Peggy Orenstein On Fragile Masculinity and Healthy Sexuality

Author Peggy Orenstein works to deconstruct the ways in which social norms impact one’s experience with gender and sexuality. According to Orenstein, female-identifying children often experience a disconnection from their bodies, while male-identifying children suffer a disconnection from their emotions. Orenstein, author of the “New York Times” best-sellers “Boys & Sex” and “Girls & Sex”, addressed these topics and their implications for life at Andover during All-School Meeting (ASM) on Monday.

Organized by Flavia Vidal, Director of the Brace Center for Gender Studies, and the Brace Center advisory boards, the ASM began with advertisements and media proceeding two distinct versions of masculinity: one promoting and one condemning toxic masculinity. According to Orenstein, while modern conceptions of gender have changed, older ideals of toxic masculinity linger in adolescents.

“With boys, I think that we’ve ended up with this kind of tension in the culture, where on one hand there has been tremendous cultural change. Guys see girls as equals to them in the classroom and deserving of places in leadership and educational and professional opportunities… Underneath that, when I would do my interviews with teenage boys, often when I would ask them to describe the ideal guy… it would default to dominance, aggression, athleticism, sexual conquest, and the real biggie: emotional suppression. I think that really show[s] us the conflicting [ideas] and the tension in the way that we’re talking about masculinity right now,” said Orenstein.

Ethan Chan ’21, one of the student panelists, shared how he felt boys of color exist in a white hegemony where white masculinity is the default. Orenstein then explained how sexual racism manifests, using an example of how society projects hypersexuality onto Black men and asexuality onto Asian men.

“Particularly in schools that were predominantly white institutions, hyper-sexuality was projected onto African-American boys, and they would talk about being seen as the coolest student in the room, but that [could also] switch very quickly to being seen as predatory, and being more likely to be brought up on charges of misconduct,” said Orenstein.

Orenstein continued, “By contrast, Asian-American boys tended to have asexuality and emasculation projected onto them, and that was a product of their own history of racism and trauma. White teens in particular tend to be much less aware about how their biases about gender and sex filter through race, and affect their assumptions about their peers. Institutions need to do a lot more work, not only racial justice in other ways, but also in sexual racism,” said Orenstein.

Referencing popular songs such as “WAP” by Cardi B ft. Megan Thee Stallion, Denise Taveras ’21 asked Orenstein how social media and popular culture affect views on sex, femininity, and masculinity. According to Orenstein, songs like “WAP” that revolve around female sexuality both question and support gender expectations.

“[Songs like] ‘WAP’ challenge and reinforce [gender roles] at the same time. Obviously, it’s making a statement that ‘yeah, women have sexual needs and desires,’ but it’s also doing it in the same context of male-dominated media. It still uses the tropes of pornography… It still uses ideas from the male porn perspective, which is not to say that that is what all guys want, but it’s the production that they’re working with. I feel like [these artists] are trying to make a statement… but they’re not really challenging ideas of what female sexuality, and what sexuality in general, can and should be. It’s like a little move, but it’s not what I wish for people to see and embrace,” said Orenstein.

Orenstein’s discussion of how toxic masculinity affects male-identifying children of different racial and ethnic groups was “eye-opening” for Victoria Ortiz ’23. According to Ortiz, the Andover community has a responsibility to fight against toxic masculinity.

“ASM was a step towards making sure that male-identifying students at PA know that they don’t have to succumb to the stereotypes of what it is to be a man… It is up to all of us to be actively searching to combat toxic masculinity as well as instances of sexual harassment and assault. This may mean participating in more conversations through the Brace Center such as the affinities that were available this week following the ASM, or stepping up to call out inappropriate behavior within friend groups, classroom environments, etc.,” wrote Ortiz in an email to The Phillipian.