Review: Boys & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

“I never imagined I’d write about boys,” Orenstein writes in her new book Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity. Her previous work, Girls & Sex, focused on modern sex and relationships for high school and college-aged young women. Despite this, three years after that book—now against a background of #MeToo, President Donald Trump, and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh—Orenstein has shed light on the other side of the story. Through a combination of extensive interviews with young men and sociological research, the book seeks to move beyond the space of think pieces written by men and actually include them in the conversation. It gives readers a digestible overview of the problem.

The young men Orenstein interviews sharpen the picture painted by the young women in Girls & Sex. They struggle with “bro culture”—from all-boys’ schools and fraternity houses to Silicon Valley and Hollywood—not wanting to choose between dignity and friendship in locker room-esque conversations, therefore often exaggerating sexual experiences. Unfortunately, these conversations sometimes foreshadow more serious behavior. An entire chapter of the book is dedicated to speaking with boys who enacted some form of abuse on women as teenagers. Across the board, Orenstein’s subjects struggle to share their emotions. Everything is “hilarious…a default position when something is inappropriate, confusing, upsetting, depressing, unnerving, or horrifying.” They rarely cry and because they do not feel comfortable talking to other men, they often confide only in girlfriends, therefore perpetuating the idea that “women are responsible for emotional labor.” One thing that is actually worse than most people might expect is pornography usage. With the advent of PornHub, young men are offered “boundless novelty and availability” that normalizes aggressive sexual behavior and allows viewers to excessively indulge. Orenstein’s focus on the male penchant for raw and terrifying porn might suggest she views talking about boys and sex as a bit of a lost cause, but she does not.

In between introducing terms like “feminist fuckboy” and “Golden Dick Syndrome,” the book also tells stories of boys that are largely neglected in society’s sex conversations. Orenstein interviews gay guys who sneak out of their houses for dates with older men on Grindr, who reflect on how the app becomes an outlet for sexual expression for a group still struggling to be accepted in society. Orenstein also speaks with transgender men, who have unique respect for women after having gone through the world presenting that way themselves. Young men of color get to voice their frustrations, too, including the stereotypes that black men are more sexually dominant and Asian men are inferior—“flip sides of the same racialized, gendered coin, with white men controlling the toss.” Most moving are the stories of young men who are victims of abuse, how it often comes as a result of their fears of straying from gender expectations. “Disregarding boys’ abuse, whether by other men or by women, risks driving them toward shame and disconnection,” Orenstein writes, also noting that it makes it more difficult, if not impossible, for them to process their emotions. These narratives further complicate Orenstein’s problem and make the book a more interesting read.

What I came away understanding is that regardless of how a boy identifies, he is probably confused. Orenstein is determined to find answers to the questions the boys are struggling with, and some bold ideas arise. One involves teaching young people to ask, “What are you into?” an idea borrowed from queer boys, moving conversations away from reproduction and toward pleasure. More controversial is the idea of using Restorative Justice methods in sexual assault cases on college campuses, which involve two parties meeting and discussing to “repair harm.” Orenstein profiles two students for whom this method worked, but acknowledges it is a difficult sell (in my opinion, a near impossible one). Neither solution is perfect, but they do make it palpable how much Orenstein cares about the well-being of her subjects.

Ultimately, Orenstein’s goal lies beyond individual boys and girls; she is worried about their future relationships. She returns to a concern from Girls & Sex about hookup culture, where casual sex has seemingly taken higher importance than emotional intimacy in the lives of young people. Orenstein hopes her subjects become less concerned with the number of people they have taken to bed and focus rather on the quality of those encounters. She believes this starts with parents having more habitual conversations about sex with their children as well as educating themselves. 

Whether a reader agrees with Orenstein’s solutions, no one could finish the book, having read the stories of so many different kinds of young men, and not feel that there must be some kind of sexual education change, particularly for heterosexual men. “Men learn too often, subtly or overtly, to prioritize their pleasure over women’s feelings,” she writes. “That may or may not lead to assault, but it does raise ethical questions over how men treat sexual partners.” I believe people of all ages can benefit from reading Orenstein’s book and that it can inspire change for the better for all.

About the author

Rachel A.G. Gilman is the Editor-in-Chief of Columbia Journal, Issue 58; and Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Creature.

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