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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What's more, recent research shows that boys get every bit as emotionally invested in adolescent relationships as girls do--the main difference being that boys feel far less in control of how those relationships progress. A 2006 study from Bowling Green University included interviews with more than 1,300 adolescents. The researchers found that boys report significantly lower levels of confidence compared with girls in navigating their romantic relationships. Yet they had the same levels of emotional engagement as girls. What's more, the boys felt their romantic partners had greater power and influence in their relationships.

Brian, an 18-year-old American who attends high school abroad (and who doesn't want his last name used), told me about a girl he "really liked" at his school. "I thought she liked me back," he said. "We had hooked up a couple of times, and I believed we were moving forward ... until I saw her making out with another guy at a party, and it broke my heart." Brian, like so many other boys I talked to, took betrayal quite hard. "I talked to her afterward, and she acted as though what we had was nothing. I felt used," he said. "It was horrible, especially since the guy she made out with was a friend of mine."

The Bro Code

Boys' friendships may not seem that complicated. Asked about their inner circle, they'll tell you things like "I'll do anything for a friend." Some will respond with declarations of the "bro code" or "bros before hos."

But within these friendships, there are often moments of deep betrayal and manipulation. Boys' relationships look quite different from those of girls. Whereas girls actively compete and jockey with others for social supremacy, boys' roles are much more stable. These roles often get set as early as grade school and don't change much through high school. It's not that boys' social structures aren't hierarchical; it's that boys are much more resigned to their place in the hierarchy. Thus, they form very deep bonds with other boys at their social level, and they spend a great deal of time trying to avoid conflict.

Even something as juvenile-seeming as dibs (that is, one boy calling dibs on hooking up with a girl, as if she were a choice seat on the bus) has a very specific function in male friendships--namely, avoiding conflict--and is subject to an elaborate set of rules that is remarkably consistent among boys of all backgrounds. (You have to make it recognized that you liked a girl first to call dibs, you can't call dibs if you have no chance with the girl, you can't call dibs just to annoy your friend, etc.)

When these bro-code rules are violated, boys often lack the social permission or skills to talk about it with one another. Dre tells a story of how a good friend of his hooked up with a girl Dre had recently broken up with. According to the code, that girl should have been off-limits. "I went to him, and I didn't say anything," Dre says. "I just started swinging, but I stopped because I shouldn't be fighting him, because he's like a brother to me."

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