Despite multiple sexual assault allegations, Brett Kavanaugh has been appointed as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. His Senate confirmation hearing looked into allegations that he sexually assaulted another student when he was in high school, over 30 years ago.
The conversation sparked by Kavanaugh’s confirmation has brought up many questions about appropriate sexual behavior for teen boys and the language they use around sex. To explore these questions, I interviewed the writer Peggy Orenstein, who has made a career out of examining the emotional and sexual lives of teens. Having focused on girls in her 2016 book, Girls & Sex, she’s now turning her lens towards boys for a book in progress. Orenstein and I discussed false accusations, drinking and assault, and how to improve education and communication related to teens and sex.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Valencia: I want to know about this book you’re writing about teen boys and emotional intimacy. What sorts of conversations do boys have around sex?
PO: Boys in general tend to have far fewer conversations about sex, about intimacy, about healthy relationships, about contraception, about protection than girls do. And girls don’t have very many.
One of the boys said, “Nobody ever says like, ‘Hey, did you make her feel really great?’ Nobody ever says that. They say, like, ‘I slammed her. I pounded her. I nailed her. I banged her. I destroyed her. I tore her up.’”
One of the main takeaways from the interviews I’ve done is how much these ideas about male sexuality and masculinity hurt boys themselves. They don’t learn—or feel like they’re not supposed to express—basic emotions of fear, anxiety, sadness, loneliness. They struggle with vulnerability and connection. One boy said to me, “I feel like the only emotions I’m allowed are happiness and anger.”
Valencia: In conversations with boys, how did they react to high-profile sexual assault cases, such as Brock Turner and Brett Kavanaugh?
PO: The general theme was a distancing. This was not them. They kind of focused on the most extreme detail of the testimony, which was [Kavanaugh] allegedly putting his hand over Christine Blasey Ford’s mouth and holding her down on the bed.
That seemed so over the line to [the boys I interviewed] that it allowed them to kind of disconnect, as opposed to thinking about what kind of garden variety coercive and sometimes non-consensual behavior that they might be engaging in.
Valencia: Do you find that a lot of young men are scared of being falsely accused?
PO: Yes, yes they are.
I guess there’s two different ways that I feel about that. One is, it’s really not that hard to get consent. It’s really not that hard to say, “Are you OK? Are you fine? Does this feel good? Do you want to be doing this?”
But the other piece, I think… For women and girls, we live our whole life [fearing] for our safety in a low-level way, and sometimes a high-level way. Always, whether you’re walking down the street, whether you’re sitting on a bus, whether you’re in a sexual encounter with somebody. Being a woman comes with risk. We don’t question now why that’s completely appalling and unacceptable.
Most men have not ever had to worry much about the consequences of their actions. They don’t have to think about their behavior. They felt a level of freedom that women have never felt. And now maybe they have to be careful in some small way. And if that makes them feel slightly afraid, I don’t know that I have a problem with that. Like, welcome to the world.
Valencia: Right now there’s also a lot of focus on how Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh drank when he was in high school and in college. How does drinking affect young men and sexual assault?
PO: We talk about girls drinking, right? We say, “How many drinks did she have? Was she drunk? Did she know what she was doing?”
I’m hoping that the conversation will shift to the impact of boys drinking, on them becoming at risk of being assailants or perpetrators. We know drinking loosens inhibitions. It allows boys who might not otherwise have the courage to assault to assault. Boys who are drunk are more aggressive. They are less able to read social cues, they’re less likely to take no for an answer.
Even for bystanders, drinking has a negative effect on their willingness to intervene if they say see something in progress.
Valencia: How do you think we could get parents to educate and to talk to boys more about consent?
PO: There’s a lot of parents who say, “Give me the script. What do I say?” And I always think, I can’t tell you the words to say. You’ve got to do some reading. You’ve got to do some thinking. You’ve got to approach your son. And you can’t just do it once. It’s not a one-time conversation.
It’s hard because we parents don’t have that language right. We didn’t learn it growing up either. It just embarrasses all of us.
When I do see sex education done, it’s really clear to me that boys do want to engage. It’s not like they want their partner to feel really crappy about themselves. That’s not their goal in an encounter.
Most of them feel constricted by the ideas about masculinity that they’re learning. Many boys welcome the opportunity to think about this a different way.
Valencia: Right now, there’s a lot of focus around consent. What do you think of that?
Consent is absolutely critical. Absolutely pivotal. We all need to understand it, we all need to practice it. But it’s a baseline. “I was not raped.” That is not a really great thing to say about a sexual experience.
Part of this is learning to normalize language around sexual needs, wants, desires, limits, [and] that sex in all of its forms is something we do with somebody, not to somebody. [We need to think] more ethically about what our sexual encounters look like, whether they’re lasting for 20 minutes or 20 years.