Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Striking Out the Sex=Baseball Metaphor

Parenting, SexualityAndrew Smiler

In honor of last night’s Major League Baseball All-Star game, I’m going to talk about the sex=baseball metaphor. If your boyhood was before terms like “hanging out” and “hooking up” were common, there’s a good chance this was part of how you talked about sexual activity.

The sex=baseball metaphor had one incredible thing going for it: virtually everyone understood the references. If not, Meatloaf wouldn’t have been able to use it in “Paradise By the Dashboard Lights” to let listeners know what was happening in the back seat of that car. Current teens and twenty-somethings don’t really know the metaphor; their vocabulary has been shaped by “hooking up,” which can mean virtually any sexual behavior from kissing to coitus.

The sex=baseball metaphor had one incredible thing going for it: virtually everyone understood the references.

The metaphor isn’t perfect; it’s a metaphor after all. If you’re still using it, or planning to use it with your kids, here are some things to think about and add into the conversation.

Who’s The Opponent?

The sexual behaviors of the metaphor—kissing (1st), groping (2nd), hand jobs or blow jobs (3rd), and sex (home)—all require a partner. Getting to first base and scoring a run definitely require mutual participation, which means a guy and his partner will always have the same score. But given the cultural emphasis on male promiscuity, score keeping here is really about competition with other guys to see who has the most partners.

What if You Go Out of Order?

In baseball, there’s only one legal path around the bases. Studies with AmericanDutch, and Norwegian youth indicate that about 95% of boys who have sex with girls follow the metaphorical sequence, leaving 5% who don’t. For boys who have sex with boys, about 85% follow the expected path, with 15% on a different path. Boys on the non-traditional path include a few who had their first sex before their first kiss; I like to think of them as following Vivian’s (Julia Roberts) claim in Pretty Woman: kissing is too intimate to do with someone who’s just a f—.

Does It Matter How You Get There?

In baseball, the only thing that’s important is the final score. It doesn’t really matter if your team hits a bunch of singles or a bunch of home runs, as long as you score more runs than your opponent. That’s true for the metaphor too; it doesn’t say anything about how any of those experiences feel or what they mean to the guy. The only thing that’s important is that he did it. Yet most of us remember our first kiss and first sex, and I’d like to think that most people place real value on the quality of the sex their having and not just the total number of orgasms they’ve had. Not all orgasms are created equal, after all.

Yes, there are separate stats for those things, but almost every player will tell you that those individual stats don’t mean much if the team isn’t winning. Similarly, the number of folks a guy has kissed might be important in middle school, but it’s probably not something he’s focused on during high school. Then, it’s usually about scoring.

What About Practice?

We all understand that professional athletes have spent lots of time honing their skills, even if we don’t think about it very much. By the time they hit the big leagues, typically between 18 and 22, they’ve literally spent years on the playing field, with more years spent training and practicing. They’ve had coaches and trainers to help them improve their skills. Yet we mostly let boys figure out sex (and dating) for themselves, based on what they see in the media, hear from friends and siblings, and experience in person. Information from adult authority figures like parents and teachers is infrequent and minimal. In fact, most parents don’t know when their son has his first ejaculation, nor do they make any effort to talk to their sons about this milestone (in large part because they don’t know what to say).

Overall, I can’t say that I’m sorry to see the baseball metaphor go away. I think it pushed boys to focus too much on scoring without helping them get ready or truly be in the moment. At the same time, I do think all of the panic and concern about hookup culture might be lessened if we had some kind of metaphor or standard that teens (and adults) could use to guide their behavior. If you’ve got a better metaphor, please share. (I may not comment directly, but I hope to follow up in a few weeks.)