Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Creating Sexually Healthy Young Men: How Our Culture Has Failed

Media, Sexuality, ParentingAndrew Smiler


When it comes to dating and sex, American don’t think highly of young men. Perhaps it’s all those politicians tweeting di** pics, all the male celebrities cheating on their partners, the perpetual stories of male undergrads assaulting their female peers, or the frequent stories about male teachers raping their female students. We hear it almost every week and it doesn’t really surprise us anymore. Seriously, why should it surprise us?

The bib and the onesie tell everyone that even baby boys are trying to get girls’ sexual attention.

After all, most of us have been told “guys are dogs” and “guys want sex, not relationships” since we were young. And I mean young. Infant wear, like the bib and the onesie above, tell everyone that even baby boys are trying to get girls’ sexual attention.

Mass media clearly serve as sexual educators and routinely provide this message. For fifty years, we’ve gotten a steady stream of promiscuous males as lead characters on comedies. Guys with names like Fonzie (Happy Days), Hawkeye (MASH), Sam (Cheers), Martin (Martin), Charlie (Two and a Half Men), and Barney (How I Met Your Mother) have been stunningly popular. The actors who play them have won awards for their roles, and the shows have won “best comedy” awards and had long runs.

That’s just the comedies. But comedies draw the biggest audiences of children and teens, boys and girls. These are the kinds of shows kids move on to when they leave the fantastical world of children’s programming.

Mass media clearly serve as sexual educators and routinely tell us guys are only interested in getting laid.

Commercials, especially those that air during sports programming, routinely show guys hooking up with hot women they’ve just met. And if you’re The Most Interesting Man in The World, it’s always two women. In music videos, especially (but not exclusively) from rap performers, it’s the same promiscuous and objectifying message: a small number of guys with lots of scantily clad women. In online porn, it’s all about hooking up with complete strangers.

For the record, it wasn’t always this way. If you look at comedies produced prior to 1970, the boys who were the main characters were responsible and more interested in dating than hooking up. Today, that guy is the sidekick and probably the butt of the joke, just like Charlie’s brother Alan on “Two and a Half Men.”

Nor does that image reflect reality. Decades of surveys tell us the group known as “males” is only somewhat interested in promiscuous sex. It’s the 25-15-5 pattern, in which 25% of guys say they’d like two or more partners in the next 30 days, 15% of guys say they’ve actually had 3 or more sexual partners in the last year, and 5% of guys say they’ve had 3 or more partners per year for the last 3 years. Most guys are not interested in having sex with a lot of people they’re not emotionally connected to or in a relationship with.

Mass media leave out a lot of things. Like what does “sexual health” mean?

Mass media leave out a lot of things. Like what does “sexual health” mean? Or how does a guy develop and maintain a good relationship, one where every problem isn’t worked out in 22 minutes and never discussed again. Our culture does a poor job of teaching boys how to deal with their feelings, and romantic relationships are all about feelings. Nor does our culture do a good job of teaching boys how to ask for consent or how to respond when they don’t get an explicit “yes.” Or that boys can say no.

Schools aren’t much help either. Or rather, schools are highly variable in how helpful they are. Only about half of all US school districts teach any form of sex education, and many of them rely on Abstinence-only curricula that reinforce the idea that most guys just want to get laid. Even if your child is getting sex ed, only 13 states require the content to be medically accurate.

Parents could be owning it here, but they’re not. Surveys of high school boys and undergraduate young men reveal that between half and three-quarters had some version of “The Talk” with their parents. But upwards of 90% of parents say they’ve had The Talk with their son, so a lot of talking is falling on deaf ears. Even when parents do talk to their sons, the conversation is much more likely to be about sex than relationships, typically covers fewer topics than daughters hear about, and often lasts less than 10 minutes. The most common messages: don’t get anyone pregnant, don’t get a disease, and don’t have sex (at all).

We need to do better, not just for boys, but also for the people they date and are sexual with.

The culture is failing us. Mass media emphasize messages that don’t reflect the reality of the average guy and schools barely address the subject. We can begin to make change by expanding the dating and sexual topics we discuss with boys. This video–a keynote address I recently gave–might also be a useful place to start. In the next few weeks, I’ll be providing more detail on what else parents, teachers, coaches, medical professionals, and other trusted adults can to change the image and practice of male sexuality. We need to do better, not just for boys, but also for the people they date and are sexual with.