Teenage Brothers on Sex, Social Media, and What Their Parents Don’t Understand

“Wrestling,” by photographer Nicole Rosenthal, of her sons. Photo: Nicole Rosenthal

How to Raise a Boy is a weeklong series centered around this urgent question in the era of Parkland, President Trump, and #MeToo.

Carlos, 16, sat down one Saturday night to talk about teenage life with his brother Liam, 14. They live in a small town in Michigan.

On Masculinity

Carlos: Let’s talk about where we’re from. The most boring town on the planet.

Liam: I would challenge that. Because I think it’s pretty cool, except everyone wants to kill themselves.

Carlos: So: some context. We have had six people in the past two or three years commit suicide at our public schools. And some adults as well.

Liam: A kid on my baseball team — his dad did.

Carlos: There are three kids in my grade. I’m a junior — that’s one person every year who has passed away from suicide. And because we have such a conservative community, we’re afraid to talk about that.

Liam: That’s 100 percent true.

Carlos: And once it happens, then it’s like, “Bullying needs to stop.” But it’s not just bullying. It’s more the cultural perception of being “weak.” You are seen as a pussy if you are depressed. You are seen as a pussy if you have anxiety. Especially as a man. Girls, I feel like we see that as normal, for them to have anxiety and depression and weight issues. But if you’re a dude and you feel like you’re too skinny or too fat, you’re a pussy.

Liam: If you are a male and you look at yourself in the mirror and you’re like, “I’m kind of ugly, I don’t like myself.” Fuck you dude, you’re a pussy.

Carlos: Yeah. Like, grow some balls.

Liam: Yeah. Suck a dick. And I hate that. It’s this idea about masculinity.

Carlos: I fucking hate masculinity. I hate it. It’s such a toxic mindset to have to carry yourself a certain way, to have to act a certain way, to have to look a certain way, just because you have a penis. It kind of ruins your whole life. Thinking about being a man. Just because society tells you to.

Liam: Part of it is America itself. This nationalistic “Uncle Sam wants you — go and fight for your country. Shoot the motherfucking gun.” I gotta stop swearing. “Shoot a gun, and have sex, and . . .

Carlos: Drink beer, look at boobs.

Liam: And then go to church in the morning. If you don’t want to do something because you’re scared to try it, or because you’re nervous, a lot of parents are like, “Shut up pussy — go do it.”

Carlos: Get over it.

Liam: Get over it is a huge thing. It’s this toxic masculinity thing.

Carlos: I love feminism — it’s important. But I hate the super-reactionary, “all men are bad” third-wave feminism that was rampant on the internet when I was 13. It ruins the idea of feminism, which addresses serious issues around gender equality. But they’re right about toxic masculinity. It changes the way that you act. You’re trying to be manly and impress people, and you don’t even realize it until you are called out for being a total asshole.

Liam: It’s disgusting. Men thinking that they are the strongest and the biggest and the best is why we see so much sexual abuse.

Carlos: Have you ever seen or heard any instances of your friends or people you know being raped or sexually harassed?

Liam: Yeah, all the time. Especially over the internet: “Send me nudes, send me nudes, send me nudes, bitch.”

Carlos: And if you don’t send nudes, “You’re fucking ugly, I didn’t want nudes anyway.”

Liam: Literally all of my female friends have gone through that.

Carlos: Yeah, I try to fight all of that as much as I can as like a scrawny dude. I can’t, like, punch a rapist, but I can, like, yell the fuck out at a rapist. That’s something that  every generation has to keep an eye on.

Liam: Especially this one, which is sad.

Carlos: Why do you say especially this one?

Liam: Actually hold on, I take that back. Especially this one, which is good.

Carlos: Yeah. Because more people are aware of this.

Liam: I feel like stuff like this goes back forever.

Carlos: Rape has existed ever since penises and vaginas have existed.

Liam: But it’s a good thing that now we have an eye on this, you know? Because it would be terrible if we didn’t.

On Dating and Sex

Carlos: Who called you earlier, while we were talking?

Liam: My girlfriend.

Carlos: Tell me about her.

Liam: She’s super fucking cool. She’s got the same sense of humor that I do, and the same political views that I do, but she’s not exactly like me. This is pretty much my first serious relationship, but I think one major key to a relationship is having somebody who is different —somebody who can teach you about how other people think. She does that.

Carlos: How did you guys meet?

Liam: I was talking to this other girl on Snapchat, and she was annoyed with me. She was like, “Hey, talk to this girl. I bet you could get her.” And I was like, “No I can’t. She’s hot.” So she was like, “Just talk to her.” I started talking to her, but I was friend-zoned for nine months. Until one day in November, we were in the library and we started making out.

Carlos: What do you guys do together?

Liam: We do puzzles. All the time, which is really lame.

Carlos: Yeah. You guys sound like 60-year-olds.

Liam: We watch Twilight Zone and Black Mirror. I have so much fun hanging out with her, because she laughs at the stupid stuff that I do. Nobody has thought I’m as funny as she does. It’s good to have at least one person who thinks you’re funny.

Carlos: What are some date ideas you guys have?

Liam: Date ideas? Oh, that would be a good thing. If you have access to a beach, beaches are super cool. Um, naps are sick. Take naps together.

Carlos: Are you a virgin?

Liam: Yes.

Carlos: Why?

Liam: Um, because I haven’t had the chance.

Carlos: Fair enough. Would you?

Liam: Yeah. I’m ready.

Carlos: Do you need a condom? Or didn’t I give you one?

Liam: You gave me one, but I blew it up like a balloon.

[Both laugh hysterically]

Liam: It can be scary, you know? Parents should understand that. Like, it’s gonna happen. And it’s not gonna go well if you try to make it not happen.

Carlos: Are you nervous at all about it?

Liam: I definitely was before I had a girlfriend. But now I have somebody who I’m cool with and comfortable with, and we’ve been open about it, and we’ve talked about it. Having this communication with her about stuff like this has really made both of us comfortable with it. I’m not that nervous now.

Carlos: Why don’t you ask me if I’m a virgin?

Liam: I was going to. Are you a virgin?

Carlos: No.

Liam: How long ago did you lose that title?

Carlos: Sometime during freshman year. I have a bit of a different experience, because every girl that I’ve been with has been older than me. So they’ve been less like, “Would you wanna do this?” and more like, “Let’s do this.”

Liam: Do you think you were ready for it?

Carlos: I was 14, so no. But it happened, and now I’m comfortable with it.

Liam: Did it go all right? Was there anything bad?

Carlos: I was very drunk.

Liam: Oh. I heard that makes you numb.

Carlos: I could not tell you.

[Both laugh]

Carlos: But yeah, I mean it’s a great thing. Sometimes it gets a little bit awkward. If you ignore that it’s awkward, you’re doing it wrong. You have to embrace that it’s awkward.

On Technology

Liam: In this age of technology and everything being accessible to just about everybody, what type of expectations do you feel like you have to live up to?

Carlos: I don’t really worry about having a digital presence too much. I’ve kind of gotten into it recently: watching my Instagram followers, and seeing how many likes I get. But I think that’s something other people struggle with more than I do. Especially with girls, it’s a big thing.

Liam: Yeah. I’ve noticed that.

Carlos: Like, there are people in my grade who I’ve heard say, “If you don’t get X amount of likes in 20 minutes on your post you should delete it, because it’s not going to do well.” I don’t really understand that. I think that’s an expectation that’s been brought upon us by the digital age.

Liam: In some ways, social media is making it harder to grow up. But in other ways, it makes it easier. Because we can watch everybody do it. We can see how other people are coping. And if they fuck up, we can feel better about ourselves.

Carlos: Adults have this perception that we are kinda sucked into our phone, that we don’t really care about anything other than our phones. Like those old people comics that 60-year-olds share on Facebook. They’re like, “Oh, kids these days don’t know how to be friends.” Old people Facebook is weird.

On Parents

Carlos: Tell me what it was like to hear that Mom had cancer.

Liam: It was rough. That was probably one of the worst, like, periods of just sadness. That day we got our exams back, and I was so excited. We were in the car, and I was like, “Mom, I got the highest score on my English exam in my class, and my team won first place in Field Day, and I was team captain, and I had such a fun time, and you have cancer.”

Carlos: [Laughs]

Liam: So I went from so high, to boom! It took me weeks to cope with it. I don’t know how long it took you.

Carlos: It didn’t take me very long, because I knew that breast cancer’s survival rate is very high, and I knew she’s like strong as fuck. I wrote a whole paper about how she’s strong and pushing through cancer.

Liam: Yeah, she’s baller.

Carlos: That was the first time I had cried in a long time.

Liam: I went straight to my room, and I fell asleep.

Carlos: Yeah, I fell asleep, too.

Liam: So that was a strange day.

Carlos: Yeah. How do you think she did raising us, though? I’d say pretty well.

Liam: Yeah. Because she has let us grow up on our own, but she’s made that not dangerous.

Carlos: Dad has been hands off in the worst way possible. She’s been hands off in the best way possible.

Liam: Yup. That was a brilliant way to put it. I wanna start using that word more, brilliant.

Carlos: Brilliant?

Liam: Brilliant.

Carlos: Brilliant.

Liam: Brilliant! So now we’ve got Mom and cancer off the list.

Carlos: What are some things you wish Mom and Dad knew about what you need? What could they offer you to help you with being a 14-year-old boy?

Liam: It would be really cool if they understood that I don’t want to be the uncoolest of my group. I don’t want to be the person to leave a party first. I don’t want to be the person who says, “No, we can’t go over to my house.”

It would also be cool, emotionally, if they could understand that sometimes, hey, I’m just having a bad day. I get in the car and I’m like, “This is not the time. I’m really tired. Didn’t get much sleep last night. I’m probably going to get angry if we talk a bunch. Can I just sit here?”

Carlos: Yeah. Mom is very bad at that. If you don’t want to have a conversation with her, it’s like you kicked a puppy.

Liam: Growing up, being young, we’re kind of adapting to these new social norms that we aren’t exactly used to. Like politely being able to say “no” — that’s not something as little kids that we ever had to do before. When we were little it would be like, “NOOOOOO!” We’re going to be awkward trying out all these new tactics. So have some patience with that.

I remember one time you learning to drive, and it was raining. You were at an intersection, and there was a car pulling up next to you, and a car pulling up on the other side of the intersection. You had to wait to go, watching the light. And mom is sitting there fiddling with the windshield wipers —

Carlos: Trying to teach me a lesson. And I have to look at four different things. Five now, because her hand is right below my vision.

Liam: And you said, “Hey, can you not do that right now? I’m trying to focus.” It was about as polite and formal as you could’ve made it, but she got so mad. It’s just, we aren’t completely used to being an adult human. You told her, “We’re not adults. We are becoming adults. So if you want us to be adults, let us practice.”

Parents have to understand that we’re not going to go straight from being young to being grown. There’s a stage in between that we’re going through. Sometimes we’re going to be awkward. Sometimes we’re going to be mean. We’re not trying to be. We’re trying to do it the right way. Help us learn instead of getting mad at us for trying.

*A version of this article appears in the March 5, 2018 issue of New York Magazine.

Teen Brothers on Sex, Tech, and What Their Parents Don’t Get