Regardless of their formal sex education, teenagers at the beginning of their social and romantic lives often turn to each other for information. In the second episode of The Second Greatest Show on Earth’s series on sex ed in New Hampshire, we hear directly from teens about how they are navigating consent, porn, masculinity, and femininity.
This is the second episode in our two-part series on sex education. Listen to the first installment here.
(This episode and web post contain reference to sex, porn, and sexuality.)
"I've often wondered what it would be like if we taught young people swimming in the same way we teach sexuality. If we told them that swimming was an important adult activity, one that they will all have to be skilled at when they grow up. But we never talked with them about it. We never showed them the pool. We just allowed them to stand outside closed doors and listen to all the splashing.
Occasionally they might catch a glimpse of partially clothed people going in and out of the door to the pool, and maybe they'd find a hidden book on the art of swimming. But when they asked a question about how swimming felt or what it was about when they would be greeted with blank or embarrassed looks or they told weren't old enough to know. Suddenly, when they turned 18, we would fling open the doors to the pool and they would jump in. Miraculously, some might learn to tread water, but many would drown."
— “Sex and Swimming,” Elizabeth Chalice, a reading used in parent orientations at the Unitarian Universalist sex ed class “Our Whole Lives”
Aden, Muftar, and Mohamed attend Central High School in Manchester. They hang out at the city’s Boys and Girls Club after school.
“Consent is…you have to have permission before you act upon the sexual things,” said Muftar.
“That’s what consent is: getting granted permission to do anything,” said Aden.
“To me, consent is like when we both mutually agree and also when we’re both comfortable enough to do it. We’re both ready. It’s not like 75/25. It’s supposed to be 50/50, like we both mutually agree that we’re ready to do this. That’s consent to me,” said Mohamed.
If comprehensive sex ed or consent education isn’t taught in school, there are other resources available in New Hampshire.
The Concord-based Equality Health Center (EHC) offers wellness talks to schools.
“Consent is sexy. It is sexy but it’s also mandatory,” said EHC outreach coordinator Eli Kuti at a recent talk at Second Start Alternative High School in Concord.
The Unitarian Universalist church also runs a comprehensive sex ed program called Our Whole Lives, or OWL, at churches across the country. It’s open to everybody, not just church-goers.
Maura Barber is the director of religious exploration at the UU in Manchester and an OWL facilitator. The program includes the typical fixings of a sex ed class: they go over anatomy, STIs, and pregnancy, but they also cover lots of topics that schools often skip, like gender identity and sexual orientation, body image, and relationship skills. They even offer workshops, including one titled “Lovemaking,” and another on consent.
“Consent is a huge aspect of what we teach here because it’s important for students to know, this is your body,” said Barber.
Possibly the most important tenet of the OWL program can be found in their name -- Our Whole Lives. More than anything, the program really emphasizes sex education as lifelong learning. Consent education starts young and is tailored for each age level.
“For example, [we teach] kindergartners, ‘this is my hand this is not your hand and I’m in charge of my hand,'” said Barber.
They also have a class specifically for older adults. The minimum age to receive admission is 50.
But regardless of the availability of sex education programs, teenagers deeply rely on each other.
The Boys and Girls Club in Manchester runs a group called Boss Girls. Facilitated by Shirley Tomlinson and Ashly Rodriguez, The Boss Girls (formerly known as Girls Group - they changed the name “due to popular demand”) is attended mostly by fifteen year-old girls. They meet once a week to talk about issues like relationships, friendships, hookup culture, school -- anything that’s on their mind.
During one week’s meeting, the girls said that dealing with competing pressures around sex and dating make real-world decisions much more complicated.
“I feel like people [have sex] to fit in and act like they’re cool. Some of my friends, but not most of my friends have lost their virginity, but some people I know have. And I don’t know. I feel like they want to fit in with other people,” said Jeniah, one attendee of the girls group.
“The older guys too… last year they were on a hunt for little girls. In high school, there be kids that aren’t even supposed to be seniors and they’re looking toward little girls. It’s so weird. They’re like seniors going for 7th graders,” said Jenthi, one of the Boss Girls.
“No, they’re like juniors and sophomores and they want the 8th graders so bad,” said Jeniah, another member of the group. “I don’t know. They just want little girls because they know they can take advantage of them.”
Jeniah added that she feels very much not ready for this.
“I feel weird too because I’m young.”
Tomlinson and Rodriguez explained that social media plays a considerable role in the Boss Girls’ sex education and personal development as young women.
Rodriguez explained that the girls’ secrets, private text conversations, and even photos and videos are at risk of being posted or shared among classmates. The Boss Girls all knew multiple people who had been exposed in all of these ways on social media.
“The fact that they feel kind of forced to share themselves in a way on this platform is scary to me… cause that seems to be the norm to them,” said Tomlinson. “I tell them every day, ‘I'm not that much older than you, but I could not even imagine getting even imagine.’”
Meanwhile, they also have to deal with their parents who pressure them not to have sex. Some girls said that their parents sometimes jump to conclusions.
“As soon we say boyfriend, it’s sex. Boyfriend is sex. A friend that's a boy is sex. Anything,” said Yasmin. “If I say that's my friend, it’s a boy, they say that’s a lie you can’t be friends with a boy.”
“I don't know how many girls we had there, like ten. I think one of them out of all 10 said, ‘yeah, I'm comfortable talking to my parents about it,’” said Rodriguez.
“It seems like for this group of girls, the extent of the conversation that they do have about sex is simply ‘don’t get pregnant’ and not much else,” said Tomlinson.
Diane Creel and her 14-year-old daughter Infinity joined us in the studio for a conversation about how they both feel about sex ed, consent, porn, and gender.
“Well, I was raised on a farm,” said Diane, laughing. “There’s nothing more awkward than being in a family that doesn’t talk about sex and then having to watch and witness animals having sex.”
It was important to Diane that her kids get a solid sex education, so she signed Infinity up for OWL. But she’s sympathetic to the difficulties that schools face creating sex ed curricula.
“I think that public schools as an institution are beholden to do so much for kids and so much more than they were ever intended to do,” said Diane. “I can completely understand the hesitance for public schools to take this on, especially given how tumultuous of a topic it is.”
“That said, as a parent, we certainly have to seek education elsewhere because [sex education at school] absolutely isn't enough.”
“I’m not saying all schools… but my school is really good with consent,” said Infinity. “The teachers know when to put hands on. If they’re having bad behavior or something and they’re kicking and screaming, you obviously have to get them out of the room somehow. But putting your hands on somebody without asking is a big issue.”
“That’s completely changed from when I was growing up,” said Diane. “In fact, when I learned the new rules of consent maybe five years ago… honestly, it felt really weird. Like, really? Someone’s gonna ask to hug me? I can’t just go up and hug someone? I need to ask? It makes social norms, I’ll say, strange, as compared to how I’ve been living.”
“As a kid, as a teen, there was no conversation about consent whatsoever.”
“For me, as a teenager, there was no space for me to say no. There was no space for me to not want something. I was supposed to want it.”
“It was even worse if I was in a relationship, like if it was my boyfriend or something. Then there’s just this assumption that ‘yes’ is the answer, and there’s also this assumption on the other side that he would just keep going, and keep going, and keep asking... because that’s what guys do.”
“But that’s what guys are supposed to do, as well! That was more than completely acceptable.”
“I frequently found myself in situations I didn’t want to be in and didn’t know how to get out of, and even if other adults and kids saw it, they just assumed that either it was normal, or I wanted it, and nobody ever stopped to ask.”
There’s a concept called toxic masculinity. It is associated with behavior and attitudes in men, driven by sexism and emotional repression: that the way to be a man is to be stoic and strong, but also dominant, aggressive, tough. Toxic masculinity can exist on a mundane, everyday scale, but it can also escalate to violence.
But long before that masculinity becomes toxic, a lot of boys as they are growing up, encounter baked-in expectations of what “being a man” means, right at the beginning of their social and romantic lives.
At the Boys and Girls Club in Manchester, high schoolers Aden, Mohamed, and Muftar talked about how they felt the pressures of performing masculinity.
“If you’re a strong man- tough, real - people are going to look up to you and be like, ‘I want to be like him.’ If you’re a soft, wimp guy, they’re gonna be like, ‘who wants to be like this guy?’ Nobody,” said Aden, a high schooler in Manchester.
“As a teenage boy, when you act tough, it’s supposed to give you clout, like, some kind of popularity. The girls will start feeling you. And the girls will use you just for that,” said Mohamed, also in high school in Manchester.
Both said that growing up as a black boy comes with extra challenges. Even if they wanted to be more vulnerable, they can’t, either because of the demands of their neighborhoods or how they’re perceived in New hampshire, a state with a largely white population.
“They expect me to act violent, in a way, because that’s what you usually see on TV. But they really don’t try to see who I really am... even my clothes or my persona, it looks like I’m like that. But I’m a nice person,” said Mohamed.
Black feminist writer bell hooks points out we live in a patriarchal culture, a society designed for men to hold power. Our society doesn’t just hold girls back, but boys, too.
She writes that society sees boys as people to be feared, rather than loved. If we want boys to learn to be vulnerable, society can’t then teach boys that “real men” don’t feel or express feelings.
“The culture defines masculinity largely in terms of being strong and being powerful as well as being promiscuous, having lots of sexual partners,” said Andrew Smiler, author of Dating & Sex: A guide for 21st century Teen Boys. He’s also a therapist, and received his PhD from the University of New Hampshire.
Smiler pointed to how the feminist movement of the 1960s and ‘70s helped educate working women, and society more generally, through consciousness raising events. Feminists organized community meetups in cities to bring feminism out of academia and to the people whose life it would change.
Smiler says that same consciousness-raising is also much needed for boys and men.
“I think there needs to be more talk about your own personal body, your own boundaries, your own limits, and especially for young men they don’t get that,” said Eli Kuti of the Equality Health Center.
Kuti is also a trans man.
“Being in a male body and going through the world, it’s different. There are different expectations. If I act too feminine, ‘oh, you’re just kissing up to the girls…’ It is a buddy bro-down a lot of times, in a lot of places, and it’s unnecessary,” said Kuti.
After Kuti transitioned, he needed time to adjust to the aggressive energy from other guys. Other men would give him a hard time for being close to women, or being interested in more than just sex.
“We need to take that hardcore masculinity, put it away,” said Kuti. “The toxic masculinity. Put it away and realize that men have feelings and they don’t have to act a certain way.”
“For guys, the mixed message is that they should be scrupulous about consent and that they should be respectful to women, but also that the measure of a man, of a real man, is still sexual conquest,” said Peggy Ornstein in an interview with Diane Rehm in January 2020.
For her book Boys and Sex, Ornstein crossed the nation talking with over a hundred teen boys on what it means to grow up today. One of her biggest findings was about the emotional life of boys. Ornstein explained that the boys she surveyed essentially felt allowed to express only two emotions: happiness and anger.
“Even though so much has opened up to them and there’s been changes in the culture, they still so much define manhood through emotional suppression, and they would talk to me about putting up a wall, or training themselves not to feel, or a boy who when his parents divorced couldn’t cry so he streamed three Holocaust movies back-to-back,” said Ornstein to Rehm.
In New Hampshire, according to a 2017 UNH study, girls in heterosexual partnerships are disproportionately victims of dating violence. That adds up to more than one in ten girls - and more for teen girls of color or for those from poor backgrounds.
The report also found that more than one in three “questioning” teen boys (the report calls them “sexual minority teens”) have faced dating violence.
Andrew Smiler points to research that finds that parents are less likely to have the talk with their sons than their daughters because we think boys are more interested in sex and less in relationships. Because boys don’t menstruate and aren’t at risk of getting pregnant, there’s also less urgency to have “the talk.”
When boys aren’t getting the information they need, many turn to porn.
“It’s their defacto sex educator,” said Ornstein to Rehm.
Teenage boys at the Boys and Girls Club in Manchester said that porn is a “learning site,” partly because so much porn is available for free. But they were also aware that porn depicts things that are “not regular.”
In a 2012 study, Dr. Clarissa Smith from the University of Sunderland in the UK analyzed the reasons why people look at porn. Smith found that porn is everywhere: scattered throughout platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, and peppered into short gifs and memes passed around in messaging apps.
Smith’s work also suggested that kids who were taught abstinence only sought out porn more than their peers.
Smith said that while porn is not a great educator or model, without the availability of better and “maybe sexier” sex education, she doesn’t think much will change.
At the Boys and Girls Club in Manchester, the conversation between Aden, Muftar, and Mohamed turned to their emotional lives.
“If you know this guy,” said Aden, turning to Muftar, “his emotions are sealed, in a way. I call him an ‘I don’t care’ type person... I just want to know why he’s like that and why he doesn’t really show emotion.”
Agreeing, Mohamed said, “He’ll be mad, you wouldn’t know. If he’s sad, you wouldn’t know. You can tell when he’s happy but that’s it.”
Muftar agreed: he is an “I-don’t-care” type.
“I don’t care what people say about me. I’m just, like, me... people can’t get me mad. I do cry sometimes, but I don’t tell my personal stuff to people,” said Muftar.
You can hear Muftar trying to find the words to respond to Aden’s question.
Last year, Aden’s dad passed away. His dad was his role model, Aden says. Muftar and Mohamed knew about it and visited Aden and his family at the hospital.
But, through it all, Aden says he also kept a lot of his pain to himself.
“I just don’t like talking about things… because I don’t want people feeling certain ways for me, you know,” Aden said.
He said he doesn’t share his emotions and vulnerabilities because he “wasn’t raised like that.”
“Maybe because I didn’t have anyone do that for me, I don’t know. I’m just used to it, I guess.”
All the boys seemed to want to share with each other, to “make good things, regular things,” as Aden put it, but struggled with doing it themselves. They said that they hope this changes.
“You don’t have to always be the toughest guy on the block or stuff like that. You can be happy. You can be a nice little guy. You don’t always have to be, you know, the big bad guy,” said Aden.
Aden said he wants his generation to be the last that doesn’t get to fully feel their emotions.