March 25, 2013

Teen Boy Sexuality, Masturbation, Porn, and Rape

Some title right? This is a blog post that is sure to get me in trouble with someone. So at the start, I want your support for at least trying to take on some very complicated issues. At the heart of this post is the feeling that some things just need to be said and silence on these topics does everyone a huge disservice. Here goes:

The terribly tragic case of the Steubenville rape trial and subsequent sentencing of two adolescent male athletes to juvenile jail is only the most recent sad testimony to the very complex array of issues surrounding teen males and sexuality. To try and keep this within the scope of a blog post, let’s just say the Steubenville event was the tragic intersection of teen male sexuality, pornography, female objectification, athletic privilege, and the absence of guidance by informed adults. Let’s see if I can unpack this complicated situation.

TEEN MALE SEXUALITY: Let’s begin with what we might agree on about teenage male sexuality. Teen boys are sexual creatures. Once the testosterone hits, boys are really at the mercy of their bodily chemistry. We’ll save the discussion of sudden, uncontrollable, and embarrassing erections for another post (no pun intended). One outlet for their sexual tensions is masturbation, a normal, healthy, and pleasurable form of sexual expression. It’s safe to say most teen boys masturbate and do so often. In the act of masturbation, a young male’s sexual fantasy life will almost always be engaged. This is all okay and natural . . . unless it begins to interfere with the rest of his life and normal functioning. That’s where the discussion of porn has to begin.

PORNOGRAPHY: I remember helping a 95-year-old friend, Burnell, move from his home into assisted living. When moving his bed, we came across a vintage Sear’s catalog, or the parts of one, showing women from the 50’s in various forms of under-garments. Even at 95, those pages turned out to be Burnell’s equivalent of bookmarking his favorite porn site. My generation had Penthouse, Hustler, and Playboy magazines, but it’s a very different porn universe today. It’s been said, because of internet porn, we are raising the first generation of left-handed male masturbators who need their right had for the keyboard and mouse!

FEMALE OBJECTIFICATION: Young males with internet access today have an unlimited and constant stream of sexual images and fantasy sexual partners. It’s easy for them to find diverse, intense, compelling, fetish-specific, highly erotic, images of women of all ages in every conceivable sexual act. They are all readily available and no consent is required. While that’s party time for some, it holds some very dangerous consequences for way too many boys. 

A subscriber sent me a link to this very male-literate, and brief discussion of the dangers of today’s cyber-porn. In  Gary Wilson’s TED lecture (below), The Great Porn Experiment, he identifies the dangers of porn addiction for young (or any) males. Wilson describes “the extreme plasticity of adolescent brains, the evolutionary context for today's flood of novel cyber "mates," and the neurochemical reasons why superstimulating Internet delivery has unexpected (and dangerous) effects on the brain."

So far we have testosterone-driven young males who use porn. Their use of Internet pornography potentially creates addicts, invites boys to see women as sexual objects, and sets them up for failure in their real-world intimate relationships. In the case of the Steubenville rape, if women are seen as sexual objects by teen males, a woman that is passed out from alcohol could be equated with the images on a porn site, just there to be “used.” But there was another big factor in Steubenville.

PRIVILEGED ATHLETES: The National Coalition Against Violent Athletes (NCAVA) is an organization with the goal of educating the public regarding the elimination of a variety of off-the- field violence by athletes. On their website they summarize the data from the Benedict/Crosset study in the 1990’s. This research surveyed 30 major Division I universities over a three-year period. The study found that male college student athletes, compared to the rest of the male population, "are responsible for a significantly higher percentage of sexual assaults . . .”, and one in three college sexual assaults are committed by athletes. Remember, we only hear about the incidents that are actually reported.

The NCAVA also quotes Benedict/Crosset study finding that while in the general student population there is a conviction rate of 80% for assault perpetrators, “the conviction rate for an athlete is 38%.” With a reduced chance of serious consequences, it’s easy for a young male athlete to believe he is somehow privileged and maybe even entitled to have his way with women.

ABSENCE OF GUIDANCE: In a crazy way, in the mind of a young male, if you consider the factors above, you can almost understand how a couple of high school football players could rationalize having sex with a drunken girl and not see it as rape. In a way, they did have guidance, didn’t they? Their bodies are saying go for it. The lessons from porn all say go for it. Much of the music they listen to say’s it’s okay. The witnesses didn’t say stop or report the crime in progress. Other athletes, their peers and the pros, are getting away with it, so why shouldn't they. See, there really was a lot of guidance, just the wrong kind.

The big question in this tragic play is not why did they do it, but where were all the other, more objective voices in their lives? Where were all the people willing to face the issues related to young male sexuality, sit with the young guys and speak the truth? Whose job is it anyway? In the aftermath of the Steubenville rape trial, who sat the teen boys in your world down and had a conversation about why it was so appalling?

The really bad news is that, until we all find the courage to do our part in offering constructive guidance to our young men, we’ll keep having Steubenvilles and collecting more damaged young lives. Sadly, I'm afraid you'll have another opportunity.

Question: When you were a young man how did you learn about sex and sexuality?

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March 9, 2013

How I Became a Man-Maker

There are those singular moments in a person's life that just change everything. One of those moments in my life profoundly touched my masculine soul, changed my life's direction and, in fact, is the very reason you are reading these words right now.

Ojulu, Okugn, and Family
My wife and I met Ojulu Agote and his family in 1996. They were from Sudan and had arrived via the refugee services division of Lutheran Social Services. Ojulu and his family had experienced the horrors of tribal warfare and then the abuses of life in a refugee camp. After making his way through countless bureaucratic barriers, he had landed in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He had nothing, and was living with his family in a cockroach infested one-bedroom apartment, very much alone in a new world and facing a mountain of practical needs.

At our first meeting, I was focused on getting donations from friends and family to supply them with some of the material support I felt they would need. When I asked Ojulu how I might support him, without a moment’s hesitation the first thing out of that man's mouth was, “Will you to teach my son how to be a man in your country?”
“Will you teach my son
how to be a man in your country?”
Here was a man who had just managed a total hero's journey to a strange land, and only had a couple of mattresses, some beat-up cookware, a lamp, and the clothing they wore. Yet the most important thing on his list of what he needed in his new country was a male elder to guide his young son, Okugn, toward manhood and success.

While my male psyche was cracked open by Ojulu’s request, in that moment, I laughed it off and went right to talking about the practical things the family needed. But deep inside, my world was quaking. I remember feeling confused, embarrassed, strangely inadequate, and very unsure about accepting responsibility to play the role of man-maker in his son’s life.

My life path had not included fathering children. I was doing a good job of being an uncle, but until the moment Ojulu asked that question, I hadn't considered myself a maker of men, a man with a critical role to play in any adolescent boy’s journey into manhood.

From his (patriarchal) tribal culture, Ojulu had learned that even in the best father/son relationship, the elders and the other men in the community had important and necessary gifts for his son. He knew it was men's work to guide, teach, support, and direct the young males on their journey toward manhood. Now he was feeling if his son didn't make a successful crossing into manhood in his new world, everything he had fought for to get his family to this country could be lost.

On that day, Ojulu’s request touched something deep in the core of my masculine identity and launched my quest to learn about the role of men as man-makers. For help in trying to understand my resistance to being a man-maker, and for guidance on how to best honor Ojulu's request, I began asking the advice of my men friends. I also started a research website ( where I began asking questions, soliciting stories and getting suggestions from men from around the world. You can read some of these questions for men at this link.
“. . . many men said they didn't have much for guidance, and they too had been poorly prepared for manhood.”
In my research, many men said they didn't have much for guidance, and they too had been poorly prepared for manhood. As a result, they felt they didn’t have much to offer boys and further felt no responsibility and little inclination to go out of their way to support young males on their journey to manhood.

As my conversations about a man's journey to manhood continued to unfold, I realized that like so many of the men responding, for much of my adult life, I too had been unconsciously but continuously searching for "manhood." I had been living with lingering and unformed questions about what it meant to be a man. I really didn’t know what should or could be included in the full range of a mature masculine identity. While I did well by societal standards, I never felt I had acquired that mysterious collection of male skills, knowledge, connections, clarity of life purpose, or the core confidence that made me a fully-formed, solid, mature, and upright man.

Over time, it became clear to me that to honor Ojulu’s request, I felt I first had to become the man I hungered to be. While that is a much longer story, in so many ways, Ojulu’s question and the adventure of discovery for me that resulted, has profoundly changed my life and touched many others.

Okugn's High School Graduation
Since that moment sixteen years ago, my personal development, commitment to this work, knowledge about the male universe, and actions to inspire men toward man-making, have grown considerably. Today, I am connecting with men from all over the world who are discovering and developing their full masculine potential, including making commitments to help young males become good men. I am doing what I can to support Okugn and other boys and men on our collective journey to manhood.

All of this happened as the result of Ojulu’s one question, “Will you to teach my son how to be a man in your country?” It was a question coming from ancient tribal wisdom and reached deep into my male soul and changed my life in countless wonderful ways.

So let me ask you a question: Will you teach boys to become good men? The boys in your world know you have what they need for a successful journey to manhood, and they are waiting for you to show up. If you feel resistance to that call to action, are you willing to look for its source?

What I can promise from personal experience and that of countless men I've encountered on this path, is there are unimaginable and rich lessons about your manhood waiting for you in your answer to those questions.

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