American journalist Peggy Orenstein became a much sought-after expert on girls before becoming herself a mother, at which point she realized that theory hardly ever matches practice. Her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (2012) describes the discomfiture caused by her inability to steer her daughter Daisy away from the glaring pink world of girls’ toys and the allure of the Disney princesses. Next came Orenstein’s insightful exploration of sexuality among high school and college female students in the USA, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape (2016). As she herself explains, this volume brought in many petitions for a companion study of boys, which she has recently published as Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity (2020). I must clarify that neither volume is specifically addressed to girls or boys but, rather, to the adults interested in their experiences. Boys and Sex is, therefore, similar in its main theses but very different from Respect: Everything a Guy Needs to Know About Sex, Love, and Consent (2019) by Swedish sex educator Inti Chavez Perez. Thus, whereas Orenstein wonders how many US boys really know about the clitoris, Chavez Perez gives his target male readers detailed didactic information about its location and functionality.
Orenstein’s portrait of teen US sexuality is necessarily limited because she focuses her attention on just a handful of informants (87 girls for the first book, about 100 boys for the second) mostly in high school and college, thus ignoring the many youths in other situations. It would be actually interesting to learn whether sex among the young is similar across class and educational differences. Her informants are, besides, overwhelmingly white. Orenstein makes a point of discussing race, especially in the book about the boys, but she deals only with non-white young men immersed in all-white colleges, with all the difficulties this entails. Certainly, their racially-marked position has a significant impact on these boys’ chances to meet sexual partners, given the covert and overt racism they often encounter even in liberal colleges. As you have possibly guessed, the sexuality which Orenstein explores in both books is mostly heterosexual though, to be honest, she does not really endorse its current practices. My impression, from both books, is that lesbian girls and gay guys are navigating ‘the complicated new landscape’, to quote from Orenstein’s title, with more maturity than their heterosexual peers despite still rampant homophobia. Orenstein, in any case, tries to be as inclusive as possible, integrating asexual and trans teens in her twin studies.
Peggy Orenstein, born in 1961, one year after the contraceptive pill was first commercialized, belongs to a post-sexual revolution generation. This means that although there are obvious differences between the 21st century young sexuality she describes and that of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s youth the differences are smaller than with the pre-pill generations. The main difference, obviously, has to do with the emergence of the internet, made accessible in most homes between the early and the mid-1990s, and of the smartphone, popularized already in the 2000s. Computers and smartphones made online porn generally accessible to boys, which is certainly a key factor. Next came the social media and texting apps: MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), Whatsapp (2009), Instagram (2010), Snapchat (2011) and so on. If the internet made porn accessible, the social media and the texting apps have put in the hands of teenagers an extremely dangerous tool to make or destroy sexual reputations, as many know. The dating apps, such as Grindr (2009) or Tinder (2012), though satisfactory for many of its users have given the hot body a centrality it should not have in general human sexuality.
I have read Girls and Sex after reading Boys and Sex, and I find that the discourse is very similar in both books, though in Girls the boys are presented with little nuance as almost faceless sexual companions, and in Boys, logically, there is much more detail about who they are. It is not an easy book to read because the portrait that emerges from the average US high school and college boy is very far from flattering. In the case of the girls Orenstein is worried by the distance between the feminist personalities of the girls and their acceptance of sexual practices which are not really satisfactory for them. In the case of the boys feminist Orenstein struggles to combine lessons in respect with the reality of the rape culture rampant in colleges, especially in Greek life (i.e. frat life, in reference to the Greek initials by which fraternities and sororities call themselves). In fact, the most painful sections of the book deal with the efforts made by some young men to understand that pushing your girlfriend down to give you a blow job is part of that rape culture: that push on the shoulders is already robbing the girl of her capacity to give consent.
As many researchers have been explaining in recent years, boys now start watching porn at an age before they have had any sexual feelings of their own which they can identify as such, sometimes as young as seven or eight. They get the wrong impression that the heavily staged sex they see on screen faithfully represents actual sexuality. This has a negative impact on girls, not only because they can find themselves disrespected and abused as often female porn stars are, but also because boys expect from them sexual favours which the girls might not be ready to perform and that, most often, are not reciprocated. Blow jobs, Orenstein insists, are now as common as kissing and a practice far more habitual than intercourse with penetration because, pay attention!, somehow blow jobs are not considered to be intimate and teens prefer impersonal hook-ups. Blow jobs, then, are just an indication that the girl is sexually active and of interest to boys. The problem is that, Orenstein explains, few boys are willing to reciprocate with cunnilingus, candidly declaring that it grosses them out and apparently believing that some clumsy vaginal fingering will do. Whether with or without intercourse boys are mostly satisfied with the sex they get but girls report many hook-ups with no orgasms. Why do they keep on accepting bad sex, Orenstein asks them? The girls reply that they don’t want to seem prudish (in my time the preferred slur was ‘frigid’) nor disappoint the boys. The additional problem, Orenstein explains, is that boys are asking for more and more… Because of the porn they see boys are demanding anal sex from girlfriends more than ever to the point that the current marker to establish whether a girl ‘does or does not do it’ is her acceptance of this practice, which is for most women painful and unrewarding. Many girls, though, oblige.
The scenario Orenstein presents is one in which dating that leads to intimacy has been pushed aside to make room for hook-up culture and in which romantic relationships have been delayed to a more adult post-college age. It is important not to ‘catch feelings’ and to perform sex as a sort of sport, with no attachments, which probably explains, I would add, why platonic friendship between men and women has grown. The young are mostly keeping the personal intimacy of friendship and the sexual prowess of the hook-up separate until a later age, when the ‘one’ (or ‘ones’) may appear after a period of experimentation. It wouldn’t sound bad if it weren’t because of some factors: the persistence of the double standard, the unequal sexualization of boys and girls, the use of the social media for bragging and for shaming, and the pervasive presence of alcohol in hook-up culture. And the matter of consent.
I believe that, on the whole, Orenstein makes too much of hook-up culture and too little of the young persons who follow other paths, either because they eschew sex altogether or because they manage their relationships in more intimate, romantic ways. I’ll suppose, however, for the sake of argumentation, that the pattern which Orenstein describes is common to, say, three quarters of young people, leaving the other quarter for the less susceptible to peer pressure. According to her, sex does not happen in US colleges without heavy drinking because sober sex is too serious, and might involve icky, uncool feelings. Casual sex, then, from kissing to anal sex, starts in parties, which boys attend in their daytime clothes and girls dressed up in mini-skirts, tank tops, high heels, their faces obligatorily made up to look sexy. The Dutch courage which drinking gives boys and girls lowers inhibitions but, as we all know, it also lowers the ability to ask for and give consent, hence the countless cases of boys accused of rape who claim they had no idea they were forcing the girl. Orenstein writes that we need to make sure girls enjoy alcohol with no risk to their physical integrity but I myself fail to understand why alcohol is so essential for both boys and girls to express their sexuality. If naturally induced sexual chemistry does not happen, why force it by drinking? The result can only be bad sex for both and, always, a greater risk for the girl of being raped. To her credit, though, Orenstein also describes the opposite situation: one in which boys incapacitated by alcohol to say no are abused by girls who wrongly assume that all guys are into sex all the time.
The double standard also continues unabated and made even worse by the social media and the texting apps. Girls, Orenstein explains, need to strike an almost impossible balance between being a prude and being a slut, whereas boys need not worry except by whether their score card is full enough. This matter of numbers is mind-boggling and a question that can hardly be solved for good, for there is no fixed perception about when a person is too promiscuous or not promiscuous enough. According to Orenstein, most teens lie about how much sex they have, pretending they have more than they do, and assume that the others have plenty. The figures she gives are rather modest in view of the apparently widespread hook-up culture but what really matters is the perception of the group to which the teen in question belongs. Some girls might be slut-shamed for a number of encounters others might consider low, some boy Don Juans might be bottom of the list in different places. It’s all relative. What is not relative it how reputation can be ruined to the point of suicide by the nonchalant (or malicious) sharing of sexting and videos, and the use of social media to send detailed reports of the sexual encounters. Even this is subjected to a double standard: girls’ behaviour in bed tends to be openly discussed by uncaring boys but, from what I gather, the girls do not use so frequently the same tools to discuss boys’ deficient performances, hardly ever shaming them as poor lovers or even rapists depending on the case.
All this amounts to something very simple: whereas now is the time for young persons to be enjoying sex with more freedom and pleasure than ever the reality reported by Orenstein and others is quite different. The mixture of porn, alcohol, social media reputation, and hook-up culture has resulted in a sexuality that seems at points a compulsory chore for both boys and girls rather than something genuinely celebrated. As an older person I should be feeling envy but after reading Orenstein I feel both relief and anxiety. I’m glad I am not a teenager today and I worry about what the teens in my family are finding in their love/sex lives. I think I am most dismayed by the idea that for both boys and girls, but above all for the girls, looking sexy (for the others) is so disconnected from feeling sexy (for yourself).
Orenstein portrays boys as persons who mostly truly accept gender equality but who are much confused about what respect and consent mean in a sexual relationship. She also presents them as much more likely to bow down to peer pressure and do terrible things in groups that they would never do individually. Of course, she refers to the USA and within it to specific lifestyles and possibly other cultures are very different. To be honest, I don’t know what is going on with teens here in Spain. Orenstein names the Dutch as the most advanced culture when it comes to teen sex, thanks to the good communication between parents and children. That is an important factor indeed but in the end, the impression I get is that if guys worried less about how they are judged by their male peers and rejected peer pressure against showing their feelings, sex would be much, much better for them and, above all, for the girls. I don’t know how they can be taught to change, though listening to them, as Orenstein does, seems a good way.
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