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Andrew Smiler on Sexuality, Consent and Raising Healthy Boys

I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Smiler, author of the new book, "Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy."

Andrew Smiler, Ph.D, is a licensed therapist and an expert on boys, men and masculinity. Dr. Smiler holds a master's in clinical psychology and a Ph.D in developmental psychology. He authored "Challenging Casanova: Beyond the stereotype of the promiscuous young male" and co-authored "The Masculine Self" with renowned researcher Chris Kilmartin. Dr. Smiler has been featured in the New York Times, written for the Huffington Post, Shriver Report and Everyday Feminism, and is a regular contributor to the Good Men Project.

Rebecca Woolf: Hey, Andrew! Thanks for joining me (and us) today to chat a little about your new book, "Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 20th Century Teen Boy." First off, can you tell us a little bit about the book? What led you to write it? And specifically what age group is this book directed to?

Andrew Smiler: Thanks. It's a pleasure to be here. "Dating and Sex" is written for 13- to 16-year-old boys, whether they're just starting to think about dating and sex or whether they've been doing these things for some time. It's written as a "how-to," so there's lots of discussion of how to think about the different components of dating and sex, as well as advice on how to actually do those things.

Woolf: Because our readers' kids typically skew younger, what advice would you give parents of boys who have questions about sex and sexuality at an early age? Is there a time when parents should think about having "the sex talk" with their children—specifically, their sons?

Smiler: I think parents and kids do better when they think about dating and sex as a topic to be discussed repeatedly over the years, not just one awkward conversation where no one makes eye contact. After all, we wouldn't have a single conversation with our boys about what it means to be a good person, how to manage their money or how to choose a college, so why is that tolerated when it comes to dating and sex? Having conversations across the years will help build a foundation that fits your and your sons' values, creates comfort talking about these topics, and develops trust in parents' ability to address these topics as well as trust in the quality of the answers.

When 6- to 10-year-olds see people holding hands or kissing, on screen or in real life, ask them if they can imagine doing those things some day and talk to them about why people do those things; these questions will also be relevant if kids report attractions and crushes around age 6 or age 10. Ask similar questions about dating or being a couple or getting married. Once your kids become teens, you can shift the question to more sexually intimate behaviors.

Woolf: How important is it for the men in our sons' lives to have these kinds of conversations as opposed to the women? For example, I'm definitely the "sex talk parent" in my house, but I wonder if a male POV is more important than a female one when it comes to talking to boys about sexuality? Thoughts?

Smiler: Most boys say they want to have conversations about dating and sexual behavior with someone they trust to provide honest and accurate answers and who will respect the boys' own answers; the trusting relationship is more important than the gender identity of that person. At the same time, it is important to recognize that there is a subset of boys who explicitly prefer having this conversation with a male. Ask your son which/who he prefers, and also pay attention to see who he's addressing his questions to.

Woolf: What are your thoughts on giving boys and girls a safe place to converse about male and female sexuality in a group setting? My feeling is that if girls could empathize with boys and what they're going through as teenagers, and boys could empathize with girls and what they're going through as teenagers, there would be more respect given on both sides. For example, I would think your book would be really beneficial for a teenage girl to read, as well as a teenage boy. I also think books like "Girls and Sex" would be beneficial for boys to read so that they can better empathize with the female experience. Thoughts on this?

Smiler: I think empathy and understanding of the other sex is important for helping to improve communication and decreasing some aspects of sexual assault. And here in 2016, we know that most teens have at least one friend of the other sex. At the same time, not everyone is comfortable discussing the more personal aspects of dating and sexuality in mixed-gender groups, in part because many boys feel pressure to live up to cultural standards and stereotypes that say guys should be sexual experts, guys should not show their feelings, and that asking questions or admitting to not understanding something is a weakness. For guys who respond to those cultural pressures (and most boys do respond, at least a little), a mixed gender group would be fraught with reputational and personal challenges. (And the dynamics of such a setup virtually ensure that discussion of male-male relationships wouldn't happen.)

Woolf: You have a whole chapter devoted to consent in your book. (Awesome.) What are some ways parents can talk to their kids about consent at an early age?

Smiler: Our kids give—or don't give—consent any number of times during a typical day. They consent to having someone sit next to them at lunch often nonverbally, by not moving away. They consent to a high-five by doing it, or don't consent by leaving someone hanging. And they consent to attending activities like sports or scouts, as well as doing chores, and there's the inevitable non-consent of "stop touching me." By re-labeling these as "consent," their kids will recognize that they already have a framework for understanding the issue, as well as what it's like to have their voice ignored.

Woolf: Some of the conversations you are having in your book are relatively new conversations. In your experience, are boys today any different than they were when you were a teenager? Why or why not?

Smiler: I don't think boys are different, but now that we're in the digital age, the world they live in is dramatically different. Parents of today's teens tried to get their own phone extension in their room so they could have privacy, but they were still sharing a phone number with the rest of the family. Not anymore; the majority of today's teens have their own phone and phone number, granting them access and privacy that their parents never dreamed of. The result is a whole different set of conversations about appropriate times for contact, appropriate content, privacy and responsibility that today's parents didn't experience when they were teens.

This generation also has access to pornography in ways that their parents didn't have when they were teens. Back then, it was mostly magazines. Today's teens can see more, and make their own video selfies, in ways their parents never had to contemplate. Again, that means a whole series of conversations that today's parents didn't receive when they were teens. For sexting, that probably means different rules about sending plain text asking a partner if they want to do [behavior] than for nude pictures (which may be illegal to possess, even though it's legal to be having sex with same-age partners). Telling teens that pornography is for people who have already developed their sense of who they are sexually may also help clarify when it's acceptable to use porn (if ever). And pointing out what porn is missing—consent, condoms, relationships, diversity in both female and male body types, etc.—may also be a useful conversation.

Woolf: What do you feel is the most important point (or points) made in your book? And if you had advice for parents of young boys, who aren't quite ready for your book, but are definitely curious about sexuality, what would that be?

Smiler: I think one of the most important points is that dating and sex are complicated, take practice and require time, energy and attention. In some ways, they're no different than learning to play a sport or an instrument—those are also more complex than they appear, take practice and require effort.

One specific thing that seems to surprise many of the teen boys and adult men that I work with is the idea that the rules of a relationship can be changed, and either partner in the relationship can ask for changes. Then again, guys can't change the rules of sports, music, video games or almost anything else they do, so why would they expect to be able to change the rules of a romantic relationship?

I'd encourage parents to start having some of the conversations that I've mentioned above. I'll also encourage parents to ask boys about their feelings more often, because we tend to neglect this part of boys' development. Instead of asking "How was your day?" ask both "What made you happy/smile/excited today?" and "What made you mad/sad/worried today?" Answer those questions yourself, too. Romantic relationships are all about feelings, so this daily practice will keep them tuned in to their emotions. And they'll also give you some insight into your son's life.

Robie Harris' books, like "It's Perfectly Normal" are good for preteens and tweens. Debra Haffner's "From Diapers to Dating" provides parents with guidance on how to discuss some of these issues with their preteens.

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Andrew Smiler's new book, "DATING AND SEX: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy" is available now.

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