Boys and Sex: An Interview With Peggy Orenstein

Peggy Orenstein is a journalist and author of the bestselling books Girls and Sex and Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Her latest book, Boys and Sex, came out on January 7th: Through interviews with boys nationwide who range from ages 16-22, Orenstein exposes the lack of dialogue around young men’s sexual and emotional lives. The expectations for emotional expression established by a sexist society—for girls to share their feelings and boys to grin and bear it—disadvantage young boys just as much as girls by denying them space to frankly discuss questions of sexuality and intimacy.

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

EAM: What inspired you to write Boys and Sex? I know you wrote Girls and Sex first, and I was wondering why you decided to write this after.

PO: Well, I finished [writing Girls and Sex] and realized I only had half the conversation. The honest truth is, I can’t tell you how many people have been saying to me, “Remember when I told you to write this book?” Everybody is taking credit for my having written this book, because wherever I went after Girls and Sex came out, people said, “When are you gonna write about boys?”… And my basic response was, “Well, that’s really somebody else’s job. I write about girls.” But the truth was nobody was writing about boys and their perspectives on sex and gender and intimacy and masculinity. So I thought I actually had been in that world for such a long time that I understood the terrain in a way that most adults don’t. It seemed more natural than I would have imagined for me to give it a try. And then shortly after I started, the #MeToo movement exploded. It underscored the urgency of doing the work and understanding what boys were learning and how they were approaching sex and intimacy.

EAM: After reading the book, there was a lot that surprised me about how boys felt, because they don’t feel comfortable talking about their emotions for a lot of the reasons that you outline. What do you think is the biggest societal misconception about young boys and their feelings?

PO: That was one of the biggest surprises to me, too, how much they wanted to talk and particularly how much they wanted to discuss the things they’re not supposed to talk about. It really, I think, deep down was a struggle with vulnerability and what that meant to them, and avoiding it, and embracing it, and denying it. So that was the biggest misconception. That was shattered for me, too. Not only that boys have interior lives, but that they don’t have permission to express that. I think the impact on their intimate relationships is pretty profound, both in terms of their own ability to connect and in what that demands—if they’re straight—of their female partners in terms of doing the emotional labor in a relationship. Girls and Sex is so much about how girls are cut off from their bodies and their bodies’ responses. And Boys and Sex is very much about the impact of boys being disconnected from their hearts.

EAM: On that note, when you were doing all of your interviews, was there a story that touched you the most? And why was that the one that stuck with you?

PO: I felt so connected in so many ways to the guys I interviewed. The story that seems to really resonate with a lot of people is the story of Nate. His journey from feeling that he wasn’t supposed to actually connect with a partner, that the ideal for a guy is to have sex without feelings… As he said, when you’re a guy, you feel like that’s how you gain status. The girl is a means for you to get off and brag to your guy friends. His journey through that to another place, where he felt a more authentic sense of who he was, of how he wanted to go forward in relationships and in sexual encounters, it really touched my heart… What if guys could have those conversations? How different would things be? For them and for their partners. Similarly, in that same chapter, there’s a part where I sit down with a group of students the morning after a party, and the girls are talking about having felt—not obligated, but you don’t want to disappoint a guy and, you know, various things. And the boy who’s in the room is just sitting there going, “I had no idea girls felt this way!” You know, they just don’t have those conversations. We talked for about an hour and a half or two hours, and at the end they said, “Can we do this again next week?” 

EAM: When you were involved in an advice giver/mentor role, was it hard to strike a balance between that and your official role as an interviewer? How did that work for you?

PO: I don’t really give advice; I ask questions. In that conversation with Nate and the other boy, I was writing that down. I wanted to see what happened. It was journalistic. But with the girls, too: mostly it becomes difficult when trauma is involved. For both the boys and the girls, because there was sexual trauma for the boys, too. I try at that point to offer resources for people. When I was doing the girl book, it was hard to talk to high school-age girls. And part of it was probably that I wasn’t as well-known. But also with the boys, parents were flinging their sons at me. When I would go out and give a talk or something, they would be like, “Would you interview my son?” All these people were offering me their sons all the time. I think they were hoping that the conversation would not just be an interview, but would also be an educational experience for them because boys are so little educated [on the subject]. One of the most common things—and this was true of girls, too—that guys would say to me afterwards was, “Hey, this was like free therapy!” Which is true, except that I’m recording and writing it down in a book. But it has that quality. And I think just the act of sitting down and having a protected space to explore your experience in a way that nobody ever gives you entitlement to do is huge.

EAM: When you heard boys admit to doing questionable things—and maybe they hadn’t thought about it that way before—did anything change in your approach? Did you try to offer them resources for how to avoid that in the future, or were you mostly just listening?

PO: There were a couple of cases… There’s one case in particular where I had concerns about a guy who wasn’t exactly admitting he had done something, but was saying that people said he had. And later I found out from his school community that that was a pretty credible accusation. I worried about that. But then a counselor at that school said that they were pursuing some… not charges, but some accountability with that boy. So I thought, okay, then that’s being handled. But, you know, if they were going to admit something to me, it usually meant they’d thought about it pretty hard. People didn’t admit it casually. But, you know, the truth is with guys—young, old, everywhere in between—is that nobody thinks they’re a rapist. There’s even research on men who hold sex slaves in war zones: They don’t think they’re rapists. “The other guy over there, he’s the monster, not me.” It was one of the issues that was tricky in doing this book, that boys are not always reliable narrators around that. They tend to filter female behavior through their own wishes and desires, and therefore stretch their ideas of consent to fit that. So sometimes I would feel with some guys… just talking about a lousy hookup, “Gee, if I was talking to the girl in this…” It would almost feel like I could see a shadow behind them of this girl who was really angry or really hurt or would really have something to say about this. But she wasnt there. And in a couple cases—and this never happened with the girl book—girls contacted me after I interviewed a couple of boys and said, “You need to know some stuff about this guy. That maybe he didn’t tell you.”

EAM: I know that the book hasn’t fully come out yet, but in terms of advance reads, what kind of feedback have you gotten so far?

PO: The book has been getting all kinds of great editorial stuff. Just today, Amazon made it one of the top 10 picks for January. Cosmo made it its very top pick for 2020. People haven’t really read the actual book yet, but a lot of people read that Atlantic article [I wrote]. And that was really interesting to me because that audience is not necessarily the one that would naturally seek out the book. I was really surprised by how many emails I got from adult men in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s. I was not thinking about that, partly because that’s not who would probably read the book. But that article, that piece of it about the constricting nature of definitions of masculinity and how that hasn’t changed for guys, that really spoke to a lot of men. And I got tons of emails from young men, like college-age and post-college. But it was really interesting to get these long letters, pages long, from men my age and older about how they felt harmed by that kind of straitjacketing.

EAM: So most of the feedback was very positive.

PO: I mean, there’s the religious fanatics [who said things like] “If you just believed in Jesus, this wouldn’t be a problem.” There’s the people who are super right-wing who call me a feminist devil; there’s the people who say, “You’re an adult woman talking to boys, what’s wrong with you?” But it’s been surprisingly positive from adult men. I think, in a funny way, a woman needed to do this. I’m an outsider in terms of things that men might not find unusual or challenge, because it’s in them too. The whole piece of men talking about the constraints of masculinity, I don’t know that boys would have done that if I were a guy. Maybe they would have, but not as readily. I worried that there would be stuff they wouldn’t say to me because I was female, and I don’t know that there wasn’t. But if there was, I think that for everything they didn’t say, there was something they did.

EAM: Once the book really comes out and more people read it, what do you hope comes out of it? What is the takeaway you want readers to have?

PO: We can’t afford to have this silence around talking to boys anymore. Girls and Sex really had a broad reach and the ideas in it created a conversation, at least in a certain sector of the population, that has created some change—has made girls’ lives and their ability to have full, mutually-gratifying sexual experiences more possible. I want that for boys, too. I want them to be able to respect boundaries, to be able to feel capable as they are, to have a right to connection and vulnerability. I want them to be able to see their female partners as equal. I want them to have mutually gratifying sexual and emotionally intimate relationships, whether their relationships last for five minutes or for fifty years. That they’re more benevolent about it. I want a whole mess of things. But I think for me, as a thinker and as a writer, what I’ve always hoped I can do is spark a conversation. Bringing these voices forward allows other boys to read it and see some of their ideas reflected and maybe some of them challenged by looking at the experience of other boys. And maybe they will feel more empowered to be who they want to be. You know, that’s the moon I want. But I think the basic thing, and what any book can do, is just nudge the conversation and get people talking. One of the things with The Atlantic piece that was amazing to watch was how quickly that starts a conversation. On The Today Show—I don’t know the names of the people—but three of the men sat at a table drinking beer and eating bacon with the article projected behind them, talking about masculinity to me for seven minutes. It was kind of a goofy conversation, but nonetheless, I thought, well, I got that to happen. And that went out to a bajillion people. I guess that’s the bottom line. What I wanted to do was spread ideas.

EAM: Finally, I’m going to write this article and a lot of college-age boys are probably going to read it—or I hope they will! I guess I’m wondering: if every boy in America could hear one thing from you right now, what would it be?

PO: That’s a good question. What I hope is, in reading a book like this, that they feel seen and understood as well as challenged to be the best man that they can be. Be the man that we know they can be. I hope hearing other guys talk thoughtfully about sex moves them away from “guy talk” toward more meaningful dialogue with each other, with themselves. And ultimately allows them and their partners to have more gratifying, personally authentic experiences with sex, relationships, and life as a man.

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