A direct book answers everything your teenage son ever wanted to know about sex but probably wouldn’t ask, writes Suzanne Harrington
When it comes to ideas around consent, sex is no longer perceived as something to give or to get, depending on your gender, but something to share equally via mutual negotiation for mutual pleasure. That’s the theory anyway. Teenagers, beginning their sexual journeys, have never been more exposed to porn, yet never more aware of the idea of consent, as our culture swings paradoxically between porn saturation and informed, emotionally literate sexual behaviour in a post #MeToo era.
Porn, widely consumed and graphic — according to research from NUI Galway, 58% of Irish boys are under 13 when they first encounter it — is used by up to 50% of young Irish men and women to learn about the mechanics of sex. Yet beyond demystifying the physical, porn is the fake news of human sexual behaviour; nor does it cover the important stuff like sexual negotiation and consent. (And condoms. Porn hates condoms).
Since 2016, workshops on sexual consent are part of the freshers’ curriculum at Trinity College Dublin and other Irish universities, run by students’ unions, following similar initiatives at Oxford and Cambridge. Yet there is still some way to go within the sexual behaviour evolution; teens, especially when away from home for the first time at uni, may not always act in their own best interests or the best interests of their sexual partners. Hence the importance of empathy, education and emotional literacy when it comes to having lots of gloriously fun, fulfilling sex. (And how to deal with bad sex, because let’s face it, bad sex happens).
Hooray then for a clear, smart, teen-friendly book from Inti Chavez Perez, a sex educator and advisor to the Swedish government on the sexual behaviour of boys. Respect: Everything A Guy Needs To Know About Sex, Love and Consent has an aubergine emoji on its cover and starts with a universal teenage boy preoccupation: “Is my dick normal?”
Yes, reassures Chavez Perez, of course, it is. When he teaches sex ed, he says “guys often want to know how to make sex feel good for both people. My answer is that respect is the basis for good sex and good love.”
His book walks teenagers through 10 uncluttered chapters which cover everything from female masturbation to sex during menstruation — it is all refreshingly direct and normalised, with friendly how-to sections on everything from kissing and flirting to resolving arguments to breaking up compassionately— while highlighting the real crux within heterosexuality: the gendered power imbalance. (He covers same-sex relationships too, reassuring boys there is no pressure to decide where you are on the gay/straight spectrum).
It’s ideas of consent and respect which form the backbone of the book. Not so much hammering home old school no-means-no responses, but encouraging teens to evolve towards better communication, both spoken and unspoken. “I’m trying to move away from the concept of no-means-no,” he says. “Instead, what I’m saying is that you need a yes if you want to access your partner’s body. This requires much more tuning in, because a yes could mean perhaps ‘yes, take off my bra but don’t take off my underwear’. It requires an active listener to understand the meaning of a yes. The upside of understanding yes in sex is that you’re getting lots of information about your partners’ desire, so sex gets easier and better.
He spells these out in the book. Yes signals from a partner include actually saying yes, making sounds of arousal, kissing, caressing, helping you undress, taking the initiative, holding you. No signals include saying no, being too drunk or drugged to effectively consent, stiffening up, being completely silent, not kissing you back, looking like they are in pain, or simply not sending out any yes signals.
While this is obvious for (most) adults, such unambiguous clarity is more useful to teenage boys than any amount of unrealistic porn downloads. (Another excellent resource is Cindy Gallop’s Make Love Not Porn online initiative, launched after her 2009 TED talk, which walks young men through the differences between sex with real women and sex with porn actors, starting with the super basic — like female body hair being a thing).
Another often corrosive issue facing teenage boys is peer pressure. Boasting, ridiculing, competing and egging each other on for a laugh or to look cool does not always result in individuals being their best selves. “Peer pressure really hurts boys because it makes them become a worse, fictitious version of themselves,” says Chavez Perez.
“It happens all the time — I will meet boys at schools who are the sweetest, most intelligent and sensitive people when I speak with them one on one. But then a teacher or one of the girls at school will tell me that him and his group of friends terrorise their peers.
“Male peer pressure leads to a destruction of values, and I try to get boys to see that. The first lesson in my book is that you must start by respecting yourself before you can truly respect others. That means being authentic and not behaving in a worse way in front of friends than you would in private. The key is that we must make boys see that they are losing out because of peer pressure.”
And peer pressure leads to sexual pressure, on which girls are so often at the receiving end. Chavez Perez agrees that sexual pressure is a form of assault: “All sexual violence can be placed in a scale,” he says. “Expressions of sexual violence create stress and hurt the health of girls and make schools the place in society where girls are most likely to experience sexual violence. It’s in the everyday acts of sexual violence that we can see systematic violence. It’s also here we can fight for change, because it’s never too late to change the direction a boy is heading.
“We need our leaders to show more leadership, but if they are going to be able to do so they need skills and knowledge about how to handle sexual intimidation. So, you see it is very important that we disseminate knowledge about sexual harassment to men.”
We need to star with teenage boys, so that they may emerge into the world responsible and ‘woke’, rather than sleepwalking towards the structural misogyny we are still dismantling.
Basically, every teenage boy should read this book. (I’ve left a copy in my 16-year-old son’s room — the only problem is that teenage boys often think books made of paper are for old people). Perhaps the subject matter will overcome the common teenage boy’s resistance to reading.
“The book teaches social skills that are useful when you flirt and gives practical advice on how to have pleasurable and consensual sex with your partner,” says Chavez Perez.
“As a sex educator, I’m constantly travelling, and I meet tens of thousands of teenagers every year. This book is based on the questions they ask me. If you have questions like those that other teenagers have, you’ll find answers here. It gives a whole different picture of sex to what you’ll find in porn or other media directed towards boys and men. It is not about conquest or dominance, it’s about communication. That shifts everything we think we know about sex.
“Actually, it makes sex a whole lot easier.”
Dare to make contact: “You’re just talking, you’re not going down on one knee and proposing. See it as a way to check the person out rather than trying to get together.”
Get the conversation going: “It can be good to have one or two ice breakers up your sleeve… preferably one that comes in the form of a question. ‘What’s the capital of Bulgaria?’ works better in Mastermind than when you’re flirting.”
Show interest: If the other person initiated contact and you are pleased, “smile, maintain eye contact, ask follow-up questions”.
The effect of alcohol: “If they are drunk they aren’t giving consent. Instead, be a friend. Take them home (their home), make sure they’re OK, leave them your number. That way you can meet again under better conditions.”
Getting to know each other: “At first, plan to get together for an everyday activity so that you’re joining in with something the person would be doing anyway. That way it doesn’t feel like a date, which reduces any nervousness.”
Is he into guys? “If it’s a guy you’re interested in, there’s only a one in 10 chance that he likes guys. You can ask about films and a series with gay characters… if he looks confused and doesn’t know what you’re talking about, it’s probably the case that he’s not into guys.”
Getting turned down: “Not everyone is going to like you. Being rejected hurts, but it’s nothing to be afraid of. Take a no seriously. If someone doesn’t want to be with you. Let go of it immediately. The more times it happens, the less serious it feels. Getting a no means you’re putting yourself out there.”
- Inti Chavez Perez