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Good Is Good: Do Teen Boys Want Love, Not Sex?

Thursday, April 12, 2012


Tom Matlack is the former CFO of the Providence Journal and is the founder of The Good Men Project, a non-profit charitable corporation based in Rhode Island and dedicated to helping organizations that provide educational, social, financial, and legal support to men and boys at risk.

Amy T. Schalet is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the author of Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex. She has an interesting op-ed in The New York Times that begins:

“WHY are boys behaving more “like girls” in terms of when they lose their virginity? In contrast to longstanding cultural tropes, there is reason to believe that teenage boys are becoming more careful and more romantic about their first sexual experiences.”

Historically boys have reported loosing their virginity far earlier than girls. Self reporting has always been suspect because boys are pressured to prove that they are “studs” and girls to deny that they are “sluts,” a double whammy for both genders that does plenty to distort an already very confusing teenage sexual landscape. I admit that there were times as a young man that I did not tell the truth with regard to my sex life.

And I’m sure I am not alone.

If you pay attention to popular media on the topic of teenage sexuality, you could easily come to the conclusion that this issue has gotten worse not better. The “hook-up” culture castes men in the role of sexual beast with no capacity or desire for emotional intimacy and young women as the powerless victims who must get their sexual needs met in one-off encounters with no strings attached despite their deep seated desire for romance of a more enduring variety. That, at least, is the popular story told about kids these days.

According to Professor Schalet nothing could be further from the truth when you actually look at the data.

"The proportion of all American adolescents in their mid-teens claiming sexual experience has decreased, and for boys the decline has been especially steep, according to the National Survey of Family Growth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, though more than half of unmarried 18- and 19-year-olds have had sexual intercourse, fewer than 30 percent of 15- to 17-year-old boys and girls have, down from 50 percent of boys and 37 percent of girls in 1988. And there are virtually no gender differences in the timing of sexual initiation."

Sexual education certainly has a role. Boys are a lot more aware than they used to be about the perils of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. But there is something deeper going on here. Something that cuts to the very core of the male psyche and the misconception that we are, from our very birth, nothing more than phallic symbols with no brian…and no heart.

"In a large-scale survey and interviews, reported in the American Sociological Review in 2006, the sociologist Peggy Giordano and her colleagues found teenage boys to be just as emotionally invested in their romantic relationships as girls.

The American boys I interviewed, having grown up in a culture that often assumes males are only out to get sex, were no less likely than Dutch boys to value relationships and love. In fact, they often used strong, almost hyper-romantic language to talk about love. The boy whose condom broke told me the most important thing to him was being in love with his girlfriend and “giving her everything I can.”

Such romanticism has largely flown under the radar of American popular culture. Yet, the most recent research by the family growth survey, conducted between 2006 and 2010, indicates that relationships matter to boys more often than we think. Four of 10 males between 15 and 19 who had not had sex said the main reason was that they hadn’t met the right person or that they were in a relationship but waiting for the right time; an additional 3 of 10 cited religion and morality."

I have a teenage daughter. Without naming names or embarrassing her, she has had a devoted boyfriend for the last two years. I have seen the texts. The kid puts my attempts at romance to shame when I was his age.

But my instincts even as a young man were very much the same as his. Sure I was intoxicated by the female form. That is hardwired into the reproductive instinct in us as animals. But we are not animals. Even us males. We are human beings with souls that cry out to be nourished by poetry and lingering dinner dates and the look in the eye of our beloved. The idea that sex for sex sake is the goal–especially to prove your “studliness”–is a losing argument hammered into us as men with no grounding in actual experience.

It seems like our boys may just be setting themselves free of the need to prove anything, to lie about their sex lives, or try to give up their virginity as part of some sick scorecard. Maybe, just maybe, our boys are a lot more sensitive than we are giving them credit.

For more of Tom's works, as well as other pieces on related topics, go to The Good Men Project Magazine online, here.

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