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Our porn-saturated media landscape is wreaking havoc on teen boys, too

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Teenage boys are one of the most maligned demographics in the human species. Compared with girls, they drive too fast, drink and smoke pot too much, and are more likely to drop out of school. In the sexual politics of adolescence, they are the aggressors, and, as a trio of new books only reinforces, the parents raising them should be plenty worried.

Are their sons the same odious cads demanding blow jobs like kisses from reluctant dates, as detailed in Peggy Orenstein's new book, Girls and Sex? Perhaps they're the predatory jerks begging for "NOODZ" from their female classmates, so they can trade the pics for liquor purchased by a high school student with a convincing ID, as described in American Girls, a book on social media and the "secret lives of teenagers" by Nancy Jo Sales. Or maybe they are simply the socially-stunted, porn-addled sloths, doomed to perpetual immaturity, in Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo's new book Man, Interrupted.

To sum up, if you happen to have a 15-year-old male texting quietly in his bedroom upstairs (so you think!), batten down the parental hatches. But if the situation for girls is a "complicated landscape," to quote Orenstein, rife with sexting and slut-shaming, then is life for boys today – so often cast as the lecherous villains in this adolescent apocalypse – that much simpler?

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Here's a disturbing calculation, cited in Zimbardo's book: Let's say, Zimbardo suggests, that a 15-year-old boy watches a couple hours of porn a week. He has sex for the first time around the average age of 17. That's nearly 1,400 pornographic experiences, a huge dose of virtual sex education, before anyone actually does the deed in the real world. Mix in drugs, add video games, Zimbardo says, and the moodles ("man-poodles" unable to care for themselves) may never grow up.

At least, that's what he says young women keep telling him when he gives public talks. "Today many of the young men who do manage to find a partner feel entitled to do nothing to add substance to the relationship beyond just showing up," he claims (though without supporting stats) in Man, Interrupted, which he co-authored with Nikita Coulombe.

Zimbardo's conclusions are dire – like most books of this ilk – and not entirely convincing. Let's remember that the sexes have made important progress: fathers are more involved, there's more equality at work and home, same-sex marriage is legal, many men are engaging in conversations about consent. Canada, it's worth noting, now has a Prime Minister who proudly defines himself as a feminist.

But these books are all raising a common alarm: When it comes to teenagers, sexual equality still appears to have stalled a few decades back – or has even regressed. In her book, Orenstein pointed out that the same girls who spoke about women's rights and their own lofty career ambitions were still giving oral sex often just to keep boys happy, or because it was expected, not thinking of their own pleasure. And boys were still bragging to their friends about their conquests – only now on social media, for everyone in every school to see.

Ask the experts what's behind these retrograde attitudes and they point to online pornography. Porn, they say, is giving teenage boys a skewed version of relationships, body image and female desire: after all, in pornography, there is little conversation, no condoms and sex is from the (well-endowed) male point of view. And that's just the vanilla version – hard-core porn is an Internet search away.

"Porn is not a good teacher," says Dr. Frank Sommers, a Toronto psychiatrist who specializes in sex therapy, and treats young men struggling with sexual disorders. (He's yet to treat a male patient, he says, who doesn't report watching porn excessively at a young age.) "In porn, you don't see the ups and downs of a relationships, there is no depiction of tenderness, sooner or later the men turn into sexual acrobats, and this is the picture young men grow up with," Sommers says. "Then they enter into the real world, and they flounder. … What other sources do they have to enable them to nurture a relationship of equals?"

Certainly many mainstream sources endorse just the opposite, dancing – literally – on the shades-of-porn line. Check out just about any Robin Thicke or Lil Wayne song on your son's iPhone. "Boys don't have to watch any porn to see women being objectified," points out Crystal Smith, the mother of two sons, who self-published a book called Boys, Sex & Media. She worries that these mainstream examples are often more pernicious than porn because society gives them tacit approval. She points to Drake, who contributed to a Lil Wayne song, in which women are "hos" and "bitches," and writhe in cages in the music video; in February, Drake received the key to the city of Toronto from Mayor John Tory. Add in the alpha, chest-thumping of social media, where the aforementioned NOODZ are valuable currency, and the low road isn't just more travelled, it's rolled out in red carpet.

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Dylan Schentag, a 23-year-old University of Windsor student who leads workshops with teenage boys about sexuality, reflects on his own teenage years: "I was often trying to fit that goal of what it meant to be a man, but it wasn't the nurturing, compassionate person I wanted to be." The usual stereotypes come with "enormous pressure to have sex, and to have sex with as many girls as possible."

In her upcoming book, Talk Sex Today, Saleema Noon, a sexual-health educator in British Columbia, relates this anecdote confided to her by a Grade 10 boy. At a house party, a girl he barely knew offered to give him oral sex in a back bedroom. "Nah, I'm good," he told her. As he explained to Noon, he "made the mistake of telling his friends," who called him a "wuss" and a "fag" for turning down a "hot chick." In the context, it's not hard to see why boys either lie – and contribute to the slut-shaming that girls experience – or just say yes in the first place. Says Noon: "Peers have immense power."

So what do we often tell boys to try to inoculate them against this negative messaging? Don't rape. Get consent. Know the law. That's important, Noon says, but insufficient. The boys she teaches respond more to the emotional and moral arguments. Why are women caged and nearly naked in music videos? How does it feel for girls – and boys – to be pressured into having sex or pursuing it? What does compassion look like in relationships?

The suggestions that Zimbardo and Coulombe offer at the end of their book target all the players in this narrative. Young women are told to hold men to higher standards. Young men are ordered to "turn off the porn."

And parents, especially dads, are advised to talk more to their sons about sex, including how pornography is a multibillion-dollar business. "It's rare that parents sit down with their children," Zimbardo says, "and say, 'Let me tell you about this wonderful thing that has be to used carefully, and wisely, and well.' "

Sommers also argues that sex education is as important as all the academic coaching parents do these days. He urges parents to talk about sex with their teenagers over, say, lasagna at the dinner table, so it becomes an everyday subject. Expect plenty of trademark eye-rolling.

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Basically, the advice from experts amounts to this: Parents need to be as explicit talking about sex as the porn they hope their boys aren't watching.

In a recent workshop, Schentag asked a group of teenage boys, what would be different if they could resist those "be-a-man" expectations? One boy's answer: "there would be a lot more peace in the world."

At the very least, the parents of both boys and girls might sleep a lot more peacefully.

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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