Feature

The Talk

A new sex ed for boys

“But what about boobs? Does a person still get boobs? ” One of the boys in the WiseGuyz sexual education class, at Georges P. Vanier School in northeastern Calgary, is struggling to understand the mechanics of being intersex (born with a combination of male and female genitals and/or chromosomes). For the past fifteen minutes or so, the discussion has focused on diversity and accommodation, and now it has made its way to people who consider themselves something other than “male” or “female.” There may be more delicate ways to ask about physiology, but this is a group of a dozen fourteen-year-old boys, a sea of sneakers and hoodies and cellphones and wisecracks. Boobs were bound to come up eventually.

Tristan Abbott, one of the WiseGuyz facilitators, cheerfully corrects him: “You mean ‘breasts,’ right? ” (He and his colleagues make a point of using the correct names for body parts.) Then he unfolds himself from his chair and sketches a picture on a whiteboard at the front of the room: a figure shaped like a gingerbread man, with a smiley face, a heart, and a starburst at the crotch.

Abbott points to the head and explains that gender identity lies there (whether you define yourself as a man, a woman, or somewhere in between); the heart represents orientation (whom you’re attracted to); the starburst connotes sex (your physical characteristics); and the outline, the external shape, stands for gender expression (how you dress, talk, walk, and so on). These various aspects don’t line up the same way for everyone, he says.

A few boys nod, but the rest look baffled. Stafford Perry, another facilitator, speaks up. “It helps if you understand that for many people, gender is not just two possibilities but many,” he says. “Being a man or a woman exists on a scale, so it’s not either/or. You don’t have to be one or the other.”

A moment of silence as this sinks in. Then the kid who asked the boobs question, a tall, athletic alpha dog type, calls out, “So how do you pee if you don’t have a penis? ” Several boys snicker. Blake Spence, who oversees the program, answers him, straight faced, with a brief explanation of how the urinary tract works.

The kid was probably just angling for a laugh. He had spent the session ping-ponging between peeks at his phone, friendly trash talk with the others, and testing how far he could lean back on his chair balanced just on its rear legs. As Spence explained to me the previous day when we met at the downtown office of the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, headquarters of WiseGuyz, their policy is to answer every question put to them, even if they get that it’s a joke. It builds trust, it pre-empts unkind comments, and—you never know—the answer may be useful to someone. At the end of the anatomy lesson, the joker, conceding defeat, flashes a smile at Spence and lets his chair thump forward onto all four legs. The conversation is steered back to the theme of the day, more complicated than possible body part configurations.

Earlier, Spence asked what they thought of when they heard the term “human rights.” One boy, nearly silent till then, mentioned that Vanier has a Gay-Straight Alliance group, and said a gay kid would have no problem at their school.

“Everyone is cool with that here,” he says.

“I guess,” pipes up another boy across the room, sitting near the alpha dog. “I mean, I’m okay with a guy being gay, but I wouldn’t want him to look at me in the locker room when I’m changing or something.”

Spence leans against a table, with his denim shirt sleeves rolled up to reveal the tattoos on his forearms (one, he explained to the group during their check-in, a fresh acquisition from a trip to Portland, Oregon). “Okay, so what you’re saying,” he answers, “is what makes you uncomfortable about gay guys is that they might look at you in a way that’s sexual.”

“Yeah,” the boy says, scanning the room to gauge the others’ responses. When it is clear that no one is going to say anything more, Spence nods at him, then moves on to a slight kid with a mop top who wants to know why all the regular members of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance are girls.

“Why do you think it’s that way? ” Spence asks.

“Um, I don’t know. Maybe because guys are scared that if they join, maybe people will think they’re gay? ”

“Yeah,” Spence says, “and why would guys not want people to think they’re gay? ”

“Uh, because even though some people are okay with it,” the kid ventures, “a lot of guys don’t think it’s okay to be gay, and they’re afraid they’ll be made fun of. I think maybe it’s harder for guys to be gay or something.”

Spence nods again, then sends them off for a short break, filing away this conversation for the coming months, when the curriculum moves on to sexual orientation. It is mid-November, still early in the fourteen-session supplemental course for grade nine boys, which runs roughly once a week from October to May. At this stage, one of the main goals is to get them talking. It usually takes the first half of the program for them to become comfortable enough to open up and “set aside the masculine bravado,” he says.

At the beginning, they clam up or crack dumb jokes. They will refer to a girl they don’t like as a “bitch,” call each other “fags,” or dismiss something as being “so gay.” Often, they say things to impress the others, even if they don’t believe their own words. “They might not be particularly homophobic or sexist,” Spence says. “They just think that’s how guys are supposed to talk to each other.”

That attitude may make it challenging to teach boys about sex, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that we seem to have given up on it altogether. Sex educators report that young straight men are the most frequently ignored demographic when it comes to sexual health. Since girls and women overwhelmingly bear the consequences of unwanted pregnancies, violence, and discrimination, sexual health initiatives around the world tend to focus on their needs (one exception being AIDS awareness campaigns targeted at men).

It comes as no surprise, then, that boys often find these female-slanted programs irrelevant and boring, and may even come to think that they have no responsibility for their own sexual health or their partners’. This lack of education and expectation, coupled with the shoulder-shrugging cop-out that “boys will be boys,” carries serious repercussions. Consider the recent high-profile assaults involving young men, such as the 2011 alleged gang rape of Rehtaeh Parsons in Halifax; or the 2012 case in Steubenville, Ohio, where two high school football stars assaulted an inebriated female classmate.

Teenage boys also visit considerable harm upon themselves. They are most prone to taking risks with their health, by using drugs and alcohol during sex, having multiple partners, and engaging in unprotected sex. Studies indicate that boys are less likely than girls to seek clinical sexual health care, because they feel embarrassed and afraid to look stupid or unmanly. When they do receive medical attention, doctors are less likely to raise the issue of sexual health with them than with girls.

Meanwhile, as teenage pregnancy in Canada continues to decline, sexually transmitted infections are climbing. More than two-thirds of chlamydia cases reported in this country occur among those aged fifteen to twenty-four. In the United States, the same age group accounts for nearly half of the 19 million new cases of STDs each year. This suggests that while girls are using contraception to prevent pregnancies, boys, who have more control over the use of condoms, are not wearing them consistently to prevent the spread of infections.

So, if young men pose a danger to themselves and others, how do sex educators go about fixing that? In the case of WiseGuyz, it’s not by showing them how to use condoms, though that is part of the curriculum. Instead, it requires the much more radical act of teaching them to question all they have been told about what it means to be a man, and then helping them figure out how to become a good one. Or, as one boy at Vanier explained it to me, “It’s a program where you learn how not to be a jerk.”

Young people always assume that their generation invented sex, but kids coming of age at this particular moment—even more so than the baby boomers, who grew up during the sexual revolution—really are charting an unmapped world. It’s not, as you might think, because they are having sex earlier (the average age most Canadians experience what academics merrily refer to as “the sexual debut” has held steady at around sixteen). Rather, as the beneficiaries of feminism, gay liberation, and the digital revolution, they see romance, desire, gender roles, and family configuration expressed and celebrated in all sorts of unprecedented forms.

But have adults caught up enough to prepare them for all of this? It depends where you look. In the US, sex ed remains a political wedge issue, with a determined conservative lobby championing abstinence programs, a major failure at influencing teenage behaviour. (Teen pregnancy and abortion rates in the US are much higher than in countries with more liberal sex education and more relaxed attitudes about sexuality.) Meanwhile, in Canada, surveys find that the majority of parents—over 85 percent—believe the school system should provide sexual health education. An even higher proportion of adolescents agrees.

We shouldn’t feel too smug about this, mind you. While Canadian curricula might be more explicit, they are heavy on talk of disease and date rape, as though foreplay should include a disaster preparedness plan. Berkha Gupta, coordinator of teen programming at Planned Parenthood Toronto, says, “The fear-based model has become the cornerstone of sex ed in schools. The focus is on negative outcomes, on avoiding pregnancy and STIs, on avoiding sexual assault. In some ways, it’s just an extension of the abstinence approach.” One academic paper that examined the squeamishness of sex ed courses called the school system “a place where the body is unwelcome.”

Even if teachers want to be more open and positive, they often feel limited in what they can tell students. The Ontario government chickened out of implementing a sex ed curriculum it announced in 2010, after conservative groups complained that it discussed homosexuality in grade three and masturbation in grade six. Without new material, educators in the most populous province must rely on lesson plans released in 1998—the pre-Snapchat, pre-twerking, early mesolithic era of modern sexuality.

So what do young people want to know about sex? In a bright office on the top floor of the rambling Victorian that houses Planned Parenthood, I met with Gupta and Michele Chai, a health promoter who runs the agency’s programs for young men. They tell me about the results of a survey the organization conducted with 1,200 teenagers and young adults in the Toronto area, asking them what was missing from their sexual health knowledge. The top three issues they wanted to learn more about were healthy relationships, HIV/AIDS, and sexual pleasure.

That last topic—pleasure—is key to engaging young men, Chai explains, because sexual prowess is so deeply embedded in beliefs about masculinity. Trouble is, the assumption that every boy is always “on” can make a teen feel like less of a man if he needs advice about pleasing himself or his partner. “People tend to think that the swagger young men display is because they have confidence about sex.…You want to know the three things about sex that young guys lie about most often to their peers? ” Chai asks, ticking them off on her fingers. “One, how often they have sex. Two, how much they enjoy the sex they actually have. And three, whether or not they use condoms.” She says this adds up to far too many unhappy and unsafe encounters.

Giving young men the opportunity to talk about what they enjoy and what they don’t also opens the door to considering the desires of others, and it’s a short leap from talking about pleasure to talking about consent. Boys are repeatedly told in sex ed classes that “no means no,” Chai says, but they are seldom asked if they ever want to say no themselves. The hope is that if they get in touch with their wants and needs, they will show more respect for their partners’ wishes, too. (On the flip side, a movement has emerged to encourage young women to feel good about enjoying sex, a kind of unashamed, yes-means-hell-yes concept called “enthusiastic consent.”)

Unfortunately, little support exists for boys trying to navigate this tricky terrain. Programs like WiseGuyz are rare, and Planned Parenthood’s boys-only courses are directed at those in detention centres, shelters, and foster care. Chai says she would love to expand the classes beyond those considered at risk, but no funding is available.

Meanwhile, where sex ed has feared to tread, pornography has happily stepped in. The ubiquity of porn in young men’s lives is so much a given that every sex educator I spoke to raised it without prompting. “Adults may want teens to have information about sex,” Tristan Abbott explains, “but most don’t want to give them permission to actually have sex.” Porn gives them permission.

Most sex educators, however, do not indulge in the widespread cultural pearl clutching about the influence porn may have in shaping boys’ attitudes about sex, in part because insufficient research has been done on the subject and what little exists is inconclusive. Last spring, for example, Middlesex University, at the request of England’s Office of the Children’s Commissioner, released a report titled Basically…Porn Is Everywhere, an exhaustive overview of studies from around the world about the impact of pornography on young people.

Many findings were predictable: kids look at porn out of curiosity and use it to masturbate; and boys use it more often and have a more positive view of it than girls do. While noting that young people have far greater exposure and access to porn than ever before, and that it has been linked to unrealistic attitudes about sex and regressive views about gender, researchers had difficulty establishing a direct causal relationship. One reason may be that modern adolescents are more sophisticated than previous generations at interpreting and criticizing media. As well, popular culture has become so hyper-sexualized that it’s tough to distinguish between porn and the general blur of dirty song lyrics, rape-fuelled video games, and sleazy reality TV.

What may be more important than measuring the impact of pornography is addressing why adolescents look at so much of it. Researchers report “emerging evidence…that young people are dissatisfied with the sex education they are receiving and that they are increasingly drawing on pornography, expecting it to educate and give information regarding sexual practices and norms.” This is particularly true for boys. One study found that young men wanted porn included in sex ed, because issues around sex and sexuality were not covered well enough; another noted that young gay men relied on porn to teach them about anal sex. Researchers concluded that “children and young people want more education and opportunity to discuss sex and relationships but…many parents feel poorly equipped to help.”

Back in 2007, when staff at the Calgary Sexual Health Centre realized that after thirty years in operation it offered no specific programs for young straight men, they commissioned a team of social workers from the University of Calgary to help them create one. Given the dearth of models, they put together a small sample of guys in their late teens and early twenties and asked them how they learned about sex and what they wished they had been taught.

Almost to a man, they said sex ed in school started too late, and seemed abstract and unrelated to what people really did in bed. They thought the classes should be frank and fun. One said he suspected that his teachers had focused on anatomy so they could “shy away from actually having to talk about [sex].” They said birth control and disease prevention is left up to girls—guys, they said, were often ignorant about risks and felt they were invincible—and they stressed the importance of teaching boys the “right attitude” about sex, in particular to be more sensitive toward women, and more responsible for their own actions.

When asked who should deliver this kind of information, they were unanimous: other guys, not too old or out of touch, engaging, smart, with a sense of humour. No nerdy academic types. No middle-aged ladies. As one participant said, “If some fifty-five-year-old woman tried to teach me all this stuff…I’d just be like, ‘You’re just like my mom. I’m not going to listen to you.’”

The ideas expressed in that focus group are evident in the WiseGuyz program today, down to the profile of the facilitators. All three are around thirty years old, confident, handsome, and dressed in the lumberjack-chic uniform of the modern urban man: well-groomed beards, dark denim jeans, white T-shirts peeping out from under fitted shirts. Blake Spence tends to be laid back and observant, while Tristan Abbott is talkative and good humoured. Stafford Perry offers the sunbeam-like attention of a beloved older brother. When a short, sweet-faced kid in a Calgary Flames jersey enters the room, Perry greets him with a fist bump and an “Awww, nice shirt, man!” then rehashes the team’s loss the previous night. The three men are undeniably cool, and the boys, even the ones who give them a hard time, regard them with awe.

One student tells me that the facilitators are relatable and non-judgmental. “Sometimes it feels like adults think teenage guys are nothing but trouble,” he says. When I ask if he talks to his parents about sex and relationships, he says he’d like to, but he’s afraid they will overreact. “It’s just easier to talk to Blake and Stafford and Tristan, because they don’t force you to tell them every detail of what’s going on.” When he asks his parents about sex, “I get the third degree. Then I say to them, ‘This is why I didn’t want to talk to you in the first place.’”

Vanier was the first of five junior high schools across Calgary to host WiseGuyz, almost four years ago now. Principal Martin Poirier, a dapper man in a blue bow tie, tells me the younger students look forward to signing up in grade nine. Though the program is voluntary, some are encouraged to enroll, the ones who act inappropriately, or who seem immature and might need more confidence. “What these boys learn,” he says, “has an impact on the whole school. They become role models.”

The curriculum follows a carefully plotted schedule. After the unit on human rights and values, it moves on to the nuts and bolts: anatomy, sex, and contraception. The third unit focuses on gender and sexuality, and the course wraps up in the spring by addressing healthy relationships. It’s heavy stuff, and WiseGuyz takes it seriously, basing the content on current research and constant evaluation. The Calgary Sexual Health Centre study that informed the program drew on surveys from health and social service organizations that serve young people, as well as focus groups and academic literature. A couple of years ago, WiseGuyz commissioned another report measuring its impact and collecting feedback from interviews with teachers and past participants.

Despite this earnestness behind the scenes, facilitators keep the tone light in the classroom. Take the standard sex ed lesson in rolling a condom onto a banana. It’s a useful exercise, technically, but it doesn’t take into account what it’s actually like during foreplay and how tough it can be to negotiate safer sex amid the nerves, pressure, and lust. The typical reasons given for not using condoms are that they reduce pleasure, and they ruin the mood. Young men want to be seen as skilled and suave, and they worry that if they start fumbling with a condom they’ll look inept—the ultimate buzzkill for a guy who is already anxious about performance. One session with a banana is not going to cut it. In WiseGuyz, the students are allowed to experiment. They blow up condoms and bat them around like balloons, or fill them with water and fling them at one another. The more times they practise opening the packages, examining what different kinds feel and look like, the better. The aim is to demystify condoms, make them seem fun, not scary or ridiculous.

No evidence has surfaced yet as to whether the boys are more apt to practise safer sex later on, but Spence offers at least one compelling anecdote. He received a message from an early graduate who was not sexually active then; now he was a high school senior and had started having sex with his girlfriend. The thing was, condoms felt awkward and fit weirdly. He remembered that Blake was cool. Could he help him out now?

If you’re over the age of, say, thirty, think back to when you were seventeen and just about everything felt mortifying. Now imagine what it would have meant to have an adult in your life you could have gone to with this kind of question, trusting that he or she wouldn’t judge or lecture. Even without a shred of empirical data, you could not deny the value of this. Or this: Spence made the kid a care package filled with every possible condom brand, style, colour, and texture he could find, and encouraged him to knock himself out, trying different kinds until he found one that worked for him.

After a short break in the morning session, the facilitators divide the students into teams and assign them an activity: draw a map of an imaginary island, and establish a charter of human rights for it. Abbott warned me that one group in a previous course created an island that looked like a huge pair of breasts, while another championed the right “for girls to be naked all the time.” Today’s results are tamer. One island society has a US-style “stand your ground” law, and a convoluted origin story that rivals the plot of Lost. Another nation is divided into the regions of Dopest and Least Dope, supported by a constitution that forbids killing and currency (“If no one has money, then there’s less corruption,” one boy explains).

The discussion is half-goofy, half-serious. Enthusiastic agreement ensues when the right to free speech is raised (not surprising for a demographic that gets told to shut up all the time), along with whoops at the suggestion that people should be given free rein when it comes to eating cookies. Crayons in hand, immersed in drawing their island utopias and slurping from juice boxes, they resemble a pack of third-graders more than they do adolescents in the throes of puberty—but those awkward, hormonal hallmarks show up, too: while some kids seem outweighed by their backpacks, others appear broad shouldered and towering, with voices that croak and pop over several octaves.

Up until about age ten, children tend to hang out in single-sex friendship circles, with distinct patterns of interaction; while girls talk to each other, boys do activities together. As they move into middle school, though, “they cross that divide and start to have mixed-gender interactions and friendships,” says Jennifer Connolly, a psychology professor at Toronto’s York University who researches adolescent relationships. At this stage, crushes also begin to emerge.

By the time they reach thirteen or fourteen, like the students in WiseGuyz, dating begins. Some are in what they consider serious relationships, though Connolly says exclusive adult-style couplings tend not to appear until later adolescence. (Insufficient research has been done into adolescent gay and lesbian relationships to determine whether they follow a similar trajectory.) Younger teens typically date within large, mixed peer groups. “Same-sex friends remain the most important during this time,” she says. “That’s the group younger teenagers go back to as their sounding board, the one that sets the social norms when it comes to romantic relationships.”

“The guys set the bar for one another,” Spence agrees. “At the beginning, the popular guys have the most power, and the others look to them for approval. As we progress, they start to challenge one another in different ways.” To illustrate how WiseGuyz facilitates this evolution, he tells me about a recent class in which all of the kids condemned sexual assault and bullying. Then he pushed them a little further: what would they do about these kinds of incidents if they witnessed them or heard about them? “I said, ‘You might not identify with boys who do things like that, but if you do nothing about it you’re contributing to it. You don’t have to passively accept it. You don’t have to forward that text message; you don’t have to laugh when someone makes a rape joke.’”

This has become the standard approach in anti-bullying campaigns, but it is much easier to preach than to practise. While it’s noble to tell a young person to stand up for what’s right, children (particularly those in the peer-dependent middle school and early teenage years) are pack animals who find it difficult to set themselves apart. So WiseGuyz doesn’t just target individuals; it tries to reshape the dynamics of boy culture. The popular kids are encouraged to cede some power and the shy ones to become more vocal, and the accepted rules of what Michael Kimmel, an American sociologist and author of Guyland and Manhood in America, has called “the Guy Code” (the whole “boys don’t cry” and “bros before hos” ethos) get upturned.

The fundamental lesson at work here is how to establish and respect boundaries and personal choice. With this in mind, the students will be paired up later in the program to negotiate a hypothetical trip to a water park, by asking each other a series of questions. Do you like waterslides? Do you want to go on a ride just once, or multiple times? Do you want to dive in the deep end? Do you even know how to swim?

The idea is to help them work through the tension that arises when their answers to these questions don’t line up with their peers’. Of course, the lesson is just as valuable in romantic relationships as in platonic ones. If they can’t figure out how to plan a fun, safe trip to a water park with a friend, they won’t be able to enjoy a fun, safe sex life or a healthy romantic relationship. Success, as Michele Chai has pointed out, requires a degree of self-knowledge: they need to know what they want, but they also need to learn how to communicate it.

Abbott says he has seen a number of boys falter even when they try to express simple feelings. Unlike teenage girls, who are encouraged from toddlerhood to be vulnerable, to manage the emotional back-and-forth of friendships, and to act out romances with their Barbie and Ken dolls, most boys (whether due to nature or nurture or a combination of both) haven’t had the same practice. “Some have almost no emotional vocabulary, beyond sad or mad or happy,” Abbott says. “There’s not a lot of nuance.”

Last October, in another classroom on the Lakeshore campus of Humber College, west of downtown Toronto, Jeff Perera has drawn a square on the blackboard in chalk and labelled it “The Man Box.” A community engagement manager for the White Ribbon Campaign, an organization for men and boys that promotes gender equality, he is hosting a talk titled “Unmasking Masculinity” with his colleague Shai Kohen. Inside the box, Perera has written a string of words and phrases describing traditional views of masculinity: “tough,” “strong,” “head of the household,” “stud,” “stoic,” “in control,” “brave,” “emotionless,” “heterosexual,” and so on. Outside the box are words used to describe men who don’t live up to these standards: “pussy,” “fag,” “batty boy,” “bitch,” “mama’s boy.”

The small gathering of college students calls out suggestions: “Stud!” “Wimp!” “Leader!” “Boss!” “Queer!” The object of the exercise, Perera says, is to expose “that the formula for manhood is the denial of everything perceived as soft, or gentle, or emotional, or feminine.” He says these messages come early on, then he tells a story about conducting a similar activity with grade four boys. He asked them to write down what they didn’t like about being boys, and they returned a list that included “Boys smell bad,” “Boys are supposed to like violence,” “Boys are supposed to play football,” “Boys have an automatic bad reputation,” “Boys are not supposed to cry,” and “Boys are not able to be a mother.”

Perera, who sports a shaved head and square-framed glasses, is a born performer, funny and gregarious. He draws on his own sometimes challenging childhood as the son of striving immigrant parents from Sri Lanka (when he was two years old, he once called his mom a bitch in Sinhalese, because he had heard his father refer to her that way so often). He drops pop culture references (Breaking Bad’s Walter White as an example of “toxic manhood”), and demonstrates a “bro hug” with Kohen (“See how we’re barely touching? How we only lean in with our shoulders, to minimize body contact? ”).

Masculinity, Perera says, is a slippery identity that must be constantly performed, a house of cards on the brink of toppling. Manhood (or rather “manhood,” since he tends to say it as if it were in quotes) is especially precarious now, with gender roles in flux and women accumulating power and opportunities through education and employment. In this climate, it’s no wonder Hanna Rosin’s 2012 book, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, created such a stir.

Rosin’s central argument—that men cannot adjust to the progressive, post-manufacturing, knowledge-based economy that women seem to thrive in—seems to reflect a generalized anxiety about the fate of men and boys. Some of these fears border on hysteria, like the conservative sideshow on Fox News Network wringing its hands over the supposed feminization of America; or a recent Time magazine cover depicting the ascendancy of Hillary Clinton, who appears as a giant kitten heel pump, with a tiny, terrified man clinging to it. You don’t have to buy into the paranoia, though, to acknowledge that plenty of men are in trouble. Globalization and the recession have devastated the economic prospects for a large swath of male blue-collar workers. In the US, one in three African American men born today can expect to be incarcerated during his lifetime, as can one in six Latinos. Boys in Canada, the US, England, and elsewhere are lagging behind academically: they don’t read as well as girls; they experience greater problems with attention, behaviour, and focus; and they drop out more often.

Observing all of this, it can seem as if the end is nigh for men—or at least a particular way of being a man—which has left some guys adrift. Perera suggests, however, that the problem is not strictly speaking that women have gained power and broadened their ambitions; nor is it the necessity for men to adapt to that. The issue is that masculinity has been measured so narrowly that men can no longer evaluate their worth, particularly as women step into traditional male roles such as breadwinner, boss, or sexual aggressor. “If you’re told there is only one way to be a man,” Perera says, “but in your relationship you’re not the funny one, the ambitious one, the one with the money, what do you bring to the table? ” This has created an identity crisis, even for men who embrace the evolving status quo.

Without the old definitions, Perera asks, what does it mean to be a man? He makes a quasi-joke about facial hair being back in vogue: “Sometimes I think it has become a way of asserting maleness in a non-aggressive way.” Moustaches and mutton chops aside, recent decades have seen plenty of attempts to remould and reclaim maleness, from the drum beating of the Iron John–style men’s movement to the tree house building of The Dangerous Book for Boys. But these can seem like Hail Mary passes, meant to rescue some fading, clichéd bro-dom, especially in light of programs like WiseGuyz. Teaching young men to trust, communicate, negotiate, and empathize does not undermine or threaten their manliness. It expands their humanity. It reclaims men’s possibilities.

The afternoon session at Vanier is quieter than the morning one. During check-in, the students leisurely share the events of the past week: basketball practice, guitar lessons, marathon sessions of Doctor Who on Netflix and The Last of Us on PlayStation 3. One kid is frustrated because his hockey team sucks and hasn’t won a game in ages (“Been there, man,” the guy beside him says). Another announces that he just passed his Bronze Cross exam, bringing him closer to being certified as a lifeguard (“That’s sweet, dude!” says Stafford Perry, ever enthusiastic). It’s typical, nothing-special teenage guy stuff, but they seem to savour the conversation.

When asked what they liked best about WiseGuyz, past participants named learning about relationships—friendships and romances—as the most valuable part. They talked about the pressure to be good at things and keep up appearances, and how the program provided “a stress relief,” a place where they could speak freely and let down their guard.

Earlier, Blake Spence told me how as a kid he had wrestled with the demands his father placed on him. As the eldest son, he was expected to play sports and “man up.” That ultra-macho way of being a guy didn’t suit him, he says. “I would have loved to have been in WiseGuyz when I was fourteen. It might have spared me a lot of struggle.”

He adds that for each kid, the process of becoming a man is different, and he doesn’t want the program to take traditional ideas of masculinity or manliness off the table. “Being that kind of a manly man is really meaningful to lots of guys. We just want to let boys know that you can’t expect everyone to fit into that box all the time—or even at all.” Ultimately, he wants them to worry less about acting like a man and think more about acting like themselves.

With time to spare at the end of the session, they begin a game of Pictionary. Midway through, I leave to interview a couple of students separately in the hallway. They’ve gamely agreed to speak with me, even though talking to a woman old enough to be their mom about sex and relationships is about as comfortable as, well, talking to their mom about sex and relationships. When I ask one kid if he has a girlfriend, he stares at me in silence while his cheeks go red. The other one, bright, with a great, weird sense of humour, sheepishly requests that I not make him sound dumb. The conversation gets easier when they talk about how much they love the program, how much fun it is and how it helps them.

When I return to the room, I notice a scented candle burning on a desk. One kid catches me looking at it and says apologetically, “There were some farts. Farts definitely happened.” Then another chimes in, “The first rule of WiseGuyz is you do not fart in WiseGuyz.” The joke is kind of dumb, kind of gross, and kind of funny—in other words, exactly the sort of joke that kills in roomful of fourteen-year-old boys. And kill it does: they laugh until long after the bell rings.

This appeared in the April 2014 issue.

Rachel Giese is a Toronto journalist and a former Walrus senior editor.

Raina Kirn and Wilson Barry are included in the prestigious anthology American Photography 29.