Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Why do boys date and have sex?

Andrew Smiler

To some people, they seem like obvious questions: Why do boys date?  Why do boys have sex? And like any human behavior, there’s no single answer.

Who? A group of 106 boys in 10th grade were asked those questions, and they were given a list of about a dozen options to check off for each question.  The boys were recruited by Deborah Tolman (author, “Dilemmas of Desire”) and her team, and the project was funded by the Ford Foundation.

What were the main findings? More than 90% of the boys reported that they had dating experience.  The most popular category of answers that boys checked off were “relational” reasons – things like “I wanted to get to know the person better”.  Some boys, about 20%, acknowledged that their dating was motivated – at least partially – by efforts to fit in with their peers; for a few boys, these were the only reasons they checked off.

About 40% of the boys reported that they’d voluntarily had sex (intercourse); this number is consistent with other studies of American 10th graders.  The most common types of reasons here were relational (“Because I liked/loved the person”)  and sexual (“I felt desire”).  A few boys endorsed peer type reasons (“to fit in with my friends”), but no boy checked off only peer type reasons.

So what? The findings tell us that boys aren’t simple, hormone driven creatures who just want to get laid.  The majority also want to have relationships and care about their partners.

Reaction:   When the article was published, NY Times blogger Tara Parker-Pope read it and contacted me.  She described the article in her blog.  It became one of the most emailed articles of the day and the Times followed up with coverage the following Sunday in their Week in Review section (here).  The original article generated over 200 comments which more or less took two forms: 1) boys just want sex and  lied on the survey to look good, and 2) boys have feelings and the findings are accurate.

So, did they lie?  It’s not likely, but possible.  If you look at other surveys of 10th grade boys, you find about the same percentage who report that they’ve had sex. There was also a connection between how masculine (or macho) boys described themselves and their level of sexual activity.  Boys who described themselves as more stereotypically masculine, were somewhat more likely to say they’d had intercourse, had intercourse at a younger age, and had more partners.  Other researchers have also reported this pattern of findings. Other parts of the survey that weren’t reported in this article, things like rates of depression and anxiety, were also similar to other studies.  This makes me think that  if the boys – as  a group – lied, they they only lied on the “reasons” questions, but why lie on just 1 or 2 survey questions and not the whole thing?

The idea that boys have feelings and that feelings are important to them isn’t exactly new.  In the last 10 years or so, authors like Michael Thompson, William Pollack and Niobe Way have published books about this.

Sexuality

Andrew Smiler

During adolescence, most youth experience their first kiss, first relationship, and first sex (intercourse).  Instead of talking about adolescent sexuality as inherently risky, I tend to think about it as typical or “normative.”  After all, if most adolescents are doing these things, but only a minority become pregnant or contract a sexually transmitted infection (STI), then it’s clearly not all bad.

Some people say that men are biologically programmed to sleep around and attempt to “spread their seed widely.”  While the differences between groups of men and groups of women give some credence to that idea, that notion doesn’t really hold up when you take a closer look at the data.

Part of my research focuses on documenting what’s happening, and many people find the results surprising.  One study examined personal reactions to first intercourse.  For both young men and young women, the experience was more positive than negative, although as you might expect, the men described their experiences more positively and less negatively than the women.  I’ve also explored differences in ages of first kiss, relationship, and sex among guys with male partners, guys with female partners, and guys with both male and female partners.

I’ve also examined some of the factors that influence boys’ and young men’s sexual decision making.   In a study of 10th grade boys, the majority reported that relationship-focused motives drew them to their most recent relationship and their most recent sexual experience.  For a minority of boys, peer pressure was also a factor.  In another study, young heterosexual men indicated that “expressive” traits, like caring and emotional expression, were preferable in a dating partner and that “instrumental” traits, like decisiveness and independence, were preferable in a work colleague.  And the more egalitarian (or less sexist) the guy was, the less difference there was in describing a potential date and a potential coworker.  An interview-based project revealed that guys experiences with “hookups” often didn’t match the standard expectation of a hookup as one-time sex with a complete stranger.

Living the image

Andrew Smiler

The goal of this study was to look at connections between several “masculinities” or “social identities”, such as “jock,” “tough,” and “nerd”, and how they connect to various components of masculinity, such as homophobia, sexism, competitiveness, etc.  (Nerds may be seen as un-masculinie or not-masculine, but we expect nerds to be male and including the “opposite” is an important part of research.)

Why?  There are two different approaches to the study of men and masculinity that have become prominent.  One is the “masculinities” literature, which mostly draws from “qualitative” (e.g.,  interview-based) research.  This research talks about the different ways that guys do masculinity.  The other approach focuses on masculinity ideology, which relies on “quantitative” (e.g., survey based) research.  Here, folks measure how strongly people adhere to different components of masculinity (competitiveness, sexism, etc.).  I wanted to know how these different approaches related to each other.  To do this, I argued that masculinities and social identities refer to the same things.

Who?  The survey included 688 adults age 18-83; there were almost identical numbers of women and men.

What?  Results indicated that the masculinities connected to masculinity ideology.  Of the ten masculinities included, each was related to only some elements of masculinity ideology.  For example, men who self-described as “jocks” tended to be more competitive, homophobic, sexist, and male “toughs” tended to be more dominant, more stoic, less emotionally expressive, more self-reliant, and more accepting of violence.  Men and women didn’t identify in the same ways and the connections between masculinities/identities and ideology were different for woman than men.  For example, women who identified as jocks tended to be more competitive and more risk-taking.

So what?  In some ways, this was a “proof of concept” article.  The introduction provides a lot of detail on jocks and others from the masculinities, social identity, and stereotype literatures; no one had done this before.  The analyses showed that masculinities could be quantified and again, that hadn’t been done before.  This provides a mechanism for combining the masculinities and masculinity ideology literature, something I think the field needs.

The study also showed that even though men and women might both claim one of these masculinities or identities, they do it differently.  Being a jock or being a nerd means something different for women than it does for men.

 

Smiler, A. P. (2006).  Living the Image: A quantitative approach to delineating masculinities.  Sex Roles, 55, 621-632. DOI: 10.1007/s11199-006-9118-8