Boys and Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity was published by Harper in 2020.
Boys and Sex: Compassion, Criticism, and a Call for Change
Once More for the People in Back: Men Need Feminism, Too
How Do We Liberate Young Men from the Constraints of Masculinity?
Boys and Sex: An American Reckoning
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
Boys and Sex: Compassion, Criticism, and a Call for Change
The first time I heard my students say, “Netflix and chill,” I thought they meant inviting someone over to watch television together. They laughed and corrected me: “No. It’s an invitation to have sex.” I’m told I had an identifiable reaction. I felt confused, but students told me I looked disappointed. “Is the idea to literally watch a movie while having sex?” I asked. They confirmed and discussed the crucial role of the television: it inhibits conversation. They explained that this helped make a hookup less awkward but noted that it also makes consent less likely. This is just one small piece of the sexual landscape today. In Boys and Sex, Orenstein covers issues like this and talks with young men to understand how they think about sex, what it’s like for them, the consequences of their thoughts and feelings, and why their sex lives are so fraught.
Research shows that having adults talking with young people about sex is really important. It has a profound effect on their sexual behavior, independence, and emotional experiences with sex. The problem is that, in general, US adults don’t talk with young people about sex—boys in particular. But, as Orenstein argues in Boys and Sex, learning about sex is not actually avoidable, despite some adults’ best efforts. And sexual cultures and climates have shifted in many important ways for young people today, making dialogue as crucial as ever.
Boys and Sex should be required reading for parents, teachers, and young people. Part of what stood out for me is the compassion Orenstein has for the young men in these pages. She puts a magnifying glass up to young men’s professed belief in gender and sexual equality to examine what “feminist progress” actually looks like for them. The book is equal parts disturbing and inspiring. Some young men she spoke with admitted to awful sexual practices, and most confessed to not really enjoying the sexual culture in which they felt compelled to participate.
To better understand US young men’s understandings of sex, Orenstein interviewed one hundred. They talked about masturbation, described addiction to pornography, and confessed to difficult sexual initiations and interactions—some endearing, many horrifying. Many admitted to leaning into sexual interactions that they later came to doubt were consensual. And while most of the young men in her study were cisgender and straight, Orenstein also talked with trans, queer, and gay young men. As a sociologist, I wanted to know more about her sample, but I finished feeling that these were the experiences of a diverse group of young men.
Some of the most powerful moments in the book for me were those spaces where Orenstein pivots to focus on young men marginalized by gender and sexuality. In her chapter on gay, trans, and queer guys, for instance, Orenstein observes that the queer men she spoke with were consistently more willing and better prepared to discuss sexual consent. Acknowledging that consent is an extremely low bar for “good sex,” gay, trans, and queer young men described sexual experiences that involved discussions about desires and concerns. Though assaults, harassment, and nonconsensual sex happened among these young men, too, Orenstein positions them as offering new directions for the straight, cis men in her book who feel locked into a system of toxic sexual interactions.
Peggy Orenstein’s Boys and Sex is an eye-opening book, broaching difficult issues with empathy for the young men involved. Orenstein’s compassion for these young men, however, does not immunize them from her critique or her call for feminist change. Rather, in Boys and Sex, she concludes by challenging all of us to “[raise] our boys to be the men we know they can become.” Boys and Sex holds young men accountable for toxic beliefs and behavior while also recognizing that toxicity as a consequence of a system that has failed men, too.
Tristan Bridges is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His work is broadly concerned with contemporary transformations in masculinities. He is the coeditor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Continuity, and Change and also coeditor of the journal Men and Masculinities. You can learn more about his research and public writing at his website or follow him on Twitter.
Once More for the People in Back: Men Need Feminism, Too
It’s an odd time to be a teenage boy in America. As Peggy Orenstein shows in her authoritative new book, Boys and Sex, boys today are expected to be fluent in the critique of toxic masculinity—“Everyone knows what that is,” a football player at a Big Ten school told a surprised Orenstein—even as they’re under as much pressure as ever to perform the toxicity that they condemn. The way we talk about gender has shifted even as the working definition of masculinity that boys absorb from adults, peers, and media has “barely budged,” according to Orenstein’s research.
Orenstein has written a valuable book about the many ways we fail to teach boys to be the men we increasingly say that we want, especially when it comes to sex and love, as well as all forms of interaction with LGBTQ+ people and women. Boys and Sex is deeply researched, accessibly written, and compassionate toward its subjects even when it is rightly critical of their behavior. Alongside moving portraits of boys struggling with what it means to be a good man, Orenstein offers her skillful synthesis of the relevant social science research of the past several decades. Though little here will surprise a reader who has previously spent time with this topic, the author’s frank conversations with boys are fresh and memorable. She pushes a jock with an outspoken feminist girlfriend to explain why he stays silent when the other members of his crew team objectify women and listens as a former fraternity brother describes a years-long effort to atone for a sexual assault.
The book is explicitly aimed at the parents of boys, who Orenstein suggests have an unprecedented opening in light of #MeToo. It’s not a criticism, per se, to point out that parents have only so much influence over their children, or that helping them challenge the messages that their sons receive elsewhere will get us, at best, only partway to a much-needed reimagining of masculinity. Reading Boys and Sex, I sometimes found Orenstein unreasonably optimistic about how much would change if parents just started talking to their sons about sex. In a chapter about boys who resist labeling their own actions “rape,” Orenstein cites a national survey from 2017 that found that the vast majority of boys have never talked with their parents about how to be a respectful sexual partner or what it looks like to secure consent. “Those ideas might seem self-evident to an adult, beyond the need for comment, but given the rates of coercion, harassment, and assault, boys are clearly not learning sexual ethics merely by osmosis,” Orenstein writes. Boys “are particularly eager to have their fathers talk to them about their own experience with sex, love, even regret.” But parents, like their children, are products of the society in which we all live; they, too, have coerced, harassed, assaulted, and in some cases spent a lifetime resisting the kind of self-reflection that is required for any form of sexual ethics. Still, such parents—in fact, all parents—could learn a lot from this rigorous, fair-minded book. I hope as many as possible read it.
The fundamental fact, which Orenstein alludes to but never states outright, is that boys need feminism as badly as girls do. “Not new, but gets me every time,” I scrawled in the margin next to a list of ways that studies show traditional masculinity hurts men. (Men who internalize the rules of masculinity are more likely to be victims of violence and more prone to risky behavior, and they are lonelier and less happy than peers.) Orenstein may have been wise not to beat this drum too hard; I suspect she worried that overuse of the F-word would alienate otherwise receptive readers, and she’s probably right. Still, her reticence to name what she is truly advocating—not just better parenting, but feminist parenting—made me a little bit weary. If nothing else, it suggests that we may not have made as much progress as Orenstein, and so many others writing in the wake of #MeToo, seem to think we have.
Nora Caplan-Bricker is a journalist, essayist, and critic whose work appears in The New Yorker, Harper’s, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, and many other places. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
How Do We Liberate Young Men from the Constraints of Masculinity?
A curious thing happened when I began to report and write on boys and masculinity almost a decade ago: a lot of men got very, very angry with me. In emails and on social media they called me “crazy,” “a misandrist,” “antiscience,” “a manhating lesbian,” and, my personal favorite, “a femmesplainer.” One of the more zealous critics once drove two hours to confront me at a tiny conference of rural social workers, where I had been invited to advise the group on how to talk to young men about relationship violence. The man cornered me and accused me of “cultural appropriation” for speaking about the lives of boys and men without ever having been one. How dare a woman weigh in about the state of masculinity?
Set aside the obvious rejoinder that men, from philosophers and lawmakers to physicians and authors, have forever felt entitled to evaluate women’s worth and ponder our states of mind, to craft legislation to control our bodies and create narratives about us that bear no resemblance to our actual lives. I pursued this work because as a feminist raising a son in the dire early decades of the twenty-first century, I was searching for anyone—male or female—speaking about the lives of boys and men in ways that were serious, complex, and productive.
Even just six or seven years ago, masculinity, toxic or otherwise, was not a subject routinely examined or dismantled in popular media, aside from the occasional anxious eruption from conservative pundits like Christina Hoff Sommers, who fretted that feminism had broken boys’ spirits. But in the intervening period—since #MeToo; since Trump; since the rising populist and right-wing backlash to the progress of people of color, women, and LGBTQ folks; since the emergence of misogynist movements like incels and Gamergate—the subject of masculinity and its impact has become increasingly urgent. Drawing on earlier work in masculinity and gender studies by academics and activists such as Judy Y. Chu, bell hooks, Michael Kimmel, Paul Kivel, C. J. Pascoe, and Niobe Way, journalists and writers have begun to tackle how the expectations of traditional masculinity shape, and limit, young men’s behavior and emotional health.
Adding to this growing canon is Peggy Orenstein, with her insightful new book Boys and Sex, a follow up to her 2016 bestseller Girls and Sex. In it, she weaves analysis and research with the findings from her conversations with more than a hundred American young men aged 16 to 22 about hookups, dating, and relationships. Masculinity and the inner lives of young men are new subjects for Orenstein, who has spent most of her career writing about girls’ and women’s issues. But she’s a skilled and curious interviewer and draws out intimate and telling revelations from her subjects. (A side note for the angry man cited above: many of the most incisive and compassionate thinkers in the field of masculinity are women.) The young men share their fears and insecurities about sex and love, their desire for emotional connection, and the pressure they feel to live up to masculine norms (boys don’t cry, man up, bros before hos).
This generation of young men, Orenstein notes, is caught between old notions and expectations of gender and sex and a more fluid, expansive, and progressive cultural reality. “Like the girls I had interviewed a few years before,” Orenstein writes, “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.”
The dilemma for young men is that as much as they may dislike the old ideas, they continue to be rewarded for adhering to them. Relinquishing the status and privilege conferred by conforming to masculine norms is a tough sell. For those of us who have traditionally and materially suffered because of restricting and oppressive gender norms (cis women and nonbinary, trans, and queer people), contemporary feminist and LGBTQ theory and activism has been wildly liberating (even as full equality has not yet been reached). Biology does not need to be destiny: we exist on spectrums, not binaries, and gender is a construct, not a constant.
It should be pointed out that rigid gender norms are unhealthy for straight men, too. Traditional masculinity offers power and control, but that often comes at the cost of one’s humanity. As bell hooks wrote of maleness way back in 2004 in her groundbreaking book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, “status and the rewards of privilege are not the same as being loved.” Several studies have since shown that men who most identify with what’s referred to as “the man box”—traditionally masculine traits such as stoicism, risk taking, and physical aggression—tend to have poor health outcomes. They are more likely to be violent and to be the victims of violence, to engage in binge drinking and unprotected sex, and to experience feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression. Yet for many young men, the new gender-role fluidity does not hold the promise of liberation or happiness from the constricting man box. Instead it seems to augur a huge and bewildering loss.
In the most extreme cases, those feelings of confusion are warped into resentment—what Michael Kimmel calls “aggrieved entitlement”—a sentiment fueling violent white supremacist and misogynist movements. More commonly, they’ve found traction through the anti-PC swagger of stand-up comedians and in the resurgence of gender essentialism and the pseudoscience of evolutionary psychology peddled by figures like Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson.
Orenstein homes in on how these various cultural tensions play out among Generation Z in the intimate arenas of dating and sex. Her subjects are diverse in race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and many reflect on how these intersecting identities affect how they are viewed as men in the world. (Orenstein does, however, restrict her subjects to young men who are in college, or are college bound.) Racial stereotypes portray black and Latino men as hypermasculine and hypersexual, conferring high social status in some cases but at the same time leading to misperceptions that they are dangerous. Xavier, who is black, explains he feels “continuously scrutinized and judged.” Orenstein hears similar sentiments from gay and trans men, who are conversely seen as not manly enough and as posing another kind of threat, by upending the social order of sex and gender.
Most telling are the chapters in which young men speak of sex and consent. While “no means no” campaigns have become more prevalent, what’s revealed is the lack of understanding of the meaning of consent and the borders of the “gray zone.” A lot of this comes down to (heterosexual) expectations that force men and women into roles (sexual pursuers versus sexual gatekeepers); inadequate sex education that doesn’t address communication and pleasure; and codes of masculinity that equate sexual prowess with being “a real man.”
Reza grapples with guilt after a hookup with a partner he later realizes may have been too inebriated to consent, while Liam shrugs off a similar event with the knowledge that young men still aren’t regularly held to account. He knows he should apologize to the young woman, he tells Orenstein, “but you and I both know I won’t.” Other young men struggle to speak about acts for which they still can’t find words: incidents in which they were sexually abused or harmed. If being a real man means always being turned on, they wonder how to make sense of sex they didn’t want, and what being a victim means for their own sense of self.
Orenstein didn’t at first expect her subjects to be so forthcoming. Unlike girls, boys “don’t exactly have a reputation for chattiness,” she writes. Instead she found young men eager for permission to speak candidly about their intimate lives. If there’s a pitch to be made to young men to think critically about masculinity and to consider how they might reshape manhood into something more expansive and empathetic, it’s this: the possibility to speak openly and with vulnerability, to be one’s true self, to be decent, and to be meaningfully connected to others.
Rachel Giese is the editorial director of Xtra Magazine, an online publication covering LGBTQ culture and politics. Her award-winning writing has appeared in The Walrus, Real Life, and NewYorker.com, and she is a frequent contributor to CBC Radio. Her book Boys: What it Means to Become a Man won the Writers’ Trust Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing and was named one of the Globe and Mail’s best books of 2018. She lives in Toronto with her wife and son.
Boys and Sex: An American Reckoning
Peggy Orenstein has made a career writing about girls. Her first book, Schoolgirls (1994), tackled the decline of self-esteem among adolescents. One of her breakout books, Cinderella Ate My Daughter (2011), interrogated “girlie-girl” culture. And her last, Girls and Sex (2016), explored the erotic terrain faced by girls coming of age. Altogether, Orenstein has contributed five books about life as a girl in contemporary America, making her one of the leading popular voices in this area. It’s fair to say that she has guided a generation of parents struggling to raise daughters.
Now she writes about boys.
By all accounts, Orenstein didn’t want to write about boys. She was begged to. Boys and Sex was born on the book tour for Girls and Sex. Released in March of 2016, her book about girls dropped into a startling political moment. Then–presidential candidate Donald Trump was in the midst of sweeping the Republican primaries and, before Orenstein’s book tour was over, he would emerge as the Republican nominee. Perhaps the attendees at her book events were alarmed by the rise of a man who was the very embodiment of “toxic masculinity.” Perhaps they were concerned for other reasons. But they asked her “at every stop” to write about their sons, nephews, brothers, and boyfriends.
As Orenstein contemplated this turn, we were given more and more reasons to be concerned about the boys and men in our lives. Trump’s ascendance to the US’s highest office was accompanied by a genuine reckoning with the sexually abusive behavior of powerful men, most of whom would—like the president thus far—suffer little consequence. Among the left-leaning public, relief that such behavior was finally seeing the light of day was tempered by the reminder that our legal systems are designed to respond ineffectively to such crimes. There was catharsis, but little justice.
If Orenstein was begged to write about boys in the spring of 2016, imagine the desire and demand for such a book now. Debuting on the New York Times best-seller list, it appears to be striking a raw and fearful chord. Parents all over America are having their own reckoning: having a son is an awesome responsibility. It seems as if more and more are taking seriously their role in preparing their boys to be not just men but good men.
Orenstein’s book is honest and thoughtful. It’s kind to boys and gentle with its readers. It’s not radical. It’s not complex. But it might be exactly what America needs at this moment. It’s an invitation to start thinking about masculinity. An invitation to the feminist conversation.
In this sense, Orenstein has done something extraordinarily important. She’s broken through. Most American parents have long been receptive to feminist messages aimed at their daughters. If the second-wave feminist movement accomplished anything, it mainstreamed the idea that girls shouldn’t be constrained by femininity. But what about boys? For decades now, feminists have bemoaned the “stalled revolution.” When will America embrace the idea that boys should be set free, too?
Orenstein’s book may be a sign that a wider swath of Americans is ready to question the role of masculinity in boys’ lives. Released at this precipitous moment, it appears to be tapping into a growing sense of unease, and its reception suggests that we’re on a promising path. The road from here is long, circuitous, and uncertain, of course. But it’s encouraging that more Americans appear ready to join us on the journey.
Lisa Wade earned an MA in human sexuality from New York University and an MS and PhD in sociology from the University of Wisconsin. She is the author of over a dozen research articles, the author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, coauthor of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, and coeditor of Assigned: Life with Gender. Well known for her wide-ranging critique and commentary, she appears frequently in news and opinion outlets.
First of all, I’d like to acknowledge how honored I am to have my work discussed in Signs. This journal has been a cornerstone of my feminism since I was a teenager.
I love Nora Caplan-Bricker’s observation that boys feel compelled “to perform the toxicity they condemn.” I also laughed at “once more for the people in back.” At this point, I have surfed an ocean of feminist waves and am only too aware of how often we have to repeat ourselves, find new ways to address the same issues. I am often asked what the equivalent of feminism for boys might be. My answer is always … it’s still feminism! Argh! Sadly, that doesn’t seem to satisfy, so maybe I have, as Caplan-Bricker suggests, adopted more of a stealth strategy.
I do believe the latest rounds of feminist activism around sexual violence—both the #MeToo and campus antiassault movements—are the reason this book has gotten so much attention. The knowledge that some boys and men might now face consequences for their actions has shaken parents, forced a level of reevaluation—whether out of fear or a genuine desire to raise egalitarian men. Caplan-Bricker may be right that I am overly optimistic about what those parents, without intense self-interrogation, can do to guide their sons. Still, I know that my books are often used to jump-start conversations: among parents, between parents and teens, and among young people themselves. They have inspired both personal change and collective action. I guess that’s why I cheerlead a little.
I so appreciate Tristan Bridges’—and everyone’s—comments about my compassion and empathy toward my interview subjects. Maintaining that could be a challenge. I’m also grateful that Bridges mentioned the work with gay and trans boys. Their voices were crucial, and I hoped they would offer unexpected perspective. For similar reasons, I wanted to try, even if through a limited lens, to explore how ethnicity mediated masculinity and sexuality. I was interested in the ways, even in progressive environments, the dominant culture both fetishizes and demonizes the bodies of young African American men. Also, by contrast, how Asian American men’s bodies are emasculated and stripped of sexuality. That latter group is too often ignored in conversations about intersectionality; in media coverage of the book, that has, frustratingly, remained true.
And, oh, Rachel Giese, I feel you. I find that in addition to “aggrieved entitlement,” a certain male demographic is prone to wielding pseudologic as a shield to deflect engagement with ideas they find personally threatening. So, from the heart, I thank you for continuing your work, along with C. J. Pascoe, bell hooks, Niobe Way, Judy Y. Chu, Paul Kivel, Michael Kimmel, and others who pioneered this field.
Like all of you, I remain deeply concerned about young men’s permeable understanding of consent. I quote sociologist Nicole Bedera, who found that guys’ definitions may expand based on their actions and that they are prone to refracting women’s behavior through their own desires. Unless gender dynamics are made visible to them, then, the efficacy of much of contemporary consent training remains in doubt. There is so much work to do—of course there is (and always will be)—but again, at the risk of overoptimism, I am also seeing the impact of that labor: the boys I interviewed grappled with what were once seen as “women’s issues” in a way that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. I am in full agreement—as always!—with Lisa Wade: the very fact that Boys and Sex has found a mainstream audience, despite (or maybe because of) the barrage of Trump-induced precarious masculinity, gives me great hope.
Peggy Orenstein is the author of the New York Times best-sellers Boys and Sex, Girls and Sex, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and Waiting for Daisy, as well as Don’t Call Me Princess, Flux, and the classic Schoolgirls.
A contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, Peggy was named by The Columbia Journalism Review as one of its “40 women who changed the media business in the past 40 years.” She has been recognized for her “Outstanding Coverage of Family Diversity” by the Council on Contemporary Families, and her work has been honored by the Commonwealth Club of California, the National Women’s Political Caucus of California, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Her TED Talk, “What Young Women Believe about Their Own Sexual Pleasure,” has been viewed over 4.6 million times.