Adolescent Boys Think Sexual Aggression Is Flirting, Apparently?
For a long time, eyebrow-arching and pearl-clutching over “hookup culture” has focused on young women: they will feel used by young men and come to believe they can only derive value in themselves from their sexuality. Such concerns have been roundly and fairly criticizing as portraying young women as victims lacking in agency, or worse, in need of a paternalistic watchful eye.
There has been less of a focus on how hookup culture affects young men. According to a piece by the usually-spot-on journalist Abigail Pesta, writing for NBCnews.com, there is “an increasing confusion among boys about how to behave” and experts say “boys who engage in this kind of sexualized behavior say they have no intention to be hostile or demeaning — precisely the opposite. While they admit they are pushing limits, they also think they are simply courting.”
Psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair interviewed 1,000 students for her new book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. She noted that courtship — that quaint phrase! — is now predominantly done by email, text, Facebook and other technological routes. Instead of passing notes in class or calling your crush on the phone, you know Facebook-stalk them.
But this NBC News article specifically zeroed in on the young men who take a turn for the crass and then say that they don’t know any better. One example is a boy who messaged a girl he liked: “I want my dick in your mouth … will you at least be my girlfriend?” Another boy sent his girlfriend an unsolicited naked photo: “I was so mad about that,” the girlfriend said. The boyfriend seemed surprised by her reaction. (I mean, who wouldn’t want to see him naked?!) According to Steiner-Adair, these boys think they are just “goofing around, flirting” when they engage in this behavior.
Teenagers as a group are known to be immature and impulsive. Technology has changed dating. Sex and dating is awkward for everybody. But I call bullshit here: the larger rape culture is giving teenage boys a pass to say that they “have no intention to be hostile or demeaning” when they are being just that, as if they just behave boorishly by accident. Boys will be boys, am I right? I refuse to believe that society has decayed so drastically that youngsters don’t get that aggressive sexual overtures make other people uncomfortable. Instead, I think people who behave this way are doing so by choice and feigning confusion.
My own anecdotal experiences with online dating have proven there are a worrying number of adult men who believe sexual joking right off the bat or sending unsolicited dick pics is OK. But certainly not all men are so boorish; in fact, many men understand that sending unsolicited X-rated photos without a woman’s consent or making aggressive sexual demands is unwanted, even predatory behavior. Even if traditional courtship has changed, more than a few guys still have enough of a clue to realize this kind of aggression, even in jest, is creepy and off-putting to a lot of women. Men who respect women do not behave that way while flirting and I suspect the same is true of teen boys as well.
Boys who behave boorishly aren’t just victims of “hookup culture,” but rather canaries in the coal mine of how deeply ingrained disrespecting women can be in our culture. If anyone is being victimized, it’s the girls — by these boys’ behavior. The girlfriend in the story above was “mad” about getting a naked pic, but I suspect she means “uncomfortable” or “upset.” Another girl described getting “disgusting” text messages from a guy who later told her he had a crush on her; she cried while telling Steiner-Adair this story. As important as it is for young men to learn about consent and for adult heterosexual men to model proper appropriate courtship behavior, it’s also important for young women to be taught they have the right to establish boundaries. They can tell guys that behave like this to get lost. (And they should!)
I’m not convinced boys are the one being hurt here, but we should probably listen to Steiner-Adair’s warning that teen boys are engaging in this behavior. They are still young. We still have time to teach them better.
[Flirting couple image via Shutterstock]