Monday, June 11, 2012

Caring, Romantic American Boys

This NYT op ed sure blew my mind – but I'm not persuaded.  As the father of three girls, I'm sticking to my assumption that teenage boys are NOT to be trusted – and don't confuse me with the facts, my mind's made up!  LOL!

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.

For a long time, a familiar cultural lexicon has been in vogue: young women who admitted to voluntary sexual experience risked being labeled "sluts" while male peers who boasted of sexual conquests were celebrated as "studs."

No wonder American teenage boys have long reported earlier and more sexual experience than have teenage girls. In 1988, many more boys than girls, ages 15 to 17, told researchers that they had had heterosexual intercourse.

But in the two decades since, 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.

What happened in those two decades?

Fear seems to have played a role. In interviewing 10th graders for my book on teenage sexuality in the United States and the Netherlands, I found that American boys often said sex could end their life as they knew it. After a condom broke, one worried: "I could be screwed for the rest of my life." Another boy said he did not want to have sex yet for fear of becoming a father before his time.

Dutch boys did not express the same kind of fears; they assumed their girlfriends' use of the pill would protect them against fatherhood. In the Netherlands, use of the pill is far more common, and pregnancy far less so, than among American teenagers.

The American boys I interviewed seemed more nervous about the consequences of sex than American girls. In fact, the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth found that more than one-third of teenage boys, but only one-quarter of teenage girls, cited wanting to avoid pregnancy or disease as the main reason they had not yet had sex. Fear about sex was intensified by the AIDS crisis and by sex education that portrayed sex outside of heterosexual marriage as risky. Combined with growing access to pornography via the Internet, those influences may have made having sex with another person seem less enticing.

Fear no doubt has also played a role in driving up condom use. Boys today are much more likely than their predecessors to use a condom the first time they have sex.

But fear is probably not the only reason for the gender convergence. While American locker-room and popular culture portray boys as mere vessels of raging hormones, research into their private experiences paints a different picture. 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.


Op-Ed Contributor

Caring, Romantic American Boys


 Subscribe in a reader