The Current

Talk to your sons about sex the way you would about table manners: often, says author

Author Peggy Orenstein has spent decades researching and writing about girls and sex. In her latest book, she turns her attention to boys.

If you're not talking to your boys about sex, pornography will instead, says Peggy Orenstein

Author Peggy Orenstein says that if you're a parent of a boy, you need to talk to them about sex, even if you would 'rather poke yourself in the eye with a fork.' (Shutterstock/Dejan Dundjerski)

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Originally published on January 10, 2020

Parents of boys need to make sex an ongoing conversation rather than a one-time, awkward "talk," just as you would with table manners, says author Peggy Orenstein. 

"You would not sit down and say, 'OK, you need to have good manners when you leave the house, make sure to put your napkin on ...' then walk away and think, OK, I've told my child, I've done my job," Orenstein told The Current's host Matt Galloway.

"No, you would not do that," she said — so why wouldn't you make sex a regular conversation with your child?

For 25 years Orenstein has been researching and writing about the messages girls receive about sex. But now she has turned her attention to boys, in a new book aptly titled Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity.

Author Peggy Orenstein. (Submitted by HarperCollins)

Orenstein spoke to more than 100 teen boys and young men about their attitudes towards sex and relationships. 

She said that she didn't expect many of them to speak openly with her ("I actually thought I would have entire transcripts consisting of, 'uh-huh'"), but she ended up being surprised by their candour.

"They're having a lot of feelings ... and having the opportunity to discuss that, I think, was so rare for them that they went for it," she said.

Many of the boys Orenstein spoke to told her they found it difficult to navigate questions around hook-ups, consent, feeling sufficiently "masculine," and connecting with their emotions, and they didn't necessarily feel they had someone to talk to about those issues.

For these reasons, she has this advice for parents: even though you probably "would rather poke yourself in the eye with a fork than talk directly to your son about sex," you have to do it, and do it often.

She recommended finding easy ways to start bringing up the topic — for example, by pointing out images in pop culture that show problematic ideas about gender and sex.

When her daughter was young, Orenstein would point out women's bodies in Disney movies, saying, "Hey look, her eyes are bigger than her wrist. Are your eyes bigger than your wrist? Is your head bigger than your waist?"

Parents have gotten much better at talking about these topics with their daughters, she said, because they see the harm that negative messaging about sex can do to them.

(Submitted by HarperCollins)

"But we have been really silent with our sons," she said.

And, she warned, if adults don't talk to their sons about sex, free pornography on sites like PornHub is likely to fill the void.

"It has become, in absence of parental conversation and conversation in school, one of the main sex educators," she said.

While she said that there's plenty of ethical pornography out there, the free content that most teenagers can access "typically shows sex as something men do to women, female pleasure as a performance for male satisfaction … [and] a lot of acts that wouldn't really feel good to most people." 

If parents don't discuss the problematic sides of that kind of pornography with their sons, "inevitably they're taking that into the bedroom with them," she said.

And, she said, simply having those discussions — awkward as they may be at first — can help deepen the relationship between a parent and son, by showing that the parent is prepared to talk about tough subjects.

"Because if you can't have difficult conversations with them, how are they going to learn to have them with other people?"

Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Alison Masemann.