Body Language

Girls and Sex author Peggy Orenstein on the mixed messages of Kim Kardashian and why teen girls still haven’t learned real sexual confidence.

Peggy Orenstein
Author Peggy Orenstein.

Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Peggy Orenstein’s latest book, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, is a deeply reported, passionately argued critique of the commercialization of sexuality and contemporary dating culture. Orenstein, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, set out to talk to a number of young women about their sex lives, and to figure out why female sexuality is still approached in such a radically different way than male sexuality. 

In a recent phone interview, Orenstein and I discussed these issues and more, including the effect of porn on women’s sex lives, why many young women don’t masturbate, and the controversial ways that some celebrities express their sexuality. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Isaac Chotiner: What is the single thing that the Internet has most changed about sex and dating?

Peggy Orenstein: The Internet is a vector. It intensifies things. Whatever is happening in the world tends to happen even more so on the Internet. Tinder is actually an example. On one hand, you say, “Well, that’s totally changed everything, now you can just look at an app and flip through people like they’re baseball cards.” But, back in the ’70s, they had those fern bars that everybody went to. It was kind of the same thing, except you did it in person.

I think for kids, for young kids, the access to porn has changed a lot. It didn’t used to be that when you were 10, or 12, or 14 years old you could just push a button and see any possible sexual interaction, and that has affected the expectations of both boys and girls when they enter their sex life.

A lot has been written about the way porn has influenced the expectations of boys. Can you talk about how is has influenced the expectations of girls?

In fact, my understanding is that Time magazine is about to have a cover story on that, like, next week or something.

It affects girls in a few ways. It affects how they look at their own bodies: are they good enough, are they adequate, are they going to please their partner because they aren’t like the girls in porn, things like that.

A lot of girls would say to me—and, this really began to irritate me, not at the girls, but just at the fact that they had to think about this—“My boyfriend wants to know why I don’t moan during sex like the girls in porn.” I got so irritated at that that I started dropping my journalistic remove, and I would say, “Look. It’s a movie. Movies need soundtracks. If people didn’t moan, it would be a silent movie. That’s why they’re moaning like that.” That was kind of like a revelation. They’re like, “Oh, I never thought of it that way!”

I think that porn has also probably been responsible for the rise in anal sex among teenagers. I don’t want to demonize any particular behavior, because people can do whatever they want to do, but when you’re talking about girls who have never masturbated, never had an orgasm either alone or with a partner, and they are engaging in anal sex, my guess is that it is probably not the best possible experience for them. A British study of kids 16 to 18 found that it was boys who were primarily pushing for anal sex. They were doing it not as an act of intimacy with a partner, but as a competition with other boys, and that they expected to have to coerce their partner into it. The girls reported pain, and both the boys and the girls blamed the girls themselves for that pain, using words like “naïve,” and “unable to relax.”

Do you think that people who have a lot of sex and then start watching all this porn get affected in the same way, or do you think it’s more that people are watching it before they have some understanding of what sex is?

I think they’re certainly watching it before they have an understanding of what sex is. Shortly after having the conversation about porn with my daughter we were watching the movie Brooklyn. Did you see that movie?

I did, unfortunately.

You know there’s a sex scene in the middle of the movie, right? There’s nothing unusual or particularly graphic about the scene. It’s a very standard sex scene. They rip half their clothes off, they’re simulating intercourse for five seconds, and then everybody seems to be happy and content.

I suddenly had this revelation that, “Oh my gosh. I can’t just talk to her about porn. I’ve got to talk to her about this,” because kids see more of this. They’re going to see sex that looks like this over and over and over, and if they think that’s what sex is, that’s not very good either. It’s really important to say, “Look, this is what Hollywood uses as a shorthand for sex, just like when somebody gets into a cab, you don’t watch the whole cab ride. You see them get in and you see them get out.”

It’s important, I think, to have the discussion around the impact of porn, but it’s also important to understand that just the media in general doesn’t really portray sexual relationships in perhaps the most realistic way, and if you aren’t going to talk to your kids about that, then the culture’s going to do it for you.

But that isn’t new. Has the culture ever provided something remotely close to an adequate representation of sex?

Yeah, probably not. But just because that’s true doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk about it. Because there’s so much more media now, much more of our lives are spent consuming media; you do have to develop that critical filter, whereas maybe 30, 40 years ago, that shorthand would have been seen less often. Probably, actually, you wouldn’t have seen it at all. You would have seen kissing, and then you get the Hays Code or whatever.*

Your book is very funny in describing how you tried to talk to your daughter about sex. Especially for parents who may be less emotionally open than yourself, I assume that’s a pretty hard thing to do.

Parenting from fear and ignorance is not the best strategy. [As a parent,] you don’t get to choose when you’re going to be a parent. You don’t get to say, “Well, I’m uncomfortable with this aspect of parenting, so I think I just won’t do it.” That’s not how it works.

That’s why I haven’t had kids yet.

Yeah, yeah. I think there’s that, and I think the other piece of it is, if you can’t do it yourself, find somebody who can. I mean …  I have a friend’s child who I was their person for. I had these discussions with her. What I asked in return from her, because she’s now in her mid-20s, and I’ve said this to her all the time, “I don’t know if I can be this person for my kid. I hope I can, but I don’t know if I can. If I can’t, it’s your job. I am designating you to talk to her frankly, openly, and honestly about sex the way that I did with you.”

Do you think that the increasing celebration of sex and female sexuality in the last half century, which has on the whole been great and necessary, has left some young women unprepared for the complicated realities of sex that still exist?

I don’t think that it’s the celebration of female sexuality that’s done that. I think it’s the commercialization of female sexuality. I think that’s a totally different thing. The commodification of female sexuality and the use of female sexuality, and that very narrow, very commercial and superficial idea of “hot” as being the end all and be all of female sexuality so that what young women learn is that what’s important about them is to express and perform sexiness, has been intensified. That it’s more important how their bodies appear to others than how those bodies feel to them. That’s what I think the culture has done to young women.

Did researching the book make you think that men and women were hardwired in different ways?

That’s a really controversial idea. If you read Daniel Bergner’s book, What Do Women Want?, his ideas about what is hardwired and what is biological in women and men so blow out of the water all our learned notions of what we think, how we think women and men approach relationships and sexuality, that I think that it’s really dangerous ground.

So you think the fact that the women you talk to aren’t all masturbating at 16 is cultural?

That I think is cultural, and it’s true that in cultures that prioritize female orgasms, and there are some out there, that girls and women do have orgasms readily and easily. I think that what we do in our culture is we completely erase, well, I call it the psychological cliterodectomy. We erase female pleasure. From the time babies are born, we name all the parts on little boys. [Anything] between the navel and the knees on girls, people do not name. I’ve even been told, somebody told me after the book came out, that it’s actually a problem in pursuing charges in sexual abuse that girls don’t have a name there, so they can’t speak of it. We never say “vulva,” we never say “clitoris.”

It’s not really that much of a surprise that fewer than one-half of girls 14 to 17 have ever masturbated, and then they go into a partnered experience, and we think that they’re going to be able to have a voice or advocate for themselves or have a sense of what their own pleasure is. It’s completely unrealistic, and it puts girls not only at a disadvantage in terms of having a satisfying sexual experience but also just having an equal relationship.

How would you answer the critique of your book that it is another in a long line of books about the sky falling culturally, arguing that there has been a moral collapse in society?

First of all, people would say to me, “Well, this is nothing new. This has always been going on.” So what? So much has changed in women’s lives in the public realm. So much has changed educationally, so much has changed professionally. Why is it OK for this one area not to evolve? We deserve something better.

I’m not saying, “It’s all going to hell in a hand basket, and kids are acting immorally,” I’m saying, “It’s all going to hell in a hand basket because kids aren’t acting ethically and reciprocally,” and that’s kind of a different idea. I want kids to be able to engage in sexual experimentation, whatever that means for them.

Do you feel like your book extends beyond a certain demographic of middle- and upper-middle class kids?

The main subject of the book, the girls that are in the main chapters, do actually span a range that are African-American, Asian American, Latina, Arab American, and white. What they do all have in common is that they’re all educated. All the girls that I talked to were college-bound or in college. I wanted to talk to that demographic because I wanted to talk to girls who felt they had opportunity and girls who were seen as a beneficiary of the feminist movement, and who often themselves identified as feminist. I guess the question I would ask, then, is, “Are girls with even less opportunity likely to be more empowered in their sexual experiences?” I don’t think that their experience would be less male-driven or male-focused.

What or who in pop culture do you think is addressing these issues well?

I think that’s something that is really exciting and really changing right now. There’s some stuff that’s coming out that’s fabulous. Not all of it is appropriate for, say, my 13 year old, but obviously Girls. Rachel Bloom, I want to marry Rachel Bloom. Her videos, I’m constantly sending people her videos. I love Amy Schumer.

And what out there horrifies you?

It’s not so much that it horrifies me. It’s that I’m fascinated by this idea that a lot of pop icons put out now that self-objectification is a form of personal power. That has become such a tricky Möbius strip for young women. I don’t even know if she’s a pop star, but I’ll say celebrities like Kim Kardashian, with the recent nude selfies that she did on International Women’s Day, she’ll say, “I’m proud of my body, and I’m expressing my sexuality,” and I think, “Well, who gets to be proud of which body, and under what circumstances?”

When you say “expressing your sexuality,” expressing your sexuality is something that happens either alone or with a sexual partner where you’re communicating and you’re experimenting with touch and with arousal and with intimacy and all of these things. You can’t do any of that with a picture. I mean, well, you can masturbate with a picture, obviously, but you can’t, as the photographed person, express your sexuality. That’s expressing sexiness, and that’s a different thing. We’ve conflated the two. If that meant, in conflating those things, that girls were having better sexual experiences, if it meant that they were more in control, if it meant that they had more of a voice, if it meant that they could advocate for themselves in their sexual relationships better, I’d say, “OK. I’m old. I’m handwringing. I’m pearl clutching. Whatever.” The fact is with girls is that that sexual confidence often comes off with their clothes.

Thank you for talking to me. I’m now going to Google “female orgasm.”

OK. Go for it, dude.

Correction, April 1, 2016: Due to a transcription error, this article originally misquoted Peggy Orenstein as saying “You would have seen kissing, and then you get the haze coat.” She said “Hays Code.” (Return.)