For her new book, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, Peggy Orenstein spoke to girls of all races, religions and backgrounds. Across the board, she found that girls today think differently than previous generations when it comes to ideas about self, consent and the concept of sexual pleasure.
Orenstein spoke with The Globe and Mail about how social media and pornography in particular are impacting the way girls think about, express and experience their sexuality.
The title of your book is Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. What is the new landscape?
It is a different world. [Girls are] being told all the time that how their body looks to other people is more important than how it feels to them. They're dealing with social media, this pervasive pop culture, there's binge drinking. There's intense pressure not just to be hot, which has been maxing up for years, but to see that as a source of empowerment, to see sexuality through the lens of sexiness.
And there's more and more access to pornography, and to harder-core pornography and at a younger age, which is shaping the way kids view sexuality. Girls talk about that with me all the time.
A lot of girls said to me, they're in [a sexual] encounter, she'll be going along and suddenly she'll start seeing herself from the outside and think, "What would she [the porn actor] do now? She would hold this position, she would do this, and I don't even know who that she is."
So how are girls defining their pleasure?
We think there's a level playing field. But young women are much more often to define satisfaction through the yardstick of their partner's pleasure. They'll say he was satisfied, so I'm satisfied.
And boys define sexual satisfaction as their own pleasure.
They're going into things very unequally. We don't talk to girls about the realities of their anatomy and their capacity for pleasure. So from the get-go, when we're naming little girls' body parts to them, we skip from the belly button to the knees.
And then we think they're going to have knowledge about their own bodies and understand that they have an equal chance at entitlement in a sexual encounter.
You point out that kids are engaging in more sexual behaviours, like oral and anal sex, earlier, too.
We've got to stop talking about sex as if it only means intercourse – because that diminishes, marginalizes and ignores all the other behaviours that kids are engaging in much more than they used to. What ends up happening is that they don't think those are really sex, and they don't think the rules of engagement apply.
So in terms of oral sex, for instance, there was very little reciprocity and girls were in the service of boys' pleasure. At one point, with one girl, I said, look, what if instead of oral sex we were talking about a glass of water. And every time you were with a boy he would say, "Go get me a glass of water from the kitchen. Go get me a glass of water." And he never offered to get you a glass of water, or if he did, it was really begrudging. You would never tolerate that. The girl just burst out laughing and said, "Oh my gosh, I never thought of it that way." But they need to think about it that way. They need to hear that from us.
You raise the idea that young people talk about "self" as a brand, rather than as something to be developed from within.
It's always been true that kids are trying on identity and trying to figure out who they are. But it used to be in a small group of people that they actually knew in person. Now they are constantly trying to figure themselves out in front of 789 of their BFFs who "like" or "don't like" their behaviour. So they start to craft their identity in response to those likes. Their friends become an audience to be sought after and maintained.
Almost all kids go online every day. And there's this way that the new celebrities of the day – like Kim Kardashian – embody that idea of the self as a brand. For girls, to maintain that brand and to build that brand, it's all about sexiness. Every girl knows you're going to get more likes for a bikini shot than a picture of yourself in a parka. They all know how to hold their feet, they all know how they're supposed to pose. Kim always says, "I'm expressing my sexuality," and I think, "Nooo, you're not, you're displaying sexiness." Expressing your sexuality is something you do by understanding your body, by being able to express your wants, needs and limits and having those respected in an encounter with somebody else.
Is this what you mean by psychological cliterodectomy?
We encourage girls to believe that being desirable is more important than understanding their own desire. Because of that, more often than not, that confidence they portray when they were being sexy would come off with their clothes. It didn't translate into the bedroom.
What are some of the physical manifestations of that?
Just about every girl I talked to waxes or shaves off all their pubic hair. Girls feel that their most personal areas are up for public scrutiny. We're also seeing a rise – not gigantic but significant – in young women who are getting labiaplasty, which is the surgical trimming of the outer labia. And that is not done generally for sexual pleasure or function (in fact, it usually impedes both). It's done, according to the plastic surgeons, to impart confidence.
It seems so odd that as a society we will rage against feminine genital mutilation elsewhere and yet this is happening here.
The culture is littered with female body parts, and yet we don't have decent discussions with our girls about sexual pleasure and sexual entitlement.
But the Dutch do …
The thing that was really the kicker for me was the Dutch, the stark difference between how Dutch young women and American women describe their early sexual experience. The Dutch [young women] talk about starting later, having fewer partners, taking more pleasure in their bodies, being able to express their needs, desires and limits, they talk about enjoying the experience. And American girls, it's just the opposite. The biggest difference between the two was that the American parents talked to their daughters about risk and danger in sexuality, and the Dutch mothers talked about balancing that with joy and pleasure.
Is it that we're not ready for sexual freedom for women here? It feels like a great feminist failure.
I feel that as a generation we've kind of let our girls down. We ended up with a super commodified culture that pretends toward sexual freedom, but it's not really a sexual freedom. It's a lie about what sex is like and what women want.
We're not really comfortable having these sex-positive talks with our kids, and yet their formative years are spent watching male-centric porn and then emulating it. What does that mean for their sexual maturity?
Not good. The porn industry, the occasional feminist porn site aside, is selling a distorted vision of not only female bodies, obviously, but female sexuality. It eroticizes humiliation, it eroticizes degradation, and that gets normalized for kids who are watching it, so they begin to want to act out what they're seeing in porn in their intimate relationships.
What's the most important advice or piece of knowledge you want to impart to people raising girls today?
We force our kids, and our daughters in particular, to lie to us about sex. We force them to either lie by omission by just not telling us what's going on, or to overtly lie by pretending something isn't going on. And then we're forcing them to be two people, the person they are to us, the good daughter, and this other person they are out in the world. We're creating a rift as part of the process of maturity for our kids. I thought, I want to be my daughter's advocate and support system. I want her to be able to assert her wishes and set limits, to enjoy her sexuality. The only way I'm going to get there is if I get over my embarrassment. I'm just as mortified – I want to fall through the ground when I talk about this stuff, too. I want to get over that and talk to her for real. And I started doing it.
How did you do it?
You can't put sex in a special box. It has to be something that is talked about like you would talk about anything else. It's not "the Talk." People will say kids don't want to hear about that from us. First of all, studies show they do. Secondly, so what? Since when did parenting involve saying, "Oh, you don't want to hear about it? Well then, I won't talk about it." I don't think that's how we parent.
Anything in particular for people raising boys?
The parents of boys have to recognize that this is not just about girls. Just cautioning boys not to get somebody pregnant, don't let some girl accuse you of rape – which is what they're told in the current climate, rather than "Don't rape" – is really not enough. They have to discuss the spectrum of pressure, coercion and consent. … And they have to be told that shared pleasure, mutuality and reciprocity are the hallmarks of good sex.
This interview has been condensed and edited.