Back in the day, parents of boys would tell Peggy Orenstein how relieved they were—everybody knew boys were easier. That got no argument from Orenstein, the author of Girls & Sex (2016) and Cinderella Ate My Daughter (2012) and the mother of a daughter herself.
Then a few years back, she realized that parents of boys were in swiftly rising waters.
“It’s a combination of awareness of sexual assault on campus, the rise of the #MeToo movement, and the sheer breadth and depth of sexual misconduct across every sector of society,” she said in a recent phone interview. At the same time, as she documents in eye-opening detail in her latest book, the internet has made porn a daily habit for a vast sector of the young male population.
Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity (Harper, Jan. 7) is the result of more than two years of surprisingly raw and poignant conversations with young men ages 16 to 22. “Most of what they said to me, they had never told anybody,” says Orenstein, “whether it was the need to appear invulnerable and never cry (how they operate in hookup culture), or gay boys talking about going on Grindr and having sex with adult men, or boys feeling they’d been sexually abused or coerced by a partner.”
The liveliness and variety of these discussions is indicated by a few chapter titles: “Welcome to Dick School,” “Get Used to It: Gay, Trans, and Queer Guys,” “Heads You Lose, Tails I Win: Boys of Color in a White World,” “If It Exists, There Is Porn of It.” This reader, a mother of two boys and a girl, found the latter chapter a shocking education. “Regardless of your child’s gender or sexual orientation,” she says, “you need to spend some time looking at PornHub. If you’re imagining they’re looking at Playboy, or porn from 20 years ago, you’re just wrong. Anything you can imagine—and many things you’d rather not imagine—are on there, for free.
According to Orenstein, young male porn users report less satisfaction with their sex lives, with their performance in bed, with their female partners’ bodies. “What porn tells you is that you can have hot sex with a cold heart, and that’s what hookup culture also tells you.”
Hookup culture is the prevalent approach to sexuality on college campuses, and according to Orenstein, it has now “drifted down” to high school. Its rules: Physical intimacy is the precursor to emotional intimacy, not the other way around. Everyone has to be wasted when the interaction occurs. Afterward, the participants must affirm that the encounter was meaningless by behaving less friendly to one another than they did before.
“They use the phrase ‘catching feelings’—as if feelings are a disease,” says Orenstein. “I have never had a conversation with young people about hookup culture that doesn’t devolve into their unhappiness about hookup culture.”
Her conclusion? “Not just for the sake of their partners, but for their own health and well-being, we have to help boys develop a counter narrative….We have an opportunity to bring boys into the conversation about gender dynamics, sexual ethics, pleasure, emotional connection, and vulnerability, to allow them to develop a more expansive vision of masculinity.”
Boys & Sex is fascinating reading, and just handing it to a boy is a great way to start the conversation—even if you have to have the talk from opposite sides of a cracked-open bedroom door, as one parent reported. What does your son think of Wyatt, the one-time king of hook-up culture? Or Dylan, who was molested by a female friend at a party? Devon, a college athlete who used to be a girl?
For those unlikely to read a book, Orenstein recommends Chanel Miller’s victim statement and the apology of Dan Harmon, creator of the popular animated show Rick and Morty, to the writer he sexually harassed for years. Both are on YouTube.
“The conversation about sex and intimacy—it’s not just one talk, and it’s not in a silo,” says Orenstein. “It’s part of a larger idea of what kind of human you’re raising, what kind of citizen.”
Marion Winik is the author of The Big Book of the Dead and a regular reviewer for Kirkus, the Washington Post, and other publications.