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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

Review of Boys & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

The young men Orenstein interviewed share their experiences with intimacy, yearn for bigger conversations about love and relationships, and are in many cases desperate for evolved ideas about masculinity.

Orenstein, who also authored Girls & Sex, wrote Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity because she had read many articles about boys and sex but hadn't heard from the boys themselves. So she spent two years interviewing young men ages sixteen to twenty-two of different races, straight and gay, from different parts of the United States. She engaged in hours-long conversations about pressures, expectations, and experiences with sex and intimacy. And somewhat to her surprise, the boys really opened up, considering and sharing their own past and present attitudes about love and sex and reflecting on their sexual activity and intimacy and related matters, including pleasure, consent, asserting limits, hearing others' wants, trust, safety, care, coercion, harassment, and rape.

Orenstein found that many of the boys had never had even a basic conversation with their parents about making sure that a partner wants to be intimate or about how to be "a caring and respectful sexual partner." Orenstein mentions that the Making Caring Common Project backs up these findings with data from three thousand high school students and young adults, 60 percent of whom said they and an adult had not had a conversation on these topics. (Note that most of the boys Orenstein interviewed who had had such conversations said the talks had been somewhat or very influential.)

Social constructs of masculinity get deserved page time--along with many boys' stories of toxic masculinity and its harm. Orenstein pushes parents and trusted adults to "challenge the unwritten rules of male socialization, the forging of masculinity through unexamined entitlement, emotional suppression, aggression, and hostility toward the feminine," noting that "masculinity" is a trap that sabotages young men, obliterating their vulnerability, communication, connections, and emotional expression--and producing fallout that extends to their intimate partners. I would have liked more more more concrete suggestions of how to combat our societal norms here, but this may possibly be a situation in which I would be difficult to please with the amount of information that would and could fall within the scope of Orenstein's book.

In her chapter "Deep Breaths: Talking to Boys," Orenstein proposes ways to ask questions to set up valuable conversations. She emphasizes that it's essential to have frequent and ongoing conversations with our boys that range far beyond "the sex talk."

In Boys & Sex, Orenstein lets young men's voices create their own argument for more knowledge, bigger conversations, greater gender socialization, increased fluency in building relationships and achieving mutually pleasing sexual intimacy, and expectations of consent, respect, and joy.

What did you think?

Orenstein offers additional resources, including her website's list of relevant books, websites, and essays: Three other books she mentioned look especially promising to me: Talk to Me First; Sex, Teens, and Everything in Between; and For Goodness Sex.


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