Peggy Orenstein knows many parents would rather stick forks in their eyes than talk to their kids about porn.
She encourages them to do it anyway.
“Pornhub dropped the paywall on pornography and allowed underage people to see whatever they can imagine and whatever nobody wants to imagine,” The New York Times bestselling author told her audience during a webinar hosted by Moving Traditions, the Jenkintown-based Jewish teen education organization, on April 30.
“Good luck trying to block all that.”
The event was planned as a discussion about Orenstein’s latest book, “Boys and Sex,” and Shevet, Moving Tradition’s youth program for boys. Orenstein was on the advisory board of Rosh Hodesh, the organization’s youth program for girls, in the 1990s.
“Peggy is so honest and open and creative about the way she approaches this stuff,” said Rabbi Daniel Brenner, chief of education at Moving Traditions.
And now that families are isolating together at home, parents are increasingly aware of the amount of time their kids spend online and concerned about the messages they receive from peers and media.
During the webinar, Brenner held a poll asking the 650 attendees to decide what cultural messages aimed at boys about sex and love were of the most concern to them.
Nineteen percent selected “Messages from celebrities, athletes, and political leaders who set a bad example,” 21% selected “Messages from pornography that tell them to take and dominate,” and 61% selected “Messages from peers telling them to demean and objectify others.”
Orenstein’s book discusses issues boys face regarding relationships, consent, hook-up culture, pornography, race, sexuality and gender identity. To research these topics, she conducted interviews with boys about their personal experiences.
“When I asked them, ‘What’s the ideal guy?’ it was like they started talking about the 1950s. They listed aggression, wealth, sex for status and emotional repression. The only emotions they feel they are allowed is happiness and anger,” she said.
The boys struggled with unrealistic expectations about sex, difficulty establishing intimacy and uncertainty about consent. Some of them had committed sexual assault or been sexually assaulted themselves.
Many of the boys wished their parents or other trusted adults had started conversations about sex, gender and relationships with them when they were younger.
“Kids were pretty clear with me that even though they felt it was awkward and excruciating they still wanted their parents to talk to them about this stuff. They want to hear their parents’ perspectives on things,” she said.
Brenner asked David Lieberman, a New York-based educator who leads a Shevet group, about facilitating positive discussions about sex for boys in middle and high school.
“When did guys start talking about sex and how did you even get guys to open up about these topics?” Brenner asked.
Lieberman said it was important to discuss other topics, like competition and money, to establish trust before discussing sex.
“We’re asking kids to think critically about masculinity,” he said.
He introduced the topic of pleasure by having the boys in his classes make ice cream sandwiches with different fillings and flavors to illustrate how everyone has unique preferences.
“We focus on the developmental realities of working with eighth- and ninth-grade boys,” Brenner said in a separate interview. “We ask ourselves, ‘How do you get them to a point where they feel like they can be honest and open and not ridicule each other?’”
Orenstein said groups like Shevet, which provide a safe and supportive environment to discuss difficult questions, are key to helping boys develop better relationships with peers and partners.
“The kinds of groups you are leading with boys are the kind of groups I use as a model for where real change and transformation happen. I feel you’re doing the work that needs to be done,” she told Brenner and Lieberman.
She has some advice for parents unsure how to start conversations about sex.
“Go into conversations and start with curiosity. Start with asking about what they think is going on with their social circle, online, Netflix shows. The important part is to start,” she said.