At the outset of her new book, Boys & Sex, Peggy Orenstein recounts walking down a high-school hallway to meet an 18-year-old named Cole who was sitting outside the library: “He topped six feet, with broad shoulders and short-clipped, dirty blond hair. His neck was so thick that it seemed to merge right into his jawline.” Her first reaction to the sight of the boy was this: “Oh no.” Orenstein describes her instinct as “a breach of journalistic objectivity, a scarlet letter of personal bias.” But she has written a whole book that confirms it—a book whose thesis is that young men, particularly those who are white, straight, athletic, and reluctant to gush openly about their feelings, pose a nightmarish threat to American society. Hiding behind an authorial guise of a sympathetic observer trying to help this population and the adults who care about them, Orenstein gets the boys with whom she talks in the book to spill the most intimate details of their lives—and then throws them under the bus.
The interviews in Boys & Sex feature surprisingly frank details about the lives of these kids. Orenstein says she had a younger assistant helping her, but it would be interesting to know just how a middle-aged woman was able to attend parties with drunken high-school students and get them to answer her questions about alcohol, sexual encounters, and locker-room banter. She continues to have conversations with these young men months after their initial encounters to find out what happened with a girl they liked or how they are adjusting to college life.
Many of them are sad, anxious, even grief-stricken. They have suffered through their parents’ divorces, being dumped by girlfriends, ostracization from friends. They seem uncertain about their future and are in some cases directionless. It turns out that the rise of depression and anxiety on college campuses is not just among women. But Orenstein’s grasp of the social trends of modern history is so weak that she not only misdiagnoses the problem but also prescribes a treatment that is almost certainly the polar opposite of what these young men actually need.
Much of the book is devoted to how men mistreat women, with a focus on pornography. Take “Reza,” a sophomore at Boston College. “I’ve got things narrowed down to a very, very specific body type that turns me on,” he tells Orenstein. “Like the size of the areola and its color, that sort of thing. It’s probably not all driven by porn, but I figured out what I liked from that and I think I wouldn’t have otherwise. It doesn’t ruin my relationships, but it’s not nice when I’m trying to talk my girlfriend into liking a part of her body, but I’m secretly thinking, Well, actually, I would prefer…”
Many describe how they learned about sex—not only what type of body they liked, but also what type of body they themselves should have and what they should be doing with a woman—from porn. This led to all sorts of fear and anxiety about their own performance and deeply awkward encounters with real-life girls. “The guys I talked to actually were concerned with female satisfaction in a hookup,” Orenstein writes, because “they believed it to be a function of their own endurance and, to a lesser extent, penis size.”
It’s not just porn. The same messages about sex, how it should be casual, how men should rack up as many notches on the bedpost as possible, how treating women respectfully is unmanly, are coming from the lyrics of music they listen to as well as from television. Indeed, when Orenstein asks the guys she meets about how they define masculinity, their answers revolve around sex, being good at sports, and being “cool”—which they often can’t define, except to say that it means not getting too attached to women they’ve had sex with. And, oh yes, they have to be able to down a lot of liquor, too.
She writes: “Alcohol is, above all, what establishes a couple’s indifference: hooking up sober is almost by definition serious. Inebriation itself—‘I was so drunk’—can even become the reason (or the excuse) for an encounter, as opposed to, say, attraction, interest, or connection.” One boy even describes how the music is so loud at parties specifically to save boys and girls from having to talk. Instead boys can just walk up behind girls and start “grinding” on them.
What, you might wonder, is the solution to all of this bad treatment of women and bad feelings on the part of men? Orenstein, whose specialty as a freelance writer has heretofore been books about how society tries to shackle girls with suppressive fantasies about princesses, believes that the only solution to the boy crisis is to get men to behave more like women. On the last page of the book, she finally gets around to telling us what she thinks a man should be:
Compassionate and egalitarian; respectful of others’ boundaries; capable of connection, vulnerability, honest communication, emotional expression and love; able to develop and sustain authentic relationships; able to be happier and more fulfilled; able to see women as true peers in the classroom, boardroom, and bedroom.
Notably, this list is indistinguishable from what Orenstein thinks a woman should be. Orenstein is squarely in the “gender is a social construct” camp. Almost all differences that she sees between men and women are the ones that society has bred into us. If men seem to enjoy casual sex more than women, that’s largely because that’s the message they have grown up with, in her view. If women seem more concerned about their appearance, it’s largely because they have absorbed the media’s ideas about women’s bodies.
There is almost no positive vision of what it means to be a man in this book. The only hint of one comes from a boy Orenstein interviews who mentions wanting to join the military after learning about the My Lai massacre. “I want to be able to be in the same position as someone like that commanding officer and not order people to do something like that,” he tells her. It’s a moving idea, one that harks back to a more traditional definition of masculinity, but the boy is worried that his inability to stand up to other members of his crew team when they used homophobic slurs would mean he could never achieve that level of strength and independence.
Orenstein worries about that, too. Her solution is that we should talk to boys more about sex and what makes women happy, that they should get in touch with their feelings and learn to express them more effectively, that men should be told it’s okay to cry, that we should raise men to be more like women. But that is exactly what the most fashionable precincts of our culture have been preaching for the past 30 years at least, and it’s not working. If anything, it has arguably led us to the current crisis. Orenstein has written Boys & Sex as if it’s 1950, as if we haven’t already lived through the men’s movement, the sensitive man of the ’90s, the metrosexual, emo guys, and male feminists. We have girls wrestling on boys’ teams; we have women in military combat roles; we have virtually eliminated single-sex education (at least for boys); we have taken books that appeal to boys out of school curricula; we have drugged young boys to keep them from moving around too much in classrooms; we’ve eliminated recess, and we’re demonizing football. If you want to know why boys are watching so much porn and playing so many violent video games, well, what the hell have we left for them?
Orenstein’s extensive bibliography includes no references to Christina Hoff Sommers’s The War Against Boys or Kay Hymowitz’s Manning Up, and indeed, she seems to have no sense that there may be other explanations for the crisis she finds. Without a specific positive understanding of the role that men are supposed to play—without learning about ideals of courage and even chivalry, and no sense that they should be getting married and supporting a family—men have increasingly retreated from society.
The boys she interviews—those in college and those bound for it—are not the full-blown victims of this societal withdrawal. Most of them grew up with fathers in the home that they could emulate. Most of them will end up making a decent salary, working serious hours, and in some cases acting as the sole breadwinner in their family. Even if their role isn’t clear to them now, it will probably become more so as they get older.
The males raised in homes without that social capital—the ones Nicholas Eberstadt describes in his book Men Without Work, the ones who are not in school, have no job, and play a lot of video games—are the ones who will truly suffer from this loss of a real understanding of masculinity. And there is a generation of women who will be worse off for it.
Orenstein’s lack of curiosity about her subject reminded me of a scene during my final year of college, when I took a seminar from the political scientist Harvey Mansfield on the subject of “manliness.” I walked into the first session and was surprised to find that the small classroom was packed. Who were these students? Many of the attendees, it turned out, were campus feminists looking for a fight over current affairs with the man they saw as Harvard’s leading defender of the patriarchy. Boy, were they disappointed. After two hours of his painstaking analysis of Aristotle’s and Plato’s understanding of courage, they never returned.
Mansfield was (and is) concerned with the millennia-old question of how to make boys into men. But modern feminists do not have the patience for such inquiry, confident instead that they can alter human nature without having to consider any time before yesterday. They see problematic behavior and discomfiting attitudes among the men around them and ask instead how to make men into women.
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