Book Review: Boys & Sex

by Peggy Orenstein (2020)

I hadn’t expected to buy this book, but its predecessor Girls & Sex (2016) was just so fucking interesting I couldn’t not. Boys & Sex doesn’t disappoint, and as far as cultural anthropology can be, it’s a real page-turner. Just like Girls & Sex, Orenstein interviews and researches high school and college-age Americans, but this time, men and trans men, regarding all things sex – from porn to consent to virginity.    

Orenstein is smart and astute in both her observation and her writing, and even if I differ (usually only very slightly) on her opinions, I appreciate her clarity and perspective on sexual culture. Her interviews and the data regarding young men are appalling and fascinating and hopeful in equal measures (and weirdly touching at times). Although part of me crosses my fingers in the hope that it is just young men in the US who are this awful, I know that is an entirely wishful thought (they are different shades of terrible everywhere). Be prepared for some truly painful and depressing perspectives on women. The major takeaway is that the young men who hold the most ignorant and misguided views miss out on so much in terms of connection and belonging, getting burned by their own toxic masculinity. 

Boys & Sex is very culturally specific to the US, so if you are outside the culture (as I am) certain things like the Greek college culture (why, oh, why. Really, why?) read like a weird, deeply misguided, social experiment, much like the chastity balls in Girls & Sex. But a majority of the other stuff, particularly from a Western standpoint, feels familiar and relevant. That being said, Orenstein’s case studies and critical commentary are focused a very small stratum of young people; American high schoolers and college-age folk, a majority of whom are white, middle-class, cis-gendered and straight men. (Although it’s worth noting there is much greater effort at diverse representation in Boys & Sex, than Girls & Sex, particularly for Black men and trans and queer folk.) The fact that it is weighted so heavily on this small but powerful demographic is not as huge a limitation as it first seems; it is just another example of white men who need rescuing from themselves, and the trouble they cause through their unfortunate domination of power.    

By far the biggest limitation of the book is not really the fault of the book its self; I want a UK version, and then I want versions of Girls & Sex and Boys & Sex from everywhere else and covering broader social demographics. And I want them written with Orenstein’s candour and deeply intelligent but consumable prose. 

Buy it for all the parents and men in your life, not just the boys. 

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