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Cambridge mum launches BBC podcast on what teenage boys are really thinking

Teenage boys have opened up about their thoughts on sex and consent, friendship, porn, school, life online and what it means to become a man in a series of conversations with Cambridge podcaster Catherine Carr for a new BBC Radio 4 series.

Their frank revelations may shock some listeners, but Catherine says she found boys were desperate to talk and be listened to about their concerns on her show, About the Boys.

One fear that came up again and again was that they may be falsely accused of rape - to the extent that they want to film girls giving their consent before having sex.

Cambridge podcaster Catherine Carr with her teenage sons Max, left, and Theo, right.
Cambridge podcaster Catherine Carr with her teenage sons Max, left, and Theo, right.

This worry follows the outpouring of stories in recent years - from the #MeToo movement and the Everyone’s Invited website - of women and girls being sexually assaulted and the result that more girls are being believed.

Of course the reality is that the boys are going to be fine. Even if they did commit a crime, more than 98 percent of rapes reported to police never reach court. But the point Catherine makes is that boys growing up now, during a time when girls’ voices are being listened to, don’t understand when girls appear to be prioritised.

Catherine says: “The candidness with which the boys talked to me about a sex - these are boys in year 11 and 12 - was astonishing to me. They were really clear in their mind that they needed more information than they were getting. They watch porn, sometimes to find out where things are, what to do and about girls, about sex, and then they totally admit that they get the wrong ideas about sex from porn. They said that they worry about their body image, their facial expressions, how long they should last, should it really be 25 minutes? When they are told no, just three minutes, they say that’s a relief because it sounds quite challenging.

“But the thing that really stood out for me was the worry around false allegations. So on the one hand, you’ve got lots of boys and girls watching a lot of pornography or getting ideas from pornography that are unhealthy and wrong and damaging. And then if they do end up in a situation where they’re accused of something or something goes wrong, social media is ready to spread the rumours and the gossip.”

She says some of the boys claimed to know other boys who have been falsely accused of rape and then “cancelled” on social media.

Podcaster Catherine Carr, left , and above with her teenage sons Max, left, and Theo, right
Podcaster Catherine Carr, left , and above with her teenage sons Max, left, and Theo, right

“Snapchat goes wild and that boy is cancelled and no one will talk to them and they leave school because of an investigation, then another school won’t take them and it doesn’t matter if they go to another school because Snapchat will have already told all the kids at the other school,” says Catherine.

“In Cambridge, every child in the sixth form knows every other child in other sixth forms. And so if there’s a child who has been accused of something and then found not to have done it, it really almost doesn’t matter. It’s already out there. So they have that the whole internet factor in these kids’ social and sexual relationships.

“To me, it feels really twisted. We are serving them up hyper sexualized internet content but the government has just issued new guidelines to make sex education (worse).

“So we’re not even taking the small smidgen of opportunity at schools to give them a decent bit of information to fight against the tide of what’s accessible on their smartphones. I don’t mean to sound hysterical, but it’s true. And then if things do go wrong, and they end up in a sticky situation, then the internet will serve as a turbocharged rumour mill.”

She adds: “I can understand that even saying boys want to protect themselves feels a little bit annoying and riling to women and mothers of girls. I totally understand that too. But also I think it just feels like a really sad line in the sand that relationships between young people have got to. And I don’t think girls want that to be on film on their boyfriend’s phone. For all the obvious reasons.”

Catherine is mum to two boys aged 15 and 17 and says that schools and other services are failing teenagers when they need clearer information about understanding “nuanced” consent.

“I’m a feminist through and through and I think those movements - Me Too and Everyone’s Invited - are brilliant. But I think perhaps they’re not enough. They’re quite blunt, I think we need really, really good sex and relationship advice and really good lessons to teach kids how to ask for what they want during sex and to say, what’s not right and to be taught proper consent, that’s not just verbal, that’s really paying attention to your partner and being emotionally intelligent. Girls as well should be allowed to say what they like and don’t like without being shamed or judged. You know, it all it works both ways. You need to give them all better language, but certainly (false allegations are) not as common as sexual assault by any stretch, but the amplification of it on social media leads to the the fear being really high. So there are a lot of boys who just don’t really want to go there or bother.”

Other pressures the boys discussed were the ideas of how ‘real men’ should look and behave. “What a lot of the boys were sort of talking about was these ideas of masculinity they get from social media, which are ridiculous,” Catherine says.

“They’re like, be tall and strong and good looking; have a good hairline, good jawline, a six pack, be entrepreneurial, have money, have great trainers, have loads of girlfriends, have loads of chat, be good at approaching girls, but be strong with your emotions, don’t open up.”

But really, the boys were keen for someone to listen to them and understand that “we’re just soft inside and we have feelings too”. They just didn’t know how to express this.

Instead of online influencers such as the misogynist broadcaster Andrew Tate pouring their ideas into young boys’ heads, Catherine would like to see more services such as youth clubs and sports clubs offering boys better role models.

And she realised that while schools and businesses are trying to offer more opportunities to girls to “recalibrate” the system so that it is fairer, boys are confused by this.

They don’t know yet that just by being male they will have a huge pay advantage over their female colleagues. Median pay for all employees was 14.3 percent less for women than for men in April 2023, according to government statistics.

With no context about the patriarchy or the barriers girls have faced getting into certain types of careers, many boys find opportunities aimed at girls unfair.

“If you’re a young boy now, you don’t maybe understand the historical context of the man’s world we’ve created and the patriarchy and male power and privilege,” Catherine says.

“I do think it’s a bit funny and baffling to boys who don’t know why that is happening. Boys say, ‘If I go to another assembly on girls in STEM, I literally don’t know what I’m going to do with myself because I’d quite like to be an engineer too’. They just don’t get it.”

About The Boys, presented by Catherine Carr, is available on BBC Sounds.

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