The term "hookup" has been widely used to describe the romantic and sexual experiences of Millennials. But according to a recent study conducted by Harvard's Graduate School of Education, Millennials aren't engaging in as much casual sex as we think they are. In fact, this study found that among the 2,000, 18-to-25-year-old heterosexual, cis-gender males from across the U.S. interviewed, the majority reported looking forward to having romantic and long-term relationships. These results can probably put our widespread hook-up culture concerns to rest. Unfortunately, however, they reveal a different and more disturbing problem.
While the rate of Millennials hooking-up may be decreasing, the rates of misogyny and sexual harassment appear to be on the rise. Many of the young men interviewed for this study admitted to engaging in disrespectful actions towards women without thinking about it. Behaviors reported ranged from catcalling and making a joke at a woman's expense to touching a stranger without her permission. The report also suggested that the more females succeed in school and life, the less likely males are to respect them. We have to wonder why the success of women would so significantly impact a man’s sense of adequacy, and where the root of that threat lays in our culture. It may take a while to uncover the complex underlying messages that have created and perpetuate this problem, but for now, there is something adults can do.
The Harvard study highlighted the need for adults to take responsibility for being proactive about correcting boys and young males when they make misogynistic comments or behave towards females in sexually inappropriate or harassing ways. Intervening on boys and young men in the moment will help them better recognize girls, and later, women, as equals. As such, they can relate to them as people and be encouraged to think about why they need to make someone else feel bad to feel good themselves.
Developmental neuroscience reveals that the male brain in infancy does not read faces and recognize social cues as early as the infantile female brain does. As boys grow into adolescence, they are more likely to naturally objectify women because they're still developing that relational quality. This tendency also makes a case for why boys need scaffolding from adults on how to appropriately engage with females and channel their burgeoning sexuality.
Additionally, this study reports that as early as elementary and middle school, children are exposed to navigating romantic and sexual relationships, but they need adult stewardship.
Therefore, when we talk about culture, tradition, and ways that we socialize males, we must provide constructive feedback that guides them towards both empathy and impulse control. It’s incumbent upon us to teach our boys at a young age to pay attention and stay focused, to be kind and polite despite their impulsive urges. In a culture of screen time where this quasi-relational behavior is taking place such as texting, sexting, swiping, DM'ing and snapchatting, it's crucial to emphasize the value of a relationship.
But the most important strategy to creating a securely attached child begins in infancy, through affect regulation. This requires parents to make an ongoing effort to make good eye contact with their child, soothe him when he’s hurt or upset, talk to him about his feelings and struggles, and care for him so that he has a general sense of being a “good” person. Make no mistake, this type of parenting takes a lot of time, energy and effort, and a lot of individuals abdicate their children’s care to babysitters, neighbors or teachers because the demands of life beleaguer them. But children need and rely on caring adults to create security and safety for them. Boys especially need to know they’re being listened to, that they matter, and that you've got their back. They may slip and slide in their teenage years, but with your solid presence in their life, they will eventually land on their feet.
Weissbourd, Richard, et al. (2017). The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard GSE.