When’s the last time you had a conversation with your teenage son about what it means to be a caring, respectful sexual partner? Or what “consent” means - and how alcohol affects it? Or how catcalling girls, or referring to them as “bitches” or worse, is degrading and abusive?
When’s the last time, in other words, you offered your teenage son a “counternarrative” to the sexual lessons he and his peers are learning from online pornography and popular music?
If your answer is “never,” you’re like most parents of high-schoolers, according to a recent survey of 3,000 young people by the Making Caring Common Project.
In the same survey, nearly 90% of girls reported having been sexually harassed.
Toxic masculinity is certainly not a product of the digital age. A gender orientation that values toughness, hypersexuality, and aggression and control over women has been a feature of our society for centuries.
But as a growing number of experts point out, the exponential growth of online pornography - and its easy accessibility by children and teens - is helping to entrench attitudes that endanger the wellbeing of all young people, female and male alike.
Peggy Orenstein, author of the new book Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent and Navigating the New Masculinity, notes that, in the absence of critical conversations with parents, boys turn to online porn to learn about sex.
There, they “are bombarded by images of female sexual availability and male sexual entitlement.”
The myth of male entitlement
Are there other, more mature styles of adult content available online? Of course. But as Orenstein notes, “the most readily available, free content portrays a distorted vision of sex: as something men do to rather than with a partner and women’s pleasure as a performance for male satisfaction.”
And there’s another, less obvious message in typical online porn that can give our boys a distorted view of themselves: namely that “real men” are always ready for sex, any time, anywhere and with any partner.
“The most readily available, free content portrays a distorted vision of sex: as something men do to rather than with a partner and women’s pleasure as a performance for male satisfaction.
Putting boys in a box?
The Man Box study, a major Australian survey of ideas about masculinity, commissioned as part of the Jesuit Social Services’ Men’s Project and published in 2018, found that 56% of young men aged 18 to 30 agreed that society expects men to never say ‘no’ to sex.
In addition to hypersexuality, the study identified six additional pillars of toxic masculinity, that together formed what researchers termed “The Man Box”: self-sufficiency, toughness, physical attractiveness, rigid gender roles, heterosexuality and homophobia, and aggression and control over women.
Young males who were “inside the box” were found to have poorer physical and emotional health. They were also more likely to bully others, online and off.
56% of young men aged 18 to 30 agreed that society expects men to never say ‘no’ to sex.
How parents can help
The solution, advises Michael Flood, associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at Queensland University of Technology, is all about engaging our sons “in critical conversations about manhood, encouraging them to embrace identities of their own making rather than conforming to constrained masculine scripts.”
Peggy Orenstein’s research also underscores the importance of parental input that offers boys a counternarrative - literally, a different story - to the one they encounter online and in the vulgar lyrics of popular music.
With the media urging boys to “hit it and quit it,” input from mums and dads - awkward though it may be at first - is essential. But Orenstein, along with Family Zone cyber experts and youth advocates David and Katie Kobler, stress that values like kindness, connection and mutual gratification cannot possibly be transmitted in a single one-and-done “sex talk.”
You wouldn’t try to teach your child table manners in one sitting, notes Orenstein. We need to stop assuming we can teach healthy and respectful sexual behaviours this way - for the sake of all our digital kids.
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