For several years now, we've been engaged in a national debate about sexual assault on campus. No question — it's crucial that young people understand the ground rules for consent, but that's where the conversation about sex is ending. And in that vacuum of information the media and the Internet — that new digital street corner — are educating our kids for us. If we truly want young people to engage safely, ethically, and yes, enjoyably, it's time to have open honest discussion about what happens after "yes," and that includes breaking the biggest taboo of all and talking to young people about women's capacity for and entitlement to sexual pleasure. Yeah.
Come on, ladies.
I spent three years talking to girls ages 15 to 20 about their attitudes and experience of sex. And what I found was that while young women may feel entitled to engage in sexual behavior, they don't necessarily feel entitled to enjoy it. Take this sophomore at the Ivy League college who told me, "I come from a long line of smart, strong women. My grandmother was a firecracker, my mom is a professional, my sister and I are loud, and that's our form of feminine power." She then proceeded to describe her sex life to me: a series of one-off hookups, starting when she was 13, that were ... not especially responsible, not especially reciprocal and not especially enjoyable. She shrugged. "I guess we girls are just socialized to be these docile creatures who don't express our wants or needs." "Wait a minute," I replied. "Didn't you just tell me what a smart, strong woman you are?" She hemmed and hawed. "I guess," she finally said, "no one told me that that smart, strong image applies to sex."
I should probably say right up top that despite the hype, teenagers are not engaging in intercourse more often or at a younger age than they were 25 years ago. They are, however, engaging in other behavior. And when we ignore that, when we label that as "not sex," that opens the door to risky behavior and disrespect. That's particularly true of oral sex, which teenagers consider to be less intimate than intercourse. Girls would tell me, "it's no big deal," like they'd all read the same instruction manual — at least if boys were on the receiving end. Young women have lots of reasons for participating. It made them feel desired; it was a way to boost social status. Sometimes, it was a way to get out of an uncomfortable situation. As a freshman at a West Coast college said to me, "A girl will give a guy a blow job at the end of the night because she doesn't want to have sex with him, and he expects to be satisfied. So, if I want him to leave and I don't want anything to happen ... " I heard so many stories of girls performing one-sided oral sex that I started asking, "What if every time you were alone with a guy, he told you to get him a glass of water from the kitchen, and he never got you a glass of water — or if he did, it was like ... 'you want me to uh ...?'" You know, totally begrudging. You wouldn't stand for it.
But it wasn't always that boys didn't want to. It was that girls didn't want them to. Girls expressed a sense of shame around their genitals. A sense that they were simultaneously icky and sacred. Women's feelings about their genitals have been directly linked to their enjoyment of sex. Yet, Debby Herbenick, a researcher at Indiana University, believes that girls' genital self-image is under siege, with more pressure than ever to see them as unacceptable in their natural state. According to research, about three-quarters of college women remove their pubic hair — all of it — at least on occasion, and more than half do so regularly. Girls would tell me that hair removal made them feel cleaner, that it was a personal choice. Though, I kind of wondered if left alone on a desert island, if this was how they would choose to spend their time.
And when I pushed further, a darker motivation emerged: avoiding humiliation. "Guys act like they would be disgusted by it," one young woman told me. "No one wants to be talked about like that." The rising pubic hair removal reminded me of the 1920s, when women first started regularly shaving their armpits and their legs. That's when flapper dresses came into style, and women's limbs were suddenly visible, open to public scrutiny. There's a way that I think that this too is a sign. That a girl's most intimate part is open to public scrutiny, open to critique, to becoming more about how it looks to someone else than how it feels to her.
The shaving trend has sparked another rise in labiaplasty. Labiaplasty, which is the trimming of the inner and outer labia, is the fastest-growing cosmetic surgery among teenage girls. It rose 80 percent between 2014 and 2015, and whereas girls under 18 comprise two percent of all cosmetic surgeries, they are five percent of labiaplasty. The most sought-after look, incidentally, in which the outer labia appear fused like a clam shell, is called ... wait for it ... "The Barbie."
I trust I don't have to tell you that Barbie is a) made of plastic and b) has no genitalia.
The labiaplasty trend has become so worrisome that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has issued a statement on the procedure, which is rarely medically indicated, has not been proven safe and whose side effects include scarring, numbness, pain and diminished sexual sensation. Now, admittedly, and blessedly, the number of girls involved is still quite small, but you could see them as canaries in a coal mine, telling us something important about the way girls see their bodies.
Sara McClelland, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, coined what is my favorite phrase ever in talking about all of this: "Intimate justice." That's the idea that sex has political, as well as personal implications, just like, who does the dishes in your house, or who vacuums the rug. And it raises similar issues about inequality, about economic disparity, violence, physical and mental health. Intimate justice asks us to consider who is entitled to engage in an experience. Who is entitled to enjoy it? Who is the primary beneficiary? And how does each partner define "good enough"? Honestly, I think those questions are tricky and sometimes traumatic for adult women to confront, but when we're talking about girls, I just kept coming back to the idea that their early sexual experience shouldn't have to be something that they get over.
In her work, McClelland found that young women were more likely than young men to use their partner's pleasure as a measure of their satisfaction. So they'd say things like, "If he's sexually satisfied, then I'm sexually satisfied." Young men were more likely to measure their satisfaction by their own orgasm. Young women also defined bad sex differently. In the largest ever survey ever conducted on American sexual behavior, they reported pain in their sexual encounters 30 percent of the time. They also used words like "depressing," "humiliating," "degrading." The young men never used that language. So when young women report sexual satisfaction levels that are equal to or greater than young men's — and they do in research — that can be deceptive. If a girl goes into an encounter hoping that it won't hurt, wanting to feel close to her partner and expecting him to have an orgasm, she'll be satisfied if those criteria are met. And there's nothing wrong with wanting to feel close to your partner, or wanting him to be happy, and orgasm isn't the only measure of an experience ... but absence of pain — that's a very low bar for your own sexual fulfillment.
Listening to all of this and thinking about it, I began to realize that we performed a kind of psychological clitoridectomy on American girls. Starting in infancy, parents of baby boys are more likely to name all their body parts, at least they'll say, "here's your pee-pee." Parents of baby girls go right from navel to knees, and they leave this whole situation in here unnamed.
There's no better way to make something unspeakable than not to name it. Then kids go into their puberty education classes and they learn that boys have erections and ejaculations, and girls have ... periods and unwanted pregnancy. And they see that internal diagram of a woman's reproductive system — you know, the one that looks kind of like a steer head —
And it always grays out between the legs. So we never say vulva, we certainly never say clitoris. No surprise, fewer than half of teenage girls age 14 to 17 have ever masturbated. And then they go into their partnered experience and we expect that somehow they'll think sex is about them, that they'll be able to articulate their needs, their desires, their limits. It's unrealistic.
Here's something, though. Girls' investment in their partner's pleasure remains regardless of the gender of the partner. So in same-sex encounters, the orgasm gap disappears. And young women climax at the same rate as men. Lesbian and bisexual girls would tell me that they felt liberated to get off the script — free to create an encounter that worked for them. Gay girls also challenged the idea of first intercourse as the definition of virginity. Not because intercourse isn't a big deal, but it's worth questioning why we consider this one act, which most girls associate with discomfort or pain, to be the line in the sand of sexual adulthood — so much more meaningful, so much more transformative than anything else. And it's worth considering how this is serving girls; whether it's keeping them safer from disease, coercion, betrayal, assault. Whether it's encouraging mutuality and caring; what it means about the way they see other sex acts; whether it's giving them more control over and joy in their experience, and what it means about gay teens, who can have multiple sex partners without heterosexual intercourse. So I asked a gay girl that I met, "How'd you know you weren't a virgin anymore?" She said she had to Google it.
And Google wasn't sure.
She finally decided that she wasn't a virgin anymore after she'd had her first orgasm with a partner. And I thought — whoa. What if just for a second we imagined that was the definition? Again, not because intercourse isn't a big deal — of course it is — but it isn't the only big deal, and rather than thinking about sex as a race to a goal, this helps us reconceptualize it as a pool of experiences that include warmth, affection, arousal, desire, touch, intimacy. And it's worth asking young people: who's really the more sexually experienced person? The one who makes out with a partner for three hours and experiments with sensual tension and communication, or the one who gets wasted at a party and hooks up with a random in order to dump their "virginity" before they get to college?
The only way that shift in thinking can happen though is if we talk to young people more about sex — if we normalize those discussions, integrating them into everyday life, talking about those intimate acts in a different way — the way we mostly have changed in the way that we talk about women in the public realm.
Consider a survey of 300 randomly chosen girls from a Dutch and an American university, two similar universities, talking about their early experience of sex. The Dutch girls embodied everything we say we want from our girls. They had fewer negative consequences, like disease, pregnancy, regret — more positive outcomes like being able to communicate with their partner, who they said they knew very well; preparing for the experience responsibly; enjoying themselves. What was their secret? The Dutch girls said that their doctors, teachers and parents talked to them candidly, from an early age, about sex, pleasure and the importance of mutual trust. What's more, while American parents weren't necessarily less comfortable talking about sex, we tend to frame those conversations entirely in terms or risk and danger, whereas Dutch parents talk about balancing responsibility and joy. I have to tell you, as a parent myself, that hit me hard, because I know, had I not delved into that research, I would have talked to my own child about contraception, about disease protection, about consent because I'm a modern parent, and I would have thought ... job well done.
Now I know that's not enough. I also know what I hope for for our girls. I want them to see sexuality as a source of self-knowledge, creativity and communication, despite its potential risks. I want them to be able to revel in their bodies' sensuality without being reduced to it. I want them to be able to ask for what they want in bed, and to get it. I want them to be safe from unwanted pregnancy, disease, cruelty, dehumanization, violence. If they are assaulted, I want them to have recourse from their schools, their employers, the courts. It's a lot to ask, but it's not too much.
As parents, teachers, advocates and activists, we have raised a generation of girls to have a voice, to expect egalitarian treatment in the home, in the classroom, in the workplace. Now it's time to demand that intimate justice in their personal lives as well.
Why do girls feel empowered to engage in sexual activity but not to enjoy it? For three years, author Peggy Orenstein interviewed girls ages 15 to 20 about their attitudes toward and experiences of sex. She discusses the pleasure that's largely missing from their sexual encounters and calls on us to close the "orgasm gap" by talking candidly with our girls from an early age about sex, bodies, pleasure and intimacy.
Peggy Orenstein explores the changing landscape of modern sexual expectations and its troubling impact on adolescents and young women.
Peggy Orenstein explores the changing landscape of modern sexual expectations and its troubling impact on adolescents and young women.