assault. Victims often bury the trauma, blame themselves, attempt to forget.
But some, like the woman in Jayden’s life, will confide their anguish in trusted allies, even if they can’t bring themselves to seek charges against their attackers. The Me Too upsurge in revelations of sexual assault among women sent a shock wave to young men, forcing them to analyze their own behaviors and grapple with the dangers women face.
“It killed me,” Jayden recalls. “I couldn’t eat or sleep. I was really angry.”
Jayden was in Puerto Rico when it happened. And the woman didn’t tell him about it immediately. “She didn’t want me to go crazy — try to go find the dude,” he explains. “I lose my mind sometimes.”
He asked questions and swung from disbelief — “I never really thought something like that could happen” — to depression. And then, the most lasting emotion took hold: guilt. For Jayden, part of being a man is protecting those you love.
“I feel like if I wasn’t in Puerto Rico this wouldn’t have happened,” he says, slouching into a living room armchair.
“I would’ve been there. I would’ve blocked him. That’s what really hurts me.”
Jayden says he learned how to treat girls by watching the respectful way his parents interact. “Me, personally, if a girl tells me no, I’m not going to take a chance,” he explains. “I’m the type of person who doesn’t like to take people out of their comfort zone.”
Jayden says the woman who was assaulted tells him she is doing okay — trying to move on with her life. And Jayden is, too. The trauma wasn’t his. But he shares a piece of it now, and it haunts him.
“I’ll be in school sometimes and I think about it — get a picture in my head,” he says. “My heart just sinks and I lose it.”
Of course, he can’t allow anyone to see such vulnerability. So he blinks back tears, swallows hard against the lump in his throat and pushes his mind to go blank.
Jayden’s bedroom features two black accent walls, a collection of baby pictures, a stick of deodorant and an unmade bed. Also dishes: a bowl on his nightstand, a plate near his TV, a half-eaten quesadilla on the floor near his desk.
He adores his family, but, like most teenage guys, he spends much of his time away from them — hanging with friends, working out at the gym, driving around in his Kia Optima or cloistered here, in his room.
This is where so much of Jayden’s life takes place. It’s his haven and safe space, and also a den of temptation.
Norma says her son’s grades were “normal” through elementary and junior high school. Then early in high school, they plummeted. “I had the wrong mentality,” Jayden explains, thinking that his GPA didn’t matter as long as he graduated. And he became addicted to video games, playing late into the night even when he had school the next morning.
Plus, there was an even bigger distraction: girls. “My first two years I was just lost in girls,” he recalls. “You start getting these feelings you never felt before.”
There were more long phone conversations than actual dates. But there was also a way to see what other people were doing: pornography. He started watching it when he was 12 or 13, around the same time he got his own phone. Forty years ago, guys had Playboy magazines. In the ’90s, teens might have had grainy videotapes to share clandestinely among friends. Today, kids have at their fingertips an endless well of every kind of porn imaginable.
“I would be constantly watching that, craving it,” he says at the Wendy’s, next to Janelle. The stylized videos were the foundation of his expectations about sex. “I thought it was something beyond great. The image, the way it looked. So I was really pressed to get that interaction.”
He was so determined that at 16 he sought intercourse from a young woman he didn’t care about. “I went to seek it from the wrong person,” he admits. “And my first time was my worst time. I wish it never happened.”
Jayden told his parents he’d had sex and confessed that he’d failed to use protection. Incensed, Norma sent him out to buy condoms.
Jayden still watches porn occasionally but wishes he hadn’t started so early — that it hadn’t influenced him so much. But he’s not sure how he could’ve resisted a temptation so easily accessed.
Porn, he says, puts a lot of pressure on guys to seek sex. “Especially if you’ve never had it.”
Jayden walks the halls of Oxon Hill High with nonchalant confidence, offering nods to some friends, handshakes and hugs to others.
He’s intent on getting straight A’s this year so he can bring his GPA up to a 2.0 and go to a community college in Florida, where a half sister from his dad’s first marriage now lives. It was a conversation with his brother-in-law that made Jayden want to change his slacking ways. “He told me you have to learn how to become obsessed with progression,” he recalls. “Why do I want to just settle for who I am right now when I could keep getting better?”
Jayden is spending a lot of time at the gym, trying to bulk up his thin frame so he won’t get pushed around on the basketball court. He is trying to develop his father’s self-discipline and a “killer mentality” that will help him succeed in life. He’s also trying to be “a good guy,” he says, one who “genuinely respects girls.” One who shows up for others in pain and is free to express his own emotions.
It’s hard for any man to be all those things. But Jayden is trying.