“The proportion of all American adolescents in their mid-teens claiming sexual experience has decreased, and for boys the decline has been especially steep,” writes Amy Schalet in her excellent New York Times article about boys becoming sexually active later than expected. It’s a timely conversation about modern young men, one that’s also going on at Sociological Images. Schalet is the author of “Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex,” which looks at the differences between how American and Dutch parents regulate their childrens’ sexual lives. When I asked Schalet about the Times article, she told me that she “didn’t intend to parse and posit the exact contribution of the different causal forces, but to suggest various things that may have played a role, and especially to challenge the existing stereotypes about boys.”
It got me wondering what else might be playing a role in this trend and what additional questions this trend might raise:
Are guys really becoming sexual later, or are they lying about their sexual status less than they used to? Despite popular culture presenting a fairly homogenous image of young men as walking hormonal horn-dogs and aspiring players and pimps, reality looks much more nuanced and complex. For several years I’ve been immersed in issues around virginity and I’ve heard from so many young men who would rather have sex for the first time within a caring relationship. I also hear from the men in their 20s and 30s and far beyond who haven’t yet become sexually active. Are the pressures exerted by media images of masculinity becoming less powerful, allowing men to present a more authentic version of their own masculinity? As Schalet points out in her story: “Their liberation from rigid masculinity norms should be seen as a victory for the very feminist movement that Rush Limbaugh recently decried.”
The CDC published a widely reported study in 2011 showing that 27 percent of men and 29 percent of women ages 15 to 24 had never had any sexual contact with anyone—up from 22 percent for both genders in 2002. Interestingly, they felt they had gotten especially honest responses because young people gave their histories to tape recorders, and not directly to the interviewers.
Do young men delay sex because of an informed concern over sexual health, or total ignorance at how sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy can be prevented? In her story, Schalet goes on to say that ‘romance’ isn’t really the main reason given for delaying sex, but rather it’s the terror of getting STIs or becoming an unplanned daddy. Given how shitty our sex ed is and how prevalent abstinence-until-marriage programs are, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of teen guys don’t quite get that you can have various kinds of sex, and not get pregnant or become infected with something awful. The fact that most young men are getting sexual information from porn, performance anxiety or concerns over body image wouldn’t be surprising either.
Does the fact that boys are going against stereotype have any impact on how girls who are openly sexually active are perceived? That is, those who aren’t adhering to their own stereotypes? Even if guys are choosing to become sexual later, they still are judged completely differently for their choices. Schalet references the slut/stud division, which has not changed one bit. Listen to any conservative commentator and you can hear it loud and clear in our culture, and only a much larger re-thinking of the ‘consequences’ of women’s sexuality is going to change that.
Are boys really losing their virginity more “like girls”? When Schalet opened her article with the sentence: “Why are boys behaving more ‘like girls’ in terms of when they lose their virginity?” she was likely being provocative, rather than making a statement of fact. But it does invite some conversation about what it would mean for guys to truly be losing their virginity more “like girls” (in hetero-land, by the way). Here’s a list of some of the issues a girl might have to consider when she has intercourse for the first time:
Confusion over how to respond to mixed messages that tell her to look sexy but not actually desire sexual pleasure; guilt from authority figures telling her she’s now dirty and no one will love her; little to no actual pleasure in the sex act; possible pain and bleeding; fear that her partner might overpower her and engage in non-consensual acts; STIs; and the biggest issue of them all: fear of pregnancy.
I’m not saying that having sex for the first time is uniformly awful or dangerous. It can be lovely or just meh. What I’m getting at is that for women it’s heavily freighted with things a young man will likely not have to consider or experience. That said, I agree with Schalet’s response to my list: “While it’s important to point at the contradictory pressures females face, boys face different pressures and those gender pressures are exaggerated in the US.”
She added that “feeling fear and love are not just the prerogative of girls, as popular culture–and some scholarship–suggests.” Which is great news especially in one crucial area: Pregnancy and STIs. Here’s to a world where that fear is healthy and educated, and where young men and women shoulder that responsibility together.
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Therese Shechter is raising money to finish her documentary “How to Lose Your Virginity.” You can watch the trailer and support the project at http://kck.st/GTtgMY. The film has reached almost half of its $35,000 goal, but it needs to be fully funded by May 9th or the filmmakers get nothing.
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