Author and journalist Peggy Orenstein is acclaimed for her work investigating the lives of girls and women. Her new book, Girls & Sex, explores young women’s conflicted experiences of and attitudes toward sex within a culture that ignores and misrepresents female sexual pleasure.
Q: Your last book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, explored how a “princess industrial complex” reinforced gender stereotypes and commodified young women. This book begins with Miley Cyrus, herself a former Disney product. Is this book a sequel?
A: Totally. Marketing to children began in the ’50s but accelerated in the ’80s. Marketing to girls constantly presents a hypersexualized idea of girls; they’re expected to appear sexy but be cut off from their sexuality. I’m watching my own daughter grow up. I see this overt sexual culture coming at her like a Mack truck. She’s in seventh grade.
Q: You say, “Girl’s bodies have always been vectors for society’s anxiety about women’s roles.”
A: We’re still really schizophrenic and uncomfortable about female sexuality, and female power. On one hand, the culture is absolutely saturated with sexuality, littered with female objectified body parts: porn is everywhere; sexualized images of women are everywhere. And we’re so anxious about that we’re unwilling to have honest discussions with girls about sexuality.
Q: After speaking to more than 70 young women you conclude that society has performed the “psychological equivalent of a clitoridectomy on girls.” What do you mean?
A: Parents tend to name all of baby boys’ body parts, but with girls they go from belly button to knees with this void in the middle. That doesn’t change as kids go into puberty. Sex-ed courses look at girl’s internal parts: for boys it’s about ejaculation, erection and wet dreams; for girls, it’s periods and unwanted pregnancy. We never talk to girls about sexual self-exploration or self-knowledge.
Q: Very few girls you spoke to masturbated—or admitted to it.
A: Only a third masturbated regularly. Girls would say: “I have a boyfriend for that.” So in addition to putting their pleasure literally into someone else’s hands—an inept teenage boy—these are the same girls who say they do not climax with a partner. It’s the opposite with boys; they say because they can do that themselves, girls should perform oral sex. There’s evidence things have gone backwards—rates of faking orgasm among girls have risen since the 1990s. We talk about sex all the time; it’s more and more explicit but it’s not getting more informative or concerned with girls understanding their sexuality as opposed to what it means to be sexy.
Q: You draw a line between “sexualization” and “sexuality.” Could you explain?
A: Sexualization is imposed from the outside as opposed to sexuality, an understanding of the body’s responses and desires and ability to communicate that, cultivated from within.
Sexualization is the performance of sexuality, the performance of sexiness. Girls are super good at that now. Just last week there was this kerfufﬂe where Kim Kardashian posted a nude selfie and there was the big debate: “Is Kim a feminist? Is Kim a slut?” Girls say she’s expressing her sexuality and being slut-shamed. But there’s a lot of evidence indicating that displaying yourself as sexy doesn’t do anything to increase sexual self-knowledge or pleasure.
Q: Did you expect to hear the accounts of frustration, confusion even pain?
A: When I started interviewing girls I was shocked—and judgmental. The first few interviews, I think I scared the girls off.
Q: What surprised you most in interviews?
A: The non-reciprocal oral sex; the expectations that boys had and that girls would comply with; a hook-up culture in which dating and caring were the last step rather than the first step. The anesthetizing against caring really threw me for a loop. I was seeing it with 15-year-olds. It was how they were starting their intimate lives. It alarmed me.
Q: But the young women felt they were getting someone out of it.
A: Yes, there is a way hook ups are serving young women. And it was important for me to always talk about how behaviours were serving girls, not just making them the victims.
Q: What are girls getting out of non-reciprocal oral sex?
A: Popularity, a way to go further without intercourse. They felt it was a form of power; they felt in control temporarily. Whereas when oral sex was performed on them they felt vulnerable. They were resistant. It wasn’t that boys didn’t want to do it.
Q: You found young women extremely judgmental about their genitals.
A: There was this weird duality: girls felt their genitals were icky and sacred. They didn’t want someone down there because they had to trust the person and because it was really special—and they were grossed out. And the culture reinforces that. “Vagina” is the cool punch line—you’ve got Robert Pattinson saying, “I hate vagina.” What’s that about? So girls who are already pretty conscious and made to feel insecure are made more so. Now all girls over age 14 remove pubic hair. The only touching is to remove hair. That’s grim.
Q: That has been going on since the ‘90s.
A: It has, but it’s been drifting younger and younger. Girls are removing pubic hair before fully having it. They would say I feel cleaner, it’s for me, but then they’d say if a boy saw pubic hair down there they’d head for the hills. We stopped shaving arms and legs in the 20s due to fashion. We now think of girls’ genitals as something public that need to be tended to. The next piece is a big spike in labiaplasty, the surgical trimming of the labia. The ideal result is the clamshell which looks like a Barbie doll, which is a) plastic; b) has no vagina and c) has nothing to do with sexual function.
Q: Did young women sense they were being shortchanged sexually?
A: They’d develop it as they got older. By college they were starting to complain. I asked a high school girl about unreciprocated oral sex and said, “What if guys were asking you to get them a glass of water and never offered to you a glass of water? Would you put up with that?” She burst out laughing. It never occurred to her. At the other end, I talked to a junior in college, and she was fed up. She said, “I’m not doing other girls any favours by faking orgasms and not calling out guys when we’re having unequal experiences.”
Q: The majority of the young women you spoke with were white, heterosexual, affluent, and liberal. Did that bias concern you?
A: I wanted to look at the girls who were the most privileged, the children we think are getting the most support. If I talked about their education or professional goals, or their extracurricular activities, I would have walked away absolutely inspired. They’re leaning in all over the place. Yet when we talk about their personal lives, it’s toppling over.
Q: You repeatedly point out how porn provides a harmful blueprint for female sexuality.
A: Porn is about as accurate in its portrayal of sex as Real Housewives is in its portrayal of marriage, and they’re both probably equally accurate in their portrayal of women. I had a lot of girls ask me whether it was weird that they didn’t make a lot of noise during sex. I would get so irritated that they had learned this. I told them this is a movie, so without noise there’s no soundtrack, without shaving off hair you can’t see anything. Nobody had a discussion with them; and it bothered me no one had a discussion with boys.
Q: Many young women told you no one had ever asked them to talk about sexuality.
A: Yes. Mothers are doing a better job talking about risk, danger, reproduction, consent, unwanted pregnancy. We’re not talking about how to balance the risks and joys and we’re really not talking about the joys.
Q: Fathers are absent, except in discussing “purity balls,” where girls pledge to their dads they’ll remain virgins until marriage.
A: While I completely disagree with the “purity” concept, it was the only place I saw fathers talking to girls about their expectations and attitudes to sex and expressing love and support. I didn’t see liberal dads having similar conversations with their daughters.
Q: It’s no secret that sex is pleasurable. Why don’t we discuss this openly with girls?
A: It’s tradition. We’re afraid if girls find out sex is pleasurable they’ll stop being gatekeepers, they’ll go out and have sex.
Q: But they’re having sex, just not enjoying it.
A: I know. It’s clearly ridiculous.
Q: You highlight the Dutch model, where parents speak candidly with their teenagers—and allow boyfriends and girlfriends to sleep over.
A: They’ve had great success in terms of girls’ equality in sexual encounters and in delaying sex—sex is chosen and wanted, and they have fewer partners. All of that is more true where parents, teachers and doctors talk really explicitly about sex. That really affected me, seeing statistical evidence of the benefits of talking about sexuality.
Q: You conclude that we need to “reconceptualize sex,” beginning with virginity.
A: We continue to think of virginity as first intercourse. That ends up minimizing and marginalizing other things kids are engaged in, like oral sex. And it’s not going to feel particularly good for girls as the big marker of adulthood. I asked one girl, who was a lesbian, when someone was no longer a virgin. She suggested the first time you have an orgasm. I thought, “Oh my gosh, what if that was your virginity?” The ramifications for girls would be profound.
Q: You call for sex ed, even lessons on how to masturbate, which will have some people tearing their hair out.
A: Some? [Laughs] As much as I’d like to see comprehensive sex education of the sort in Holland and Sweden, I know it’s not so realistic. Which means there’s a double-down of importance in parents talking to their kids. Not doing so creates a situation were girls lie about what they’re doing and pretend to be something they’re not.
Q: Why did you end the book in a co-ed classroom?
A: I make it clear that this is not only about girls. This is how we talk to young men as well—about sexualization, girl’s pleasure, girl’s bodies, relationships, ethics, reciprocity and about their own stereotypes about men and sex. We can’t move forward creating something better for our kids unless we include all of our kids and parents as well. When parents of boys say, “I don’t have to worry about this,” I can’t help but give them a “Really?” kind of look.
Q: You address sexual assault and issues of consent in the book. But it seems conversation about young women and sexuality has become almost focused exclusively on that.
A: The sexual assault conversation burst onto the scene and it has been really important and has had huge impact but I didn’t want that to dominate what I was writing about. Saying “yes” [to sexual activity] is a pretty low baseline for sexual experience and I wanted to write about what was happening to girls after “yes.” I found that in a perverse way our culture and parents are far more comfortable talking about girls’ vicitimization than girls’ sexual agency. We have more conversations about assault now but not about what a healthy, joyful, autonomous sexual experience would be for young women. A lot of what happens in consensual encounters and in the way we talk to both girls and boys about sex creates a medium in which assault flourishes.
Q: You quote sex educator Al Vernacchi who recommends that we replace the “running of the bases” analogy of sex with ordering pizza.
A: For years we’ve used the bases analogy—with intercourse being the “ultimate sex” even though that’s probably not going to feel good to girls. That model doesn’t let you say “I like it at second base, maybe I’ll stay here.” But if we shifted to the idea of seeing sex like sharing a pizza where you sit down and say “Maybe I don’t feel like pizza, maybe I feel like mushroom but I don’t want pepperoni, but if that’s what you want I’ll agree.” Or maybe it means goes halfsies. You’re invested in everyone enjoying the pizza. You can stretch that metaphor pretty darn far, and for kids it can really shift the way they think. I was in one class where one boy said “In baseball, there’s winners and losers. So who’s the winner and who’s the loser and who are you trying to score against?” And the teacher looked at me like “Bingo.” It was a great moment.
Q: You write that we can’t have equality without sexual equality, quoting psychologist Sarah McClelland’s concept of “intimate justice.”
A: That phrase was transformative for me. She says “Who has right to engage in sexual behaviour? Who has the right to enjoy it? Who is the main beneficiary of the experience? Who feels deserving? How does each partner define ‘good enough’.” Intimate justice touches on ideas of gender inequity, violence, bodily integrity, physical and mental health. I don’t expect a 15-year-old girl to have that figured out; it’s hard enough to have it figured out when you’re 50. But it’s particularly important as parents in our conversations with our daughters and our sons to consider these ideas intimate justice when we talk about and set them going on their early formative experience.