How do young men feel about date rape and consent? While young women have become increasingly vocal about the need for clear consent to sex, guys may have mixed feelings. Some are fully on board with wanting to treat women with respect and making sure a potential partner is ready for sexual activity. Yet guys are immersed in a locker room culture that says things like “No means Yes, and Yes means anal.” They’re pressured to demonstrate their masculinity by having multiple, casual partners. Where does that leave guys? Often, conflicted and confused.
I believe that most young men are basically decent. They might be glad to have sex with a willing partner, but they don’t want to sexually assault anyone. They’re upset by the message that guys should get sex by any means—but social pressures can make it difficult to admit that.
In her excellent book Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, Peggy Orenstein identifies the language young men use to express their discomfort. When they witness coercive sexual behavior that many people would find appalling (if not criminal), the word they use may be “hilarious.”
“’Hilarious,’” Orenstein writes, “seemed to be the default position for some boys—something like ‘awkward’ for girls—when they were unsure of how to respond, particularly to something that was both sexually explicit and dehumanizing, something that perhaps actually upset them, offended them, unnerved them, repulsed them, confused them, or defied their ethics. ‘Hilarious’ offered distance, allowing them to look without feeling, to subvert a more compassionate response that might be read as weak, overly sensitive, and unmasculine. ‘Hilarious’ is particularly disturbing as a safe haven for bystanders—if assault is ‘hilarious,’ they don’t have to take it seriously, they don’t have to respond: there is no problem.”
I think Orenstein’s observation is accurate and useful. Most of the guys who are rattled by degrading sexual acts and images are decent young men—who could benefit from adult guidance on their mixed feelings.
Parents and other adults can talk with teens about the pressures to be aggressively sexual, or to at least go along when other guys are. We can invite them to explore their own reactions and the values they reveal. We can tell them it’s reasonable and healthy to be upset about assault and degradation—that their distress us a sign of morality and caring, which are also masculine virtues. Rather than hiding behind the distance of ‘hilarious,’ we can encourage them to find the strength that comes from feelings of protectiveness toward those who are vulnerable. We can tell them we hope they’ll have the courage to stand up to someone who’s taking advantage of another person.
These kinds of conversations aren’t easy. But the alternative—letting our sons’ inner decency get lost in cultural pressures—harms them and possibly those around them.