Reflecting on Peggy Orenstein’s New Book about Boys and Sex
Peggy Orenstein’s latest book, Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity, responds to reader demand, as well as the #MeToo movement. Her new book is based on two years of in-depth interviews with 100 high school and college students, many of whom attend or have graduated from independent schools.
If you teach, advise, counsel, coach, or live with boys, Orenstein’s book will tell you all you need to know—and probably more than you want to know—about not only the complexities of hookup culture and sexual consent, but how today’s boys and young men struggle in the face of culturally imposed barriers to emotional literacy, genuine intimacy, and satisfying relationships. While Orenstein acknowledges that boys and men as a group remain exceedingly privileged and powerful relative to their female counterparts, her subjects’ narratives convince us that nobody is thriving in our gendered culture.
Orenstein explains that while most of her male subjects hold egalitarian viewpoints and have close female friends, “When I asked them to describe the ideal guy . . . they appeared to be channeling 1955 . . . Like the girls I had interviewed a few years before, they were in a constant state of negotiation, trying to live out more modern ideas about gender yet unwilling or unable to let go of the old ones.”
What male students expect of themselves—and, Orenstein argues, what we expect of them—frequently flies in the face of what would be healthy and constructive. Boys want and need to talk, to feel, to connect; but many report that they find few openings to do so. Schools are uniquely positioned to shift the social context for boys and young men. To start, we would do well to listen to the students Orenstein has met, along with my Boston-area independent school colleagues who support the boys on their campuses with thought and care.
Boys want to talk. At the outset, Orenstein was genuinely surprised that boys were willing to speak with her. Ultimately, she was impressed with how hungry they were for conversation. She found that once boys learned of her project, some requested she interview them while others corralled her after speaking engagements, wanting to tell their stories. When Orenstein boldly attended a “pregame” before a frat party to interview a group of college students, they enjoyed the conversation so much they asked if they could do it again the following week.
I wasn’t at all surprised that boys wanted to talk with Orenstein; then again, I tend to see boys and young men who seek my help at school or through my counseling practice (like Orenstein’s subjects, their first step is almost always confiding in a girlfriend, female friend, or mother). Nor was I surprised when Orenstein described how her subjects don’t really talk with each other about their emotional needs or vulnerabilities. While working in a Boston secondary school, I happened to be counseling two 11th grade boys from the same friend group, both of whom were reflective, articulate, and emotionally open in their conversations with me. When I asked one of them whether he was confiding in his friends about some recent, painful developments related to his parents’ divorce, he dismissed the prospect promptly and unreservedly. “Oh, we don’t actually talk about anything like that. We never get into the real stuff.”
At our schools, we can help boys talk more openly with each other by making the space and facilitating conversation. Providing pizza is also helpful, according to June Schmunk, director of counseling at Belmont Hill School (MA). Schmunk describes the “Family Group” she runs for students with divorced or single parents as the “most impactful” work she does. Though she personally invites some students to join the weekly group, most are “self-referred” through word of mouth. She emphasizes how emotionally vulnerable, kind, supportive, and psychologically insightful the group members are with each other. She adds, “there is little shame or secrecy about being part of the group [on campus]. Because the group is very public and the connections between the boys uniquely close, there is comfort and psychological freedom about being a member.”
Consent is a low bar. Orenstein describes herself as “unexpectedly moved” to hear boys talk about love; how for many of them, an authentic, close relationship trumps a series of one-night stands. She notes that boys talk about their girlfriends with respect and admiration. One young man who has grown tired of treating girls like objects (and tired of feeling like one himself) tells Orenstein, “I’ve realized that consent is the bare minimum that should be expected when you’re with someone. People think once they’ve been granted consent for sex that all bets are off in terms of what you do to someone emotionally, how you treat them, and that’s not true.”
Many of Orenstein’s subjects described peer pressure, mostly from other boys, to “hook up” with as many girls as possible. While they tend to enjoy the sex, many of them find these encounters rather unsatisfying in the end. Hope Rupley, director of health & wellness at Belmont Hill School, is not afraid to talk with her students about sex and relationships during their 10th grade health class. Like Orenstein, she reports that boys seek her out after class to talk about personal issues, like breakups. Rupley describes a conversation in which her students were talking about “the thrill of the chase,” where “you keep chasing and then you get the girl, then it’s onto the next.” She asked, “So when does the chase end, at the altar?” A student’s response: “When someone makes you feel wanted.”
Stereotypes and biases at the intersection of race and gender affect boys of color in powerful and predictable ways. Orenstein interviewed numerous boys of color, most of whom attend predominantly white schools and colleges. African American boys report extreme care and cautiousness, taking steps such as arranging for a designated peer to monitor their interactions with white girls and women at parties, because they know their sexual behavior will be subjected to different standards and judgments than that of their white male classmates. A first-generation Korean American student, whose high school included many Asian American students but whose college is predominantly white, reports that although he dated in high school, young women on his new campus do not seem romantically interested in him. Orenstein cites psychological research indicating that students view African American men as sexually dominant and Asian American men as “worse in bed.” These sexual stereotypes exist alongside other assumptions, for example, about intelligence. Orenstein notes, “it’s clear that African American and Asian American men are flip sides of the same racialized, gendered coin, with white men controlling the toss (heads you lose, tails I win): one group made hypersexual, the other hyposexual; one threatening for its supposed intellectual inferiority; the other for its alleged superiority.”
Naming and exploring intersectional identities, biases, and stereotypes with students is a central strategy for combating their prevalence. Virtually all predominantly white schools should also examine their policies, practices, and school cultures to consider how boys of color are viewed—and may feel—within their communities. Representation is not a bad start. For example, Schmunk ensures that the two peer leaders she chooses for her “Family Group” always include at least one student of color.
Boys don’t always have strong, healthy male role models. Orenstein finds that many boys, some of whom are able to talk with their mothers about their emotions, do not feel at all comfortable with their fathers on this front. A college sophomore captures a common theme by acknowledging that starting in high school, he built “a wall” to conceal any emotional vulnerability. He assures Orenstein that his father is not emotionally unavailable, but a loving, approachable guy, adding there’s “a block” with his friends (also great guys) too. “We learn to confide in nobody. So you train yourself not to feel.”
Ben Liston, director of counseling at The Rivers School (MA) who also leads a weekly boys group at Beacon Academy (MA), a preparatory program for low-income students applying to independent schools, says the new expectations for young men about sex and relationships are extremely hard for their parents to teach them. He believes standards for sexual consent and relational intimacy are evolving so quickly that many parents cannot keep up with how much norms and expectations have changed. In addition, he notes that the process of figuring out contemporary expectations for healthy intimacy gets even more complicated for young men who live within families that are not intact, ones exemplify dominant or even toxic masculinity, or if addiction or mental health struggles impact the parental relationship in difficult ways. Liston believes that our schools have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to socialize and educate our male students before they head off to college, where supervision and support will be in shorter supply.
Orenstein hopes Boys & Sex will spark conversation, by giving parents the context they need to initiate direct discussions. I hope it can do the same for schools. Update your school’s sex ed program, offer a support group for boys with a skilled adult facilitator, ask male students how they’re doing and show them you really want to know. If you’ve not read Peggy Orenstein or heard her speak, she’s worth a piece of your limited time. You’ll find she’s much like our independent school colleagues: intellectually sophisticated, slightly irreverent, lots of fun—and deeply interested in what today’s kids have say.