Jane and Kimberly take different tracks reacting to must-read book, Girls and Sex, but both end up agreeing that truth and honesty about sex for girls and boys are more needed, not less, in the fast times of Internet.
After reading Girls and Sex by Peggy Orenstein, I am a bit horrified about the sexual climate our girls are being raised in. She interviews a large cross-section of today’s well-educated girls in their teens and college years, who in every aspect of their life seem to feel empowered, yet then explicitly lays down evidence that they are completely out of touch with who they are sexually, and in fact, lead their sexual lives driven by external expectations derived largely from porn and rape culture.
What Orenstein is really talking about is behavior, and how, with everything going on in society today, adolescent girls are left with the burden of solving raging male hormones that have been completely led astray by an image heavy culture largely led by external influences rather than internal influences.
Yes, Orenstein writes that girls “have become the gatekeepers of male desire, charged with containing it, diverting it, and controlling it.” How did we get here? I feel like we’ve been in the dark a bit. Your generation had feminism. My generation was responding to that feminism and felt empowered by it. My daughter’s generation and the indigo children were a group in which boys and girls were friends. I thought we were finally starting to get somewhere. Then the advent of social media and the widespread access to porn on the Internet came out, coupled with kids who interact largely on their phones and their Instagram feeds, and boom, there is this odd disconnect between sex and intimacy again.
I think there is something to that. In the 70s women were getting together and talking about these issues. They were getting to know each other, supporting each other, and working together for change.
Yes, I recently read an article in the Atlantic about how today’s kids are safer. They are all in their homes communicating with each other online, with representations of themselves that are fantasy curated and image based. They aren’t doing drugs or getting pregnant but they also aren’t interacting in real intimate ways one on one. I can’t help but think this lack of human intimacy coupled with the bombardment of ideal imagery is contributing to this warped climate of sexual interaction. Orenstein writes that we live in a world where girls are learning to “play” sexy before they even understand the word. And when they do come to understand the word, they aren’t understanding it in a way that is conducive to any real sense of their own sexual needs, wants, and desires.
Right, and sexual activity has become a kind of currency rather than a way of relating. Instead of learning about their real desires sexually, girls have found a way to avoid guys pushing them for sex by giving blowjobs. Again, this burden on these adolescent girls to live up to what they are seeing all around them is something that shouldn’t be happening until they are older and much more mature.
Not only that, they are also carrying the societal burden borne from this new “branding” yourself culture to constantly be “hot.” How can they compete by just being themselves when everywhere they look it has become perfectly normal for their peers to have Instagram pages based on their sexiness? Orenstein writes: “Hot,” as journalist Ariel Levy wrote in her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, is different from “beautiful” or “attractive.” It is a commercialized, one-dimensional, infinitely replicated, and, frankly, unimaginative vision of sexiness, one that, when applied to women, can be reduced to two words: “fuckable and saleable.”
But learning to be sexually desirable is not the same as learning about one’s sexuality, one’s own desires, needs, wants. Hot has become a precondition for success in any realm. As Orenstein concludes, the problem is that “ Hot confers a confidence that comes off with the clothes.” It is even scarier that so many girls are buying into this expectation of hotness, and actually, some of them are making claims that their participation in this idea is a move of empowerment, especially the ones making money off showing their asses, etc.
Right, it started back with Madonna. Women started thinking, well, if sex is going to be objectified, I might as well make money off it. Why not me? When Beyonce gets onstage with pants that have no ass, she may be expressing the taking back of her own victimization. But this is not advancing anything; it’s all still part of the same power structure.
Yes, Orenstein talks about how Kim Kardashian, famous for her ass, is really making a patriarchal bargain, using her acceptance of roles and rules that disadvantage women to wrest whatever power she can from them. She also states that the women who are successfully manipulating the patriarchal system to their advantage by, say, nominally reimagining the same old strip club clichés, may get rich and famous, but it shouldn’t be confused with creating actual change. This is not new. Objects don’t object.
I also really think that now, with the proliferation of free porn online, that boys are really being programmed to see women as objects rather than contributors to a relationship. Girls, too, seem to be buying into this. While being interviewed for the movie he wrote and starred in Don Jon, about a man addicted to porn, Joseph Gordon Levitt brings up the fact that there seems to be no difference between a Carl’s Jr. commercial, a porn movie, or a girl’s selfie profile pic these days. We are bombarded by porn culture.
The thing is, though, that the boys and girls are equally susceptible. Most boys really do want the same kind of intimacy as girls do. They all start out in that same developmental place. But when they grow up in this kind of culture where a man is supposed to be manly, and they are surrounded by girls who are also being fed these warped images of sexuality, there is no bridge to intimacy because they are all being taught that sexuality is external rather than internal—body parts, not whole beings.
I believe this. I have recently been talking to a young man in his twenties who approached me while I was walking one day. He approached me in an attracted manner and I was shocked. After telling him he was way too young for me, we began talking and what I came to find out was that he was having a hard time hooking up with a real live woman in his age group because he was having a hard time fitting into this whole new hook up culture. He wanted a real relationship and I guess for him, he figured an older woman would be his best bet. This was certainly a rather bold move and not one that is especially common, but I could feel his frustration with trying to feel normal with his real desire for an intimate relationship within a society of peers that are being taught to act the opposite.
I think the solution here really goes back to mothers talking openly to their daughters. Mothers need to talk freely about sex and their own desires and really encourage their daughters to get to know their bodies, to really discover who they are and how they feel and what they want. They need to encourage their daughters to ask for what they want from boys and later, men. It needs to start young when girls are first developing, and it needs to stop being something mothers are afraid of broaching out of fear. We are way past promoting abstinence in our daughters when they walk in a world where sex is everywhere.
Right, because once a young woman feels free to explore her body and desire in the home without shame, once she learns that sex is good and should be pleasurable, once she is nurtured to feel okay with asking for what she wants, she can then put this into practice with the boys she engages with. Whether they respond well to her or not thus becomes not her responsibility, but theirs, and she can walk away from undesirable encounters or interactions that don’t forward her strong sense of self and sexuality. This is vital.
Yes, when a young woman grows up, fostered by this kind of open and honest dialogue with the mother, something happens. She learns the depth of beauty beyond the skin, that affirmation that she is enough even in this image-driven culture.
That is really key. That girls learn about their inner beauty and inner desires before walking out into a world that conspires to teach them another, altogether different thing. They need to learn their sexuality from the inside and bring that forth into the world as a powerful combatant. They need to feel they are “hot” from within, not as a result of a Facebook like on their posed and filtered selfie.
And, it is really important that we consider teaching our young girls and boys about sexuality in a mature way when they are young and in their developmental stages in school.
I recently saw a video about sex education in Amsterdam. They teach their kids about sex in elementary school. They teach their kids that sex is a natural extension of intimacy, relationship, and even love. They even talk about things like moving slowly and intentionally with a partner, learning desire, pleasure, communication, and mutuality. This might seem terrifying to parents in America, yet Amsterdam has the lowest statistics on things like pregnancy and rape. Orenstein writes that “Hiding the truth has given men’s expectations the power, what if instead we taught girls about sex at a young age, but with a positive spin. Taught them about masturbation as a way to explore their bodies, empowered them to expect something for themselves within the sexual encounters?” I can’t help but think we are seeing the product now of what happens when fear creates silence and then silence creates a loud, lurking monster we can no longer ignore.