Peggy Orenstein: How much they wanted to talk to me. They were eager to have this protected space where they could work out their ideas around not only physical intimacy and pornography, but their feelings about growing up in a culture that has contradictory expectations for boys.
The #MeToo movement has created this imperative to reduce sexual violence, but it’s also created an opportunity to engage in authentic, long-overdue conversations with boys about vulnerability and gender dynamics. When I wrote “Girls & Sex,” it was clear we didn’t talk to girls about sex and intimacy, but we give boys even less support.
PF: The tween boys I work with are wrestling with what it means to grow up in an era in which men like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer are being held accountable for sexual misconduct in ways they haven’t been before. What are you hearing from older boys? Are these kinds of stories changing how they think or behave?
PO: It depends on the boy, the context, and how their parents talk to them. Some feel they have to be super careful about consent and fear being accused by a girl who is “crazy,” some think it has nothing to do with them, and others are wrestling sincerely and with open hearts about what this means for them. In my book, a teen named Nate talks about the high school hookup culture — how you’re supposed to be experienced or pretend to be experienced and brag about conquests. He tried that and it was a disaster in the sense that it wasn’t true to him as a person or who he wanted to be.
Other boys are asking, “How do you stand up to kids saying vile things in the locker room?” One high school boy said he tried to stand up to older guys who were saying gross things about girls, and they made fun of him. The lesson he learned was, “Don’t do it.” He felt he had to choose between his dignity and being accepted by his peers. He looked at me and said, “How do I make it so I don’t have to choose?”
It’s not easy. You do get rewarded for following the script and flak for going off of it, but we also know the script has dire consequences for boys and girls. Boys who hew to it are lonelier, more prone to suicide, binge drinking, being in car accidents, to violence in their personal relationships, to being harmed themselves. It has a cost to physical and mental health, and obviously comes at cost to the young women around them if their ideas about sex include misogynistic language and bragging about sexual conquests.
PF: What are some of the other rules of that script?
PO: I’ve talked about how we’ve systematically disconnected girls from their bodies, but I think we’ve systematically disconnected boys from their hearts. They would tell me, “I trained myself not to feel. I’ve learned to confide in no one.” One said, “When my parents divorced, I needed to cry but couldn’t, so I streamed three movies back-to-back about the Holocaust.” They were trying to tell me they’re not allowed to feel, that crying is taboo. It took me a while to understand the weight of what they were telling me. Sometimes they’d cry in front of me about a relationship or some form of pain or confusion, and I didn’t understand how huge this was for them, because girls are allowed to cry.
PF: As both a school counselor and the mother of teen and tween sons, I find these anecdotes alarming. What can parents do to help our boys grow up emotionally healthy?
PO: From the get-go, boys grow up in a more impoverished emotional landscape than girls. Research shows that mothers talk in more emotional language with daughters than they do with sons. With sons, they focus on anger more than grief, sadness or hurt. That’s an easy fix. Especially with little boys, parents can help them recognize what they’re feeling. There’s evidence that as boys grow up and become men, they not only learn to not feel, they can’t identify their emotions. When you say, “That must have been really scary,” or “You must be sad,” you’re giving them emotional vocabulary they can use later.
We’re at a tipping point and starting to realize the cost of the status quo is greater than the reward of it, and parents of boys are wanting to raise their sons to be able to have the positive, emotionally connected relationships that they deserve.
PF: You mention that all the boys and young men you interviewed knew someone who had engaged in sexual misconduct and are grappling with that. What prevents them from taking a stand, and how can parents empower boys to speak out against that kind of behavior?
PO: Start talking about it. With girls we’ve recognized that the media is full of harmful messages about their body, weight and sexual availability. We arm them from the start when we give them their first Ruth Bader Ginsburg action figure, make sure they have positive protagonists in their books and try to develop a counternarrative.
Boys are getting the same messages about females being valued for their appearance and sexual availability, but we don’t provide a critique or counternarrative. We need to talk about the scripts they’re learning from music, pornography and the mainstream media. We need to talk to boys when these cases appear in the media. Read Chanel Miller’s victim impact statement with them or listen to Dan Harmon’s apology for sexually harassing “Community” writer Megan Ganz. We don’t want to overemphasize sexual misconduct; what we want is to emphasize to boys and girls what healthy, ethical, pleasurable, reciprocal, physically and emotionally intimate relationships look like.
PF: We know that boys are getting exposed to porn at younger ages and that for many it’s their primary source of sex education. How is porn impacting them?
PO: I was talking to one of the boys I interviewed the other night, and I told him that some of the mothers in particular were alarmed by the pornography section in “Boys & Sex.” He said, “You mean that their sons watch hours and hours of pornography each week?” It’s shocking that boys learn to masturbate in tandem with porn, before they’ve kissed or held hands with someone. One boy on a crew team was legendary because he had decided not to use porn anymore and to use his imagination instead. His friends were like, “Whoa, how do you do that?”
The script of basic pornography would not be pleasurable to women. It creates a lot of misunderstanding about sex. One boy told me they’re never kissing or laughing or holding hands in porn, but even when kids know it’s not a realistic portrayal, they think it is. Boys who use porn regularly are less satisfied with their sex lives, their partners, their own performance and their bodies.
Have appropriate resources in the home as boys grow up, show them videos on Amaze.org, and make sure they have accurate resources about what healthy sexuality is so they’re not thinking it’s porn.
PF: How can men set a positive example for boys?
PO: One of the things the boys said often was that they felt kind of disappointed by their dads. It wasn’t just the guys whose fathers said, “Man up.” It was also, “My dad was a loving, charismatic guy, but he was a ‘sigh and walk away’ guy, and I learned the stunted side of masculinity from him.” Or, “He caught me watching porn, and I wish he’d said that wouldn’t serve me.” One boy said, “I wish my father had talked about some of his regrets in his sexual and romantic life; that might have been really helpful to me.” Another said, “My mom did a pretty good job of talking, but I needed to hear all this from a man.” Role models don’t have to be fathers. Women can raise great men and help them connect with friends or uncles who can model positive masculinity and relationships for them. That’s a gift.
PF: You write about how boys use homophobic language as a shield. Can you expand on that?
PO: That was really fascinating. Boys say, “that’s so gay,” “no homo” and “f--” a lot, but they’re quick to say they wouldn’t say it to an actual gay person. It’s more a referendum on masculinity than sexual orientation. There were typical things that would get you called a f--, like showing emotion, being openly affectionate with another guy or behaving romantically with a girl as opposed to being in hookup mode. One high school junior told me that his friend said that having a girlfriend is gay.
Boys will say “no homo” at the end of a sentence to negate what they’ve said, like, “I had a really good time with you last night, no homo.” It’s a shield they use so they can be fully human. Which takes us back to that thing of boys being denied what we think of as normal human emotions unless they can find a way to avoid the emasculating effect.
F-- for boys is like slut for girls, a word that keeps shifting in meaning, a grenade that could be thrust at you at any moment. Today’s equivalent of a girl standing up and saying, “Don’t slut-shame me” is a boy standing up and saying, “Don’t emotion-shame me.”
Phyllis L. Fagell is the author of Middle School Matters, the school counselor at Sheridan School in the District and a therapist at the Chrysalis Group. She tweets @pfagell and blogs at phyllisfagell.com.
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