I have two sons, ages 6 and 3, so I guess have a bit more time before I have to start worrying about them transforming into hormone-raging cads. But if today’s world of sexting, rainbow parties, Girls Gone Wild and Tila Tequila is any indication of what’s to come, I’m going to have my hands full.
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Friends tell me to just be happy that I have boys and not girls — after all, it’s the girls that get pressured to “go wild.” “Boys will be boys” goes the conventional wisdom, which means it’s generally up to a girl to have the self-confidence and self-esteem to create and protect boundaries in respect to her sexuality. Easier said than done.
Author and journalist Ariel Levy has written one of my favorite books on the subject, and it bears the provocative title “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.” So what is a female chauvinist pig and, after decades of feminism, could such women really exist?
In her review of “Female Chauvinist Pigs” for the New York Times, author Jennifer Egan writes,
“Finally, a coherent interpretation of an array of phenomena I'd puzzled over in recent years: the way Paris Hilton’s leaked sex tapes seemed only to enhance her career; the horrifying popularity of vaginoplasty, a surgical procedure designed to make female genitalia more sightly; and a spate of mainstream books about stripping and other sex work … Levy has a theory that makes sense of all this. Our popular culture, she argues, has embraced a model of female sexuality that comes straight from pornography and strip clubs, in which the woman’s job is to excite and titillate — to perform for men. According to Levy, women have bought into this by altering their bodies surgically and cosmetically, and — more insidiously — by confusing sexual power with power, so that embracing this caricaturish form of sexuality becomes, in their minds, a perverse kind of feminism.”
What does this brand of feminism look like? I remember speaking with an eighth-grade girl who thought, like many of her peers, that giving oral sex to a guy was no big deal. She was wearing a too-small T-shirt emblazoned with the Playboy bunny logo and she said of her attitude regarding oral sex, “I’m a feminist. When I do it, I’m in control, not him.”
Writes Levy, “How is resurrecting every stereotype of female sexuality that feminism endeavored to banish good for women? Why is laboring to look like Pamela Anderson empowering? ‘Raunchy’ and ‘liberated’ are not synonyms. It is worth asking ourselves if this bawdy world of boobs and gams we have resurrected reflects how far we’ve come, or how far we have left to go.”
And so in today’s culture it’s often women who are objectifying other women, as well as themselves. They see themselves through male eyes. But that doesn’t mean that men aren’t doing it as well. All of this objectification of female sexuality occurs in the male gaze. If there weren’t guys looking, there wouldn’t be girls posting seminude photographs online. If there weren’t guys looking, there’d be no reason for girls to go wild in the first place. The male “haze” is everywhere and has become so profuse we don’t even realize that we are all constantly breathing its vapors.
So while I think it’s important to teach girls how to be empowered gatekeepers of their own sexuality, I think we also have to focus on the boys. We can’t just let them off the hook by saying boys will be boys. If girls operate in the male gaze (both actual and internalized), then we need to change that gaze. Boys need to learn how to see girls differently.
But how the heck do we do that? To be honest, if I think back 25 years to my own high school days, would I have been psyched if girls were doling out nude photos of themselves, kissing and grinding each other at parties and then offering oral sex like it was an after-show goodie? What do you think?
But that was then and this is now, and the question is how, in a culture that celebrates raunch, do we help our boys grow up into gentlemen?
Here are a few ideas, and please do share your thoughts, too.
Start with your own relationship. Almost from birth children model and imitate what they see at home, so if you and your spouse don’t treat each other with respect, you can’t expect it from your child.
Talk about sex. The information is out there. In books. On the Internet. Don’t avoid the talk, embrace it. It’s particularly important that Dad, or another positive male role model, helps to cultivate a sense of respect toward women.
Help your children decode the media. Point out images that objectify women and explain why they do not accurately reflect female sexuality. Keep an eye out for positive female role models. They’re out there.
Stay in tune with their world. Talk to his teachers and other parents to get a sense of what’s happening in and out of the classroom.
Let him make mistakes. You made yours. You can’t shut the world out, but you can help him live in it.
You can’t stop your boy from seeing the world around him. But you can change how he looks at it.
Ian Kerner is a sex therapist, relationship counselor and New York Times best-selling author of numerous books, including "She Comes First" and "Love in the Time of Colic." He was born and raised in New York City, where he lives with his wife and two sons. He can be reached at www.iankerner.com.
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