Teenagers and young men still don’t have the right vocabulary. Can we help them get there?
A while back, during a discussion I was having with a group of high school students about sexual ethics, a boy raised his hand to ask me, “Can you have sex without feelings?” The other guys in the room nodded, leaned forward, curious, maybe a little challenging. Strictly speaking, of course, even indifference is a feeling, but I knew what they meant: They wanted to know if they could have sex without caring:devoid of vulnerability, even with disregard for a partner. To put it in teenage parlance, they wanted to know whether it was truly possible to “hit it and quit it.”
I thought about those boys this week as I watched Harvey Weinstein, in an Oscar-worthy performance of abject harmlessness, hobble on his walker into the New York Supreme Court in Manhattan. The #MeToo movement has exposed sexual misconduct, coercion and harassment across every sector of society. But shining light on a problem won’t, in itself, solve it, not even if Mr. Weinstein ends up with (fingers crossed) the longest prison sentence in history. To make real change we need to tackle something larger and more systemic: the pervasive culture that urges boys toward disrespect and detachment in their intimate encounters.
Despite a new imperative to be scrupulous about affirmative consent, young men are still subject to incessant messages that sexual conquest — being always down for sex, racking up their “body count,” regardless of how they or their partner may feel about it — remains the measure of a “real” man, and a reliable path to social status. As one high school junior explained: “Guys need to prove themselves to their guys. So to do that, you’re going to be dominating. You’re going to maybe push. Because, it’s like the girl is just there as a means for him to get off and a means for him to brag.”
I never intended to write about boys. As a journalist, I have spent over a quarter of a century chronicling girls’lives — that has been my calling and my passion. But four years ago, after publishing a book about the contradictions young women still face in their intimate encounters, I realized, perhaps inevitably, that if I truly wanted to promote safer, more enjoyable, more egalitarian sexual relationships among young people, I needed to have the other half of the conversation. So I began interviewing young men — dozens, of different backgrounds, in their early teens and 20s — about sex and love, hookup culture and relationships, masculinity and media, sexual consent and misconduct. #MeToo wasn’t the impetus for my work (I began well before the Weinstein story broke) but it quickly underscored the urgency.
Few of the boys had previously had such conversations. Certainly not with their parents, most of whom would rather poke themselves in the eye with a fork than speak frankly to their sons about sex. I can’t say that I blame them: It’s excruciating, and it’s not like our own parents offered a template.
Yet that silence has troubling implications. According to a 2017 national survey of 3,000 high school students and young adults by the Making Caring Common Project, a large majority of boys never had a single conversation with their parents about, for instance, how to be sure that your partner “wants to be — and is comfortable — having sex with you,” or about what it meant to be a “a caring and respectful sexual partner.” About two-thirds had never heard from their parents that they shouldn’t have sex with someone who is too intoxicated to consent. Most had never been told by parents not to catcall girls or use degrading terms such as “bitches” or “hoes” — this despite the fact that nearly 90 percent of the girls in the survey reported having been sexually harassed.
Adults may assume those ideas are self-evident, beyond the need for comment, but given the rates of coercion, misconduct and assault among men both young and old, boys are clearly not getting the message by osmosis. The vast majority of teenagers, though, who did have conversations like these with their parents — and boys even more than girls — described them as at least somewhat influential on their thinking.
Nor will schools pick up the slack. Most states still require sex education to stress abstinence (a legit option, for sure, as long as it’s one among many: not a mandate that equates sexually active teens with, say, chewed pieces of gum). But many more progressive, supposedly comprehensive classes aren’t much better, often focused predominantly on risk and danger: avoiding pregnancy and preventing disease. Increasingly, sexual consent is being added to that cautionary to-do list, as it should be. Too often, though, that question of yes or no becomes a stand-in for all conversation about sexual decision-making: another way to dodge more nuanced discussions of personal responsibility, open communication, establishing relationships, understanding gender dynamics and — the third rail of sex ed classes — reciprocal pleasure and the L.G.B.T.Q.+ perspective.
I found gay boys, by the way, to be notably more willing and able than others to negotiate the terms of a sexual encounter — they had to be, since who was going to do what with whom could not be assumed. They often seemed puzzled by heterosexuals’ reticence. “I don’t know why straight guys see consent as a mood-killer,” one college sophomore said. “I’m like, ‘if we’re talking, that means we’re going to have sex — this is great!’”
Dan Savage, the syndicated sex advice columnist, refers to “the four magic words” gay guys will use during a sexual encounter: What are you into?” That’s a very different perspective than that of straight boys, who usually aim for one-word assent to options they define. I do fear, though, that since girls, as I’d previously found, are so often disconnected from their bodies’ desires and responses, their answer to an authentic conversation-starter might well be, “I have no idea.” What might happen, though, if teenagers learned to start talking to each other that way early on?
Absent guidance from trusted adults, boys look to the media as a default sex educator, where they are bombarded by images of female sexual availability and male sexual entitlement. With the rise of the internet, smartphones and video-sharing sites like Pornhub, parents worry about the potential impact of pornography on teens’ sexual expectations. Let me be clear: Curiosity about sex is natural. Masturbation? Great! What’s more, there is all kinds of porn — ethical porn, feminist porn, queer porn. But the most readily available, free content portrays a distorted vision of sex: as something men do to rather than with a partnerand women’s pleasure as a performance for male satisfaction.
Boys frequently expressed ambivalence to me about their porn habits. “I think porn affects your ability to be innocent in a sexual relationship,” a high school senior commented. “The whole idea of exploring sex without any preconceived ideas of what it is, you know?”
Even if parents could block all the triple-X sites (and good luck with that), the reality is that exposure to sexual content in media consumption of anykind — TV, movies, games, social media, music videos — is associated with greater tolerance for sexual harassment, belief in rape myths and the objectification of women. “I think music has some of the biggest impact on how guys treat girls,” another high school senior told me. “In the car, my friends and I listen to all this stuff that’s just” — he rattled off several oh-so-unprintable lines about women and sex. “When you hear that, like, five, six, 10 times a day, it makes it hard to escape having that mind-set.”
The promise of hot sex with a cold heart animates college (and increasingly high school) hookup culture — which is why, according to Lisa Wade, a professor of sociology at Occidental College, getting wasted beforehand is so crucial: Alcohol girds young people against the near-fanatic generational fear of the awkward while creating what Ms. Wade calls the “compulsory carelessness” necessary for a possible one-off. Most of the guys I met knew that sex with an incapacitated person is assault. Yet because, in their minds, you need to be hammered in order to hook up, the trick became being (and finding someone who is) drunk enough to want to do it but sober enough to be able to express a credible “yes.” And who is to be the judge of that?
Drunk boys, as it turns out, tend to vastly overperceive a girl’s interest in sex, often interpreting expressions of friendliness as It’s on. Alcohol has also been shown to diminish their ability to hear “no” or notice a partner’s hesitation. Wasted young men are more likely than they would be sober to use coercion or force to get what they want and — still looking at you, Brett Kavanaugh — they are less aware of their victim’s distress.
In consensual drunken hookups, the sex still tends to be meh. It “can feel like two people having two very distinct experiences,” a second-semester college freshman who’d had multiple partners told me. “There’s not much eye contact. Sometimes you don’t even say anything. And it’s weird to be so open with a stranger. It’s like you’re acting vulnerable, but not actually being vulnerable with someone you don’t know and don’t care very much about. It’s not a problem for me. It’s just — odd. Odd, and not even really fun.”
According to Andrew Smiler, a psychologist specializing in adolescent male behavior who surveyed over a hundred teen boys about dating and sex, most guys, in fact, prefer physical intimacy with someone they know, trust and with whom they feel comfortable. I found that to be true, too, though they seemed to view it as their personal quirk, not shared by their peers. Mr. Smiler suggests, then, that adults can ask boys what kind of sexual experience they want. “Not just whether they are looking to have an orgasm,” he said, “but about the context and quality of that orgasm. If we’re willing to be more vulgar and pointed, we might even ask, ‘Do you want a partner who’s more than just someone to masturbate into?’”
It occurs to me, after a quarter-century of talking to teens, that the activism on behalf of girls could offer a model to better guide boys. Back in the 1990s, when I first began writing about young women’s quandaries in a changing world — loss of confidence, stunted ambition, negative body image, sexual shaming — there was both a desire for and an apprehension about change: Some parents worried, not irrationally, that raising a daughter to be outspoken or sexually empowered would come at a social cost, that she would be labeled a bitch or a slut. Others raged that girls were being pushed, against their nature, to become “more like boys.”
But years of attention to girls’ experience, of work by parents and professionals, has reduced some of those fears, eased constraint, expanded girls’ roles and opportunities: Things aren’t perfect, not by a long shot, but they are better. Nonetheless, I found myself wishing, in my conversations with girls, that their early sexual experiences did not have to be, as they so often were, something they had to get over. That will require reducing the harm boys cause, whether out of monstrous venality, entitlement, heedlessness or even (maybe especially) ignorance.
For their own well-being, as well as their partners’, they need a counternarrative to the one that elevates the transactional over the connected, the sensual, the kind; boys need to value mutual gratification in their sexual encounters, whether with one-offs or long-term partners. That won’t be accomplished in a single “sex talk,” nor, really, any one easy fix, any more than you could teach your child table manners in one sitting. But at the very least, listening to their struggles is a start. I think about a guy I talked to early on, a rising college junior who’d equated a girl’s invitation back to her room with sexual consent. “I want to do the right thing,” he told me, “but I don’t know what the right thing is. I just know what I know, which is a lot of really confusing and wrong” stuff. He pressed forward unthinkingly, one might say manfully — or as he described it, “boom, boom, boom, boom” — until she put a hand on his chest, saying, “Whoa! I don’t want to do that.”
“And in that moment,” he said, “I could see just how wrong it was. The utter lack of communication that took place in those five to 10 minutes. And even realizing that I didn’t feel great myself about what we were doing. I just…” He shook his head regretfully. “I thought that was the only option. I thought that was the way things were supposed to be.”
Let’s Talk About Sex
Readers, we want to hear from you. Your responses may be used in a follow up article.
Young adults, what was missing from your early education about sex? What messages did you receive from parents, friends and society, and how did they influence your approach to sexual encounters?You must be 13 or older to have your submission considered for publication; those younger than 18 must have a parent’s permission.