It's not just Ryan Gosling. Guys really are more open about their romantic feelings than ever before. Young men think about sex less — and about love more — than either traditional psychology or pop culture acknowledge. Is it the sudden emergence of a new "mushy male" ethos? Or is it simply the long overdue recognition of something that's been there all along?
A quick review of the recent literature reveals the extent of the change.
In 2008, a study by researchers at SUNY Oswego found that a highly diverse group of 10th grade boys ranked being in love as one of their top three reasons for wanting sex. As the study's author told the New York Times: "Although some of them are just looking for sex, most boys are looking for a relationship. The kids we know mostly aren't like this horrible stereotype. They are generally interested in dating and getting to know their partners."
Many of the commenters on the Times article weren't buying it; they enthusiastically clung to the idea that the "horrible stereotype" was cold, hard — or perhaps hot and hard — fact. As one put it, "teenage boys would not be the first humans to ascribe nobler reasons for their desires." Many others expressed certainty that the boys were telling the researchers what they wanted to hear; "I still wouldn't ever trust a teenage boy around my daughter" said another.
To quiet the doubters, the SUNY Oswego findings were confirmed by a much larger 2010 study by Seventeen and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. After interviewing more than 1200 young men (aged 15-22), the investigators discovered that the overwhelming majority of their respondents were more interested in relationships than sex: "Two-thirds (66%) said they would rather have a girlfriend but no sex compared to only one-third (34%) who say they would prefer to have sex but no girlfriend. Similarly, two out of three (66%) agree that they could be happy in a relationship that doesn't include sex."
2011 has brought still more research about the emotional complexity of young men. Last month, the CDC reported that fewer American teenagers have had heterosexual intercourse than at any time in the last 30 years. One surprising explanation, according to the Times: "…the second-most-common reason among boys [for remaining virgins] in the current survey was that they had not yet found the right person, a distinct change from 2002, when the No. 2 reason was that they did not want to get a girl pregnant."
The data keeps coming. Amber Madison's Are All Guys Assholes? published in September, reveals the results of the author's own survey of over 1000 men. Admittedly unscientific, Madison's findings nonetheless jibed well with the scholarly research. As we wrote in October:
73% of guys reported that "their primary interest in women is someone to have a relationship with." Another 18% were mainly looking for "companionship or short-term dating." Just 8%, meanwhile, were primarily looking for sex. And nearly all the men Madison talked to - 99.2%, that is - said they'd "want to be in a relationship if the right girl came along."
The latest news, widely covered in the last two weeks, is the new Ohio State study that reports college-age men think about sex an average of only 18 times a day. (Women think about it about half as often.) The old myth that dudes have a sexual thought once every seven (or 17) seconds has been thoroughly debunked, as has the notion that those thoughts are primarily triggered by biology:
"If you had to know one thing about a person to best predict how often they would be thinking about sex, you'd be better off knowing their emotional orientation toward sexuality, as opposed to knowing whether they were male or female," said Terri Fisher, professor of psychology at Ohio State University's Mansfield campus and lead author of the study. "Frequency of thinking about sex is related to variables beyond one's biological sex."
All of this comes at the same time that a powerful cottage industry of celebrity advice writers (from pop psychologists like John Grey to the comedian Steve Harvey to the curmudgeonly academic Harvey Mansfield) continues to churn out book after book claiming that men really are the sex-crazed emotionally obtuse dimwits your mothers and older brothers warned you about.
Going back to Freud if not before, the common assumption has been that women are complicated and men are simple. Women of my mother's generation would often announce, with a mix of pride and contempt, that they knew their husbands better than their husbands knew themselves. Men of my father's generation (and my own) tended to assume that they could never understand their wives, so deep and opaque were the ways of women. Grey's infamous Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus became a bestseller because he reinforced what was already believed, not because he was offering anything new.
This belief in female complexity and male simplicity was — and is — born out in enduring adages about sex and desire. My two favorites: "Men are lightbulbs; women are ovens" (referring to how long each needs to get turned on and warmed up) and "women need a reason; men just need a place." As trite as these expressions are, they carry with them the ring of the universal truism. And so women who get turned on too quickly and men who need reasons were and are often shamed, ignored, or dismissed as "exceptions to the rule."
Even now, plenty of bestsellers (like Steve Harvey's Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, #1 this week in Amazon's "love and romance" category) continue to perpetuate these tired old myths about what men and women really want from sex and relationships. But this hoary old folk wisdom is debunked by the remarkably consistent new studies about what men really want. Given a chance to articulate their wants, young men are making it clear that as much as they love sex, they are even hungrier for emotional intimacy.
Has that hunger always been there, suppressed by the mandatory machismo of the Guy Code? Or are we raising a new generation of guys whose desires are genuinely different from those of their fathers? It seems likely that it's a little of both. Men in their teens and twenties do have more latitude for emotional expression than did their elders, and can articulate feelings that an earlier generation couldn't. (One reason, perhaps, why many women in their thirties prefer dating younger guys.) On the other hand, the most recent CDC survey showed that teen boys now place greater emphasis on intimacy in sexual relationships than they did in 2002, less than a decade ago. Since the early 21st century was hardly like the 1950s, it's likely there's more to this story than just a gradual cultural shift towards greater permissiveness for male emotion.
As a gender studies professor who thinks that the ubiquitous "male crisis" narrative is oversold if not downright illusory, I'm heartened to read such consistently good news about contemporary young men. These studies make clear that rather than being the un-launched, commitment-phobic, porn-numbed couch surfers of popular lore, guys are more romantic and idealistic than we've ever given them credit for being. The boys, it seems, are all right.
Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. He blogs at his eponymous site and co-authored the autobiography of Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.
Image via VLADGRIN/Shutterstock.