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She Spent 2 Years Interviewing Young Men About Sex, Consent and Abuse. Here’s Why She’s Optimistic After #MeToo

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For decades, journalist Peggy Orenstein has reported on the experiences of young women, including in her best-selling books Cinderella Ate My Daughter and Girls & Sex, a 2016 examination of the sex lives of women in or on their way to college. Orenstein shifted her gaze for her new book, Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity, out Jan. 7. Drawing on her contacts developed in schools and communities across the country during the reporting of Girls & Sex, Orenstein interviewed young men between the ages of 16 and 22 with an array of racial and sexual identities. She asked them about their perspectives on hooking up, using porn and seeking consent, and heard stories of men both experiencing and perpetrating assault. Orenstein spoke to TIME about her discoveries and how parents, schools and young people themselves can foster a safer and more fulfilling culture around sex.

TIME: Did you have any notions about boys that fell apart while reporting this book?

Orenstein: What I ended up feeling when I was talking to girls was that they were systematically disconnected from their bodies, and with boys it was that they were systematically disconnected from their hearts. My biggest bias going into this was that I thought boys wouldn’t talk about their feelings and their sex lives. That was completely blown out of the water. We greatly underestimate boys’ ability to engage with issues around physical and emotional intimacy—and we do that to their detriment, because they’re really struggling with all of this as well, and have even fewer outlets for talking about it. In today’s new era, we are rightly expecting more of them, but we are not having the discussions with them that would allow them to behave in ways we say we want them to.

Given how little instruction and counsel boys are given, can we expect them to know better from the start?

Some do. Some don’t. Obviously if we look at the rates of harassment, of coercion, of assault, too many don’t get the message by osmosis. The #MeToo movement revealed that these problems exists across every sector of society. Clearly for some guys, the messages they’re getting when they’re young are taking root and flowering and being allowed to thrive in a really negative way. That’s not true of most men, but we need to do some real work. And most of the guys I spoke to really wanted that. They wanted a broader idea of what it meant to be a man. They wanted to have a more connected, fulfilling emotional and sexual life. #MeToo has created a mandate to reduce sexual violence—but it’s also created this opportunity to really engage boys, maybe for the first time, in these discussions of gender and sex and emotional intimacy, in ways that not only reduce harm but also benefit both them and their partners.

Did you encounter any boys who you worried were beyond repair?

The boys I was talking to were so young that I would not want to say that about anybody. There were boys I was concerned by. There were boys who I watched develop a kind of denial about their behavior, whether it was a guy who shot a video of a girl performing oral sex on him and sent it to a bunch of friends without her knowledge, or a guy who said, “Yeah, this girl said I raped her, but I know the truth.” I worried that, without something that would challenge their behavior in a way the boys could hear, it would become entrenched. I didn’t think that they were irredeemable, but I worried that they weren’t going to get the support they needed to make the change they could. On the flip side of that, there’s a story in the book of a boy who could not be more “bro-y” when he starts out; he’s learning every bit of dominant behavior, he’s joining a frat, he’s really excited about how many girls he can hook up with. He assaults a girl—and, in retrospect, he thinks more than one. And he ends up going through this restorative justice process with her, and it transforms him. I was tempted to think when I talked to him that he was a unicorn, but he was just a regular dude. But because there was some interruption, and some support and change, he got it, and he changed.

A common refrain among the boys in the book is that they’re driven by an obsession with status. Do you think that root cause can be fixed?

Sure, because it’s a specific kind of status they’re looking for, which is a status that’s based on these ideas they have about what it means to be a man—that you’ve got to hook up with the most women. But it was really interesting to talk to boys about hookup culture, because we think of that as being something that advantages them over girls. It doesn’t. They didn’t sound as angry or hopeless about it as girls often were, but they also didn’t seem that happy about it. One of the boys I talked to said he would really like to ask a girl out, but it would be so weird to just ask. He wanted something else, but he didn’t know how to get there. Questioning the idea that you’ve got to hook up with a lot of women is worth it. The psychologist Andrew Smiler, who I quote in the book, suggests you can say to boys: Do you want to just be masturbating into another person? What is the context you want for that orgasm? What is the relationship you want around that?

What other social forces—beyond status—are at work to create these dynamics?

We’ve made so many changes for girls. If you went back 25 years ago, people were still saying girls weren’t good at math, girls weren’t as good at sports, girls couldn’t be leaders, girls were naturally more demure. There was a bunch of research that came out and showed that the combination of all those old ideas, layered over with all these new ideas that girls could be anything they wanted to be, was causing this deep contradiction in girls, and that it was really harming them. That’s where we are with boys now. We are recognizing that we need to have these new expectations of boys, but we haven’t let go of the old ones. We’ve even made it more constricting—boys were allowed to cry at one time. When I first started writing about girls, people would say, “You’re trying to make girls into boys,” because I wanted girls to have equal opportunities. Now the accusation is, “You’re trying to make boys into girls,” because I want them to be able to be fully human.

You note that the young gay men you spoke to put an end to degrading or dissatisfying behavior from their partners, something that you’ve heard many young straight women say they struggle to do. Why do you think young women continue to hook up with men even when the resulting sex is so dissatisfying and even harmful?

Gay guys were so much more evolved on consent, and they could not understand why straight guys were so resistant to having open discussions about sex with their partners. Dan Savage says that the classic thing gay men ask when they’re going to have some kind of sexual engagement is, “What are you into?” It’s this wonderful open-ended question that puts everything on the table and allows you to create a sexual experience that’s going to be satisfying for you. This is not to say that there’s not assault or abuse among gay men; obviously there is. But several gay guys I talked to described situations where they were expected to be constantly engaged in a nonreciprocal encounter, and they would not have it. Whereas with girls, it’s just gender socialization. They learn from the time they’re really young that their role is to please. Everything in the culture tells them that they’re supposed to be sexy and not feel their sexuality. I remember talking with a group of kids once, and a girl raised her hand and said, “I have a question for the boys. How do you express your sexuality?” And the boys just kind of looked blank, and one of them said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Well, like, we wear a short skirt, or we dress a certain way. What do you do?” And the boys looked blank. And one finally said, “Well, we have sex.” And I thought, that’s kind of it in a nutshell: Girls learn that expressing sexuality means expressing sexiness, and boys learn that expressing sexuality means to have sex, to do something sexual, to do something physical, to feel something in your body.

Do you see that as related to status or something completely different?

Well, it can be. Why would girls participate in nonreciprocal relationships? Sometimes it was status. Sometimes it was to improve a relationship. Sometimes they thought that it would protect them from emotional intimacy. One of the things I talked about with girls was faking orgasm. I was surprised to find out that boys did that, too, and for the same reasons. It was the same thing with unwanted sex, which is usually defined as sex that you could stop but don’t. We think of that as being something girls endure. In fact, young men have a lot of unwanted sex and again, for many of the same reasons. Because they don’t want to be embarrassed. Because they’re being coerced, being told, “What’s wrong with you? Are you gay? I’m going to tell everybody that you wouldn’t have sex with me.” Or because they don’t know what else to do or don’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings. All kinds of reasons. I even had conversations about assault by girls, particularly involving somebody having sex with a boy when he was incapacitated; sex that the boys didn’t want to have—and sometimes sex they didn’t realize they’d had. They didn’t tend to react, generally speaking, with the same distress as girls did, but sometimes they did. And sometimes I thought, if the roles were reversed here, people would be taking this conversation a lot more seriously.

You write about the common expectation that men be the ones to initiate and escalate sexual encounters with women, and some boys told you that they felt pressure to be innately sexually capable. If there was a culture of more shared responsibility for initiation and escalation, would that help ease some anxieties?

One of the things boys talked about a lot was this idea of experience. If you didn’t know what you were doing, you we’re going to be shamed. It would have two effects: one, it pushed them to get experience, whether they were interested in the person they were getting it with or not, and two, it would sometimes block them from asking their partners what they wanted or engaging with them, because they didn’t want to be seen as not knowing what they were doing. So yeah, that is something that would help, though it’s also a lot more than that. It’s also challenging that idea of what it means to have experience, what it means to be a good partner, acknowledging that sex can be messy and awkward and silly. What kids see in mainstream media and porn is not that. It’s this smooth, always easy, always clean, always instantaneously orgasmic image of what sex is. And it’s unrealistic.

Do you have suggestions for where young men could learn from realistic depictions of sex?

For one thing, you have to broaden the idea of sex, right? Sex isn’t just intercourse. Sex is kissing. It’s eroticism and sensuality, which I think we need to prize and value more. One of the things that made me laugh was when one of the boys said there was a guy on his crew team who said he wasn’t using porn anymore and was masturbating without it, and they were like, “Whoa, how do you do that?” He said, “Well, I use my imagination.” They couldn’t even fathom that. But that’s what people used to do. The main thing is to try to mix it up, because the way that boys look at porn—flipping between the multiple clips and the death grip on the penis—it’s not going to serve you very well when you get into a partnered encounter. If you’re a parent, have some better stuff around the house. There’s a great book by Heather Corinna that is like the Bible for learning about sex as a young person, called S.E.X. You should have information for your child that is accurate and realistic. Should you be cultivating your son’s erotica? No, you should not. But you can let him know that there are other ways and places to find sensuality and eroticism than porn.

We talked about how gay boys have practical solutions to the matter of consent and nonreciprocal sex, yet it seems that they receive even less instruction than straight boys do.

They had to develop a language to discuss those subjects. But the super concerning thing with gay guys was that, because of the rise of swipe apps, under-aged boys were on Grindr, lying about their age and having sex with adult men. Their friends and parents didn’t know they were doing it, and it was not safe. So that’s where one of the dangers is in not educating yourself and your LGBTQ child about their sexuality and what positive sexuality is for them. It’s also super important to talk to straight kids about gay sexuality in a sex ed class. Otherwise, it kind of marginalizes and makes mysterious and possibly negative what two people of the same sex do with one another. For the safety and wellbeing of LGBTQ+ kids, as well as just living in the world, that’s information straight people need, too.

Do you believe that parents generally, or just elder generations overall, have particular wisdom and knowledge about sex?

Well, they don’t necessarily. I mean, nobody talked to us. It’s really hard to have these conversations. But we don’t have the luxury of silence. You just have to take a deep breath and do it. You’re not going to get it right the first time. You don’t have to have had your own perfect record in order to have something to say to your child around this. But we have to have conversations, not just about risk and danger, but about gender dynamics, personal responsibility, pleasure and joy. Because if we don’t, we live in a world where the media is going to educate our kids for us, and we are not going to like the result. That means parents, schools and coaches; and ideally, kids talk among themselves—I think they are more. I first started talking about these issues with my nieces, who are older, and I remember thinking, “I want the ground to actually split and swallow me whole,” in the middle of a conversation about reciprocity and female orgasm. But the ultimate result was that it made for really strong relationships with them. Rather than dwelling on how you’d rather poke yourself in the eye with a fork than say the word clitoris to your son, think about how this is an opportunity to show up and support your kid and show him how to have difficult conversations.

Knowing what you now know about boys, have you become more or less optimistic about them?

Oh, totally more. Because they were so forthcoming. I saw so much in them that was so interesting and valuable. They were really ready and eager to engage in all of these issues and to think about how to be the men that we want them to be.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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