Peggy Orenstein is a writer from Berkeley, California, and the author of five books – most recently, Girls and Sex. She centers her writing on the experiences of girls and women in modern society, particularly on their sexual and emotional wellbeing. She is working on a companion piece to Girls and Sex that explores the sexual experiences of teenage boys and young men. I spoke to Peggy about the challenges that college-aged women face in their sexual lives, the ubiquity of the male gaze, and the unique opportunities that we are afforded as young women to take control of our sexualities and begin a new conversation grounded in personal experiences and our own pleasure.
Content Warning: The following interview discusses sexual violence and assault. This interview also specifically references vaginas and vulvas; however, this is not to say that all women have vaginas and/or vulvas.
Liana Thomason: In Girls and Sex, you claim that girls often have trouble relating to sex in a healthy way. You talked to many feminist, assertive girls who felt unable to set healthy limits, advocate for themselves in bed, or sexually explore their own pleasure. Can you talk about this divide?
Peggy Orenstein: It was one of the most surprising things in the book to me. There was a total disconnect between that sense of entitlement in the public realm and these girls’ intimate experiences. I found that girls do feel an entitlement to engage in sexual behavior that they didn’t used to necessarily feel, but they don’t feel an entitlement to enjoy it. I talked to one girl who told me about how she comes from generations of smart, strong women… and then she told me about her sex life: a series of hookups that were not very respectful, not very reciprocal, and not particularly satisfying. She said, “I guess girls are socialized to be these docile creatures who don’t express what we want. Nobody told me that that ‘smart, strong woman’ also applied to sex.” Partly what’s confusing about that is, not only do you feel an entitlement to engage in sexual activity, but there’s also an increasing pressure to present yourself as sexy. There’s a disconnect between that performance of sexiness – which you’re told is a form of empowerment – and girls’ actual comfort with their own bodies. That was the part that nobody was talking about in general, but specifically no one was talking to young women about it. Or young men, who need to hear it too.
LT: The book focuses a chapter on the disparities between how young men and young women view sex, in terms in what they get out of it. Where boys see it as something that will end in pleasure and orgasm, girls see it as something to bring them closer to their partner, or to please their partner, and an orgasm is just an added benefit.
OR: Or a secondary expectation.
LT: Or a secondary expectation. You talked a bit about where that comes from. How can we change it, and how can we specifically teach boys to care more?
PO: It starts from the get-go – I sometimes talk about what I call the “American psychological clitorodectomy.” When we have our babies, parents have a tendency to name every part of a boy’s body, so they’ll say “here’s your pee-pee,” in reference to their penis. But with girls, parents go from navel to knees. Then girls go into their puberty education classes and learn that boys’ adolescence is defined by erections and ejaculations and an unstoppable sex drive, and girls’ is defined by periods and unwanted pregnancy. Even in educational diagrams of the female reproductive system, they hardly say vulva and they never say clitoris. The Care and Keeping of You book by the American Girl franchise has an external diagram of the female genitals and it has everything there – but it doesn’t name the clitoris. You can see that there’s something there, in the drawing, but it’s not labeled. So it’s that deep psychological clitorodectomy – girls don’t even know it’s there. It comes as no surprise that fewer than half of teenage girls have ever masturbated, and then they go into a partnered relationship. What would you possibly expect? We’ve set young women up for silence. And in setting them up for silence, we’re also setting them up for abuse.
I think the bigger way to rectify this- which it’s too late for [college-aged women], is that from birth we need to name names. Preschoolers masturbate all the time, and to say, “it feels really good when you touch your vulva but we don’t do that at grandma’s dinner table, we do it in our bedrooms,” is a really good thing to say – to make them aware that yes, that feels good … yes, it’s a private thing. And as girls get older, making sure that they know their anatomy is crucial – it was such a huge thing for us to even say the word “vagina,” but the vagina isn’t even where it’s at! The vagina is the reproductive canal. It’s not where all the nerve endings are – it’s not where the orgasm is going to happen.
We know that the orgasm gap disappears in same-sex encounters. Not only does it disappear, but women in same-sex encounters come at the same rates as men. There’s something in heterosexual encounters that is creating the orgasm gap and the misconception that the female orgasm is really difficult to achieve. If you’re having intercourse with somebody and while you’re having intercourse you masturbate, I can almost guarantee you you’ll come as fast as he will. But is that socially acceptable to do?
Thinking critically for young women about the idea of orgasm and why we disproportionately expect it in men and don’t in women is a really feminist act. The other piece is that neither boys nor girls are given language with which to navigate their sexual experience. We don’t talk about that with kids. We talk about reproduction, we talk about safety, we talk about risk. We don’t talk about intimacy and we don’t talk about how to negotiate your sexual relationships. In countries like Holland, they give kids language from the time they’re really little about relationships and ultimately about sexuality, so that they can advocate for themselves and have true agency in their relationships. And they do! Much more than American girls. They prepare more responsibly, so they’re able to assert their wants, needs, and limits, which is the hallmark of sexual agency.
LT: One of the things that you wrote about and mentioned earlier in this interview is how much more sexually fulfilling women who sleep with other women report those interactions to be. As a bi woman I have found that to be true, but I’ve also found that a lot of my sexual interactions with women get re-appropriated by the male gaze, specifically by college-aged boys who will say “that’s so hot,” or try to make it about them. And it’s hard to grapple with the male gaze reproducing itself outside of heterosexual relationships.
PO: I had girls who would tell me that one way they could safely experiment with other girls in high school was by supposedly being drunk and hooking up with other girls in front of everybody, for the guys’ benefit. And the other girl may or may not have been doing it as a turn on to the guys, but the girl I was talking to was doing it actually because she wanted to make out with the girl. Obviously that’s one of the big tensions and issues in girls’ sexual relationships with other girls. It also depends on how you look. If you fit the male idea of hot, hooking up with another male idea of hot is totally fine, but if you’re overweight, have short hair, or don’t wear makeup, then is it hot? There’s a very narrow idea of what’s acceptable.
LT: Which plays into the whole idea that women are supposed to be doing everything sexual to please men.
PO: Right, and if you look at porn – same-sex is the big fantasy, right? I’ve heard guys say that they want to have open relationships where they can have sex with anybody they want to, but their partner can only have sex with other women. Like, what’s that about? That means that they’re still trying to make the woman’s sexuality be about them. To destroy the idea that your sexual activity exists for men is a really useful thing to bring up, because that idea is the starkest example of the way that female sexuality is subverted to male sexuality. That even when men aren’t involved in it, even when it’s an act between two women, it becomes fetishized in a way that’s about male sexuality and pleasure. We need to be aware of this in order to create our own ideas of positive sexuality.
If I were to give college women one text to read about their own sexuality, it would be Emily Nagoski’s Come as You Are. It’s the best explanation I’ve ever read of female sexuality, why it works, and why it’s not inferior or lesser than male sexuality. There’s also this website called OMGYes on my resources page on my website. OMGYes uses scientific evidence of how female sexuality works to educate about female sexual response. You have to pay for it, but it’s worth it – only $30. It’s from a totally female-centric perspective, and what I love is, it’s so explicit. It shows people naked, masturbating and everything, but without being pornographic. It’s the best tool I’ve ever seen, as opposed to porn, which is a pack of lies about female sexuality.
LT: I got the idea for this article because I was talking with other interns, and one of the girls had just had a hookup where she had done some things that she thought she wanted at the time but wasn’t sure where that want was coming from. We talked about how it’s really difficult to tell the line between what you want as an empowered, young, sexually active woman and what society has told you you should want. We’re told we should be able to make decisions that we felt ultimately we weren’t capable of making. Have you run into that in your talking with girls?
PO: I think that young women in particular are constantly second-guessing themselves, trying to figure out if they want what they think they want. In an overarching way, young women are still socialized to be pleasing rather than understand their own pleasure.
Something you were referencing earlier was research that showed that young men and women define sexual satisfaction differently. Young women are more likely than young men to define satisfaction using the yardstick of their partners’ pleasure. So: if he had a good time, I had a good time. Young men are more likely to define their satisfaction also using the yardstick of their own pleasure. They’ll say, “if I had a good time, I had a good time.” And they also define bad sex differently – women are more likely to use language like “humiliating”, “degrading”, “painful”. Young men in research never use that language. They’ll say things like, “my partner wasn’t that good looking.”
If you’re going into an encounter hoping to feel close to your partner, hoping it won’t hurt, or wanting him to have an orgasm, you’ll be satisfied if those criteria are met. Women will often report equal or greater satisfaction in their sexual relationships than college-aged men. But their bar is lower – so much lower! Of course there’s nothing wrong with making your partner happy. But the constellation of satisfaction for women isn’t egalitarian.
LT: In Girls and Sex you write about how this learned compassion can prevent girls from reacting in an unsafe situation because they don’t want to transgress.
PO: It’s hard to know exactly when that encounter becomes unsafe. And there’s a natural tendency – and partly its being the polite girl – but I also think its natural when you’re in a situation and someone says something racist or anti-Semitic, for example, you go, “did that just happen?” By the time your brain has processed what was said, it’s already happening. It’s really difficult to prepare our brains to just jump to defense when we’re in an encounter – especially if we’ve developed some trust with the person. And then when you add to that a huge level of socialization as a girl to be polite and to make the partner feel good, that’s really hard. One of the big questions girls will ask is, “how do I say no without hurting my partner’s feelings?” When your boundaries are transgressed you don’t have to worry about hurting someone’s feelings! But that takes training and practice – it’s like a muscle.
In the book, I talk about a program using a virtual reality simulator. They did a poll with girls in advance asking how able they felt they were to get out of a situation. They were all completely confident. And then they put them in the virtual reality simulator and started with low level things, like a guy won’t stop asking you for your number in a bar. And they immediately folded. They couldn’t do it.
The bottom line is that we don’t have enough practice asserting those skills, and if you don’t have practice recognizing those situations during a role play or simulator, why would you be able to do it in a high pressure situation? As with any sport, you do drills so that when you get in the high-pressure situation of a game, you can do it automatically. And it’s not unlike that, except we don’t do the drills, and then expect to be able to do it the first time and get a goal. It’s an unrealistic expectation.
LT: So what would you have to say to college-aged women regarding how we can educate ourselves?
PO: The thing in college is that you have the ability to have these conversations amongst yourselves and the wherewithal, space on campus, and intellectual acumen to surface them and take action on them. Part of the social justice movement on assault is recognizing that girls and boys have the right not only to not be assaulted, but also to have positive sexual experiences. College is a profound and important time to think intentionally about what that can look like and how to get there. Ideally, these conversations would include guy friends too. A lot of guys that I’m talking to are trying to figure out how to not only be better men by not being jerks themselves, but how to start having conversations with other guys in order to change the culture. They don’t want to be hurting women either.
I will say that everything I know, even the whole reason that I came to write this book decades later, stems from the conversations I had with my girlfriends in college. Those conversations were not only fantastic for all of us – not to say that because this we had perfect sex lives or never had problems – but I feel like they changed who I am and changed my point of view on so many things regarding my sex life. I really do think there’s a unique opportunity in college life that is different than any other time you’ll have in your life. It’s the time you’re supposed to be asking questions about everything.