The Author Of “Boys & Sex” On How To Raise Our Sons Better
Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano
Photography by Photographed by Nicki Sebastian
If there’s one parenting title you read in the year ahead, we’re making the argument for Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity, by renowned researcher and best-selling author Peggy Orenstein (author of the similarly fantastic Girls & Sex and Cinderella Ate My Daughter).
If the title Boys & Sex alone has you scrambling for the exit, trust us—this book is even more vital for you to read. Based on hundreds of in-depth interviews with male college students and high schoolers (ages 16 to 22) over the last couple of years, Orenstein’s book paints an often alarming picture of how today’s young men have been shaped by 24/7 access to porn, lousy sex-education at school and at home, and the still-rampant, emotionally vapid “bro culture,” which allows for so-called “toxic masculinity” to continue to survive and thrive, generation after generation.
While it can be easy to look away from the reality of today’s boys, whether you’re a parent of a boy, girl, or non-binary kid, we think it’s important to stop and soak it all in—as unpretty as it sounds—to understand where we truly are, how we got here, and more importantly, how we can remedy the situation starting now.
We recently caught up with Orenstein to provide some guidelines on what parents of boys can do—starting from birth—so that our sons can avoid the pitfalls of so many of her research subjects. Read ’em below and be sure to pass them along to the next #boymom in your life ASAP.
Advice For Birth To Preschool:
*Label Body Parts Correctly: “When people ask me where they should start, I tell them, start at birth. That’s a good place. You’re lucky if you get to start at birth, instead of much later in the game,” says Orenstein. “When you start at birth, you start with the basics, like naming body parts correctly.” That’s right, no “wee wee” no “pee pee”—it’s penis, it’s vulva. Focus on keeping these terms factual and shame-free from the very beginning. This lays the groundwork for all that follows.
*Build A Rich Emotional Vocabulary: “Boys grow up in an impoverished emotional landscape compared to girls, and it starts in infancy. Studies show that parents talk to their sons in much less emotional language,” explains Orenstein. “So, pay attention to what emotions you’re describing to your boy and what emotions you think he’s expressing. Also, note how often you’re describing everything either as ‘happy’ or ‘angry’. Because what boys often learn is that all of the emotions that might fall into that general bucket of sadness, grief, frustration, or betrayal should all be labeled anger.” Parents can get started by consistently labeling their own emotions out loud and helping their sons do the same, as well as reading children’s books that tackle the breadth of emotions that all humans experience. Overall, says Orenstein, “it’s going to do your son a huge lifelong service, and while it doesn’t seem on the surface to be about sex, it is in fact the key thing in setting up your son to have mutually gratifying, personally fulfilling relationships, and to have empathy.”
*Teach Bodily Autonomy: Teaching your kid bodily autonomy early is a child’s first lesson in consent. “If your great Aunt Nancy comes over and wants to give your son a kiss and he doesn’t want a kiss from Aunt Nancy, well too bad Aunt Nancy. That’s bodily autonomy,” explains Orenstein. “It can be kind of awkward, but too bad. You’re teaching your son that someone doesn’t need to kiss you to make them feel better when it makes you feel bad. That’s a big lesson.” For more tips on teaching your child bodily autonomy, head over here.
*Stress The “Platinum Rule”: We all know the Golden Rule of treating others the way you would like to be treated, but health educators like Charis Denison say that’s not enough. “Her ‘Platinum Rule’,” Orenstein explains, “is treating people the way they want to be treated, not the way you want to be treated. It’s particularly important for boys, because later in life they are going to get a lot of messages that girls want what they want, and that’s not necessarily true.”
Advice For Grade School To Middle School:
*Teach Them Media Literacy: “Grade school is a good time to develop media literacy with boys,” says Orenstein. “As parents of daughters, we’re really conscious of making sure that girls develop a critical lens on media culture. We try to help our daughters see what is a lie and how that lie is going to hurt them. But boys are growing up in that same media stew and sometimes, for them, the temperature is actually hotter! The images they’re already seeing when they’re 6 or 7 commodify sexuality, make it transactional, present male sexual entitlement and dominance, and present female sexual submission and availability.” So, how do you counteract the narrative? First off, pay attention to what your child is watching and co-view programs when possible. To help your child develop their inner media critic, make sure you are pointing out any silly or unfair depictions of the characters on the screen often and start conversations around what you’re noticing. For more advice on combatting gender stereotypes in the media (at every age), head over here.
*Encourage Cross-Sex Friendships: Studies continue to prove just how important cross-sex friendships are, and for various reasons. “There’s research that says kids who can retain cross-sex friendships through elementary school have better dating relationships later on. And I think it’s because they don’t see somebody with different body parts as being ‘the other’ in the same way,” says Orenstein. “Having these relationships—whether with a sister or a peer—can make a real difference in boys’ attitudes and expectations around women.” She also points to research that shows that children who have cross-sex friendships starting in preschool and continuing on are also less likely to commit sexual misconduct and to be in violent adult relationships. “In the long game, we want our kids to have mutually gratifying, personally fulfilling, egalitarian, connected, pleasurable relationships—whether they last for 5 minutes or whether they last for 50 years—and one of the ways to get there and to reduce sexual violence along the way is to try to reinforce cross-sex friendships when children are little, as much as we can. It doesn’t have to be all the time, it doesn’t mean that they always have to be in mixed-sex groups, but when we can.” Both parents and teachers can make a difference, placing children of other sexes together for play dates or for class projects and remarking out loud how well both children get along. “In one study, commenting on it in that way resulted in kids doing it more. And it results in more cross-sex play,” explains Orenstein. “Whereas, if a teacher doesn’t comment on it—because they’re not paying attention or because they don’t care or because they think it’s happening and they don’t need to—it disappears.”
*Pay Attention To All-Male Cultures: When it comes to groups of boys playing together, note the all-male culture that’s being created. “There’s nothing wrong with boys wanting to have boy time and girls having their girl time, but it does over-develop one aspect of themselves and it can reinforce certain ideas about masculinity. These stereotypical ideas about masculinity and hierarchical behavior are already well in play by the time boys are 6 years old,” explains Orenstein. “The thing about the all-male groups is they can be a great source of camaraderie, brotherhood, character-building, and friendship, and they can also be a smoke screen for bullying and sexual aggression.” If you notice issues like these brewing within your son’s all-boy crew—including the exchange of offensive language, like homophobic slurs, “no homo,” and referring to demeaning behavior as “hilarious”—take action now. “Sexual harassment rates are very high among middle schoolers,” says Orenstein, “So to ignore these issues when they’re younger isn’t going to serve them.”
*Get Coaches Involved: The toxicity of so-called “locker room talk” is well documented in Boys & Sex (and it’s likely even worse than you imagine it to be). One way to stop this rampant misogyny and homophobia that boys are exposed to and participating in is to make sure sports’ coaches have a zero tolerance policy on and off the field. As Orenstein says, “All-male cultures can be a smoke screen for negativity, but they can also be a crucible for change.” She points to research done by the wonderful organization Coaching Boys to Men, in which coaches conducted light interventions with their middle school and high school players via discussions around issues of respect, consent, etc. The result: The discussions correlated to reduced rates of sexual harm later on and reduced the kind of weaponized language that boys learn to use when they talk about sex and women. Coaches—both good and bad—can have a tremendous influence on our sons.
*Enlist Strong Male Role Models: While you might be a mother who is reading this article and planning to put all of these practices into play, the role of fathers and other male role models in your son’s life can not be underestimated. “The boys whom I interviewed for Boys & Sex were very clear that fathers are their models of masculinity, for better or for worse,” says Orenstein. “Some of the guys would say ‘My dad told me not to be a little bitch,’ or ‘My dad told me to man up,’ but a lot of them would also say ‘My dad was not sexist or homophobic, I didn’t get that so-called toxic masculinity from him, but he was like a sigh-and-walk-away kind of guy, so I still learned the emotionally stunted aspect of masculinity that way’.” Even if your child’s father or father figure isn’t the best at processing or expressing his own emotions, he needs to be involved. “You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to know all the answers, you don’t have to know all the questions, you don’t have to have perfect relationships to be able to offer your son some wisdom,” says Orenstein. “You just have to be open and to start the conversation.”
*Teach Sex-Education At Home: If you’re relying on your child’s school to teach him sex-ed, think again. “Basically, if you are not talking to your son about sex, the default educator is going to be pornography,” says Orenstein. And we all know that’s not going to end well. Instead, starting at an early age, read your child age-appropriate books about sex (we have a great list here). Orenstein also has a helpful list of resources that guide parents in raising sexually healthy kids. And, of course, good sex-ed isn’t just about sex. “It’s about what makes a good friendship, what it means to have a reciprocal relationship, all these different things that build toward having conversations about sexual decision making,” says Orenstein. “We focus so much on the mechanics, but that’s actually not the hardest conversation. It’s having these conversations about mutuality and reciprocity.”
Advice for Middle School, High School, and Beyond:
*Educate Your Son (And Yourself) On Porn: Some sources say 11-years-old is the average age that boys will first be exposed to porn, while others say it’s more like 8-years-old…or younger. Whatever the exact age is, it is around the corner for your kids or it’s already happened. Before you can talk to your son about porn, Orenstein advises educating yourself on what’s out there. “If you haven’t looked at PornHub as an adult, you need to. Otherwise, you have a completely inaccurate idea of what today’s kids are accessing. If you have like some idea of ’70s Playboy porn in your head, you are so far off.” Next, you need to talk to your son directly around what porn is and the lack of reality behind it. “The vision that they’re getting from that easy-access porn, and from the media in general, is a really distorted, commodified, transactional idea of sex that men do to rather than with women. It shows female pleasure as a performance for male satisfaction, distorted bodies, and a lot of activities that don’t feel that good to anybody,” says Orenstein. “If we’re not getting in there and talking to them about what’s real and what’s not real and what’s missing, then they’re bringing those ideas into the bedroom.”
*Discuss Consent: The definition of what consent is has evolved, and it’s vital that both parents and their children know what it is. Orenstein lays out the new rules in Boys & Sex: “Consent should be affirmative (silence is not consent); knowing (a person cannot consent while asleep, involuntarily restrained, or incapacitated by drugs or alcohol); ongoing (saying yes to one activity does not imply consent to another, nor does having done something in the past grant permission in the present); revocable (you must stop instantly when it is withdrawn); freely given (not coerced, won over, or manipulated—pushing someone’s head down is not consent).” Consent also applies to digital images, too, and must be obtained in person (not via text or social media). Another thing to discuss with boys is that when they drink alcohol, they can put themselves and others in a dangerous situation. “They are more likely to over-perceive ‘yes,’ they will see any sign of friendliness from a woman as ‘it’s on.’ They are less able to perceive ‘no’ and hear a partner’s hesitation, they are more prone to believing that consent for one activity is consent to all activities. And they are prone to believing that the space dictates consent, so that if somebody says they’re going back to your room, then they consented to having intercourse with you,” explains Orenstein.
*Give Equal Treatment To LGBTQ+ Kids: Whether you have an LGBTQ+ child or not, inclusion of LGBTQ+ experiences in sex-ed is essential. “Regardless of your own sexual orientation or body parts, it’s gotta be in the curriculum so that those kids are not stigmatized, demonized, and marginalized,” says Orenstein. “Especially if we’re heterosexual parents of LGBTQ+ kids, we need to educate ourselves about the wide variety of sexual things that people who have the same body parts might be doing together and to talk to our sons or find somebody who can talk to our sons about what for them constitutes a mutually gratifying relationship.” Seeking out age-appropriate spaces for your child where they can explore their identity and sexuality is also key. “If you happen to be a parent of an LGBTQ+ kid, you have to find or create social spaces where those kids can have age-appropriate experiences,” says Orenstein. “Even in really progressive communities, the LGBTQ+ boys I talked to were feeling that they didn’t get to do what their straight peers got to do. And that is part of what was driving them into unsafe and undesirable behavior.”
*Talk To Boys About More Than Just The Dangers Of Sex: “Teenage boys right now are worried that they’re going to be accused of something or that they’re all seen as predators. It’s all very negative,” says Orenstein. “When talking to your son, keep an eye on the long game: What is a positive sexual interaction? What is the quality of the relationship that you want to you have? What is good, not just what is legal? We have to keep that in mind, because American parents have a tendency to frame all conversations about sex in terms of risk and danger. Other countries talk in terms of responsibility and joy, and that is a really fundamental shift.”
For much more on this topic, be sure to check out Boys & Sex, as well as Peggy Orenstein’s resource-packed website. Plus, you can check out our past articles on How To Raise A Feminist Son, How To Combat Rape Culture, Fighting Gender Stereotypes In The Media, Teaching Body Autonomy, Toddlers and Consent, Sex-Ed Books For All Ages, and Encouraging Healthy Sexuality In Girls.
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