In just about every boy’s life, there will come a time when they’re given admission to “Dick School,” journalist Peggy Orenstein quotes sex educator Charis Denison in her new book Boys & Sex, “The question is, will he drop out, graduate or go for an advanced degree?”
Dick School, of course, is exactly what it sounds like: the time where the stifling “rules” and anxieties and standards that make up what we consider toxic masculinity and “bro” behavior go unchallenged. It’s where the traditional (if unhealthy) ideals of manhood — “stoicism, aggression, dominance and sexual conquest” — are really ingrained, no matter how egalitarian the energy might be publicly. It can happen at school, in locker rooms, any place where there’s social capital to be won and hierarchies to maintain. And, for many boys, they find themselves struggling with the natural desire to belong and connect with their peers while also not wanting to be indoctrinated into that deeply un-fun world.
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“What I ended up thinking about boys is that, if girls are disconnected from their bodies and their desires, you know, boys are disconnected from their hearts and consciences,” Orenstein tells SheKnows. “What you want is to raise a Dick School drop out, right?”
And, yeah, that’d be ideal.
In the new book, a follow-up to 2016’s Girls & Sex, Orenstein hopes to give parents and young men the tools to reject the toxicity and see a critical interrogation of damaging gender norms work to benefit them (and everyone else in the process). And part of that toolkit is making conversations about healthy, ethical sex — not just about consent, power and physical safety (though, yes do that), but feelings too — frequent, normal occurrences between boys and their parents, their peers, their coaches and masculine role models. And given the abysmal state of sex education in the United States and the disturbing statistics of sexual assault on college campuses and beyond, these conversations are long overdue.
“As a parent, you’d rather poke yourself in the eye with a fork [than have these candid conversations],” Orenstein says. “But, you know, first of all, I don’t think we have the luxury of silence anymore. We just don’t. It’s a different world and we don’t.”
A go-to metaphor Orenstein uses when talking about the flaws with our current “sex talk” model is how we teach table manners. No, we don’t tell our three or four-year-olds once “say ‘thank you,’ use a fork, don’t play with your food” and they internalize and practice that forever (whether you’re around or not). You need to instill those lessons consistently over time to make them stick.
“I know it’s excruciating. I know it’s awkward,” Orenstein says. “It’s also this great opportunity to connect with your child, to scaffold towards a more adult relationship with your child, to really show up and be there for your child and to show them how to have difficult conversations.”
Forget What You Think You Know About ‘The Talk’
When we’re talking about sexual politics in 2020 and living in the #MeToo era, things still seem pretty bleak and the progress we’ve made still feels intimidatingly small.
“We talk about the sexualization of women and the media. We talk about reduction to the body and that how you look is more important than who you are. We know how damaging that is, but boys are growing up in that same culture and they’re growing up in a culture where they’re constantly bombarded with images of female sexual availability, male sexual entitlement — plus porn,” Orenstein says. “And there’s not a whole phalanx of organizations and parents and advocates and activists who are trying to help them develop a better critique. They’re just swimming in it.”
Yet, most of the boys she spoke with had precious few talks related to sex beyond “respect women” — which, in addition to being pretty unhelpful for young men who are not having sex with women, offers little-to-no guidance for what that actually means in practice for those that do.
Plus, with information so sparse, there’s nothing contextualizing what it all might mean in the environments they’re raised in and the media they consume. Which, if we’re being real, is a lot of porn. And since learning about sex from porn is like learning about table manners from knife-throwing videos, porn is something Orenstein says parents simply cannot be squeamish about approaching anymore.
“You can’t have your son growing up with these objectified, sexualized images and also just tell him you should be respectful and you should practice consent. I mean, those things are confusing,” she says. “We have to get in there as parents and advocates of kids and help them understand what’s real and what’s not real about [porn] and what is missing in those scenarios. Because they are using that as sex education. Their parents aren’t talking to them and schools sure aren’t talking to them and they are bringing those ideas with them into the bedroom.”
Not only can touching this seemingly untouchable thing remove some stigma from the way you and your kid are both thinking about sex, but it opens the door to talking a lot more clearly about pleasure, safety and all the complicated things that make up a real intimate encounter.
Conversations on Consent and Crossed Lines
When you’re trying to raise a boy to be a good man (in the bedroom and out), the fear of a misstep can undoubtedly be part of the equation. Another recurring conversation throughout the book — from self-identified “feminist fuck-boys” to bros — surrounded consent and what they’re actually learning about it. For some, the rules of consent were more so about not wanting to get in trouble than about considering their partner, while for others there was a clear struggle to reconcile with moments where they might’ve crossed a line or when a line was crossed for them.
“I think we tend to think that only monsters commit assault and that everyone that commits assault is a monster and that blinds us and prevents us from being able to discuss the everyday kind of coercion and sexual misconduct that ordinary guys — you know, ‘good guys’ — engage in,” Orenstein says. “I mean, I met a lot of good guys who had crossed some lines — because sometimes good guys do bad things. And so there’s the whole piece of education and expanding and questioning and critiquing — but also, how we reckon with this and what we want to do in these cases.”
The book explores stories of restorative justice and individuals grappling with their own cloudy sexual histories — but there just isn’t a clear answer on that. How can you make space for growth and education while also recognizing that mistakes, missteps, ignorance or rank indifference in the realm of sex can be deeply traumatic for young people fumbling their way through it? As Orenstein asks: “Is there a way that we can learn those lessons and raise our kids so that their early sexual experiences don’t have to be something they have to get over or that they hurt somebody on the way to becoming the person that they want to be?”
Where Do You Even Start?
One thing Orenstein notes is that the boys she spoke with were all really craving insights from the men in their lives: their fathers, coaches, masculine role models. Being sure that they have healthy, emotionally-connected models of masculinity and manhood (the more Dick School drop-outs in your circle, the better!) as they grow is a great way to show them all the different ways they can be a man — and to show them in a lasting, impactful way that they don’t need to be disconnected from their hearts.
Another thing, long before you even need to touch the nitty gritty of sex, is to encourage your boys to process their own feelings and learn to name them and work with them on their own. It’s a good way to get them used to doing their own emotional labor and remaining connected to their feelings as they try to communicate them (plus, makes it clear that their feelings are their own responsibility but are still things that you and the other people that love them can support them through).
“When I talk about the kind of conversations that we have to have with boys, part of it is about not just sex per se, but about making gender dynamics visible and making power dynamics visible to them the way that we often do to girls,” she says. “And I think there’s a lot of boys out there, when these things are pointed out and when they’re discussed in a way that is not threatening or shaming or blaming, they get it.”
Otherwise, the big thing is to not fret or stress or paralyzed by the fear that you’re not going to handle it perfectly (though you really can’t botch it more than some schools do!) or that it’s going to be uncomfortable (yeah, probably). You just have to do it. Orenstein knows one mom, for example, who can only have these conversations with her son through a door — each of them sitting on either side with it opened just a crack.
“That’s the only way he’ll do it, but she does it,” she said. “You do what you need to do.”
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