Boys, Sex, and the Path to Manhood

What’s the matter with boys these days? The question has become cliché, in an age when almost no one seems satisfied with the state of the American male. From toxic masculinity to pajama boys, everyone seems to recognize that we are in the midst of a “man crisis.” We have too many lost boys and too few good men. Diagnoses and prescriptions vary enormously, however.

The Politics of Our Boy Problem

From the political Left, we hear regular warnings about the dire effects of “toxic masculinity.” Ostensibly, this is a performative, hyper-macho expression of manhood that ruthlessly suppresses kindness and gentility in favor of domination, violence, empty bravado, and anger. Reacting against the tectonic changes in modern gender roles, “toxic” males will do almost anything to avoid seeming weak or effeminate. Think of Achilles, and subtract the divine patronage, superhuman strength, and immense courage. That’s toxic masculinity. What we’re left with is a host of embittered, entitled rage-monkeys, torqued up on hate and adrenaline, determined to rain vengeance on the nefarious villains who have stolen their manly dignity. Mostly, they do this from the comfort of their computer terminals.

Against this vision, the Right (with equal concern) advances one of its own. Right-wing man-critics see modern males as weak and pampered, effectively gelded by feminists, pacifists, socialists, meddling bureaucrats, and other nefarious foot soldiers of the anti-traditional Left. In their determination to destroy “the patriarchy,” progressives have spawned a generation of noodle-spined metrosexuals who now gamely cooperate in their own, and the nation’s, demise. Because they are so afraid of real men, progressives try to suffocate masculinity in the cradle, pushing dolls and unicorn backpacks on small boys, and emasculating their fathers. This “war on boys” is deliberate, malicious, and a primary cause of our man problems. We refuse to allow boys to be men. In the words of C.S. Lewis, we “castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Feuding culture warriors (pundits, talk radio hosts, internet trolls) predictably find rich material in the man-fight. Everyone has something to say about the sad state of men. For parents, the situation is far more troubling. What if you don’t want to raise swaggering jerks or self-loathing mama’s boys? As a mother to five young sons, I find myself haunted by nightmares as vivid as they are diverse. There seem to be so many different ways for a young man to fail nowadays. Just glancing at the daily headlines, I read about porn-addled incels, Dylan Klebold fanboys, pot-smoking cranks, effete metrosexuals, directionless NEETs, entitled sexual predators, and channel-surfing men on strike who haunt their parents’ basements while drawing fraudulent disability checks.

It’s a grim picture, and navigating these perilous shoals is a daunting task. As a parent to young boys, should you steer clear of the potty-mouthed football coaches, or actively search for them? Is back-alley cops-and-robbers the magical childhood experience that will teach your son to be a political animal, or will those adorable next-door neighbors be the ones who turn him into a pot-smoking porn addict? There is no safe strategy for raising a virtuous son. This is a harsh country for young men.

Imagine my relief, as a concerned parent, when I heard that Peggy Ornstein, professional feminist and veteran sex writer, had finally decided to weigh in on the man question in her new book, Boys and Sex. When it comes to adolescent angst, Ornstein has been around the block. She made a name for herself in the 90s writing about girls and their “confidence gaps,” and then declared war on Disney princesses and their malignant influence on young girls. A few years ago, she horrified us with harrowing tales of teen promiscuity in Girls and Sex. After all this girl talk, she’s finally managed to add a dash of yang to her sexual corpus in her latest volume.

Beyond the Left-Right Cage Match

Sloppy and tendentious, Boys and Sex seems almost deliberately pitched to make conservative skin crawl. It is packed with lurid details that no decent person would ever want to know. Ornstein seems to relish her persona as the cool, unshockable mom. This reviewer has no such pretensions, so I will willingly admit to being horrified. After reading the admissions of Ornstein’s hormone-crazed young men, I briefly considered whether I should move my entire family to Botswana. My eldest is only ten. They still have time to learn to speak Tswana.

Despite this, there really are some good reasons for us to take note of Ornstein’s work with something resembling approval. She’s deeply confused about many important things, but if we truly want to do something for modern boys, conservatives need to look for opportunities to move this conversation beyond the never-ending cage fight between the masculinists and the feminists. It’s possible that a figure like Ornstein might offer a few such openings.

Ornstein is surprised to discover that the boys she talks to are multi-dimensional human beings who are genuinely struggling to figure out how to be good men. 

It’s admittedly difficult to adopt this perspective given Ornstein’s obvious unseriousness as a thinker and writer. A scholar like Mark Regnerus has done actual research on the sexual views and habits of young Americans. Ornstein’s work, by contrast, is a kind of pop sociology, which mainly collects the thoughts she had while attending a few college parties and chatting up the sons of some of her friends. She notes in passing that her interview subjects are mostly privileged college students or college-bound high schoolers. Ostensibly, this is because privileged boys are trend-setters and thus important to understand. One could think of other reasons why she might have decided to focus on her own social sphere. In every way, this writer comes across as lazy and complacent, and even if she weren’t constantly showering us with her progressive views, it would obviously be a mistake to treat this volume as serious research.

There’s also something genuinely creepy about the way Ornstein steps into the lives of her male interviewees, posing as a sympathetic parental-type figure but offering no helpful guidance. If her own accounts of her interviews can be trusted, she was anything but professionally detached. In a few instances she actually keeps in touch with boys as they transition from high school to college, lurking in the background of their young lives like a feminist Jiminy Cricket. 

Having said that, she deserves this admission at least: she does actually seem to care about the state of American boys. It’s remarkable, in fact, how frank she is about the surprise she experiences in discovering that the boys she talks to are multi-dimensional human beings with feelings, who are genuinely struggling to figure out how to be good men. She has much to say about the defects of locker-room culture, but she also notices that the ambient culture more broadly makes it terribly difficult for boys to grasp what adult maturity requires. She wants boys to “respect women,” but it turns out they’re already well aware of that requirement. It may be that Ornstein herself has some uncertainty about what it means.

The chapter on pornography is particularly eye-opening on this point. Ornstein comments on the way that porn initiates young men into an addictive sexual nether-world which distorts their sensibilities and undermines their ability to relate to actual women. No one (especially a parent) wants to talk to boys about the complexities of sexual desire and healthy relationships, and Ornstein sees how problematic it is to throw young men into the jungle of youth hook-up culture without ever having taught them to handle themselves appropriately.

In short, it is clear to Ornstein that society at large is failing young men. We are chastising them for their failures without giving them the positive formation they would need to succeed. In certain eerie moments, it almost feels as though Boys and Sex is channeling Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility, yearning for a world in which young people are given the moral formation they need to forge lasting, intimate bonds, which almost everyone truly desires.

What Is to Be Done?

It’s exciting to see these realizations through the eyes of a liberal. Maybe conservatives can find common ground, even with a doctrinaire, progressive feminist? Then the page turns, and the vision passes. It’s painfully obvious that a sex-positive libertine like Ornstein really can’t recommend much of anything that might help boys. Pornography may be poisoning them (to the point where some actually require performative violence in their sex play even to experience arousal) but clearly, we can’t morally disapprove of other people’s sexual practices. Incredibly, she even seems to think that parents overstep their authority when they restrict porn for their own teenaged children. It’s a ludicrous position, which is nevertheless admirably consistent with her own consent-based sexual morals.

To Ornstein, authentic sexual expression is an entitlement (perhaps even shading into an obligation), right up to the point where someone else is coerced into participating in an unwelcome way. Since pornography is typically consumed in solitude, it is difficult to see how it would fail the consent test. Consensual hook-ups are obviously allowed. Boys may be struggling, but there’s very little we can do for them, beyond giving them books with “complex female characters” and hoping against hope that they might prefer those to the babes in the centerfold.

Revanchist reactions against feminism may reflect a deep appreciation of a more genuine femininity, but they may also be laced with chauvinism or misogyny.

Ornstein knows already that formulaic fixes have limited efficacy if we really wish to curb exploitative sexual behavior. Her past works have discussed how “safe sex” campaigns persuaded many young people to favor oral and anal sex as effective natural strategies for preventing unwanted pregnancy. Boys and Sex also includes the remarkable story of a boy who has made himself into a kind of affirmative-consent pick-up artist. Some people laughed at California’s “yes means yes” strategy, thinking that an ongoing interrogation seeking approval for every move would make for some awkward dates. This young man disagrees. “Affirmative consent is so hot,” he tells Ornstein. He loves fishing for a woman’s enthusiastic approbation at each stage of the game. Once again, Ornstein recognizes the implications of the story: Cads can easily exploit the affirmative consent process to manipulate women. Once again though, she has nothing useful to suggest.

For all her irritating qualities, Ornstein may really have done a service by writing Boys and Sex. Her sex-positive dogma is obtuse, but she is helping to convince fellow progressives that boys need more help and guidance. Conservatives will rightly scoff at her refusal even to consider that parental discipline is a necessary aspect of a healthy comportment towards sex. To them, it will seem obvious that the deep pathologies of our sex-saturated culture should be read as signposts, pointing us back towards a more traditional cultural ethos. Sexual desire must be disciplined and ultimately sublimated into a larger, productive role, usually as a husband and father. Unless or until that happens, young men will take advantage of women. A nice demeanor will not help. Neither will feminist messaging, which does nothing to help boys make sense of their own sexual appetites (and frustrations).

As a religious conservative myself, I basically share this view. Nevertheless, this mother of boys would caution against overconfidence. There may be some truth to both left-wing and right-wing narratives concerning the development of boys. No woman who has engaged with men in conservative political fora could possibly labor under the delusion that traditionalism reliably breeds gentlemen.

Even if we agree that sex is naturally ordered towards marriage and parenthood, we should still be aware of the dangers of clinging too tightly to cultural arrangements that may be outdated, or simply unjust. Revanchist reactions against feminism may reflect a deep appreciation of a more genuine femininity, but they may also be laced with chauvinism or misogyny. Sometimes conservatives argue for traditional family life because they have a pure and unselfish desire to build a flourishing, family-friendly society where men and women can rejoice in their complementary differences. But this argument may also provide a front for grasping entitlement or a resentful refusal to adapt to changing circumstances. There is no getting around the basic reality that manly virtue is hard. No meme, talking point, or 12-step program can reliably deliver results, and every society has had a certain number of failed (toxic?) men.

It is right and reasonable for parents to look on their boys with a certain amount of fear and trembling. At the same time, we should not despair. Boys are deeply attracted to heroism. They thrill to stories of noble suffering. From earliest childhood, boys seem to be spoiling for an honorable fight. There is a profound beauty in a boy’s struggle to attain adult maturity, and for parents, this should be a source of hope. Our society may be hard on young men, but on the bright side, a challenge can be exciting for boys. Certainly, there is plenty of work in this world for honorable men to do.

For liberals sympathetic to Ornstein’s perspective, it’s worth encouraging further reflection on the points that she raises. What specific qualities do we value in boys? How might we foster the development of those qualities? Is it possible to channel boys’ aggressive or sexual impulses in healthier ways, enabling boys to take pleasure in their masculinity? What lessons or experiences might help boys distinguish between good leadership and unjust domination?

Ornstein can’t tell us how to raise boys into virtuous men. Still, if she can inspire a few more people to care about the problem, she may have done the world a service.