You need to have “the talk,” and you need to have it before they go, my wife, Mary, implored. We’d recently moved west and our two sons, 14 and 12, were due to fly back to their hometown for a visit. Once there, they’d spend a month with their childhood friends, by far the longest they’d ever gone without our heli-parenting. The older boy had hit puberty, adding a foot in height and amusing us with voice breaks.
A few nights later, on another “June gloom” afternoon here on the coast, he and I sat together on our back deck, and I began what I assured him would be an awkward but needed conversation. Lately, he’d been asserting himself as a freethinker, a libertarian variation on Alex P. Keaton to my bleeding heart, even trying out some Reddit-charged anti-feminism at the dinner table. A phase? Probably. But I worried about him becoming an asshole. So in addition to reviewing the mechanics of sex, contraception, STDs, I emphasized respect for women and consent. Less birds and bees. More lessons of #MeToo.
I shared a one-liner I hoped would be memorable: Don’t get caught with your dick out. Masturbate, sure, but keep it your business. Don’t expose yourself to someone who hasn’t made it clear they’d welcome the sight of your penis. No dick pics. At this I thought I caught an “Okay, Boomer” raised brow. Toward the end, I assured him he could always ask me anything, and he said thanks, and I was free to imagine I’d done an okay job of it.
Rethinking the Birds and the Bees
Then I read Peggy Orenstein’s new book, Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity, and I discovered how out of touch I was. About, for example, how losing one’s virginity has become a singular opportunity for instant fame—or humiliation—or how the porn staple of hetero anal intercourse is the new “If you loved me, you’d swallow.” And I became desperate to discuss consent and coercion, again, after recognizing myself in a #MeToo scenario. Mostly, I saw, we were going to have to keep talking about porn.
A brisk, bracing read, Boys & Sex is essential for any parent who wants their son to avoid the traps of what’s become known as “toxic masculinity,” to discover his true sexual orientation and desires without trauma, and to have not just safe, legal sex but really great sex. The whip-smart author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter and Girls & Sex, Orenstein draws on more than 100 interviews with young men aged 16 to 22 for the new book. She makes a convincing case for why parents who were aware of her work with girls and used to say they were relieved to have sons now “realized that their job may actually be harder: they had to raise good men,” as she writes.
Feminism has thankfully disrupted conventions of what a woman can be, but the path to manhood remains pretty narrow, according to Orenstein, and follows a code that most understand by junior high: Suck it up, no crying like a bitch, don’t be the one who doesn’t know the cool brands or latest drug lingo or who reads books. Punch the V-card early. Get jacked, make bank, be the star of your own Scorsese picture. “You want to be able to say, ‘Dude, I fucked her for hours,’ ” an 18-year-old from San Francisco tells Orenstein when asked to “describe the ideal guy.”
“If emotional suppression and disparagement of the feminine are two legs of the stool that supports ‘toxic masculinity,’ the third is bragging about sexual conquest,” Orenstein writes, documenting how locker-room banter—broadly, how guys talk to one another about sex—revolves not around the pleasure their partner experienced or even their own, but how they “ripped” her up, “destroyed” her. Instead of intimacy and satisfaction, sex for young men is often about status.
Like all the boys in Orenstein’s book, my son assured me during our talk that he knew that porn wasn’t realistic. I could feel my credibility slipping even before I finished the point. Everyone knows that. Yet this doesn’t keep sexually explicit videos from shaping expectations or stoking anxiety about penis size.
It’s Not Just “Are They Watching?”; It’s What Are They Watching?
Orenstein explains that teens in the U. S. consume more porn than adults, and boys are at least three times as likely as their dads to have watched videos of gang bangs and the like. Hetero anal is not only up sharply but it’s usually bareback, as it appears in most porn.
Since it’s so easy to access, porn is snackable. Teens catch a quick session on their phone before breakfast, when they get home from school, on the bus—anytime, really. Some masturbate to it exclusively. There’s a sense that they know this isn’t good; some cut back on their use as they would if they were drinking too much. “A high school senior in New England told me he took a break when he found himself daydreaming during math class about a female friend who sat across from him, and realized he wasn’t fantasizing about what she’d look like naked, or even what it might be like to have sex with her: ‘I was thinking about what she’d look like with cum on her face. That was a wake-up call for me,’ ” Orenstein writes.
The reason this is troubling isn’t just that porn imagery can make it weird to ask out that girl from math class (which, c’mon, it does). It’s that so much of porn, as Orenstein puts it, presents sex as something men do to a woman rather than with her. And what’s arousing in porn doesn’t predict what’s enjoyable in real life.
The scientific term for this is “non-concordance,” and it unlocks a lot of what can go sideways when we get naked with someone else. Men getting hard, women getting wet—proof of arousal, right? Not necessarily. “For men, the overlap between blood flow to the genitals and ‘turned-on’ feelings is only 50 percent—which sounds low, until you hear that for women, it’s a mere 10 percent,” Orenstein summarizes, citing sex educator Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. Our bodies respond to relevant stimuli automatically. Watching a quasi-incest porno might put steel in your rod, but it doesn’t mean sex with your stepsister would be anything short of traumatic.
The takeaway isn’t that we all need to be in a moral panic or curate our sons’ porn catalogs. But with teens reporting that they seek porn at least in part for sex ed, we absolutely need to help our sons interpret it, and to help them find other sources for ideas about sex.
The other day, I asked my older dude what he remembered of our talk. We were in the car, so he couldn’t escape. He told me it was fine, but “I knew it all already anyway.” Whether this was strictly true or not, I didn’t press. His tone was “I’m not really in the mood,” and fair enough. His tone also recalled a Bowie lyric I used to sing along to when I was 14, the one about kids who are “immune to your consultations / They’re quite aware what they’re going through.”
My son and his younger brother, I reflected, will have to figure a lot of this out for themselves. If I’m going to help them, I’ll need to recalibrate my approach. Instead of just the classic don’ts—don’t get her pregnant, don’t get a disease, don’t be disrespectful, don’t get caught with your dick out—I’ll include more on what to do. Use your own imagination. Ask. Listen. Reciprocate.
Talk Early and Often
“Just as a single ‘talk’ about table manners wouldn’t make your son polite, a single discussion about intimacy won’t ensure good sexual etiquette,” Orenstein writes in Boys & Sex. Instead, try for “habitual, brief, often casual conversations that grow in complexity as children grow older.” Some of what to cover:
Talk about sexting
Bring up an article that’s come up in your feeds about swapping nude photos. Ask your son if he knows anyone who’s been embarrassed by one. Also, help him think about checking who the picture is really for: him, or so he can show it off?
Asking for consent continually as an encounter heats up can be the opposite of a mood kill. For instance, when gay men sleep together, they’ll ask, What are you into? Sex columnist Dan Savage points out that these four words allow you to rule anything out—or in.
Go deep on what “desire” means
The accusations against Aziz Ansari in 2018 make for a valuable cautionary tale. Nothing that took place after “Grace” came home with him was illegal. But it underscores the difference between legal and harmful. Acquiescing isn’t the same as wanting.
Let it be light
Next time my son and I watch Kingsman, I’ll probably follow up on the part that made him shake with laughter: the princess promising our hero anal sex in exchange for a rescue. And I’ll mention how you still need a condom for that.
Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity
Brad Wieners is a longtime contributor to Outside, and former editor for Bloomberg Businessweek.
Source: Mens Health