Peggy Orenstein has spent much of her journalism career exploring the cultural forces that shape girlhood, revealing her insights in bestsellers such as Cinderella Ate My Daughter and Schoolgirls. But during her last book tour, she says, parents repeatedly asked her about boys. She realized she “needed to have the other half of the conversation.”
So for two years, Orenstein traveled across the country, interviewing 100 boys between the ages of 16 and 22.
While her work on girls has focused on the problematic disconnect they have with their bodies, Orenstein says her talks with young men illustrated “how boys are disconnected from their hearts, and how that affects their romantic relationships and sexual encounters.”
Her resulting book, Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity, examines relationships, consent, and a wide array of other issues related to boys’ emotional lives. And although her interviews began before Me Too, the movement only highlighted the urgency of these conversations.
Vox talked with Orenstein about how boys learn to dismiss girls’ feelings, the dangers of internalizing ideas about traditional masculinity, and more. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You spent most of your career interviewing girls. How did that work inform your conversations with boys?
My early interviews were a disaster. I would portray shock or surprise or, inadvertently, my face would look really judgmental. And then the girls would ghost me, and I would never hear from them again. They would never answer my texts. It was like they were done.
I thought, “Okay, I am doing something really wrong here.” I had to learn how to approach these issues — because it’s not like I was born being able to ask you about your last blow job without flinching. I needed to give them permission in the sense of, “You can say anything and use any language,” and by being curious about what their experience was and how they were reckoning with it, in a nonjudgmental way.
In your conversations with boys, you say they were “eager and raw and blunt.” Why were they so open, and why did this surprise you?
The thing is, nobody’s talking to the boys in their lives. Their parents aren’t talking to them. Most schools aren’t doing any kind of sex education — and if they are, it’s just about risk and danger, contraception and STDs.
My biggest concern was that I would have whole transcripts of “Uh-huh.” I was surprised because we don’t think of boys as having a lot of insight into their interior lives or being able to narrate their experience. We assume that boys won’t talk. And they have learned not to, in a lot of ways. But just saying, “I want to hear from you,” in an open, nonjudgmental way opened the floodgates.
One of the things that was deeply surprising was that they could see the systems that they were caught in, that they were concerned about, and that were disadvantaging their partners. So it was not just that they talked, but the level of insight they had.
Feminism has opened up possibilities for what it means to be a woman. What’s new about what it means to be a man?
There is a lot that has changed for young men. Obviously, they’re engaging in the conversation about consent. Obviously, they see women and girls as deserving of their place in the classroom, or in leadership, or on the playing field of professional and educational opportunities. Nobody is going to say, “Girls don’t belong in college,” or something like that, anymore.
At the same time, when I asked them about the ideal guy, it was like they were channeling 1955. The conventional values like dominance, aggression, wealth, athleticism, sexual conquest — and, particularly, emotional suppression — came roaring back to the fore.
In some ways, those have actually grown more entrenched. I actually saw a similar dynamic when I was first writing about girls: We were telling them, on one hand, to stand up, speak out, claim your power, all these things. This was in the early ’90s, yet we hadn’t really stopped telling them in a kind of deeper cultural way, in a more entrenched way, that they should see themselves as about their appearance and that they should be more deferential. The contradictions between the new and the old were creating such tension and conflict within them.
I feel like that’s where we are right now with boys. They’re getting a profoundly mixed message that is simultaneously more egalitarian and in some ways more restrictive than ever before.
Boys will say that the source of those restrictive messages are their parents — particularly their fathers. They would say, “My dad said to man up or not be a little bitch.” More of them would say things like, “My dad was not homophobic or sexist. I didn’t learn toxic masculinity from him, but I did learn the emotionally stunted side of masculinity. He was more of a kind of ‘sigh and walk away’ kind of a guy than the kind who would ask you what was going on. And I learned to not have those conversations from him.”
You’ve said that rigid masculine norms — such as dominance, aggression, wealth, athleticism, sexual conquest, and emotional suppression — are super-harmful to guys.
Boys cling to those norms. Why? Well, you know, they get rewarded for them. You can see in the culture — we have a president who is pretty darn rewarded for clinging to those norms right now — but those norms come at a tremendous cost.
As our culture has opened up to women, professionally and educationally, certain kinds of misogyny and sexism — particularly those that happen behind closed doors — have grown more entrenched. [Boys] are at risk of engaging in violence, of violence being done to them, of binge drinking, car accidents, self-harm, suicide, depression. They have fewer friends. They’re lonelier. I mean, it’s really not a pretty sight.
Boys wrestle with the taboo of vulnerability — either rejecting it, embracing it, denying it, or capitulating to it. When we cut people off from their ability to acknowledge, recognize, and express emotion, and particularly vulnerability, we not only undermine their basic humanity but we take away the thing that is essential.
Brené Brown says that emotional vulnerability is the secret sauce that holds relationships together. When we deny boys’ capacity for that and cut them off from it, we harm their ability to attain and sustain the kind of relationships that we want them to have. It results in a lot of negative behavior. It also hurts their romantic relationships, and then that is reinforced by the culture of conquest that we keep seeing in the media, and in porn, and in hookup culture.
When boys are vulnerable, it’s often with women — their girlfriends, mothers, sisters — but you argue that it’s a problem that they aren’t being vulnerable with other guys or with their fathers.
For mothers, it can feel really sweet and really good seeing your boy express vulnerability. But if we’re not careful about helping boys process their own emotions, rather than processing their feeling for them, and feeling for them, we reinforce the idea that women are there to do male emotional labor. That can feel really good when you’re talking to your son, your little boy, or your teenage boy. But I think most women can attest that it feels a lot less good when you’re in an adult relationship.
Why aren’t they being vulnerable with guys? Because men learn not to be vulnerable with one another.
Basically, as boys grow up, the only emotion that is validated for them is happiness or anger. The whole bucket of emotions that involves sadness or betrayal or despair gets funneled into anger. One of the things that we can do with little boys is to actually label their feelings and say, “It seems like you’re really sad,” or “That must be very frustrating,” to give them a broader emotional range.
Boys learn early on to dismiss girls’ feelings. How does that happen? And do they dismiss their own feelings, too?
Part of how American boys learn to define masculinity is as adversarial toward femininity. They learn from the kind of incessant bombardment of images from the media and from their own friends about male sexual entitlement and female sexual availability. When you’re hanging out in the locker room, how are you supposed to talk? The way that guys bond and prove their heterosexuality is through bragging about control of women’s bodies. So how do they talk about sex? They don’t talk about it as this even pleasurable experience. They say, “I banged, I pounded, I hammered, I nailed, I hit that, I tapped that.” It’s like they went to a construction site, not like they engaged in an act of intimacy.
The boys that I talked with, it’s not like they were cool with that. They weren’t just blank slates that the culture was inscribing upon. They wrestled with how to both exist in that culture and resist that culture, and it really wasn’t easy. Just a couple of nights ago, a Division One athlete came up to me at a book event and said, “I am really struggling with the locker room talk issue. I don’t know where my personal responsibility lies. I don’t know when to step in.”
You’re supposed to be on a team with these guys and work as a unit. But if you’re challenging the guys in the locker room, you’re breaking that cohesion down. What happens is that they often fall silent — and in that silence, we see so much about how boys become men. All in what they don’t say, they can’t say, they won’t say. That’s dangerous for them to say even, physically.
One deeply engrained assumption about men is that they can have casual sex more easily than women. Did you find this to be true?
In hookup culture, so little of that experience is about having good sex, because that’s genuinely not where that happens. It’s about status-seeking: the story that you’re going to tell afterward to your guys. So maybe you’re going to be more dominating, maybe you’re going to push. But what surprised me was how often boys said that it wasn’t that fun for them, either. They struggled with their own disappointment, with frustration and ambivalence around what that hookup culture meant.
One second-semester freshman in college said his hookups felt like two people having really distinct experiences. There wasn’t a lot of eye contact. Not a lot of conversation. It’s like you’re acting vulnerable, but you’re not being vulnerable, with somebody you don’t know very well or care very much about. He said it’s odd, and it’s not really any fun.
Lots of guys wanted something more connected — or even had it and would talk about their partners with great love and regard — but they tended to see that as more of a personal quirk than an aspect of humanity.
The idea that guys are always “down for it” could mask that a lot of boys actually had unwanted sex. When they told me about it, it took me a while to hear that, I will be honest. That was a bias of mine. When a guy was 14 and a senior girl took him into the other room at a party and gave him a blow job, he didn’t want that. But he said he didn’t want to be made fun of. What do you call that when that happens? What do you do with that experience?
Hope Reese is a writer based in Louisville, Kentucky, currently living in Budapest. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, and Vice.