For all the progress that’s come from the #MeToo movement, there’s also been some significant backlash—specifically, men reporting feeling “scared” to interact with women for fear of crossing boundaries. In fact, according to a 2018 survey out of the University of Houston, 22 percent of men and 44 percent of women predicted that, in the post-#MeToo era, men would be more apt to exclude women from social interactions, such as after-work drinks, and nearly one in three men thought they would be reluctant to have a one-on-one meeting with a woman.
A new book by Peggy Orenstein, Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent and Navigating the New Masculinity, says that now is the time to turn a critical eye on how we’ve historically raised boys and how to teach boys to be compassionate, responsible men.
For this follow-up to 2016’s Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, Orenstein spent two years interviewing more than a hundred college and college-bound boys and young men of diverse backgrounds between the ages of 16 and 22 on everything from “locker room talk” and hookup culture to consent and porn. She found that, for girls, the main issue is that they’re being cut off from their bodies and not understanding their needs, limits and desires. On the flip side, boys are being cut off from their hearts, leading to a kind of emotional stunting.
Particularly interesting are her findings on what she calls the “historically unprecedented” availability, and watching, of porn. Because of how reluctant parents are to have frank conversations about sex with their sons, coupled with how readily available porn has become, Orenstein says that boys are getting a distorted vision of what human sexuality is. One young black man, for example, admits to having a hard time having sex with his curvy black girlfriend because she doesn’t look like the skinny white women he sees in porn.
Also eye-opening are Orenstein’s findings on the differences in emotional intelligence between gay and straight boys, as well as the morphing of the term #nohomo from a homophobic slur to a protective—though still bigoted—shield that allows straight men to express basic human ideas about affection and joy. (So, they would feel the need to hedge the statement “I miss you” with “no homo, though.”) In an interview with NPR, Orenstein admitted that she was surprised by how much more willing, able and capable gay boys were of negotiating the terms of their sexual experiences. “And that’s partly because they sort of have to, because what’s going to happen is not necessarily obvious.”
As in her previous book, Orenstein balances startling anecdotes and statistics with actionable advice for how we as a society can begin to rehabilitate boys’ relationships with sex. The most important step, she says, is to stop shying away from awkward conversations. She also recommends outside reading, including Chanel Miller’s victim impact statement and Dan Harmon’s apology for sexually harassing Community writer Megan Ganz.
Though Boys & Sex does offer real-life solutions in addition to opening a dialogue, it alone isn’t going to solve a problem that’s been generations in the making. Still, it’s an essential jumping-off point and step in the right direction.