Friday, March 25, 2016

Sext and the Single Girl

Sext and the Single Girl
By Cindi Leive, March 23, 2016, New York Times
Navigating the Complicated New Landscape
By Peggy Orenstein
303 pp. Harper. $26.99.

Orenstein image from article

There’s a moment midway through Peggy Orenstein’s latest book that
seems to sum up what it’s like to be a teenage girl right now. An economics
major taking a gender studies class is getting dressed in her college dorm room
for a night out, cheerfully discussing sexual stereotyping in advertising with
Orenstein — while at the same time grabbing a miniskirt and a bottle of vodka,
the better to achieve her evening goal: to “get really drunk and make out with
someone.” “You look hot,” her friend tells her — and the student, apparently
registering the oddness of the scene, turns to Orenstein. “In my gender class
I’m all, ‘That damned patriarchy,’” she says. “But . . . what’s the point of a
night if you aren’t getting attention from guys?” Her ambition, she explains, “is
to be just slutty enough, where you’re not a prude but you’re not a whore. . . .
Finding that balance is every college girl’s dream, you know what I mean?”

Exactly how that got to be anyone’s dream is the subject of “Girls and
Sex,” a thought­-provoking if occasionally hand­-wringing investigation by
Orenstein, who in previous books has put classroom sexism, princess
obsessions and other phenomena under her microscope. Be warned:
Orenstein, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the
mother of a preteen girl, begins her reporting worried by what she’s heard
about “hookup culture” — and ends it even more freaked out. It’s not that girls
are having so much sex (the percentage of high­-schoolers who have had
intercourse is actually dropping); even if they were, Orenstein’s careful to say
she wouldn’t judge, really. But the acts the girls are engaging in, from oral sex
to sexting, tend to be staged, she argues, more for boys’ enjoyment than their
own. For guys, she says, there is fun and pleasure; for girls (at least the
straight ones), too little physical joy, too much regret and a general sense that
the boys are in charge. Fully half the girls in Orenstein’s book say they’ve been
coerced into sex, and many had been raped — among them, by the way, that
econ major, who was so confused that when her assailant dropped her off the
next morning, she told him, “Thanks, I had fun.” The sexual playing field
Orenstein describes is so tilted no girl could win.

I know, I know: Every generation thinks things have gotten more
complicated since they were young (it’s one of those universally accepted
parental truths, like the fact that kids don’t go outside and play anymore). But
the interesting question at the heart of “Girls and Sex” is not really whether
things are better or worse for girls. It’s why — at a time when women graduate
from college at higher rates than men and are closing the wage gap — aren’t
young women more satisfied with their most intimate relationships? “When so
much has changed for girls in the public realm,” Orenstein writes, “why hasn’t
more . . . changed in the private one?”

To answer this question, Orenstein interviews more than 70 young
women between the ages of 15 and 20. Some of the culprits she locates are
more familiar than others: There’s pornography, which teaches boys to expect
constantly willing, fully waxed partners, and girls to imitate all those arched
backs and movie­-perfect moans. (Sorry, male college students, but studies
show that the percentage of your female peers who fake orgasm has been
steadily rising.) There are the abstinence­-only sex­ed programs of the last two
decades, which she argues encourage shame and misinformation; and the
unhelpful tendency of even liberal parents to go mute with their daughters on
the subject of what they deserve in bed. (“Once parents stopped saying
‘Don’t,’” Orenstein observes, “many didn’t know what to say.”) There’s alcohol,
so much alcohol, a judgment­-dulling menu of Jäger bombs and tequila shots.
There’s selfie culture, which Orenstein charges encourages girls to see
themselves as objects to be “liked” (or not) — a simple­-sounding phenomenon
with surprisingly profound implications, since self-­objectification has been
linked with everything from depression to risky sexual behavior. There are the
constant images of naked, writhing women, as well as the idea that taking your
clothes off is a sign of power. (“I love Beyoncé,” one girl tells Orenstein. “She’s,
like, a queen. But I wonder, if she wasn’t so beautiful, if people didn’t think she
was so sexy, would she be able to make the feminist points she makes?”) And
despite all the time girls spend “impersonating sexiness,” Orenstein finds that
absent from their universe is a sense of actual female sexuality — figuring out
what you want and doing it. Society is giving girls, she concludes, a
“psychological clitoridectomy.”

Oh, but just one thing — plenty of the girls Orenstein interviews don’t see
it that way at all, and it’s to her credit that she documents them pushing back
against what they view as her old­-school assumptions. (No, they tell her, Nicki
Minaj isn’t a sex object — she’s a self­-determining superstar.) These
conversations are the most interesting, least expected part of “Girls and Sex,”
as when girls share that while an endless string of hookups can bum them out,
many of them prefer it to “catching feelings” for a guy, which would make
them more vulnerable. (The interviews also reveal an almost comical
generation gap. When one recent high school graduate explains to Orenstein
that performing oral sex is “like money or some kind of currency. . . . It’s how
you make friends with the popular guys. . . . It’s more impersonal than sex,”
Orenstein writes, “I may be of a different generation, but, frankly, it’s hard for
me to consider a penis in my mouth as ‘impersonal.’”)

It’s a laugh-­out-­loud line, but Orenstein is of a different generation, and
teenagers themselves may bristle at her judgment of them as victims. When
she attends a Miley Cyrus concert and dismisses the half-­naked star as “the
opposite” of “unique,” and a “lint trap of images and ideas,” you know what
she means — but that lint trap is also an actual young woman who is working
out many of the same issues facing Orenstein’s subjects (a fact that surely
accounts for some of her popularity: “Slut­-shamed” after her romp with Robin
Thicke on the MTV Video Music Awards, Cyrus has held her own — a teen­-girl
revenge fantasy). What’s more, the real­-life teenage world isn’t all
Kardashians, anyway: Celebrities like Lorde have become popular without
embracing the sex­doll style Orenstein frets over; thrift-­shop dresses and
Converse high-­tops now mingle with minis and stilettos in teenage closets
everywhere; even the Pirelli calendar dumped its nude models this year for
shots of high-­achieving women like the young blogger Tavi Gevinson, clothed.
When Kim Kardashian tweeted a nude selfie recently, sure, some young
women cheered her on — but plenty posted the Twitter version of an eye­-roll.
The truth is, female culture is more varied and rebellious than “Girls and Sex”
lets on.

And “Girls and Sex” isn’t really about all girls: Though gay teenagers are
included (and seem generally happier in their relationships than their straight
peers), Orenstein’s interviewees are mostly upper-­middle­-class, and she is
mainly concerned with sex’s impact on their emotional lives, not physical well-being —
pregnancy and S.T.D.s come up rarely in her interviews, and current-day abortion access
not at all. But given that low-­income young women are less able to pay, say, to
travel across state lines to an open abortion clinic, you wonder how the picture
of sex and its implications would have looked if girls of all incomes
had been included. A bad night is one thing; a baby at 17 is another.

At any rate, the true audience for “Girls and Sex” isn’t girls at all — but parents
trying to understand them. So what should a mother or father hoping for a
sexually well-­adjusted daughter do? “Here’s a solution,” Orenstein offers, only
somewhat in jest. “Move to the Netherlands.” Dutch girls, she points out, are
more likely to have sex in the context of loving relationships, and less because
of boys’ expectations, than here at home. There are useful lessons from the
Dutch examples: Parents and teachers there, she explains, talk to kids about
sex — not just the birds and bees and condoms, but also pleasure and consent
and exactly how to say no, or yes; they even endorse in-­home sleepovers
versus sneaking around. Orenstein makes an excellent case that all this will
help (though it may not be easy: My own 13­-year­-old bolted from the room
every time I tried to talk about this book with her and is probably in Nebraska
by now). But the sweeping issues her reporting illuminates clearly can’t be
solved by dinner-­table or classroom conversations alone.

To really fix things, you’ll need bigger solutions, and it’s tempting to wish
Orenstein would put down her reporter’s notebook to write a more focused
sexual bill of rights that girls themselves, and not just their parents, can get
behind. “Girls and Sex” is full of thoughtful concern and empathetic questions:
What if girls learned that their sex drives mattered as much as boys’? What if
hookups took place sober? What if? But Orenstein is uniquely positioned to do
more than ask questions; you want her next book to tell us: Here’s how. Let’s

Cindi Leive is the editor in chief of Glamour.


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