Why am I afraid to talk to girls?
The author Peggy Orenstein spoke to boys about feelings. Then she thought of locking her daughter in a room forever
Parents, especially fathers, don't care enough about their sons. She found out about this in over 100 conversations with boys. They impoverished emotionally. It is high time to talk about masculine feelings.
NZZ am Sonntag: Ms. Orenstein, what do you hear when you talk to boys about feelings and sexuality?
Peggy Orenstein: I spoke to over 100 boys for my new book. It was like talking to young bricklayers and carpenters who had just come home from the construction site.
You have to explain that to me.
When the young men talked about sex, they used verbs like hammer, nail, thrash and hit.
Why are they talking about an intimate act like building huts?
Why shouldn't they do that? Since they were little, they hear, see and experience intimacy as something negative. Sexual violence was part of boys' culture from an early age. Emotional worlds are ridiculed. Boys send each other supposedly funny texts that say: "This girl should be raped." The adults are silent about all of this. We raise our boys indifferently because we don't talk to them. This in turn decouples them from themselves and dehumanizes them.
Isn't that a bit of an exaggeration?
Parents, schools and society systematically keep boys away from their own vulnerability. And guess what? Vulnerability is a primordial human trait. Boys are banished from the start into an impoverished emotional landscape. That's what all the boys I spoke to told me. It applies to the USA and certainly also to European companies.
What are the consequences for the boys?
They are neither happy nor comfortable with it. They lack the human connection that we all long for. Researchers call one's own vulnerability a “secret sauce for healthy relationships”. If boys wither early, it is difficult for them later to have relationships that would be good for them. And it forces women to do the emotional part in relationships alone.
They say it starts with upbringing. Mothers speak more to little girls than to boys. You do this with a richer vocabulary. Fathers rarely talk to sons or daughters. Is it enough to explain: Boys lack a sensitive father?
It's more complex than that. Few boys told me that their father was an idiot or a guy who would keep telling them: "Be a man at last!" Most described their father as a loving, great guy. Hardly any father teaches his son what is known as toxic masculinity. But almost all fathers are unable to talk about feelings with their sons. Boys have told me that their fathers would rather bury themselves in the ground than address them at this level. The boys learn from their fathers to suppress their feelings.
Research shows that little boys in particular have a keen understanding of emotions and the desire for relationships. Why does it go away at the age of five or six?
Boys are vulnerable and fragile beings. But because of the lack of attention at home and in school, they learn that this page has to disappear. Numerous boys have told me that they had built a high wall around them. For many this happens in primary school, for others already at five. Usually at kindergarten age they first notice that it is unacceptable for them to emphasize their feelings - simply because they are boys. At the same time, the parents stop talking to them properly. Because of this, the boys break away from all feelings of weakness and begin to reject friendships with girls and to behave hierarchically.
They blame the silence of parents and especially of fathers for this. What should we talk to boys about?
When they are still young, about their vulnerability, later about healthy and positive sexual relationships. We have to specifically expand the male repertoire for dealing with disappointment, anger and lust. We shouldn't just say what we don't want from boys, but what we want from them. I advise parents to give their sons specific help in addressing their emotional state. It is important to give them words that they can use to express what they are feeling. Sometimes a simple sentence like: "You seem sad." Or: "That must have frustrated you!" Not a single conversation is necessary, it takes a million conversations.
Can and do boys even want to talk about intimacy and feelings?
As a reporter, I haven't spoken to them for a long time because I thought they couldn't do it anyway. They don't say more than "uh". It was a mistake. Boys have an enormous need to talk. They don't talk because we don't listen to them.
Do parents show trouble because their parents haven't spoken to them?
Yes, but for the well-being of boys we have to get over it.
Can you do that personally?
I have a teenage daughter. She told me yesterday that she was out with some great guys. She said: “It's guys who feel themselves, who can talk about their own feelings. That's why they're my friends. " But, she emphasized, that is unfortunately very rare.
We often talk about adolescent girls' self-esteem. Why don't we do that with the boys?
The boys have been forgotten. You can empower girls for as long as you want: it is not enough if the boys are disconnected. Feminism has offered girls an alternative to traditional femininity. The boys, on the other hand, have no alternative to classic masculinity. We focused on girls because we needed to empower them. But nobody thought of the importance of strengthening the boys at the same time.
"Boys don't cry" is a common phrase. Why do boys not allow tears?
Tears would reveal her vulnerable side. But boys still believe that this side is not theirs. They want to cry at the same time. You want to break this taboo without being ashamed of it. I only understood that through the conversations. Boys could cry in front of me because they trusted me. One youth said to me: "We learn not to be intimate with anyone, not to confide in anyone."
Do we train boys not to feel anything?
One guy told me he wanted to cry when his parents got divorced. But he couldn't because he had consciously taught himself not to cry. So he watched three films about the Holocaust in one weekend so that he could finally cry. That worked for him.
One of the most intimate and important human expressions is tenderness. We almost exclusively attribute them to the girls.
Neither boys nor men do we associate tenderness. It hits a person deeply if he is not allowed to be tender. Boys have very affectionate qualities. They told me they couldn't live it. What shook me.
At some point on the way from boy to youth, sexual education should take place. Mothers talk to their daughters. But who is talking to the sons?
If anyone talks to them at all, it is the mothers. But even with their daughters they don't really talk. Ultimately, nobody talks to anyone. Girls are scared, mothers emphasize risks and dangers. But everyone fails to talk about responsibility and the good things about sex. We keep silent about something that would be extremely important to adolescents: sexuality. Most parents only tell their children not to get pregnant or to contract HIV. Children know that there is a lot more involved. Our generation no longer has the luxury of silence about sex. We can no longer pretend that teenagers are not having sex. We are surrounded by a sexualized media culture that is gigantic and offers an absolutely distorted image of sex. We must finally talk openly about this.
Aren't you painting too gloomy here? Time and again, the media are blamed for the demise of young people.
We could have spent that hour of interview just talking about the aftermath of pornography. That would have given enough. But what about music? The current hit? The latest rap? He takes pornographic patterns and takes them mainstream. Even those who don't watch porn are influenced by it. One teenager told me that music influences the way he interacts with girls. Some songs give some version of the phrase "Fuck the bitch and throw her away". If you hear 10 or 20 times that you should have quick sex with a girl and then leave, you will be influenced by it.
Then he “hammers” and “nails”. Do young men have no strength to defend themselves against their own humiliating behavior?
Although they feel that their own behavior hurts them and others, almost no one opposes it. And even if they don't talk like that themselves, it is difficult for them to evade or reprimand colleagues for talking like that. They fear to be ridiculed and ostracized, to be outsiders. Boys learn early on to silence misogyny or to regard it as normal.
What kind of men are growing up who are surrounded by verbal violence and who seem to accept it?
Many young men complained to me about unsatisfactory sexual experiences. The so-called hook-up culture has developed in the USA. You have sex without an emotional connection. In the best case, they treat their partner badly and indifferently, in the worst case it comes to assaults and coercion.
Can the violence by men be traced back to the wall that boys put up around them?
The fact that boys grow up emotionally unsatisfied has real consequences. You can read it off in American statistics, in which young men far outnumber young women: in violence against themselves and others, in depression and substance abuse, in the suicide rate.
Why do young men want hook-up sex if it doesn't satisfy them?
A young man explained it to me like this: If he is with a woman he does not know well and does not particularly like, he can imagine for a moment that he is actually vulnerable, that is, that he feels himself. In doing so, he does not experience any real vulnerability.
And does he like this pretended intimacy?
He describes it as strange and far from funny. The sex is usually pretty bad. But that's not the point. With a hook-up, it is irrelevant what an adolescent experiences with a woman in a closed room. What is important is the story that he can show off publicly with afterwards. The boasting, however, fuels deep fears. Some believe that their buddies have a lot more extraordinary sex than they do themselves. That sex should be beautiful is not the point.
How does ubiquitous pornography affect this boastful behavior?
Porn existed long before the hook-up culture developed. Since the payment barriers were gone, they are ubiquitous and immediately accessible. Most boys watch porn before they hold hands for the first time, so very young. Since adults don't talk to them about sexuality, porn takes over sex education. Parents should tell their children that they want them to have a great sex life, that porn does far more harm than good.
Porn portrays a caricatured image of a man. How necessary are other images of masculinity in the media?
We are aware of the negative effects of the media on girls and their self-esteem. Parents and schools go to great lengths to paint different images of women. This has not yet been achieved everywhere, but there has been considerable progress. With the boys we don't even try to free them from common role models.
How do guys see themselves?
When I asked the young people to describe what makes an “ideal man”, they sent me back to the 1950s: They want to dominate, be aggressive, look good and strong, be tall, sexually potent, stoic and athletic. It is part of wanting to get rich. Those I spoke to were more on the liberal side of the political spectrum. On the right edge, this is likely to be even worse.
You write that boys depend on better models of masculinity. What is lacking?
Young men can fall back on numerous role models, but these are almost exclusively about power, achievement and sexual skills. Hardly any role model combines masculinity with compassion and kindness, with morality and honesty.
Teenage girls often talk about gender issues. Do the guys do that?
I'll give you an example: During the Senate confirmation hearing for Judge Brett Kavanaugh ...
... the American judge is said to have harassed several women as a teenager ...
... I asked some guys what they think about it. Almost everyone told me they had no idea about it. But every woman I know has spoken about it.
Didn't the discussion about Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo change the fact that young men follow such debates?
A staggering number of them couldn't tell me what #MeToo is, and they didn't know Weinstein. It was shocking to me. Apparently parents did not use this opportunity to talk to their sons at the dining table about sexual violence. They did it with the daughters.
You have written many books about girls. Why are you now dealing with boys?
Because I realized that I had only had half of the conversation. We women had to change a lot. But we can't do that completely if we don't talk about what's going on with the boys. Not just because of us, but because of the boys, because of their mental health and well-being.
Does a woman have to save men?
I am interested in healthy relationships and positive sexual encounters. That can't be achieved if we don't talk to boys. Parents want their sons to be better men, better partners, and happier people.
As a journalist, was it more difficult for you to talk to boys than to girls?
It is more haunting to talk to boys than to girls. Their depictions of internal injuries just gushed out of them when they talked to me. You were in a situation with a reporter in which you were allowed to talk freely about anything. It's rare for them.
How did you feel as a listener?
It was painful to hear how very young men suffer from great emotional suppression, feeling that they shouldn't be forming real bonds.
Have your image of men and your own relationships with them changed?
It gave me a much more compassionate and nuanced view of men and boys.
What does that mean for your daughter?
After these conversations, of course, I think of locking her in a room forever. But I hope that she will find a good young man. She manages to connect with emotionally accessible guys. There aren't that many of them. But when you find them, it's really very nice to be with them.
Situation in Switzerland: "If it were girls, it would be a scandal"
The facts do not give Swiss boys good marks. In school they are left behind by the girls. There are more high school graduates and students. More boys than girls repeat classes. More boys suffer from ADHD. "There is a great deal of pathologization among boys," says Allan Guggenbühl, Swiss psychologist and expert on youth violence. "If the girl were it, it would be a national scandal, with the boys it is overlooked or even accepted."
The topic is fermenting underground. «Teachers come to me and talk about it, but no politician would dare to address the gender difference. It is simply not debatable. " He had already been prohibited from talking about it at events.
The therapist knows from his practice that Swiss boys “grow up with the attitude that they are disadvantaged”. That is why far more boys than girls drop out at school and look for alternative paths."Instead of studying or doing an apprenticeship, they become gamers or invest in the stock market." In addition, the Swiss education system accommodates girls. Boys would only bend down on school subjects if they really were interested.
Girls, on the other hand, adapted and also dealt with unpopular fabrics. Male attributes such as courage or creativity, on the other hand, are rarely asked for in schools. In any case, it has become “unspeakable” in Switzerland to positively mention male characteristics in public. "We only look at the shadows of men, but women no longer have any shadows in the public eye," says Guggenbühl.
Similar to author Peggy Orenstein in the USA, Guggenbühl recognizes great uncertainty among fathers in Switzerland. "They don't know how to treat their sons." Boys are dependent on a lot of asexual physicality, you have to hug them more, be tender with them. "But many fathers think that if they touch their son or bathe with him, it is already tricky."
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