am, an 18-year-old high-school senior, says she would never hang out with one of her guy friends alone because he would expect her to perform oral sex. “It’s not that they’d force themselves on you,” Sam tells the feminist writer Peggy Orenstein in one of the interviews in Orenstein’s horrifying new book, Girls and Sex. “It’s just that there would be pressure.” Sam has learned this through a number of “hookups” she had beginning in middle school, which usually ended with her acceding to the demands boys made of her.
Orenstein, like many adults today, seems surprised by the willingness of teenage girls to engage in sexual activity they acknowledge they don’t find particularly enjoyable because boys might be “disappointed” if they don’t. What is this? The 1950s?
Orenstein writes: “I want to be clear here. Sam was not a pushover, not a meek or mousy girl. She was an honor student, an editor on her school paper, a varsity tennis player. She identified as a feminist and casually bandied about terms such as slut shaming, gender binary, and rape culture.”
Well, if there were ever evidence that feminism is a set of useless tropes for young women today, Orenstein’s Girls and Sex is it, though Orenstein herself does not know it. She interviewed more than 70 females between the ages of 15 and 20 about their experiences of and attitudes toward sex. Many seem to be just like Sam. They are smart girls with big ambitions and a sense that girls can do anything boys can do—but better. But they evince little or no understanding of how to have a loving relationship with a member of the opposite sex or even a basic idea of how to say no to sex acts they don’t want to perform.
How did we get here? Orenstein is in many ways a wise chronicler of the lives of modern girls. Her 2011 bestseller, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, is a fascinating study of how the same culture that brought us “girl power” has also made every three-year-old want to dress from head to toe in pink and brought about an explosion in the princess industry.
As her own daughter grew older, Orenstein began to follow trends even more insidious than the rise of toddlers in tiaras. The first is the selfie. Teenage girls take dozens of photos of themselves every day. Orenstein watches as they find the perfect pose—the one that will make them look thin and sexy without looking slutty. Orenstein sees them so often she can name their poses. At a Miley Cyrus concert, Orenstein stands next to a life-size poster of the singer as 30 different girls take pictures to post on social media. “A few made ‘duck lips’ or ‘faux surprise’ face—I’m fun! I’m ironic!—but most imitated their idol,” she writes. They posed with a look they described to Orenstein as “I guess it’s to say, ‘I don’t care.’” Even though they obviously do.
These are not the only photos they’re taking. They’re also regularly sending topless or nude pictures of themselves to boys they’re interested in—or in whom they’re not particularly interested.
Among the girls I met, the badgering to send nude photos could be incessant, beginning in middle school. One girl described how, in eighth grade, a male classmate threatened (in a text) to commit suicide if she didn’t send him a picture of her breasts.
This girl told her parents. Another girl complied.
Orenstein also examines the effect of pornography on girls. While it’s been widely noted that porn has encouraged boys to expect more risky, violent, and unrealistic sex, girls are also learning a great deal. Not only should they be clean-shaven and agree to what is known as “fifth base,” but girls, says Orenstein, report finding themselves “sometimes disconnected from their bodies during sex, watching and evaluating their encounters like spectators.”
A high-school senior describes how when things “get heavier and all of a sudden my mind shifts and I’m not a real person: it’s like, This is me performing. This is me acting. It’s like, How well am I doing? Like, This is a hard position, but don’t shake. And I’m thinking, What would ‘she’ do? ‘She’ would go down on him.’ And I don’t even know who it is I’m playing, who that ‘she’ actually is. It’s some fantasy girl, I guess, maybe the girl from porn.”
This seems to be one of the many ways the girls in Orenstein’s book pretend they’re not actually degrading themselves. She reports: “Some girls bragged to me that they could ‘have sex like a guy,’ by which they meant they could engage without emotion, they could objectify their partners as fully and reductively as boys often objectified them.”
Another girl tells Orenstein she has stopped setting any kind of sexual boundaries for herself. Christina, a college freshman, explains, “I don’t think I want to set lines for myself anymore, either….Because you’ll be disappointed when you cross them.”
The easiest way out of this dilemma—wanting to do what everyone else is doing while at the same time realizing it’s not really what you want—is to drink heavily. Orenstein doesn’t shy away from talking about just how important drinking, by girls especially, is to the hookup culture. Whether it’s “pregaming” before they go to parties by drinking multiple shots or playing competitive drinking games with boys (and, not surprisingly, losing), high-school and college girls seem to be going out of their way to lose control in dangerous and surprising ways.
And what does feminism have to say about this? Well, why shouldn’t girls get to do everything boys do? And if someone points out, as Slate’s Emily Yoffe did last year, that women might want to consider the consequences of these actions, feminists say she is blaming the victim.
Orenstein defends Yoffe and those of us who believe that it would be better for their safety and well-being if young women stayed a little more sober. Unfortunately, that’s the end of her good sense. Orenstein proceeds to document the campus rape crisis, insisting on the ludicrous one-in-four or one-in-five women sexual-assault statistic (the Justice Department says the number is 1.6 out of 100) and going after everyone from Katie Roiphe to Christina Hoff Sommers for suggesting that rape only occurs when a woman is physically forced to perform a sexual act, not when she is cajoled into an encounter she later regrets.
Orenstein goes so far as to trumpet the new “affirmative consent” rules on campus, in which women have to say “yes!” to every single activity. This is necessary, in Orenstein’s view, because girls often seem to consent but aren’t really consenting. Asking a boy to use a condom, she argues, is not consent. Performing oral sex is not consent. Taking off clothing is not consent. Even telling a boy she had a good time does not necessarily mean the sex was consensual.
After reading Orenstein’s interviews, one is sympathetic to this view—up to a point. The girls who speak to her seem utterly incapable of telling a boy who expects too much to go jump in a lake—or of laughing at him. Excuse me? You thought because I went to a movie with you that…what was going to happen? You have to be kidding me. None of these girls ever say such things.
It was easy to laugh at overzealous boys when their expectations really were out of line with everyone else’s. And for those girls who were worried about hurting a guy’s feelings, well, a guy could simply assume that this girl wasn’t saying yes to anyone else, so no need to take it personally.
What “girl power” has not done, and what it perhaps can never do, is teach teenage girls not to care what anyone else thinks of them. Social media and media in general have probably made the pressure to conform to one’s peers even worse.
The real problem is that the cultural standard has changed. Orenstein naively believes that what girls need is more open and honest sex education from their schools and from their parents. If only girls could tell boys what they want from them, if only they were able to have more “reciprocal” relationships, then everyone would win. To make her point, Orenstein asks one girl why she keeps doing things for boys that give them sexual pleasure without deriving any of it herself. Would girls “fetch [boys] lattes from Starbucks” without ever having the favor returned?
Alas, sex is not like coffee, especially for girls. Orenstein’s interviewees tell her repeatedly that one of the reasons they don’t get sexual pleasure or seek it from these relationships is because they’re not relationships. These girls don’t trust these boys, and so they are not comfortable asking for or enjoying something they might get from a boy they just met a couple of hours earlier.
Orenstein and her fellow proud feminists are not willing to acknowledge the simple truth, which is that to girls, sex outside of a trusting relationship will likely be unsatisfying no matter how comfortable they are with their bodies, that boys won’t like them any better or respect them any more if they send topless pictures of themselves, that the teenage male ego may seem fragile but that a boy will get over rejection, and that no amount of drinking will make anyone feel any better about self-degradation.
What girls could use from Orenstein and the other feminist mothers and educators out there are not classes that involve “a plush, anatomically correct vulva puppet” but some advice about how to be truly countercultural. How to say no even when others are saying yes, because saying no is what they truly want to do.