While feminism has given girls an alternative to traditional notions of femininity, “there have been no credible equivalents for boys,” Orenstein writes. “Quite the contrary: the definition of masculinity seems to be in some respects contracting.”
When I ask Orenstein to identify the biggest challenge boys face today, she paints a bleak landscape. “No one is talking to them, having real conversations and hearing about what is going on in their world. Boys are facing a lot of contradictions.”
While girls are now seen as leaders in the classroom and in professional life, little has changed in terms of the ideals of masculinity and manhood.
And when parents and sex education courses in school fail to address these challenges, boys are left with nothing but media culture as the default educators.
While Orenstein’s book focuses on her interviews with American boys and men, she says she encountered plenty of research to suggest that Britain is the same.
“There are the same issues of how guys see women, particularly when drinking, the same consent issues.” Sexting, porn and media culture are the constant diet of young British men, just as they are for their American counterparts.
While the current state of affairs may appear bleak, Orenstein devotes the final chapter of her book to practical solutions, rooted in the goal of helping boys to speak up, to express their feelings and develop healthy concepts of sex.
She calls for education on relationships – how to build and sustain respectful ones – plus fostering communication and sexual decision-making skills. By underestimating boys’ ability to engage with emotional intimacy, she argues, we give them too little outlet to talk about their feelings.
Orenstein advocates going beyond biology. “While pleasure-based sexuality education that includes practising refusal skills has been found to reduce rates of assault,” she writes, “abstinence-only programmes have not.”