Ep 68: What You Don’t Know About Teen Hook-up Culture

Episode Summary

Peggy Orenstein, author of Boys & Sex, a current New York Times Bestseller (as well as several other bestsellers!), joins Andy for an in-depth conversation about the culture of sex, intimacy, and relationships that teens are facing and which conversations are crucial to have with your teens – despite how awkward it may be!

Show NotesWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Teen hookup culture is dangerous. And while most parents are aware of how scary and confusing it is for girls, society at large is neglecting half of the participants: boys.

Despite what culture norms say generally about boys, young men have feelings too. Unfortunately, media and male role models are rarely depicted as anything but macho, “strong,” assertive, and sexually dominant. While parents may encourage their girls to play sports and stand up for themselves, it is still taboo to encourage a teen boy to dance, craft, or be vulnerable. (Unless of course the teen boy is openly gay, in which case doing “feminine” things is more accepted.)

But sending messages, overt or subliminal, about how teen boys are “supposed” to be, hurts not only the boys, but the girls they will interact with.

This week New York Times bestselling author, Peggy Orenstein, joins me for a candid discussion about teens, hookup culture, and her latest book, Boys & Sex. Boys & Sex follows on the heels of Orenstein’s second foray into teen hookup culture from the female side, Girls & Sex (the first being the ground-breaking and bestselling Schoolgirls 20 years earlier in 1995).

As it turns out, the boys are as equally confounded as their female peers when it comes to sex, intimacy, and relationships. Almost all the information we give teens about sex is risk-based; that is, we tell our teens all the “bad” things that might happen, such as diseases, sexual assault, rape, pregnancy, and skip out on everything else.

When we forget to (or purposely leave out) talking to our teens about what healthy, normal, intimate relationships look like, we are letting everyone else decide for them.  The media, magazines, YA fiction, Netflix, and Hollywood (not to mention the pornography industry) decide “roles” for our teen girls and boys to play. Is it any wonder that young people, afraid of intimacy, lubricate their sexual interactions with alcohol?

Peggy and I discuss how we got here and what parents and educators can do to make things better. We cover:

  • What’s missing in our talks with teen’s about sex
  • How teen boys locker room talk feeds into hookup culture
  • Why it’s so hard for boys to stand up against other boys’ bad behavior
  • The big disconnect between girls acting “sexy” before truly understanding what sexy means

Peggy is a wealth of knowledge and I was blown away by her body of work on gender, women, and the landscape of teenage sex. Her insights are sometimes funny, sometimes disheartening…but they are always powerful!

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Your Teen’s Future Boyfriend/Girlfriend:

In my interview with Peggy Orenstein, author of several NYT bestsellers including Boys & Sex and Girls & Sex, she addressed the fact that most education around sex and relationships for boys and girls focuses purely on risks: STDs, infections, sexual assault, rape, and (unwanted) pregnancy. While the conversations to young adults about sex are including consent more and more, we still have a long way to go. One thing that teens and tweens are left to learn on their own is what to value in a romantic partner. Sure we may talk to them about friends, but it’s rare that as parents we speak directly to our teens about what sort of qualities they might want to look for in a romantic partner. Set aside time to share a meal with your teen(s) and have a discussion together about what their ideal romantic partner would be like. Ideally you can do this exercise alongside your teen by listing qualities you looked or look for when seeking out your own romantic partner(s). Aim for ten traits. Try to steer your teen away from physical descriptors like “hot” or “tall” or “blonde” and focus on character traits and values, such as “shares similar interests” or “takes good care of their health.” Use your teen’s list to ask why those traits are important to them and have them ask about the traits you chose as well. Use this exercise to start a conversation about what loving, mutually-respecting relationships might look like. You can also help correct any false beliefs your teen may have about romantic relationships. For example if they want “someone who will just do whatever I tell them to do” you can tease that out more, asking what they mean by that and if their closest friendships or family members follow that pattern

2.  Get Your Teen a Sex Ed Mentor:

(Members Only)

3.  Consider the Sleepover:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So I’ve had a week of Peggy Orenstein here. I’ve been working on this stack of books this week. It’s been a blast diving into your work here. And this book right here that we’re going to start with today is currently on the New York Times bestseller list at number seven, is called Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity. So this is your first book on boys, particularly. You’ve written a lot about femininity, women and how to be a feminist today. And so this is kind of a little bit of a departure for you, so I’m interested where that came from. What inspired the first foray into the male sex here?

Peggy: Well, I got to tell you, it was not on my to do list. I really did not imagine that I was going to write about boys and men, but after I wrote Girls & Sex, which was my previous book, and I was going around the country, everywhere I went parents and girls and boys themselves would say, “When are you going to write about boys?” And I thought, “I think that’s somebody else’s job.” And I think that I was a little bit afraid that if I tried to interview boys, I would have entire transcripts that consisted of, “Uh huh. Nope.” That there would be nothing there. That was clearly not the case, but I thought about it and I thought, the truth is that nobody was talking to boys and nobody was really listening to them to hear what they had to say about sex and intimacy and masculinity in this new era.

Peggy: And then as I was thinking about all of that, MeToo came along and suddenly the kind of breadth of misconduct across all sectors of society became clear and we have this imperative to reduce sexual violence. But I also thought, in a kind of more positive way, that it offered this opportunity to engage boys in something that we never do, which is a conversation about how they were thinking about sex and intimacy, relationships, masculinity, because we have to know what’s in their heads in order to be able to better guide them.

Andy: One of the ways that the book starts is a discussion of locker room talk, which is a timely issue today in America. And we recently talked to Mike Adamick on our show, who’s the author of Raising Empowered Daughters, and he started this interesting conversation about this urge that dads have to protect the daughter, the classic image of the dad behind the daughter with a shotgun. It strikes me, reading this discussion that you have of locker room talk in here, that this is part of why I think men are so protective of their daughters because on some level they know that if their daughter gets labeled a slut, that guys are going to be talking about her in this way. And we don’t know how to talk about it, I guess, but they want to protect their daughter somehow. So what made you say that locker room talk is such an important issue and what did you hear about it from the boys that you talked to?

Peggy: Well, it was actually something that boys, I mean, they would rather talk to me about premature ejaculation. They would rather talk to me about pornography, just anything, but talking about locker room talk to a woman. That was one of the places, I mean, I thought a lot about being a woman doing this work and I think in a real way, it was an advantage in terms of guys’ willingness to drop the wall and talk to a woman in a way that they might not a man about emotions and their struggles. But locker room talk, that was an issue. And so much of that locker room talk is about guys bonding through bragging about control of female bodies. Right? And so when they talk about sex, it’s not like they’re talking about pleasure or joy or anything in that context, it’s weaponized. So it’s like, they hammer, they nail, they bang, they pound, they pipe, they hit that, they tap that. It’s like they went to a construction site, right? It’s like Bob the Builder.

Andy: Right. Right. It’s these violent, really violent language.

Peggy: Yeah, violent metaphors. And it’s not like, I mean, the guys that I was talking to, they were not blank slates that the culture was inscribing. They were wrestling with these issues and they didn’t necessarily… It wasn’t that they necessarily approved of that kind of conversation, but they struggled if they were the guy who didn’t approve or who didn’t think it was right, or who knew it wasn’t right, with what to do with that information. So one of the boys that I talked with, Cole and a friend of his, they were in high school and they went up against a senior guy who was saying something gross about some girl and they got mocked and targeted. And so the next time something came up, Cole didn’t say anything and what was interesting was that he kept his mouth shut and his friend continued to say stuff. He was continuing to step up.

Peggy: And what Cole said to me was, “The more he stepped up and the more I stepped down, I saw the other guys losing respect for him, not liking him as much, not listening to him. And he was losing all his social capital and I had buckets of it, but I wasn’t spending it.” And he was actually going into the military and he said, “I really don’t know what to do because I don’t want to have to choose between my dignity and these guys that I’m going to serve with, but how do I make it so I don’t have to choose?” And I think very much that, as boys become men, part of becoming a man is learning silence and learning what you can’t say, and don’t say, and won’t say, as much as what you do.

Andy: So the idea is that with the guys that you talk to, there’s this very clear picture that gets painted where the locker room talk is a way of establishing their dominance hierarchy or pecking order a little bit, and a big important part of that is talking about how many girls that they’ve had sex with. On page 83, you’re talking to Nate Hussein, the whole goal of going to a party is to hook up with girls and tell your guys about it. There’s this race for experience. If you get behind, then by the time you have the opportunity to hook up with a girl, she’ll have hit like five guys already.

Peggy: Yeah. He said it’s not even about… And I think this is really true of that kind of hook up culture, it’s not about the interaction between two people, it’s about the story that you’re going to tell when you leave the room, whether you’re a boy or whether you’re a girl, that’s true.

Andy: So that’s interesting because you do kind of talk about that in this other book a little bit. It does go both ways where there’s girls who tell you that they will get high fives from their girlfriends after having a hookup with a guy or something like that. So it does-

Peggy: Yeah. Right. So it’s true that, I think that I definitely met girls who said, “I want to talk to you because I want to say that I like hookup culture. And I met guys who hated it and who really longed for a connection.” But overall, especially in college because of the skew of the gender ratio on campuses and other things, that hookup culture tends to advantage boys more than girls, because it aligns with those ideas of conquest and status seeking through sex. But again, that didn’t mean that they liked it. They tended to, at best be ambivalent, even after they would tell me, “Yeah, it’s kind of an accomplishment. It’s kind of a contest between guys. Whatever.” They would also inevitably talk about that ambivalence. And while they didn’t express the same level of anger and betrayal that girls could express, it didn’t mean that they felt well served by it. And it was really interesting to hear how guys wrestled with that ambivalence around hookup culture.

Peggy: One guy said to me, “It’s like two people having two very distinct experiences with sex. And there’s not a lot of eye contact. There’s not a lot of conversation.” And then he said this, I just thought this was so smart, he said, “It’s like you’re acting vulnerable, but you’re not being vulnerable with somebody that you don’t know very well or care about very much, which is odd.” And he said, “Not especially fun.”

Andy: And well, because you talk in this book, this Girls & Sex book about this friends with benefits idea and how it often leads to attachment developing. And you have this point that it’s really hard to be having sex with someone and being really good friends with them and being nice to them and not have it develop into something. So in order to maintain this hookup culture where you’re bouncing from one partner to another, there’s almost a necessity to dehumanize the other person or treat them in a not nice way.

Peggy: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. And so what I would think about… I’m a recovering English major, so I think a lot about words and I was really intrigued by the phrase that in both Girls & Sex and Boys & Sex, that kids would use catching feelings, like it’s a disease, right? You catch chlamydia, you catch gonorrhea, you catch feelings. And so I started, just the last couple of days been thinking about this, so to avoid catching chlamydia and gonorrhea, you wear a condom, right? To avoid catching feelings, you have to put on your emotional condom. And the thing that puts on an emotional condom is alcohol.

Peggy: So alcohol is not just, it doesn’t just lubricate that scene. Lisa Wade wrote this great book, American Hookup, where she talks about all this. And she said, “The hookup scene is dependent on alcohol to create,” she calls it, “the compulsory carelessness necessary for hookups.” So it’s what establishes the meaninglessness of a hookup. If you hook up sober, that would be meaningful. And so the trick becomes being drunk enough and finding someone who’s drunk enough to be able to say yes, but not so drunk that they can’t say yes. And that is a very tricky line to walk, it can be.

Andy: So there’s a point in this book where you receive a text message. You got a text from Nate, who’s the kid we were talking to earlier and he’s in school in Southern California. And he’s texting you and says, “WTF is up with the hookup culture?” He wrote. “It’s like an orgy here. Is that the way to live? Should I be investing in that or forming meaningful connections with women?” And so then you are actually with someone else at that point, Wyatt, so you guys kind of talk about what would be the best way to respond and you end up saying, “Don’t let yourself be a part of that hookup scene-“

Peggy: Oh, I don’t say that. Wyatt says that.

Andy: Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Peggy: Wyatt says that. Yeah.

Andy: And then it says, you don’t tell us exactly what you say to him, but it was some sort of a kind of summary or something of what Wyatt says. And then he says, “Thank you, really, thank you. Exactly what I needed to hear. This is where my heart is.” And I thought this exchange was really interesting for a couple reasons. The one that he felt comfortable enough to send you this text message. And that makes me wonder, well, how as a parent or an adult that’s trying to act as a mentor figure, how can you be that approachable? And then two, what you said or how you figured out kind of what to say that was what he needed to hear?

Peggy: Yeah. Well, you forgot the part where he sent me a heart emoji.

Andy: Oh, that’s right here. And then he added a heart emoji.

Peggy: Yeah, that actually is one of my favorite scenes in the whole book. I’m so glad that you pulled that scene out because what was wonderful about that was, yeah, I was Skyping with one boy who had been heavily into hookup culture and then had come through to the other side of that. And Nate texts in and he says what you said, and what I did was I asked Wyatt, the boy I was Skyping with and interviewing, “What do you think I should say to him?” And I read him the text and they had this conversation through me. I was not talking. I was texting what Wyatt was saying to him and then he was saying, and we were going back and forth.

Peggy: And it was this incredible thing because yeah, it gave Nate what he needed and I am still in touch with Nate. I just was texting with him the other day. And I know that that conversation continued to affect him. And he really did go into college. He was a boy who really wanted to have connection and meaning in his personal relationships. And he stuck with that. And I thought, these guys are total strangers to one another, they don’t know each other’s names. They’ll never meet. And I’m a total stranger really, they just know me because I’m writing a book.

Peggy: And the serendipity of them being able to have this conversation is so rare and yet it was so meaningful. And what could we do? What would it mean if we could create a situation where boys could have these conversations amongst themselves with trust. And that’s really, at the heart, I think of both Boys & Sex and Girls & Sex was that I wanted books that, yes, parents could use to understand where teenagers are right now and all these issues, but also that guys or girls themselves could read and-

Andy: Get them talking about it.

Peggy: … hopefully open up more meaningful dialogue.

Andy: 100%. I have to say, that’s what struck me with both of these books is if you have a teenage boy in your life, get them a copy of this book, Boys & Sex. If you have a teenage girl in your life, get her a copy of this book, Girls & Sex. It’s important for parents to read, but-

Peggy: Or the other way around.

Andy: Yeah, I mean, both. I read them both and I’m a guy and I was fascinated by everything in both of them. And it’s so relevant, especially for kids in the late teenage years, mid teenage years when you’re really starting to struggle with what your sexuality is and how you want to establish that. And it’s really hard in today’s culture and there’s a lot of conflicting messages that both boys and girls are getting. And so making those explicit and understanding why it’s so hard is I think kind of some of the genius of Peggy Orenstein.

Andy: One more thing that I wanted to talk about from this book, Boys & Sex, is at the end, you say, “Consider the sleepover.” Okay. So in the United States, this is not a typical parent of teenager policy, I wouldn’t think. So, why is it that you think the sleepover should be considered by them?

Peggy: Yeah. And I will say, I’m a parent of a teenager, so I think about this stuff a lot. And when I first started considering that notion, I was just like any other American parent, “Not in my house. Hell no.” And I have a really small house. But that really comes from research on the Dutch and what we know, there’s comparative research between, and this was more done on girls, but it was applicable to boys too. They did research that compared demographically similar girls at two different colleges in Holland and America and their early sexual experiences. And they found that the Dutch girls had everything we say we want. They had fewer negative consequences like pregnancy and disease, less likely to be drunk, more likely to say they enjoyed their experience. They could talk to their partner. They knew their partner very well. Everything.

Peggy: And when they talked further to the girls, what they found was that they said that their parents, teachers, and doctors had talked to them from an early age about sex, love, and pleasure. And as part of that, with the Dutch, they have this word that I can’t say, I can’t pronounce it, but it basically is something like, and I apologize to anybody listening who speaks Dutch, it’s kind of like [Dutch 00:00:16:00], something like that. And it means cozy togetherness. And it’s this idea that, in America, we raise our teenagers basically to lie to us in order to become adults, right? We have them sever and we all know what they’re doing, but we pretend that we don’t, and they’re off doing it somewhere else in places that might be dangerous, with dynamics that can’t be controlled. And we just kind of let that go.

Peggy: In Holland, everything, all these issues about substances, about sex, everything is discussed within the family. And the parents use that as a way to exert what they call soft power on the kids. And so having a sleepover, and this is from Amy Schalet’s research, she’s a professor at the University of Massachusetts and wrote this book, Not Under My Roof, comparing American and Dutch teenagers. The sleepover allows them to further reinforce the values around contraception, around disease protection, around consent, around positive sexuality, and allow that when there’s a relationship that they judge is the right kind of relationship to have the talk about what that means, and in negotiating that, it’s not that it’s not awkward, but they can guide their kids towards having the kinds of relationships when appropriate that we want them to have.

Peggy: As opposed to American parents who let it go and then your kid goes off and gets drunk at a party and hooks up with a random and punches their V card. I mean, it’s a little bit crazy. And part of our culture is to allow kids to stew in this highly sexualized media world with really toxic messages about male sexual entitlement and female sexual availability. Right? And-

Andy: Which we get to in this book. Cinderella Ate My Daughter.

Peggy: [crosstalk 00:00:17:38]. Yeah. And then we say nothing to them about what a mutually gratifying, reciprocal, personally fulfilling relationship can and should look like. So a lot of this is not just about scolding boys or the don’ts of all of it, but it’s also really contemplating what we want for our kids and how we can get there in a positive way.

Andy: Something you write in Girls & Sex that just hit me really hard is that you say you interviewed over 70 girls to write this book and only two of them told you they’d had an in-depth conversation with their father about sex.

Peggy: Oh yeah. They would just laugh when I asked that

Andy: It seems crazy to me. But it makes me think that this idea of the sleepover, if nothing else, at least if your kid is bringing their boyfriend or girlfriend into your house, then it’s going to trigger a conversation. Or maybe you’re going to, if it’s happening in your house, then at least it’s going to make you want to, “We got to talk about this.” And like-

Peggy: And so yeah, certainly it requires a really profound shift. And the other piece that is different, I think in Holland and the United States, is that in thinking about what those girls said about that, their parents and teachers and doctors talk to them about sex, love, and pleasure, we Americans tend to frame our conversations about sex with our kids exclusively in terms of risk and danger. And what that does is shift the idea to talking about responsibility and joy. And as a parent myself of a teenager, that hit me in the gut because I thought, I would have talked to my child about contraception, I would have talked to her about disease detectors.

Andy: Right. STDs. You really don’t want to get those. Yeah. Yeah. Right.

Peggy: Yeah. And consent, because I’m modern, but I would’ve thought that’s enough. I’ve told you about all the risks and that’s good enough. And that really made me realize, delving into that research, that it’s not good enough at all. And we owe them better, we can give them better. And also, I don’t know, I kind of liken it to, I don’t mean to keep going on, but I liken it to table manners. If you wanted to teach your child table manners, you would not sit them down and say, “Okay, you use a knife and fork. Don’t burp at the table. Say please and thank you. All right, we’re done.” You have to have a whole lot of discussion in a whole lot of context, a whole lot of times. You have to tell your child to say thank you at least 537,682 times to get them to do it themselves. And we think that somehow talking about table manners is more important than talking about their interpersonal relationships and that’s kind of crazy.

About Peggy Orenstein

Peggy Orenstein has been a writer for decades. She has now seven books to her name, including Girls & Sex, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Don’t Call Me Princess, Waiting for Daisy, Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Kids, Love and Life in a Half-Changed World, and the seminal Schoolgirls. Her latest book, Boys & Sex, is a current New York Times Bestseller.

Credits for Peggy include being a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, as well as The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. Additionally, her writing has appeared in Vogue, Elle, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker, to name a few, and Peggy has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, the PBS News Hour, and the TED Talk stage.

Peggy and her husband are long time residents of Berkeley, California where they are doing their best to raise a teen daughter of their own in an ever-evolving world.

Want More Peggy Orenstein?

You can find Peggy on her website, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram or catch her in-person on her book tour or take a peek at her TED Talk.