What Boys Want

Hook-up culture doesn't just hurt girls. An examination of who is actually falling behind amid parental panic

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Laura Pannack for TIME

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First, to get it out of the way: of course boys want sex, and they spend a lot of time thinking about it. (Let's remember: so do girls.) More surprisingly, though, I found that teen boys face many of the same challenges and are longing for many of the same things as girls: they fall in love easily, get their hearts broken and have very mixed feelings about the hypersexualized culture in which they live; they hunger to be more open about their feelings, both with their families and with their male friends, though they exist in a culture that discourages such emotional openness; and they desperately want to maintain their social position among their guy friends, regardless of the cost to them or others.

While some of these problems are eternal, the landscape for boys has been changing in significant ways. A culture of sexual liberation and empowerment for girls and young women has left boys (and their parents) largely at sea. The rise of digital communication has opened up new ways for boys to express themselves to girls, with a scary and complicated lack of established rules. And the very idea of hookup culture (whether or not teen sexual behavior has really changed all that much in recent decades) has altered how boys see their female peers. As many boys are left to process these cultural changes on their own, lacking many of the communication skills girls have in spades, they appear to be paying the price for this deficit in elevated rates of depression and falling levels of academic achievement.

What's Changed--and What Hasn't

Looking at the data on adolescents and relationships, it's surprising how much overlap there is between boys and girls--and how little things have changed in the past few decades on key issues like when most teens lose their virginity.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit that promotes reproductive health and rights, only 16% of teens have had sex by age 15, and there is little difference between the genders in the age of first intercourse. In 2012 the birthrate among teens dropped to the lowest level in the 73 years the government has been collecting these data, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It's now less than half what it was in 1991. Among students in grades 9 through 12 nationwide, the percentage who say they've ever had sexual intercourse actually decreased from 1991 to 2011, to 47.4% from 54.1%.

Despite our culture's recent focus on girls and their self-esteem, it's actually boys whose emotional and academic lives have been suffering. A working paper this summer from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that from the 1980s to the 2000s, the mode (that is, statistically, the value that appeared most often) of girls' high school GPA distribution shifted from B to A, essentially leaving boys behind, as the mode of boys' GPA distribution stayed at B. College enrollment has followed the same pattern. Whereas 58% of college students in 1970 were men, by 2010, 57% of college students were women, according to a recent study by Harvard's Graduate School of Education. The same study found that women are now also more likely than men to earn college degrees and to enroll in graduate school, making up 60% of grad students.

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