According to experts, if your son is 12, he’s probably seen porn. Have you talked about this with him yet? Do you know what to say? Journalist Peggy Orenstein has interviewed more than 100 teenage boys about their experiences with sex, porn, and gender for her book Boys & Sex, and she says we need to pay more attention to boys’ sense of male identity. Masculinity doesn’t always have to be “toxic,” but we need to find better ways to teach our sons what it means to have a healthy understanding of relationships. In this recent episode of How To!, Peggy breaks down how to have a productive conversation with your son about sex in a way that won’t make you—or your kid—die of embarassment. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Charles Duhigg: How did you get to writing about toxic masculinity?
Peggy Orenstein: I have spent 25 years writing about girls and women—before Boys & Sex, my most recent book was Girls & Sex, which was about the kind of contradictions that young women still faced in their intimate encounters. As I went around the country after publishing that book, everywhere that I went, parents and boys themselves would say, “What about boys? When will you write about boys?” The more I thought about it, the more I realized that, in fact, nobody was talking to boys. More importantly, nobody was really listening to boys. So I started doing some interviews and then very quickly after I started that, the MeToo allegations began and suddenly everybody was talking about sexual misconduct and the idea of toxic masculinity. It created this imperative to reduce sexual violence, but also, I thought, a positive opportunity to engage young men in conversations about issues of sex and intimacy and gender dynamics because we really have to know what’s going on in their heads so that we can guide them toward better and more informed choices.
And what is going on in their heads?
I felt there were two things going on at once. On the one hand, they saw girls as equal in the classroom, deserving of educational professional opportunities, and so on. But, on the other hand, when I would say, describe the ideal guy to me, it was like they were channeling 1955. It went immediately back to dominance, aggression, athleticism, and sex as status-seeking. And the really big one, of course, was emotional suppression. What they would say most often was that they felt that the two emotions they were allowed were happiness and anger. So that whole bucket of emotions that boys learn around sadness, betrayal, frustration—anything like that gets funneled into one emotion.
I would ask boys what they liked about being a guy and that was a lot harder for them to answer honestly. I think that with girls—this is not to say that everything is OK in girl world—but we’ve given them this alternative identity to traditional conventional femininity that they can embrace and grow into and feel good about, but that hasn’t happened with boys.
When you’ve talked to boys or their parents who have had conversations about sex and gender in positive ways, how did the conversation go?
I mean ideally, we start our conversations with our children from birth when we’re naming body parts correctly. We think about sex as this siloed thing separate from every other aspect of our humanity and citizenship, but it’s really not. It all connects. I liken it to table manners. If I said to you, “I want you to sit down with your child and tell them that, ‘This is your fork. This is your knife. Say please and thank you. Ask to be excused at the end of the meal. OK, go forth and be polite,’” that would be ridiculous. You know that you have to tell your child to say “thank you” a million times during their childhood before they do it reflexively. They don’t do it on their own. And so talking about all of these things about sex can’t be done in one conversation. They have to be then tiny things that are kind of peppered throughout.
And if you’re in a situation where you have two parents who are on board and, moreover, you have a male father figure who is really willing to talk to boys, that is gold. You don’t have to be perfect and you don’t have to know all the answers. You don’t have to do it right every time. But just trying and indicating a willingness to have difficult, uncomfortable conversations that you don’t know how to have—what an amazing thing that is to show to your child.
I’ve read these things that say kids are exposed to sexualized messages and porn earlier. But when it comes to my 12-year-old, I don’t even know if he’s really seen porn. So if I have that conversation too early, I’m worried that he doesn’t know what I’m talking about and it’s weird and scary for him, but if I wait too long, then it’s too late.
So often the first exposure to porn is accidental. It’s not something that they’re seeking. It’s somebody forwarding a meme or somebody turning their phone around and thinking it’s funny. So they may be exposed to graphic sexual images before they’re looking for them for sexual gratification. But boys between 11 and 13 tend to start seeking porn out intentionally. So if your kids are that age, there’s a great website called amaze.org that does sex education for middle schoolers. They have some really good information for kids and parents on how to have an age-appropriate conversation about pornography.
Also, I think you need to look at mainstream media. I remember being with my daughter when she was 11, and I asked her if she knew what porn was and she said she did, but she hadn’t seen it. Then we went home and we were watching some movie on Netflix and it had a generic sex scene, but it was the kind of thing that we see a million times, which is kiss, kiss, rip off clothes, go immediately to heterosexual intercourse up against a wall or in bed. In two seconds everybody’s having a simultaneous orgasm and it’s over. They are getting a terribly distorted idea about sex! And one thing that I find in talking to older boys is that guys who are regular porn users express less satisfaction with their partnered interactions, with their own performance, and with their partner’s bodies. And so I think grounding these conversations in the idea that we want you to have a good sex life, but mainstream media is not showing you the way to get there.
I have a friend who says that her son will only have conversations with her if she’s sitting outside of his bedroom door, he’s sitting inside his bedroom, the door is closed except for a two-inch crack, and they talk through that. You might have to find creative ways so that you’re not sitting down looking him in the face during these conversations. It might be less squirmy if you’re engaged in some other activity at the same time.
Most of what our kids are actually seeing on the internet is social media, and they may see jokes that are insensitive or sexist. How do we teach our kids to be exposed to this barrage of information that we can’t control or really even know what they’re seeing?
That is the trick, isn’t it? I think the truth is that right now, all our kids are going to suddenly pop up with something in a conversation that’s going to make you go, “What the hell?” It’s really hard to know what your kid is looking at all the time, but I think that we, as parents, have a tendency to think that what’s going on in their online world is lesser or not really real. But it’s very real to them and it has a huge impact. Particularly during the pandemic when everything has moved online, they’re having their childhood online. So I just wanna express total empathy and support, because we are all, as parents, contending with this. It’s just so new.
I think it can all really come back to not just the golden rule—which is treating people the way that you would want to be treated—but the platinum rule: How does that person want to be treated? How do we see that person, whether it’s gender, sexual orientation, or just the individual person? Thinking about others from their perspective is an act of empathy and that is going to be good for your child in so many ways.
To hear Peggy coach a mom and dad about how to talk about sex with their 13-year-old son, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts.