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by Peggy Orenstein
Harper, 2020
Review by Christian Perring on Dec 31st 2019

Boys & Sex

Peggy Orenstein wrote Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape in 2016. Her new book, Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity, is similar in its approach. She interviews many young men mainly in their late teens and early twenties, some experts and pundits, and she cites a fair amount of scholarly research. She combines her results into a very readable social analysis of the sexual lives of young men in the USA. Nearly all of her work up to now has been about girls and young women, with a little about parenting and especially mothering. Her tone is accessible and she makes a lot of smart points. Her attitudes are basically liberal in being non-judgmental but also being concerned for people's welfare. Most readers will learn something from this book.

The issues facing young people regarding sex are familiar and are listed in the book's subtitle. It is rape, assault and the related issues of what counts as consent and the role of drugs and alcohol that get most attention. Then there is casual sex, or hookups -- whether things are getting out of control, and whether they basically involve men using women. Sexual culture, and porn culture, becomes particularly important for those who believe that it is causing young people to behave in risky ways or is making them to have unrealistic expectations and thus feel disappointed with their lives. There are more general questions of what norms of behavior and identity young people adopt these days -- what they believe is right and what how they judge themselves and others. The old double standards for males and females are still in operation, but there are complexities to take into account. Social media and the internet also have profound effects on all our lives, and especially regarding sexuality and relationships, so we need to include them in the analysis.

Orenstein does all this with a strong emphasis on the stories of the young men she interviews, which makes the work engaging. As with Girls & Sex, she resists any general lessons and simplistic answers. Instead, she brings in several perspectives and tries to bring some clarity to the confusion, showing what claims are up for debate and what we can be confident about. While she is a journalist rather than a scientist, she is well informed about the issues and her take on controversial issues is helpful. She does not shy away from the bad behavior of young men and the associated sexist and dehumanizing attitudes that get a lot of attention from the media. But she also does not engage in blame or condemnation of young men in general.

 

© 2019 Christian Perring

 

Christian Perring teaches in NYC.