'Boys & Sex' Reveals That Young Men Feel 'Cut Off From Their Hearts'

Jan 7, 2020
Originally published on January 10, 2020 1:58 pm

Editor's note: This interview contains a homophobic slur.

Author Peggy Orenstein knows that talking to your son about sex isn't easy: "I know for a lot of parents, you would rather poke yourself in the eye with a fork than speak directly to your son about sex — and probably he would rather poke himself in the eye with a fork as well," she says.

But we don't have "the luxury" to continue avoiding this conversation, she says. "If we don't talk to our kids, the media is going to educate them for us, and we are not going to love the result."

Orenstein spent 25 years chronicling the lives of adolescent and teen girls and never really expected to focus on boys. But then came the #MeToo movement, and Orenstein, whose previous books include Girls & Sex and Cinderella Ate My Daughter, decided it was time to engage young men in conversations about gender and intimacy.

Her new book, Boys & Sex, is based on extensive interviews with more than 100 college and college-bound boys and young men of diverse backgrounds between the ages of 16 and 22.

"When I was doing the girl book, the kind of core issue with girls was that they were being cut off from their bodies and not understanding their bodies' response and their needs and their limits and their desires," she says. "With boys, it felt like they were being cut off from their hearts."

Orenstein notes that society doesn't often give boys "permission or space" to discuss their interior lives. Maybe that's why the young men she spoke to were so eager to open up: "When they had the chance [to talk], when somebody really gave it to them and wasn't going to be judgmental about what they had to say, they went for it."

Orenstein says the boys she spoke with felt constrained by traditional notions of masculinity. One interviewee confided that he preferred to partner with girls for school projects because, "It was OK to say you didn't know what you were doing with a girl, and you couldn't do that with a guy."

"That idea of emotional vulnerability was so profound for boys," Orenstein says. "Vulnerability is basically essential to human relationships, so when you cut boys off from the ability to be vulnerable, you're doing them a huge disservice."


Interview highlights

On how boys described an "ideal" man to her

They saw girls as equals and deserving of their place on the playing field and in class and in leadership, and they had female friends. So that had really changed. But I would ask them all the time to just give me a kind of lightning round of the ideal guy. And when we would do that, it was like they were channeling 1955. It was still all about stoicism, sexual conquest, dominance, aggression — or this weird combination of being both aggressive and chill — athleticism, wealth. It was really narrow. And they would talk a lot, particularly about ... suppressing feelings. And a lot of guys would say to me that they had figured out ... how to build a wall inside to block off any feelings except, maybe, happiness and anger. They would talk about training themselves not to feel or training themselves not to cry.

On boys' use of homophobic epithets, such as f**

Boys used that word, that epithet for a gay person, a lot with each other. But what they would say to me — this is straight boys talking — is that they would never say that to a gay person. That they had gay friends, that they weren't homophobic, but they use that word all the time. And it had become basically a slur on masculinity, not so much a statement of sexual orientation. But I think that word — that slur for gay — is what kind of draws the lines of the "man" box for boys.

And it is basically the fear of being called [that] that shuts down any objection to stepping up and standing out. So it polices boys, basically. And I also was really interested in "#nohomo." C.J. Pascoe, who is a sociologist in Oregon, had done a survey of the way boys use that hashtag on Twitter. And it wasn't just a homophobic slur. It was also a protective shield that allowed them to express just really basic human ideas about affection and joy. So they would say, like, "I miss you, man. #nohomo," or even something as innocuous as, "I like chocolate ice cream. #nohomo." It was just a way that allowed them to be fully human.

On how Internet porn has affected boys

What they're getting in porn is a really distorted vision of what human sexuality is. They see image after image of sex as something men do to women, of female pleasure as a performance for male satisfaction, of distorted bodies — of a whole lot of things that frankly wouldn't feel very good to most people. And without discussion with parents and without discussion by schools, that's becoming the de facto sex educator for a lot of kids. ...

One thing that research shows is that [porn] actually reduces their satisfaction in their partnered relationships. So they feel less satisfied with their partners' bodies, with their own bodies, with their own performance. So right there, something to talk to boys about is, "It's not going to be doing any favors once you get into the actual bedroom." But it affects their ideas about what women should look like. It affects their ideas about how women should behave. It affects their ideas of what acts should be performed and the way that those acts should be performed. One of the boys [told] me that his girlfriend was a curvy African American girl, and he said that having spent hours and hours and hours looking at and reacting to what he called "all those skinny white women," that he had a hard time being aroused by her body. And that was really disturbing him.

On the ambiguity of the term "hookup"

"Hookup" is an intentionally ambiguous term. It can mean anything. It might mean kissing. It might mean oral sex. It might mean intercourse. And, in truth, when you look into the research, about a third of college hookups fall into each of those categories. But that ambiguity allows young people to vastly overestimate what their peers are doing. And then that can actually trigger a kind of anxiety and fear of missing out, or expectation of what you are supposed to be doing, that can make you engage in sex that maybe you don't want to have, or push harder than you might otherwise push.

On learning that gay boys are better at communicating consent than straight boys

That was something that was a big surprise and a big takeaway for me — that gay boys were so much more willing and able and capable [of negotiating] the terms of their sexual experiences with their partners. And that's partly because they sort of have to, because what's going to happen is not necessarily obvious. But they were always so befuddled by the resistance among straight guys to doing that — if we're talking about it, it means we're going to have sex. And that's great. Why would you think that was a bad thing? ...

If we don't talk to our kids [about sex], the media is going to educate them for us, and we are not going to love the result. - Peggy Orenstein

What Dan Savage, who is a columnist who writes about sex talk, says is, there are four magic words that gay guys use in a sexual encounter: "What are you into?" And the beauty of that phrase is that it's a truly open-ended question. It's not a yes or a no to a set of possibilities that is predetermined or decided by the other person, but it's a conversation. And that's ultimately what one is aiming for in this whole discussion of consent — to make sex a conversation that people can have not just for the legality of it, but so that it will be a more mutually gratifying experience for everybody involved.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Deborah Franklin adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Peggy Orenstein, is the author of the new book "Boys & Sex: Young Men On Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, And Navigating The New Masculinity." It's a follow-up to her book "Girls & Sex." She's been chronicling girls' lives for about 25 years, including in her earlier books "Schoolgirls," "Don't Call Me Princess" and "Cinderella Ate My Daughter." She never expected to be writing about boys. But after the #MeToo movement and revelations of widespread sexual misconduct, including the now-infamous list of famous men, she thought it was time to engage young men in conversations about gender and intimacy. Her book "Boys & Sex" is based on extensive interviews with over 100 college and college-bound aged 16 to 22. Heads up to parents of young children. Like the book title says, we're going to be talking about teenagers and sex. But there's nothing explicit.

Peggy Orenstein, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Was it harder for you to talk about sex with boys than it was to talk about sex with girls?

PEGGY ORENSTEIN: Well, my biggest fear with boys actually was that they wouldn't talk at all. You know, they don't - teenage boys don't exactly have a reputation for chattiness. And I was surprised. And maybe the biggest surprise for me in doing the whole project was how eager they were to talk. And while I thought it would be maybe awkward or that they wouldn't want to talk to a woman, that proved not to be true at all. And they were super candid. They were super blunt. They talked a lot about what boys don't usually talk about - feelings. And I think the reason was that we just don't give boys permission or space to discuss their interior lives and talk about what's going on with them. So when they had the chance, when somebody really gave it to them and wasn't going to be judgmental about what they had to say, they went for it.

GROSS: So, you know, you write that feminism has given girls an escape from the constraints of conventional femininity. But for boys, the traditional concept of manhood still holds sway. I want you to explain the difference that you found between girls and boys in trying to escape from the constraints of gender roles and gender preconceptions.

ORENSTEIN: Yeah. I mean, with boys, on one hand, they saw girls as equals and deserving of their place on the playing field and in class and in leadership. And they had female friends. So that had really changed. But I would ask them all the time to just give me a kind of lightning round of the ideal guy. And when we would do that, it was like they were channeling 1955. And it was still all about stoicism, sexual conquest, dominance, aggression or this weird combination now of being both aggressive and chill, athleticism, wealth. It was really narrow. And they would talk a lot particularly about that piece of suppressing feelings. And a lot of guys would say to me that they had learned how to build a wall inside them to block off any feelings except maybe happiness and anger.

And they would talk about training themselves not to feel or training themselves not to cry. That was actually really big one. And it took me a while - and again, I think this was being a woman - to recognize what they were saying to me when they would tell me how - you know, about times they had cried or times they almost cried - like, how big that was for them and how hard that was for them. So one of the guys...

GROSS: It was humiliating for them, if that...

ORENSTEIN: It was humiliating, yeah. And I think - and that's a really good point because I think a lot of what the boys were wrestling with or were struggling with - it was about humiliation. But it was also about - really about vulnerability and the kind of imperative that they not make themselves vulnerable, whether it was in a hookup or whether it was with other guys. One guy talked to me about how he liked to partner with girls in school projects because it was OK to say you didn't know what you were doing with a girl, and you couldn't do that with a guy.

But that idea of of emotional vulnerability was so profound for boys. And we know that vulnerability is basically essential to human relationships. So when you cut boys off from the ability to be vulnerable, you're doing them a huge disservice. And I started thinking, you know, when I was doing the girl book that the kind of core issue with girls was that they were being cut off from their bodies and not understanding their bodies' response and their needs and their limits and their desires. And with boys, it felt like they were being cut off from their hearts. And that was having a huge impact on how they conducted personal relationships and what was available to them in personal relationships.

GROSS: For boys who talked with you about that, where did they think that inability to cry without humiliation or the inability to access or express feelings - where did they think it came from? Pop culture? The way they were brought up by your parents?

ORENSTEIN: I mean, all of that, right? I mean, certainly, the media barrage them with that idea of male sexual entitlement and female sexual availability and submission. But yeah, their dads. I mean, they talked a lot about their dads or the - you know, the male role model in their lives. And it wasn't just guys who said, you know, my dad told me to man up or don't be a little bitch or something like that. It was also a lot of guys who would say things like, you know, my dad was a loving, charismatic guy. I didn't learn sexism or homophobia from him, but I did learn that stunted side of masculinity because he was sort of a sigh and walk away kind of guy, not the person who'd talk to you about something. So I learned not to have those conversations from him.

GROSS: So you talked with boys who understood feminism, who, you know, kind of got it, like, intellectually but didn't necessarily behave that way. They were afraid to object if they saw other boys behaving in a very sexist way or, you know, trying to be too aggressive with a woman at a party. They were afraid to intervene in that, afraid to alienate male friends who were, like, speaking in an obnoxious way about girls or behaving badly. So can you explain that that disconnect between having certain beliefs but not being able to act on them sometimes?

ORENSTEIN: That pressure to silence was so intense for boys. I always think about this one guy who was telling me that when he was a sophomore in high school, he tried to stand up when he was on crew team to a senior who was saying, you know, something despicable about girls. And the other guys mocked him, and he had done this with a friend. And next time it happened, the friend stood up, but the boy I was talking to stayed silent. And he said to me the more I watched my friend stand up to this, the more I saw other guys not like him as much and not respect him as much. And so he lost all his social capital by doing that, whereas I was sitting there still having buckets of social capital but not using it. And he looked at me, and he said, you know, I don't want to have to choose between my dignity and being part of this team. But how do I make it so I don't have to choose?

And that was a real central conundrum to guys - that part of what makes you a man is bragging about sexual conquest and that whole idea of, you know, locker room banter, which we now know is a thing. So when guys are together, the way they're supposed to talk about sex - you know, they pound the hammer. They nail. They smash. They bang. It's like they just visited a construction site, not like they engaged in an act of intimacy.

And that could be really troubling to a lot of guys. But the cost on - you know, you can become a target if you stand up to that. You can be marginalized if you stand up to that. So there is a lot of pressure to stay silent if you're not going to engage in it. And that silence in itself is kind of how boys become men.

GROSS: At the risk of stating the obvious, if you're using the kind of assaultive language - you know, like I slammed her or hammered - what are the odds you're going to behave in a tender way when you're actually with a woman? (Laughter).

ORENSTEIN: (Laughter). Well, yes, there's that. And the other piece of it was - that also played into that - I became really interested in this whole idea of the word hilarious and funny and the ways that boys use that to deflect when they feel that something is inappropriate or aggressive or reprehensible or when they get sent a really raunchy or violent pornographic meme because hilarious was this default position. Like, you're always safe in terms of that masculinity issue. Nobody is going to target you. Nobody is going to mock you if you just say hilarious.

But that's another way that boys' hearts and heads get disconnected. It's another way that they can't actually express what they know to be true. And it's another way that they learn to dehumanize women and potentially their female partners.

So at the really far end of that continuum, I noticed that in some of the high-profile sexual assault cases, like Steubenville, there was a video where the guy is saying - one of the boys is saying, yeah, rape's not funny; rape's hilarious. So in order for something to be hilarious, you have to completely disconnect from the humanity and the empathy that you might feel for the other person.

GROSS: I think - you know, like, women and LGBTQ people have really made a point of, you know, stating really loudly in so many different platforms, in so many different ways that it's not good to use words describing anything female-related, female body parts, or gay-related or derogatory words for any of the above - to use those as a way of insulting a man 'cause it's a way also of insulting a girl or a woman or somebody who is LGBTQ. How much of that has actually penetrated into the culture of teenage boys - the culture of the boys who you interviewed and wrote about in your book?

ORENSTEIN: Well, so - it was really interesting because, on one hand, boys used that word - that epithet for gay - a lot with each other. But what they would say to me - this is straight boys talking - is the idea that they would - they would never say that to a gay person - right? - that they had gay friends; you know, they weren't homophobic. But they used that word all the time. And it had become basically a slur on masculinity, not so much a statement of sexual orientation.

But I think that word - that slur for gay - is what kind of draws the lines of the man box for boys. And it - basically, the fear of being called that shuts down any objection to, you know, stepping up and standing out. So it polices boys basically.

And I also was really interested in no homo. C.J. Pascoe, who's a sociologist in Oregon, had done a survey of the way boys use that hashtag on Twitter. And it wasn't just a homophobic slur. It was also a protective shield that allowed them to express just really basic human ideas about affection and joy. So they would say, like - I miss you, man #nohomo - or even something as innocuous as - I like chocolate ice cream #nohomo. It was just a way that allowed them to be fully human really.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. And when we come back, we'll talk about pornography. If you're just joining us, my guest is Peggy Orenstein. She's the author of the new book "Boys & Sex: Young Men On Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, And Navigating The New Masculinity."

We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "BEAUTIFUL BOY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Peggy Orenstein. She's been writing about girls and the culture of girls for about 25 years. She's the author of the book "Girls & Sex," and now she has a follow-up book called "Boys & Sex: Young Men On Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, And Navigating The New Masculinity."

Let's talk about porn. And as you say, today's children are guinea pigs in a massive porn experiment. What do you mean by that?

ORENSTEIN: Well, since the rise of the Internet and the smartphone and particularly sites like Pornhub that pull down the paywall, they can get anything you can imagine - and a whole lot of things that frankly nobody wants to imagine - right at their fingertips. And the issue is not sex per se. You know, curiosity about sex - totally normal; masturbation - healthy, totally normal.

But what they're getting in porn is a really distorted vision of what human sexuality is. They see, you know, image after image of sex as something men do to women, of female pleasure as a performance for male satisfaction, of distorted bodies, of a whole lot of things that, you know, frankly wouldn't feel very good to most people. And without discussion with parents and without discussion by schools, that's becoming the de facto sex educator for a lot of kids.

GROSS: You found that for a lot of kids, the first exposure to porn is inadvertent. They didn't seek it out. They just saw it through somebody else.

ORENSTEIN: Yeah. So for a lot of - you know, in girls - this happens with girls, too, but more with boys. You know, some older brother or older brother's friends will, like, you know, hey, let's do the little guy a favor - and flip around a smartphone. Or they'll get sent - it's unfortunate that I can't be explicit when I'm talking about a lot of things in the book because in some ways, I want parents to really hear what precisely boys are seeing. And I do talk more precisely in the book, but I obviously can't do that here.

GROSS: And I want to share your opinion about that 'cause I, too, wish we could talk more explicitly, but that's hard to do...

ORENSTEIN: I know. It's hard to do.

GROSS: ...On a broadcast. Yeah.

ORENSTEIN: And I know it's a problem, so, you know, I am being euphemistic in some situations. And I actually really encourage parents to go take a look at some of these easy access sites because if you haven't and you still have - I don't know - like, '70s porn in your mind or something, you're really not understanding what's going on. So sometimes, you know, somebody send a middle school boy a really extreme meme, and again, the response has to be, it's hilarious, because that's the only acceptable response instead of, ew, which would be what they're really thinking. So a lot of times, yeah - or something pops up on a screen or - there's a lot of different ways that the younger end of teens will, without intending to, run across pornography. And then the sort of more intentional searches start a little bit later - more like 13, 14, 15.

GROSS: So a lot of boys start watching porn at the very beginning of their sexuality, at the beginning of puberty. And so their idea of sexuality is what's being presented to them by pornography, and as you've pointed out, some of the porn that they're probably being exposed to is very extreme and probably stuff that they wouldn't be doing with girls or that, at least, girls would not want to be doing with the boys. Based on what you've heard from the boys you've interviewed, how do you think that exposure to extreme pornography is affecting their sexual expectations of their own, you know, performance, so to speak, and what they expect to do with girls?

ORENSTEIN: Well, one thing that research shows is that it actually reduces their satisfaction in their partner relationships, so they feel less satisfied with their partners' bodies, with their own bodies, with their own performance. So right there is something to talk to boys about - is, you know, it's not going to be doing you any favors once you get into the actual bedroom. But it affects their ideas about what women should look like. It affects their ideas about women should - how women should behave. It affects their ideas of what acts should be performed and the way that those acts should be performed. One of the boys talked to me about how his girlfriend was a curvy African American girl, and he said that having spent hours and hours and hours looking at and reacting to what he called all those skinny white women - that he had a hard time being aroused by her body and that that was really disturbing him.

GROSS: Something I found really interesting was several boys told you they were having trouble performing sexually in real life because they were so attuned to what they were seeing on porn - in porn - that if that's not what they were actually doing with a girl, it didn't measure up to what they were kind of conditioned to be aroused by, and they couldn't perform.

ORENSTEIN: Yeah. And I do want to be careful to say that, you know, porn is not addictive in the classical sense, but you can condition your, especially as a young person who doesn't have other experience - condition your cycle of desire and arousal to porn. And the way that boys use it by pulling up, you know, a bunch of clips at once and toggling back and forth between them and - it creates a kind of way of doing things that is a little bit turbo-charged and doesn't always hold up in real life.

And even beyond that, you know, one of the boys that I was talking to who had been a pretty heavy porn user - we actually were talking, and we had this whole conversation about this, and he had told me things that were really wild. And I said, so when was the first time you had intercourse? And he said, Friday. And it was Tuesday, so I was like, five days ago? And he said, yeah. And he'd seen all this stuff, and then he finally gets to this point where he's having, basically, a hookup with this girl, and he can't do it. And then they get together again the next night, and he can't do it. And the third night, she says, have you ever done this before? And he admitted he hadn't. And she said, well, what did you want your first time to be like? And they ended up having this long conversation about sex and about who they were and about feelings. And, you know, voila. Suddenly, it worked. And he said, you know, I realized if I can't be emotionally and psychologically vulnerable with a girl, I can't be physically vulnerable with her either. And the body's a vulnerable thing, you know? And, you know, you can't learn that from a screen.

GROSS: My guest is Peggy Orenstein, author of the new book "Boys & Sex: Young Men On Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent And Navigating The New Masculinity." We'll talk more after a break, and David Bianculli will review tonight's sneak preview of NBC's new musical comedy series "Zoe's Extraordinary Playlist." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALPH TOWNER'S "GLORIA'S STEP")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Peggy Orenstein, author of the new book "Boys & Sex: Young Men On Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent And Navigating The New Masculinity." Before writing this book, she'd spent about 25 years reporting on girls' lives. Her new book is a follow-up to her book "Girls & Sex." A reminder to parents of young children: we're talking about teenagers and sex, and we're about to talk about porn, but there's nothing explicit in our conversation.

So you interviewed girls, teenage girls, about porn. What are some of the differences you found between the impact of porn on girls and boys?

ORENSTEIN: One thing was - I found this really interesting piece of research from Indiana University that talked about who watches porn and how much porn they watch, and they looked at parent-child pairings - so boys and their fathers, girls and their mothers. Girls watch less porn than boys, but still, a sizable percentage of them had watched it. But in both cases, teenagers watched far more porn than their parents - boys more than fathers, girls more than mothers - and they watched much harder core porn than their parents. So that boys were three times more likely to be exposed to things like porn that involved rape or porn that involved coercion, and girls were even more likely. The differential was greater between them and their mothers. So in both cases, what they're watching is probably not what their parents might think that they're watching, if their parents are aware that they're watching porn.

There was also some research that I looked at that hasn't been published yet that was looking at girls in porn that fascinated me because it showed that the age that they start watching matters and that women who were at the - who were the same age, who were in their 20s, who had started watching when they were younger as opposed to started watching when they were older were more likely to be submissive sexually and more likely to accept some of the more extreme or aggressive acts that porn depicts. So there was, I think, that idea that if you started watching before you actually engaged in real-life sexual experience, that you had more of a belief that, you know, this is just what it was, whereas if you were older and you had more experience, you might say, yeah, no. I'm not doing that. That's not real. That's a porn thing.

They hadn't yet gone through the research on guys, but they expected to see the same kind of correlation with guys and dominance. So that idea that - when girls start watching porn at a young age, it reinforces ideas of sexual submission, and with boys, sexual dominance. But for both sexes, there's been evidence that increases belief in rape myths, that it reduces stepping in in cases of assaults in terms of bystanders. And for girls, they use porn as kind of a manual to see what they think boys want.

GROSS: So it's interesting. You know, at a time when - at the time of the #MeToo movement and a growing understanding of feminism, porn is sometimes teaching the opposite.

ORENSTEIN: The opposite (laughter) - yeah, yeah.

GROSS: You know, and I think we should put in parenthetically here that porn isn't inherently bad or evil.

ORENSTEIN: Right.

GROSS: And porn can actually be, you know, like, fun and useful and even educational in a good way. So I don't want...

ORENSTEIN: Yeah. I don't want to come off as...

GROSS: ...This to sound like a prurient kind of thing. But there are real concerns that you want to share about...

ORENSTEIN: Right.

GROSS: ...The kind of porn that has become very mainstream now.

ORENSTEIN: Exactly. And I think there's a couple of other caveats that I'd want to throw out there about that. One is I'm talking about underage kids. You know, if you're an adult, watch what you want. God bless. And two is I'm talking about the porn that is the most easily accessible to young people, what they tend to watch. So there is all kinds of porn. There is feminist porn. There is queer porn. There is ethically produced porn. There is a vast array of erotic, explicit adult content out there. But much of that sort of content is still behind a paywall, and it's not what your teenage son, when he's 15 years old, is going to be going to. So the issue is what kids most easily access, what's free, what's accessible, what they can just get on their smartphones and how much of it they get and that they're getting it before they have any kind of real-life context against which to measure it.

GROSS: You suggest the porn can be very different for LGBTQ kids because it's sometimes the only realm where sex between two people of the same gender or two queer people is consistently presented.

ORENSTEIN: Yeah. And in that sense, it has become an important resource for those guys. And, I mean, I'm talking in this case about boys particularly. But it does tend to eroticize a lot of troubling dynamics, like the - you know, the coach-athlete dynamic or the teacher-student dynamic, that kind of thing. But it's another reason why it's super important for parents of gay boys or LGBTQ kids in general to educate themselves around how to talk to their children about sexual behavior that is responsible and that is mutually gratifying for them because too often, if we have any discussion about sex, it really only takes in the heterosexual perspective.

GROSS: Let's talk about hookups. One of the things you found based on your interviews about hookups is that there's a lot less intercourse than people would imagine.

ORENSTEIN: Yeah. You know, hookup is an intentionally ambiguous term. It can mean anything. It might mean kissing. It might mean oral sex. It might mean intercourse. In truth, when you look into the research, about a third of college hookups fall into each of those categories. But that ambiguity allows young people to vastly overestimate what their peers are doing, and then that can actually trigger a kind of anxiety and fear of missing out or expectation of what you are supposed to be doing. That can make you engage in sex that maybe you don't want to have or push harder than you might otherwise push.

GROSS: Most people you spoke with drank a lot before hooking up. And did they explain why they drank a lot before hooking up?

ORENSTEIN: It would be awkward if you didn't. There's a huge generational fear of awkwardness. You have to drink a lot in order to anesthetize yourself against awkwardness, in order to anesthetize yourself against connection because drinking is what establishes that a hookup is meaningless. If you engage sexually with somebody when you were sober, that would actually give it meaning. So hookup culture isn't just lubricated by alcohol, it's actually dependent on alcohol.

GROSS: And what are the problems associated, though, with the alcohol once you're together?

ORENSTEIN: Well, there's the whole range of problems. It - obviously, boys know that having sex with somebody who is too drunk to consent is assault. So there's this tricky business of finding somebody and yourself being drunk enough to want to but not too drunk to be able to say a credible yes. So that's one line that you have to walk.

But hookups in general - you know, it was interesting to me because there were both boys and girls who were into hookup culture that I talked to. But there were also both boys and girls who were not into hookup culture - and far more boys that weren't into it but were sort of going along with it than I would've imagined.

And they would say things like - and again, you know, speaking to the vulnerability issue - one of the boys said to me, you know, it's like two people having two really distinct experiences. So maybe there's not a lot of eye contact, or maybe you don't even talk to each other. And it's like you're acting vulnerable without being vulnerable with somebody that you don't know very well or care very much about. And he said, you know, it's not necessarily that that's a problem. But it's weird, and it's actually not very fun.

GROSS: Was that a general thing that you found that people thought - that hooking up turned out to not be fun?

ORENSTEIN: Yeah. Just about any conversation I have had with either girls or boys about hookup culture devolves into them telling me why they don't like it. So it's not that they - you know, as one guy said, you know, casual sex can really be fun, but sometimes you forget to treat your partner like a human being. I think that's a big issue - that there's a sort of dehumanization that goes on in that culture that makes everybody feel kind of ambivalent or unhappy with it.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. My guest is Peggy Orenstein. And after writing a book about girls and sex, she's written a new book called "Boys & Sex Young Men On Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, And Navigating The New Masculinity."

We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE MASON'S "THE STRANGER IN THE MIRROR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Peggy Orenstein. And after writing about girls - teenage girls, young girls - for about 25 years, she has a new book about boys called "Boys & Sex: Young Men On Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, And Navigating The New Masculinity."

You write that you were struck by how much more willing and able queer boys were than straight ones to negotiate sexual consent. What were some of the differences you found?

ORENSTEIN: Yeah, that was something that was a big surprise and a big takeaway for me, was that gay boys were so much more willing and able and capable to negotiate the terms of their sexual experiences with their partners. And that's partly because, you know, they sort of have to because what's going to happen is not necessarily obvious.

But they were always so befuddled by the resistance among straight guys to doing that because they would say, you know, if we're talking about it, it means, you know, we're going to have sex, and that's great. Why would you think that was a bad thing? So listening to them was really educational and I think was really useful for straight kids.

And what Dan Savage, who is a columnist who writes about sex, says is there are four magic words that gay guys use in a sexual encounter, which is - what are you into? And the beauty of that phrase is that it's a truly open-ended question. It's not a yes or a no to a set of possibilities that is predetermined or decided by the other person. But it's a conversation. And that's ultimately what one is aiming for in this whole discussion of consent, is to make sex a conversation that people can have, both - you know, not just for the legality of it but so that it will be a more mutually gratifying experience for everybody involved.

GROSS: You have a whole chapter about, how can we raise boys to be better men? What do you mean by better men? And what are some of the suggestions that you have?

ORENSTEIN: When you talk about better men, you know, I think it's a really exciting task - and - to be able to raise guys who are compassionate and egalitarian and respectful of boundaries and capable of connection and vulnerability and love and who can sustain relationships and who are happier and more fulfilled themselves. You know?

And writing that chapter was really interesting for me because, in the past in my books, I have, in a final chapter, I always profiled somebody or gone into some situation that would sort of exemplify the values or ideas that I was trying to get across. But I have now been writing about teenagers and sex for nine years. And I felt like I could come out behind the curtain a little bit and have a little more to say and talk about the ways that having these conversations, which I know for a lot of parents you would rather poke yourself in the eye with a fork than speak directly to your son about sex - and probably, he would rather poke himself in the eye with a fork as well. But we really don't have the luxury in this current culture of silence - because if we don't talk to our kids, the media is going to educate them for us, and we are not going to love the result.

GROSS: So your new book is about boys and sex; your previous book was about girls and sex - and we're talking about teenagers. And you've also been very alert to the #MeToo movement. And I'm wondering how the combination of all of that, if that's led you to recalculate some of your own teenage experiences and your experiences in your 20s - and if you've reinterpreted some of the experiences that you've had.

ORENSTEIN: I think we all have. I was actually just having this conversation yesterday with a friend and her college-aged daughter about this. And my friend was saying, do you think it's really worse now than it was when we were young? And I said, well, there's so many things that we just accepted as the price of admission as women when we were younger.

I found a notebook that I had from a college English class where I was writing notes back and forth with a friend about another friend who had gone over to a male professor's house. And he had essentially attempted to assault her. And my response was not - oh, my gosh, you know, we have to report this guy or, you know, this is totally unacceptable. My friend and I were writing back and forth about this other girl and saying, what did she think was going to happen if she went alone to a professor's house? I told her not to do that. Well, what did she expect? You know?

I mean, that was just the orientation back then, was that it was on us as girls, again, not to be assaulted as opposed to being on men not to assault.

GROSS: Your daughter is in her late teens, right?

ORENSTEIN: She's 16.

GROSS: So did writing about boys and sex make you worry more about your daughter?

(LAUGHTER)

ORENSTEIN: We have a policy that I no longer talk about my daughter in public, so I can't really say too much about her. But I will say this - having done these two books has allowed me to learn how to have these conversations. And my daughter and I talk in ways that I never would have dreamed of talking with my own parents and that, in some ways, I never would have dreamed I would have been able to talk like with my own daughter. So it has been a real boon to me as a parent to do this work because I learned how to do it. And I think that ultimately, she will benefit by that. I can see her benefiting by that.

GROSS: Peggy Orenstein, thank you so much for talking with us.

ORENSTEIN: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Peggy Orenstein is the author of the new book "Boys & Sex: Young Men On Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, And Navigating The New Masculinity."

After a break, our TV critic David Bianculli will review tonight's sneak preview of NBC's new musical comedy series "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist." This is FRESH AIR.

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