If you grew up in the United States, it is almost inevitable that you’ve been subject to a few standard aphorisms. These include things like: “Anyone can make it here if they try hard enough,” “Nothing worth having comes easy,” “Hard work pays off,” “Winners never quit, and quitters never win,” and “Success is no accident.”
These messages might sound inspiring, but what happens if what you are working towards is just never going to pan out? What if it is simply unethical? What if your win comes as the result of someone else’s loss? And what if you work your butt off and just don’t succeed?
Ultimately, when combined with the myth that we’re all starting from a level playing field, the hard work message simply serves to reinforce the notion that it’s not structurally sanctioned privilege that gives certain people more power, but rather, that those achievements are due to an individual’s own grit, or perseverance, or determination.
And such beliefs don’t exist in a vacuum.
So for boys who also grow up getting a lot of messages about sexuality (say, that sex with a girl is a rite of passage, a conquest, and the quintessential display of masculinity), there can be some pretty troubling effects.
One of these is that many boys feel the need to prove themselves sexually, and a common way they may try to do that is by putting sexual pressure on girls.
Now, a lot of us simply take this script for granted. Or we understand it to be part of a cishetero dating ritual. But that ritual is not only exhausting, it’s also damaging to people of all a/genders, and our kids deserve to know they can rewrite the rules.
Still, in order to rewrite them, it helps to identify just how we reinforce them. So here are four ways we teach kids it’s okay for boys to sexually pressure girls, and why we need to remind them that this simply isn’t the case!
1. We Tell Boys That They’re Owed Sex (And That Having Sex Is a Sign of Their Masculinity)
Masculinity is a tough thing to quantify, and so often the aspects of masculinity that are celebrated are things like physical strength, stoicism, chivalry, and sexual prowess.
Taken together, that can be a pretty toxic combination.
Then when it comes to what boys learn about sex, things get particularly tricky. In large part, that’s because so many boys are taught that, simply by the coincidence of their gender, they’re owed sex from a girl, regardless of the cost to that girl.
And how do they learn this? As Erin Tatum explains on this site, we teach boys that they’re sexually entitled in countless ways. We teach them this when we tell them that their virginity is a burden. We teach them this when we frame the primary goal of a relationship with a woman or girl as sex. We teach them this when we present women and girls as objects first and people second. And we reinforce these messages by holding up an expectation of cisgender heterosexuality.
As Tatum writes, “Sexual entitlement isn’t ‘boys being boys,’ it’s learned behavior.”
She argues it is also behavior that we can help boys unlearn: “Combating social and media messages early on not only allows boys to develop healthy relationships with women, it can give girls a greater sense of autonomy in their own sexual development.”
That is something we can do by letting boys know that girls and women can be friends and teachers. That they can be artistic collaborators, confidants, and companions. That there not really are these “Mars/Venus” divides that make us inherently different.
Plus, boys need to know that their own masculinity is not measured in terms of sexual conquest, and they need to be reminded that being rejected sexually is a normal part of life, not an attack on their entire worth as a person.
But, too often, these messages take a back seat to a more traditional and toxic dating narrative.
2. We Teach Boys That It’s Their Job to Pursue Sex (And a Girl’s Job to Resist Those Pursuits)
Recently, I was listening to the This American Life podcast. The episode covered life in a Greek refugee camp. For the most part, the stories were powerful and moving, and exposed a reality far removed from the lives of most Americans.
But one story stood out for a different reason, namely that it continued the tradition of presenting the dogged male pursuit of women as something romantic.
The segment followed two Syrian camp inhabitants, Tarek, a 25-year-old man, and Hadil, a 19-year-old woman. Reporter Sean Cole began the episode by describing their meeting as, “Love at first sight – for Tarek.”
Through an interpreter, Tarek then explains, “So when I saw her, I said, ‘Wow, you look beautiful. Can I speak to you?’ And she refused a couple of times, but I didn’t give up. I kept continuing.”
Cole asks, “How many times did you approach her?”
Tarek tells him, “I tried for like thirteen, fourteen, or fifteen times maybe—”
“Wow,” interrupts Cole. “You’re persistent.”
That persistence eventually meant that Hadil defied her family and agreed to a relationship with Tarek. Her family, upset by the situation, and with plans of their own, then whisked her out of camp without telling Tarek. Tarek was devastated. And after convincing Cole to give him cab fare, tracked Hadil down and brought her back to camp. Soon after, they marry. And Cole concludes the piece by saying, “Tarek and Hadil beat the odds in a ridiculous way.”
End of story, right? I mean, these two got their happy ending, didn’t they?
Even though it was presented that way, I wasn’t convinced. I know there are vast cultural differences and circumstances about Tarek and Hadil’s lives that I will never understand. And I really have no idea if the relationship was truly mutually desired. However, I have to say that way the story was framed troubled me.
There seemed to be a lot of red flags, to begin with. And the end result of that marriage meant that a young woman, already struggling in a foreign country, was now separated from her family, and living with a man who she barely knew.
This story is just one example of many. But it reminded me that we have been conditioned to celebrate men who persevere and then end up with “the girl,” regardless of the actual lead up to that end result.
Indeed, it’s a lot easier to tell ourselves that in these types of situations, the relationship itself is evidence enough that a man’s pressure was actually wanted than it is to question the foundation on which that relationship may have been built.
3. We Teach Boys That They’re Slaves to Their Sexual Desires
Kids learn pretty early on that unlike girls and women, boys and men have powerful, hard to control sexual desires. But despite the fact that this message is recycled time and time again, it simply isn’t based on fact.
As Daniel Bergner writes in his 2013 book, What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, we’ve been bombarded with the message that when it comes to sex, men and women exist on a binary (and are the only genders to exist) with two very different motivations on either end of the spectrum.
And we’re told that these motivations are reproductive for women and the result of insatiable sex drives for men. Buying into this view then legitimizes the claim that men are biologically programmed to chase women and that women are biologically programmed to fend them off.
But not only does this narrative fail to take into account the myriad ways that men and women have historically been socialized to adopt these roles, ignore anyone who is not cishetero, and marginalize people who don’t follow such scripts, it also gives boys permission to do anything in service of these drives.
And what that service can look like is often some pretty intense and socially sanctioned sexual pressure put on girls.
4. We Teach Boys That Pressure Is Part of Dating Rituals
Here’s something that far too many women and girls have had to deal with: a guy who won’t take no for an answer.
That’s not surprising when we realize that this behavior is utterly normalized in our culture. For example, in movies like Say Anything; Crazy, Stupid Love; and 500 Days of Summer, characters who are basically stalkers are sold to us as romantic heroes.
And we don’t just see this in easily dismissable, light-hearted Hollywood fare. The results of this narrative can also be deadly. Take, for example, the fact that according to the Justice Department, the majority of domestic assaults and murders reported to law enforcement take place after the couple separates.
Or consider situations like the terrifying case of a Connecticut teen who murdered a girl who declined his prom invitation.
Or think about the countless men’s rights activists who justify real or imagined violence against women on the basis that these women had rejected their advances.
But the views that can lead to these extreme situations are not just held by outspoken MRAs or murderers. A lot of people from all walks of life seem to buy into the kind of ideas that those people then use to justify their acts.
This was highlighted by the findings of a paper published in the Journal of Sex Research, in which researchers looked at the tactics of sexual coercion. This was something that over 40% of the women they interviewed said they had experienced in the form of pressure for sex.
Yet even though so many participants described enduring sexual pressure, far fewer of the individuals interviewed (a group which included both men and women) viewed this pressure as a problem. In fact, many even saw it as a positive method of achieving sex!
As the authors write:
Our study raises an interesting question about the disparity between the relatively large number of participants who reported being receivers of sexual persistence and the much smaller number who reported being perpetrators. [One] explanation is that participants did not perceive their behaviors as tactics of sexual persistence. Many of our participant perpetrators qualified their behaviors as playful or beneficial, indicating that the behaviors were intended to improve their relationships.
As concerning as this it, it really shouldn’t be all that surprising given the myriad cultural messages normalizing the idea that men shouldn’t take no for an answer – and that given the right circumstances, a real man should be able to persuade almost any woman to sleep with him.
A lot of adults find it hard to talk about sex with kids and teens. But if we don’t do it, our children will learn some pretty messed up things from the world around them.
They will learn that it is normal for boys to pressure girls for dates and sex and that doing so is an almost expected ritual. And they will learn that boys shouldn’t give up until they get the answer they want.
But we have the power to flip this script. We can start by exploring how we present dating in the first place. For example, we can call bad behavior what it is. Instead of using words like tradition and romance and persistence, we can describe certain actions as stalking or intimidation or coercion when those terms are more apt.
We can point out when we see the media glamorizing dating pressure, or when we see it downplaying violent acts against women by calling these acts “crimes of passions.”
We also need to teach boys that no one owes them sex, and we need to teach girls that the idea that they need to make a boy beg them for sex, or ask repeatedly for a date, is a dangerous one.
It’s confusing enough for kids and teens to figure out sex and dating as it is. But we sure aren’t doing them any favors when we continue presenting what is actually distressing behavior as an expected part of the romantic experience.
Ellen Friedrichs is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s a health educator, sometimes writer, and mom. She has worked at Manhattan’s Museum of Sex, developed sex education curricula in Mumbai, India, and run HIV prevention programs for at-risk teens in the South Bronx. Currently, Ellen runs a middle and high school health education program and teaches human sexuality at Brooklyn College. More of Ellen’s writing can be found here and here. Follow her on Twitter @ellenkatef.