By Evalyn Lee ’23
This October, Peggy Orenstein, author of the New York Times bestsellers Girls & Sex and Boys & Sex spoke at our virtual All-School Meeting (ASM) about the influence of unhealthy masculinities on sex. A panel of students involved with Brace Center programming had the opportunity to ask Orenstein questions regarding her work, research, and the relevance of discussions about masculinities on campus. Orenstein made the point that unhealthy masculinity still exists despite improvements in gender equity as she observed patterns of aggression, dominance, and emotional suppression in adolescent boys.
Following the ASM, the Brace Center hosted affinity virtual hours to continue the conversation on campus. Each virtual hour was hosted by a Brace Student Advisory Board member partnered with EBI (Equity, Balance, and Inclusion) seniors. As a member of the Brace board, Holt Bitler ’21 hosted the virtual hour for students identifying with the masculinities. Despite the intentions of the ASM to address the boys on campus, according to Bitler, not many people attended the meeting.
“I see a part of toxic masculinity leads guys not wanting to listen to talks on social justice […] It’s kinda funny that no one ended up showing up because it pretty much states exactly what needs to be solved here,” said Bitler.
Bitler expressed the challenges in trying to engage a larger group of students with masculinities. He observed indifference and resistance towards the topic of ASM from his peers on campus.
Bitler observed, “When some people saw the ASM, they reacted kind of negatively, saying like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe people would say this about guys and stuff.’”
Jane Park ’22 also noted the challenges in engaging male students in conversations surrounding masculinity. As a board member of YES+, Park believes that the language in these conversations is important to destigmatize topics on sexuality and masculinity while also holding people with toxically-masculine traits accountable. In the ASM, Orenstein introduced additional terms to the familiar “toxic-masculinity”: rigid and fragile masculinity.
Park said, “I think with fragile masculinity, I do have my concerns because when something is fragile, it almost makes it seem easily disrupted. See when you say fragile masculinity it’s almost like brownie points or it’s trying to sugarcoat what it actually is when especially toxic masculinity isn’t fragile. By calling it fragile, I think we’re almost taking away meaning from what it should be, like you’re softening the blow […] Rigid has connotations that it harms both masculine-identifying individuals and individuals who do not identify so.”
Orenstein’s ASM mainly centered on heterosexual relationships between cisgender boys and girls. Orenstein briefly compared gay vs. straight power dynamics during sex. Avivit Ashman ’22, a Brace Student Advisory Board member, hosted the queer/nonconforming/questioning affinity space for the brace virtual hours. She said that her group felt the ASM was very binary, and the speaker’s short comment reminding us that queer sex also exists was not enough. Ashman also felt that Orenstein glazed over the realities of queer sex by idealizing it when comparing it to straight sex.
Ashman said, “[In] queer relationships, especially gay relationships, power dynamics do exist. Not every gay relationship is based in consent and a lot of these issues, like [in] queer relationships, don’t exist in a bubble away from all of these societal norms and expectations around sex, like queer relationships aren’t removed from that. I guess it kind of felt a little othering to kind of reduce all of the diversity of queer relationships into that one thing.”
Ashman also said her virtual hour group spoke about the lack of sex-education for queer people.
“We just talked in general about how sex-ed and education around sex and relationships, in Andover and outside of Andover everywhere, it just has really kind of failed us as queer people, and how can we make conversations about Andover specifically more expansive,” Ashman said.
Peggy Orenstein’s ASM inspired students to reflect on the inclusivity of sex-education and the culture of toxic-masculinity in various parts of campus life. As more students begin to evaluate our institution and their own identities, we hope that Andover continues to make strides to cultivate healthy and inclusive sexuality and masculinity.