According to Andrew Smiler, a psychologist specializing in adolescent male behavior who surveyed over a hundred teen boys about dating and sex, most guys, in fact, prefer physical intimacy with someone they know, trust and with whom they feel comfortable. I found that to be true, too, though they seemed to view it as their personal quirk, not shared by their peers. Mr. Smiler suggests, then, that adults can ask boys what kind of sexual experience they want. “Not just whether they are looking to have an orgasm,” he said, “but about the context and quality of that orgasm. If we’re willing to be more vulgar and pointed, we might even ask, ‘Do you want a partner who’s more than just someone to masturbate into?’ ”
It occurs to me, after a quarter-century of talking to teens, that the activism on behalf of girls could offer a model to better guide boys. Back in the 1990s, when I first began writing about young women’s quandaries in a changing world — loss of confidence, stunted ambition, negative body image, sexual shaming — there was both a desire for and an apprehension about change: Some parents worried, not irrationally, that raising a daughter to be outspoken or sexually empowered would come at a social cost, that she would be labeled a bitch or a slut. Others raged that girls were being pushed, against their nature, to become “more like boys.”
But years of attention to girls’ experience, of work by parents and professionals, has reduced some of those fears, eased constraint, expanded girls’ roles and opportunities: Things aren’t perfect, not by a long shot, but they are better. Nonetheless, I found myself wishing, in my conversations with girls, that their early sexual experiences did not have to be, as they so often were, something they had to get over. That will require reducing the harm boys cause, whether out of monstrous venality, entitlement, heedlessness or even (maybe especially) ignorance.
For their own well-being, as well as their partners’, they need a counternarrative to the one that elevates the transactional over the connected, the sensual, the kind; boys need to value mutual gratification in their sexual encounters, whether with one-offs or long-term partners. That won’t be accomplished in a single “sex talk,” nor, really, any one easy fix, any more than you could teach your child table manners in one sitting. But at the very least, listening to their struggles is a start. I think about a guy I talked to early on, a rising college junior who’d equated a girl’s invitation back to her room with sexual consent. “I want to do the right thing,” he told me, “but I don’t know what the right thing is. I just know what I know, which is a lot of really confusing and wrong” stuff. He pressed forward unthinkingly, one might say manfully — or as he described it, “boom, boom, boom, boom” — until she put a hand on his chest, saying, “Whoa! I don’t want to do that.”
“And in that moment,” he said, “I could see just how wrong it was. The utter lack of communication that took place in those five to 10 minutes. And even realizing that I didn’t feel great myself about what we were doing. I just….” He shook his head regretfully. “I thought that was the only option. I thought that was the way things were supposed to be.”