Short Takes • April 2, 2016: Girls and Sex

By Kathy Scarbrough

“Usually the opposite of a negative is positive, but when you are talking about girls and sex the opposite of slut is prude, both of which are negative” said a young woman being interviewed by Peggy Orenstein for her new book Girls and Sex. Terry Gross interviewed the author on the NPR radio show Fresh Air recently. Orenstein’s research included interviews with 70 young women between the ages of 15 and 20. The women interviewed were gay and straight and ethnically mixed but all fairly privileged middle class students.

There were glimmers of feminist consciousness among the young women interviewed. The comment above is an example, as was the insistence that girls shouldn’t have to restrict themselves to prevent rape: boys and men should simply not be rapists. On the other hand, the politics of beauty is still fraught with uncertainty and perhaps these politics are even more difficult in an age when so much of fashion is infused with porn. At one point a young woman talked about looking hot and feeling like she was going to have a good day because she looked so good, only to be disappointed to hear catcalls and feel objectified when she got to school. 

Orenstein remarked, “The idea that we are our bodies, and that how our bodies look to other people is more important than how they feel to ourselves, is something that an earlier generation might have protested against.”

Yet the same young woman told a school administrator who admonished girls to dress with more “self respect” that his comment was sexist. She continued, “It doesn’t matter what I wear to school, I’m going to get catcalled no matter what. It doesn’t matter what I wear, when I get up to sharpen a pencil I’m going to get a comment on my butt…you don’t see boys having to deal with this, boys aren’t walking down the hall with girls saying ‘Hey boy, nice calves’ … Its distracting to me to be catcalled.”

Orenstein found a worrisome silence around girl’s sexual entitlement and sexual pleasure.  She talked to the young women about oral sex, something many of them had been engaging in from a fairly young age, but this kind of sexual pleasuring tended to go only one way.  Orenstein found herself getting really frustrated and started using this analogy: “What if every time you were with a guy he told you to get him a glass of water from the kitchen…and he never offered to get you a glass of water. Or…he’d say “[loud dismissive sigh], you want ME to get YOU a glass of water?” Orenstein reports that “girls [would] bust out laughing and say, ‘Ha, I never thought of it that way.’”

Within the “hook up” crowd, there wasn’t much communication between the sexes and this impacts the possibility that a girl will have an orgasm. Orenstein said research has shown that women tend to measure their satisfaction with a sexual encounter according to their partner’s pleasure. Men, on the other hand, measure their satisfaction according to the pleasure they got out of the encounter.

In addition, young women are more likely to explore same sex relationships than men and there is a big shift with reciprocity in pleasure in lesbian relations. Indeed, girls are more likely to have orgasms in same sex relationships. Many girls reported that they “felt they could go off the script” in terms of what sex was “supposed to be” and they were more able to explore and find out what felt good to them.

There is a strong irony in the idea that porn culture and unequal sexual expectations could lead many women to turn away from men altogether. Are we moving toward a society where women and men will only interact to conceive children?

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