Book Review of “Boys & Sex” by Peggy Orenstein

Since I primarily work with teenagers and read a ton on adolescent development, I wasn’t surprised when my library’s e-book app recommended Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity, by Peggy Orenstein.

Before we dive in, the information presented within comes from Orenstein’s research of well over 100 male teens and young adults. My goal is to share insights that I gained objectively, so with that in mind, there will be no commentary on morality in this post. Trigger words: Sexual assault, rape.

Myths, masculinity, and conditioning

To create a case for why this book’s content is important, I’ll start off with a quote.

“Young men who most internalize masculine norms […] are six times more likely than others both to report having sexually harassed girls and to have bullied other guys […] They are more prone to binge-drinking and risky sexual behavior, and more likely than other boys to be in car accidents. They are also painfully lonely: less happy than other guys, with fewer close friends; more prone to depression and suicide” (Orenstein, 2020, p. 13).

In other words, the norms stemming from toxic masculinity are hurting and sometimes killing young men, and this impacts women and society as a whole. Young men are navigating a world where they’re constantly under a microscope, terrified to make a wrong move for fear of having their masculinity called into question. The consequences of this type of conditioning can be seen in media (especially porn), hookup culture, and in matters of consent.

Pornography

I’ll start by saying that the average age of exposure to pornography is getting younger and younger each year; for example, one source claimed an average of 7-8 years old.

“Given its boundless novelty and availability, contemporary porn raises questions about how young people’s erotic imaginations will be shaped long before they’ve engaged in so much as a good- night kiss. [Consider] the impact it may have on desire, arousal, behavior, sexual ethics, and their understanding of gender, race, and power in sexual expression […] What may be of more immediate concern to guys themselves, though, is that male porn users report less satisfaction than others with their sex lives, their own performance in bed, and their female partners’ bodies […] There is broad agreement that the incessant sexualization of women in media hurts girls” (Orenstein, 2020, p. 43-65).

From this quote, the psychological, physical, and relational impacts of pornography are apparent. Also keep in mind that brain development, reasoning, and critical thinking aren’t fully developed until well into the twenties. See how this can be problematic?

Hookup culture

The following snippets taught me a lot about the mental health components of hookup culture and the observed and reported differences between young men and women.

“As a journalist, I don’t prescribe the circumstance in which young people ought to have sex: my job is only to describe the context and explore its impact so they can make educated choices […] For girls, I concluded that a hookup was likely to give them a feeling of being wanted or desired […] It was less likely to […] help them develop the tools they would need for either good sex or emotional intimacy. After hearing from dozens of boys, I would say the same of them, with the additional qualifier that hookup culture presumes that they, unlike girls, lack even a basic capacity for love, that they neither can nor should acknowledge emotional vulnerability— not in others, not in themselves […] For guys, it can create yet another block to authentic connection. If they don’t learn the skills to support and sustain intimacy, they may end up unprepared for mature romantic relationships” (Orenstein, 2020, p. 97-102).

In my work as a therapist, I’ve observed a lot of fathers (if they’re even in the picture) encouraging this problematic cycle for their sons. Something along the lines of, “Sow your wild oats while you’re young! Just use protection.” With that being said, I see fewer fathers teaching their sons about emotional intimacy and establishing healthy relationships beyond mere physical intimacy.

Rape and consent

Being a therapist, I wasn’t surprised to read that males experience sexual assault and unwanted sexual encounters; however, this topic is seldom addressed in the media. Men who have been assaulted often remain silent due to stigma and shame, usually related to fears of their manhood being called into question. There’s also the myth that men always want sex, thus bypassing the need for consent from the man in a sexual encounter.

“I was surprised by how often they brought up their own experiences of unwanted sex— encounters in which girls did not seem to hear or respect “no” or […] took advantage of them when they were too incapacitated to protest […] After all, the notion that all guys are sexually insatiable— ever ready, incapable of refusal, regret, or injury— reinforces the most retrograde idea of masculinity […] Disregarding boys’ abuse, whether by other men or by women, risks driving them toward shame and disconnection, and sets them up for potential mental health issues, just as it does for girls” (Orenstein, 2020, p. 184-188).

But what about sex ed. in school?

The results are in and they’re not good.

“Despite a federal investment in abstinence-only education to date of over two billion dollars (and counting), teenagers exposed to its lessons have been found to neither significantly delay intercourse compared to others nor have fewer partners; they do, however, have higher rates of pregnancy and STDs. Equally concerning, while pleasure-based sexuality education that includes practicing refusal skills has been found to reduce rates of assault, abstinence-only programs have not […] Decades of research have made clear that talking to children about sex does not reduce the age at which they start. Our teens are in urgent need of high- quality human development courses. Until those exist, relying on school sex education is a risky bet. And that means unless caring adults step up […] the default educator will be the media” (Orenstein, 2020, p. 220-221).

What parents and mentors need to know/ teach young men:

  • That consent needs to be given in person and not through digital means (text, Snapchat, etc.)
  • “[Consent is] a two-way street: boys too must voluntarily agree to physical intimacy” (Orenstein, 2020, p. 223).
  • Consent is not valid if it’s obtained through pressure or manipulation.
  • An erection or lubrication is not consent, it’s an involuntary physiological response.
  • Teach boys that it’s ok to express emotions and to build meaningful relationships with the opposite sex.
  • For the love of God, remove “man up” from your vocabulary.

Conclusion

I forgot to mention how much I appreciated that Orenstein was intentional about including men of color and LGBTQ+ men in her research. I say this because most research in this realm has been heavily slanted to an affluent, white, cisgender demographic. Representation is so important! But in conclusion, I really enjoyed Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity, by Peggy Orenstein, and highly recommend it to parents, mentors, teachers, therapists, and even adolescents.

Thanks for reading!

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Works Cited

Orenstein, P. (2020). Boys & Sex [Kindle Android version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

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2 thoughts on “Book Review of “Boys & Sex” by Peggy Orenstein”

  1. Ashley says:

    The government really needs to recognize how badly abstinence-only sex ed prepares kids for life. They need to learn about consent.

    1. Absolutely! Thanks for reading!

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