Girls & Sex author Orenstein shares her take on the sex lives of young American males in Boys & Sex (Harper, Jan.).
You have a daughter but no sons. Was it uncomfortable talking to boys about sex?
I look like their mom, so that’s a problem! But I was surprised and moved by how eager they were to talk about sex as well as their feelings. I thought they’d never want to discuss porn, but they did.
How has porn affected boys?
There’s a massive experiment and teens are the guinea pigs; porn is now accessible, free, and anonymous. Boys particularly are seeing porn before they’ve ever even had a first kiss. They’re linking their cycle of desire, arousal, and response—in other words, masturbation—initially completely to porn. They use porn for sex ed, too.
What’s the result?
Porn affects their ideas about what sex is, and their ideas about female response and their own performance. Regular porn users are less satisfied with real sex, with their partners’ bodies, and with their performance. Porn makes your sex life worse, not better.
Is it easier to talk to kids who are not your own about sex?
Definitely. I have conversations with my 16-year-old incessantly, and I’m sure she wishes I wouldn’t. It’s in no way natural for me to talk about sex with teenagers, but you don’t get to stop parenting because your kid’s annoyed, disgusted, or embarrassed.
What’s the greatest difference in the way boys and girls navigate sexual and emotional relationships?
Boys and girls grow up with the same pop culture, music, videos, and social media that objectifies, sexualizes, and demeans women. We give our daughters this huge counter-narrative, we make sure they have their Ruth Bader Ginsberg books, their positive female role models. But boys are just in that milieu absorbing those messages about women. Further, girls are allowed to feel. Boys often told me they trained themselves not to feel, not to cry; they learn to suppress and disconnect from emotions. That obviously affects the way they approach emotional and physical intimacy.
You included a lot of different perspectives.
It was really important to me to show a diversity of boys—queer boys, boys of color. Discussing the way that things are the same and different for them around issues of masculinity and sexuality was crucial.
Is the outlook for boys hopeful or discouraging?
Both. Since Schoolgirls came out in 1994 we’ve done a much better job of creating an alternative to traditional femininity. But we’re at the 1994 level with boys; it can be tough for boys who stand up and try to be different. It’s a start, however, and I think we can recognize that, support it, fight for it, and do better.