What Teen Boys Think About Sex, Love, and Hooking up

In a follow-up to her New York Times bestseller Girls & Sex, Peggy Orenstein is out with Boys & Sex, an investigative look into young men and their views on love, hookups, pornography, and consent within the context of #MeToo era.  Here, Allison Gilbert, author and Senior Writer for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, has a sweeping conversation with Orenstein about her discoveries. Orenstein also explores the sexual education of boys and young men through the work of other writers and researchers. Those findings include:

  • 93% of boys are exposed to online pornography before they turn 18
  • When asked the percentage of guys they thought “hooked up” on a typical weekend, college men estimated 80%; the actual average was between 5-10%
  • One in six boys (between the ages of 15-19) say they’ve never had a single conversation with a parent or teacher about contraception or disease protection
Peggy Ornstein, Author, Boys and Sex
Peggy Orenstein (Courtesy: Tia & Claire Studio)

Allison Gilbert: In the two years you spent talking with boys and young men about masculinity, sex, and love, what sits with you as the most surprising takeaway?

Peggy Orenstein: I didn’t anticipate just how much they wanted to talk and how insightful they could be about their experiences and the social restrictions and expectations they face. 

The #MeToo movement has started entire new conversations about intimacy and consent. We’ve got to bring boys into these important conversations. I think this moment has created an opportunity to look at these issues differently and to engage boys differently. They, too, are thinking about what all of this means. A lot of the boys I interviewed were eager to challenge ideas of conventional masculinity and to think about how they could have more gratifying relationships.

AG: You write in Boys & Sex that the way young men view girls and women in the classroom, for example, is very different from the way they view the opposite sex when it comes to sex. What do you mean by this and why does it matter?

PO: In one sense, they fully believe girls deserve their place in leadership, on the playing field, in the classroom, and in regard to professional opportunities. But in their private lives, there remains this expectation on guys that sexual conquest is the measure of the man and that hooking up with as many girls as possible (regardless of their or their partner’s feelings) is still the best way to status.  The more rigidly boys view masculinity, dominance, and aggression, the more they’re at risk for developing poor relationship skills and aggressive sexual behavior.

Boys get these profoundly mixed messages.

AG: When it comes to sex and sexuality, how does the national conversation have to change when it comes to teens and young adults?

PO: For years, as parents and advocates of girls, we’ve been working to combat the media messages girls get — messages that reduce girls to their bodies, that tell them how they look is more important than who they are. We’re constantly talking with them about this. But we are silent with boys. This is important. Boys are growing up in the same culture, learning the same messages about female sexual availability and male sexual entitlement, and we’re not saying anything. We’re not offering counter narratives. We’re not talking about how damaging this is to them and their partners.  

Boys get these profoundly mixed messages. On the one hand, they are now supposed to be scrupulous about consent, and yes they should be. But on the other hand, so much of what they absorb (not just porn, but TV, movies, video games, social media, and music lyrics) tells them they should be having as much sexual interaction as possible in the most detached way as possible. We need to commit to raising men to be their best selves. 

AG: How can parents help their young men develop positive attitudes and behaviors toward sex?

PO: Parents have to learn how to talk about it and provide more positive resources about sex to their sons. Just like we’ve started to have with girls, there needs to be a lot of small conversations with boys about sex, reciprocity, pleasure, and consent. When parents see stuff on TV, or in their son’s video games, or in the music videos he’s watching, they can talk about it. And while it’s important to bring up examples where misconduct has happened and lines have been crossed, it’s also important to focus on moments that encourage and enhance personal responsibility, joy, and mutual gratification. It’s essential to offer an image of what prosocial behavior is and not just what negative behavior is.  

[AG note: Orenstein has curated a list of sex ed and positive sexuality resources on her website. Information is helpful for young children, pre-teens, high school and college students. Included are links to her favorite articles, books, movies, websites, and videos.]

AG: Is there a way society can do a better job helping college students and college-bound students develop greater integrity and honesty when it comes to intimacy?

PO: To raise kids who are ethical and moral, we have to get in there as parents, as coaches, as educators, and clergy. We have to have more open and honest discussions about sex and sexuality. The fact is, if we don’t, the media is going to educate our kids for us and we’re not going to like the result.

AG: How about parents of tweens? What can they do right now to put their sons on the best path possible when it comes to their experiences of sex and views about intimacy?

PO: Parents of younger children have the opportunity to make these conversations easier. When compared to girls, we tend to raise boys in an impoverished emotional landscape. Parents can more consciously help boys recognize and name their feelings. Doing so shapes emotional literacy. We want boys to understand their feelings. If they don’t, they can’t understand another person’s feelings and they can learn to bottle up their feelings, which can lead to behaviors we want them to avoid.

About Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert is Senior Writer for the CPTC. Her pieces cover an array of topics including self-care, bullying, grief, and resilience. Allison is author of numerous books and speaks across the country to corporations, non-profits, and community groups. You can learn more by visiting www.allisongilbert.com.

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