Why today’s young men are terrified of sex
By Eric Spitznagel
This article is a repost which originally appeared on the NEW YORK POST
Boys will be boys, but how do they learn to be intimate with women? These days it’s often by watching porn, which can cause anxiety and insecurity.
Mason, a former college football player from suburban Milwaukee, was almost 20 years old when he lost his virginity.
It’s a story you don’t hear too often. Boys, we’re told, are having sex younger and more irresponsibly than ever. But as author Peggy Orenstein learned while doing research on her new book, “Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity” (Harper), out now, the reality can be very different.
For Mason, the simple act of kissing was something he largely avoided in high school, afraid that without enough experience he would do it wrong.
“He thought he was just supposed to know,” writes Orenstein.
Even holding hands felt like it came with the risk of humiliation.
When he went to college he met a girl, Jeannie, who invited him back to her dorm room to fool around. He wasn’t able to perform, and blamed it on the weed he’d been smoking all night.
She texted him the next day, inviting him over to try again.
“But the more he thought about it,” Orenstein writes, “the more anxious he became.”
Once again, his attempts at intimacy fizzled.
For Orenstein, who’s spent two decades writing about the sexuality of girls — with bestsellers like “Girls & Sex” and “Don’t Call Me Princess” — Mason’s predicament was difficult to take seriously at first.
Like many of us, she bought into the cultural stereotypes “that all guys are sexually insatiable,” she writes. “Ever ready, incapable of refusal, regret, or injury” — an idea that just reinforced “the most retrograde idea of masculinity.”
Over the span of two years, Orenstein spoke to hundreds of boys across the United States, ranging in age from their early teens to mid-20s and spanning all races, socioeconomic backgrounds, religious beliefs and even sexual orientations. She learned that a surprising number of them don’t live up to gender cliches — meaning they aren’t hormone-driven Frankenstein’s monsters, obsessed with sex and unconcerned with the consequences. In fact, they’re pushing back against cultural expectations, and many are going so far as to avoid sex altogether.
According to the latest data by the General Social Survey, men between the ages of 18 and 29 are having less sex than ever; the number of abstinent men has nearly tripled in the last decade, from 10 percent in 2008 to 28 percent last year.
But as Orenstein discovered, it’s a movement that exists largely in secret. Rather than declare their abstinence, they come up with excuses for their lack of sexual interest — like the college sophomore Orenstein interviewed who frequently faked “whiskey d–k” to avoid hookups, or Mitchell in Los Angeles, who avoided sex with his high-school girlfriend for years because he was terrified that his sexual ability “would just be … sufficient.”
While girls struggle to find the magic middle ground between “prude” and “slut,” boys are “pushed to be as sexually active as possible,” Orenstein writes, “to knock out their firsts regardless of the circumstances or how they felt about their partners.”
Nate, a high-school junior from the San Francisco area, is terrified of sex because he’s certain the girls in his peer group already have more experience than him. “She’s going to know how to do things and you won’t,” he told Orenstein. “That’s a problem if she tells people you’ve got floppy lips or don’t know how to get her bra off.”
He wants to have a girlfriend someday, but for now, Nate says, “I’m afraid of intimacy.”
This paralyzing fear of sexual inadequacy begins for many boys with online pornography. Sexually explicit videos have never been so easy to find — a 2018 Bitdefender study found that 22 percent of online porn is watched by kids under the age of 10 — and it’s warping their formative ideas about sex.
Mason has been watching porn since he was 14, and he claims it convinced him that a “hot woman” would just magically appear and offer herself up to him.
“That was my whole perception of how it was supposed to go,” he said.
While the boys who spoke to Orenstein admit that porn “is about as authentic as pro-wrestling,” a 2016 study from London-based Middlesex University found that 53 percent of teen boys believe that the sex acts featured in porn are mostly realistic.
“Everyone watches porn and then gets super nervous about their [penis] size,” a college sophomore from Chicago told Orenstein. “I mean, it’s brutal. Like if you’re in the locker room, you’re going to turn around and try to hide yourself, or you’re not going to change in front of other guys.”
But it’s not always porn doing the most damage. Porn may offer the most ridiculous representations of sex, but mainstream media can spread just as much misinformation, and it’s more difficult for younger audiences to separate fact from fiction.
Mason had recently been watching the David Duchovny TV comedy “Californication,” about a womanizing novelist in Los Angeles. The sexual exploits are “just slightly unrealistic,” Mason says. “Like, the main character has sex with everyone wherever he goes. They made it seem so convincing. Whereas if you were to watch a porn video where a dude comes in with his [sexual organ] in a pizza box, it’s like, ‘All right, obviously that isn’t going to happen in real life.’ ”
Everyone watches porn and then gets super nervous about their size.
– college sophomore
Dylan, 17, is a high-school junior in Northern California. He’s handsome, athletic, a straight-A student, and captain of the soccer team.
He was also, until recently, a virgin.
He had drank too much at a friend’s party and passed out on a couch. That’s where his friend Julia, who was sober, found him. She dragged Dylan, stumbling, to the bathroom and had sex with him on the floor.
The next morning, Dylan was horrified and asked Julia why she forced herself on him. “I didn’t want to do that,” he told her, insisting that he wanted his first time to be special.
“Oh, please,” she shot back. “Don’t give me that. All guys want it.”
It was a bias that even Orenstein admits to having. She was shocked by how often the boys shared stories of being on the receiving end of unwanted sex, “in which girls didn’t hear or didn’t respect ‘no,’ ” Orenstein writes.
Was it rape? The boys she interviewed weren’t sure. She recalls a college sophomore who told her of losing his virginity at 14 to a 17-year-old girl at his first high-school party.
He didn’t want to do it, he says, but was too drunk and too worried about rumors she might spread to leave.
“Like, if it’s the guy who didn’t consent,” he asked Orenstein, “what do you call that?”
According to a 2017 study at Columbia University, 80 percent of victims of sexual assault were women, but men were also being increasingly targeted, with one in eight male students reporting being coerced into non-consensual sex.
And in a 2017 study at New York University, sociologist Jessie Ford interviewed 40 straight male and female college students about their sexual experiences. Most men admitted that they would have sex even if they didn’t want to, because guys should always be “down to f–k.” Rejecting an invitation to sex was considered unmanly or “gay.”
When young men have sex forced upon them, it sends mixed signals — and makes it harder for them to understand the concept of consent altogether.
“If they can’t say no,” Orenstein writes, “how are they supposed to hear it?”
The solution for all this isn’t what most parents want to hear: They need to have a straightforward talk with their sons about sex.
“I know it’s awkward, I know it’s excruciating. I know it’s unclear where to begin,” Orenstein writes. “But this is your chance to do better.”
Mason agrees, and he can remember the exact moment where some parental intervention would’ve made a difference.
He was a teenager, sitting on the basement couch of his family’s home and browsing porn on his school-supplied iPad. His father walked in and saw what he was doing. “You shouldn’t be watching that,” his dad scolded him. “It’s bad for you.”
Mason was well aware that his father had a trove of bookmarked porn on his own computer, so he snapped back, “Don’t be a hypocrite. I’ve seen all the stuff you watch.”
His father didn’t say another word. He just turned on the TV, watched it silently with his son, and then went to bed.
“I feel he sort of failed me,” Mason told Orenstein. If he had used the opportunity to start a conversation, to tell his son, “This will skew the way you view women . . . it’s only going to keep you from interacting with girls in a healthy manner,” Mason thinks it could’ve made all the difference for him.
“But my parents were too fearful to actually deal with any of it,” he says.
Real conversations about what’s actually involved in a healthy sexual relationship can make all the difference. For Mason, it finally happened with his girlfriend Jeannie, who repeatedly tried (and failed) to seduce him.
After their third date together, in which Mason declined to have sex with her yet again, she asked him pointed questions about his anxiety, and why sex felt so scary to him.
“It felt like a storybook moment,” Mason recalled. Her openness to his insecurity and lack of sexual confidence allowed him to let his guard down. “Whatever nerves had affected me the previous times disappeared. And I realized: If I can’t be fully vulnerable, mentally and emotionally, it stops me from being able to be vulnerable physically.
“Because the naked body,” he adds, like an epiphany that’s taken his entire childhood to realize, “that’s a very vulnerable thing, you know?”