When I became a mom in 2010, I remember reading this parenting quote that never left me since : “Days are so short but hours can feel so long”. I can’t help but wonder how I made it almost a decade later, when I feel like I had a baby 5 hours ago. But the reality is: my eldest is almost 10, and the more he grows up, the more I feel the need to talk to him appropriately about love (outside of the maternal version of it), as well as sex, consent and what it means to be a decent man.
Until I started opening to feminism (at the tender age of 35), my views of masculinity had been fairly skewed, and widely superficial. I grew up an only child. Until I was a young adult, most of my supportive emotional relationships were with females, while many of the male role models around me had been either unavailable to downright unsafe. Therefore, being now in the parenting seat, in a completely different world, it only felt right to dig into other resources than my own experiences.
So today, I chose to summarize concrete actions points from the book “Boys and Sex: young men on hook-ups, love, porn, consent and navigating the new masculinity” by journalist Peggy Orenstein. She went on a quest to speak to boys and young men across the USA to understand their concerns, their worries and their most private fears or experiences around intimacy (caution: a lot of these testimonials are absolutely scary to read as a parent). Following those real-life stories, Peggy also proposes ways that, as parents or educators, we can foster a shift in what’s commonly called “sex education”.
Here are the main points to follow:
Abandon ‘THE TALK”
Instead, start having brief, everyday, casual conversations about topics around sex, increasing complexity as your little boy grows up. Make sure you go beyond anatomy and reproduction but also encompass contraception, disease protection and, last but not least, relationships: what it means to be/have a caring, respectful sexual and romantic partner.
Consent is crucial…
Be crystal clear about consent. It should be affirmative (not silent), knowing (someone drunk cannot give consent), ongoing (make sure you get consent step after step), revocable (whereby we can stop instantly if withdrawn) and freely given (manipulating someone into having sex with you is not consent). It also needs to be given in person (texting is not enough) and applies to digital images too (making sure we have permission to share). Remind your boys that assault or molestation is NEVER the victim’s fault.
But remember consent is not enough
Consent is only the baseline, making sex barely legal. But what makes sex “good” is not only that it is legal, but also ethical, pleasurable and mutually satisfying. That means our boys need to be educated about the female body as much as emotional intimacy: how to begin and end a relationship, manage conflict, form deeper relationships that make sex more enjoyable but also assert wants, set limits and behave responsibly.
Define sex as more than intercourse
Allowing for many (manual, oral, anal) experiences to be seen as “sex” makes youth less prone to risk and disrespect, and also allows for better LGBTQ+ inclusion.
Reconsider gender roles in the media
Offer boys books, films, and other media featuring complex female protagonists. When watching content together, routinely ask “would that really happen in real life? What is missing? Who is missing?”
Recognize and reject toxic masculinity
Current male socialization can appear as if it comes with its own set of immediate advantages, but the reality is different on the long run. Toxic masculinity sabotages authenticity, increases isolation, encourages depression and promotes violence for young men. When mothers and fathers share their own experiences with intimacy and model emotional management (validating feelings, listening with empathy, praising empathy and compassion in their boys) they encourage the importance of emotional resilience and demonstrate conflict can be handled outside of anger or aggression.
(For older boys, discussing assault by humanizing victims can be a powerful education tool too. Let them watch this victim’s impact statement or read this apology for sexual harrassment).
With its limited, distorted perspective, of bodies and behaviours, porn can create false expectations, lower satisfaction in real-life sex, hijack imaginations and eroticize gender inequality and racism.
Consider the sleepover
If your teen has a solid relationship, “not under my roof” is a concept you might want to revisit. However cringey it may appear to discuss that sleepover’s rules [shivers], it can allow for better safety and reinforces key values, pushing our children away from promiscuity and into loving relationships.
Screen all-male groups
If your son is thinking of joining a fraternity or sports team, it might be worth doing some due diligence on these groups’ culture & reputation, potential history of sexual misconduct, racial slurs or hazardous drinking. One could also wonder about potential programs in place to educate about consent, gender inequity, positive sexuality, irresponsible drinking, safety for people of all races or sexual orientations, etc..
Source: Peggy Orenstein, Boys & Sex: Young men on hook-ups, love, porn, consent and navigating the new masculinity