Be

Orgasm Equality

As we devoured Peggy Orenstein’s brilliant book, Girls & Sex, we found ourselves thinking not just about girls, but ourselves. The misconceptions and new societal pressures teens and young women are operating under also apply to grown women in many instances—though we presumably have a bit more wisdom with which to navigate them. It’s provocative to consider, for instance, who’s teaching girls be assertive everywhere except in sexual and romantic relationships, to put their partners’ pleasure before their own, to project sexuality rather than feel it: It’s not all the media and other outside forces—some of it has to be us. In order to help our daughters, friends, and students overcome the intimately unjust environment Orenstein’s illuminated, we need to get better at it ourselves. Here, she looks at some of the key points covered in her book through the lens of contemporary women of all ages:

A Q&A with Peggy Orenstein

Q

As you were writing the book, did you see parallels between what young girls are facing, and what their older sisters, mothers, and grandmothers are dealing with?

A

Absolutely. Although I wasn’t interviewing older women, I am keenly aware that when I speak publicly about the issues of sexuality in girls’ lives that I am talking about adults as well. Questions of what Sara McClelland, a psychologist at University of Michigan, calls “Intimate Justice”: who is entitled to engage in a sexual experience; who is entitled to enjoy it; who is the primary beneficiary; how does each partner define good enough? I talk about all of that in relation to girls’ lives, but I know those are also thorny and sometimes traumatic questions for adult women as well.

Q

You talk about good sex education as a way to vaccinate teen girls against some of the misogynist messages they’re exposed to, using the Netherlands as a particularly good model. How do we best re-educate/re-parent ourselves to dispel internalized misogyny?

A

It takes real consciousness and will to name, resist, and transcend the misogyny we’re bombarded with—women as well as men. And we all make our bargains, do the best we can with it. I like that you use the phrase “re-parent,” because when I think about parenting, I think about a kind of unconditional love and forgiveness, whereas women typically look at ourselves with such a harshly critical gaze. So, one thing Emily Nagoski—one of my heroes in the realm of women and sex—talks about as an evidence-based way to combat some of those messages is to stand in front of the mirror, “as naked as you can tolerate” and write down everything you see there—but only the things that you like. Obviously, at first you’ll just see your flaws, because that’s what we’re trained to do. She says to ignore that. Just focus on what you like. Maybe it’s your fingernails. Maybe it’s your earlobe. Whatever. Write that down. Then do it again the next day. If you practice noticing your own beauty, she says, you’ll eventually appreciate “what a frickin’frackin’ miracle you are” (I believe that’s her scientific terminology for it) and “the stronger the hold you’ll have on the keys to your own sexual wellbeing.”

She has another suggestion for those who cannot imagine looking at their body and finding something you love. In fact, everyone should at the very least watch her TED Talk, which is one of the most revelatory discussions of female sexuality I have ever heard—and I highly recommend her book, Come As You Are.

Q

You report that many girls get plenty of messages from their families and the culture at large about strong female role models—except in areas that apply to sex and romance. How do we create spaces to talk about and depict affirmative sexual models for women?

A

We are getting better at standing up against sexual victimization of women and girls. We need to get better at standing up for our right to joy as well. There’s so much shame around sex in our country, whether it’s discussing it with our kids or among ourselves—even as we are bombarded with sexualized imagery. It’s ridiculous. Honestly, it felt like we were making more progress when I was young—back before the AIDS crisis, before parental consent laws around abortion, before guys were assumed to be watching porn on the regular, back when every girl got a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and we learned it was sort of our political duty to go out there and have orgasms (ah, those were the days!). I tried to get some of what it was like to be a young woman then into my book, but somehow I could never make it work. When I was in college, it was a thing for women to gather in a room in the school’s student union and sit in a circle with mirrors, speculums and flashlights and examine our vulvas and look at our cervixes. I never worked those stories into the book, though, because it sounded so weird. It does sound weird, doesn’t it? Yet it did release a lot of shame and open a lot of conversation (and a lot of laughter—we were told a cervix felt kind of like a nose, so forever after my friends and I would periodically look at each other, particularly in a boring class or a silent room, and touch our noses and crack up). But yeah. Weird. It was the early 80s.

Q

Is there as wide an orgasm gap between the genders in older (meaning not teenage) populations? What about a masturbation gap?

A

According to the National Survey of Sexual Behavior, which was completed in 2009 and is the largest survey ever done on American sexual behavior, the orgasm gap continues across the lifespan. 91% of adult men and 64% of adult women said they climaxed in their last sexual encounter—though 85% of the men believed their female partner did as well, so there’s also a perception gap going on. Maybe women fake, or maybe men can’t tell, or they just want to believe they’re that good.

A masturbation gap remains as well: about two-thirds of men 18-59 and about forty percent of women report masturbating at least once in the last year. But when you pay attention to the popular culture, references to male masturbation are everywhere. I mean, even discounting Seth Rogan or Jonah Hill. I was watching Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and there’s this whole ongoing joke about the guy masturbating and coming on a pillow. He keeps saying “sploosh.” It’s not that I have a problem with that, but I can’t even imagine dialogue that would have a girl talking so casually and naturally about getting herself off. So would more women masturbate if it was less taboo? If we were taught to be less grossed out by our own genitals? I don’t know. I think maybe. I mean, orgasm feels really good and it’s a great stress reliever, so why not?

Q

The questions of intimate justice—who is entitled to enjoy sex, who’s the primary beneficiary, who determines what’s “good enough” for both parties in a sexual experience—are critical to ask, too. How do women, whether in their twenties or their seventies, start to edge themselves and their relationships into more intimately just territory? Are there books to read, workshops that a particularly effective?

A

Again, I would very strongly advise starting with Emily Nagoski’s book, Come As You Are, or her TED Talk, or her blog. Her work will change your life. Another really great source is OMGYes, which is an interactive, evidence-based educational site dedicated to helping you understand the mechanisms of women’s pleasure. It’s explicit, yet not at all pornographic. And it features real and diverse women talking about (and demonstrating) the techniques. I also think the videos made by F*ck Yes, which you can find on YouTube, are models for understanding how affirmative consent can be sexy as hell.

Heather Corinna’s book, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College is actually great for adult women, too—precisely because you probably didn’t have it in high school and college and it will answer every single question you ever had about sex in a positive, clear, accurate, and useful way.

Q

The internet’s influence on dating culture is society-wide—do you see that culture as more or less perilous/intimately just than pre-internet dating?

A

Both/and, I’d say. Obviously, back when you met people in a bar that wasn’t necessarily non-perilous or more intimate. But at the same time, the whole dating app thing flattens people out so much, encourages you to judge them based mostly on appearance, when so many people are so much more attractive because of who they are and how they move and the animation of their face and all those things.

That said, I also know people who have ended up falling in love and having wonderful relationships and experiences with people they met on dating apps. So it’s a hard call. I think the main thing for all of us it to keep a sense of humanity, whether we’re in a hookup or a relationship, to treat people with care and kindness regardless of whether it’s a one-and-done or you’re going to be with them for the rest of your life. It’s kind of a low road to equality for women to learn to dehumanize a partner the way we think of men as doing (though that’s a stereotype, too).

Q

Its influence on sexual mores (through the lens of porn, particularly) is also society-wide—as you point out, girls learn much of their sexual behavior from it, and presumably many grown women do, too. Do you have a sense for how much of the posturing that stands in for sexual enjoyment in porn gets adopted by women in the real world?

A

I can’t quantify that. But presumably the influence is significant. How could it not be? I mean, if what we watch over and over didn’t affect our subsequent behavior what would be the point of the entire advertising industry? We know that mainstream media affects our sexual scripts, affects our expectations, affects our behavior. Why wouldn’t porn do that? For sure you can see it in certain changes since around 2000—women removing all their pubic hair, for instance. Or the uptick in anal sex–I don’t say that to demonize a sex act, but because I wonder how those intimate justice questions are answered in those encounters—70 percent of women report pain in their encounters when anal sex is included in the question, though even without it, 30 percent do. Among teenage boys, porn use correlates to higher likelihood of sexual harassing. But, you know, it’s such a huge topic, and there is so much conflicting research and so much of it has an agenda behind it one way or another—it’s difficult to really get at what’s going on.

And yeah, there is “feminist porn.” But that’s a niche market, it’s not what most people, especially heterosexual teenage guys, are watching. I’m actually working on a new book on boys and sex now, so trying to understand porn use and its impact will definitely be a part of that.

Q

You talk about looking “hot” —fuckable and salable—as compared to the relative nuance of being “beautiful” or “attractive”, has become the goal for many women, and that looking sexual becomes an end in itself, where actually feeling sexual or enjoying sex is an afterthought or not even an expectation. How do we change what women and men expect from sexual experiences to be more equitable?

A

“Fuckable and saleable” is how Ariel Levy defines “hot” in Female Chauvinist Pigs, which is another touchstone book for me. And yes, many women now prioritize being desirable over understanding their own desire. When women present as “hot”, we often say they’re “expressing their sexuality.” But that’s not expressing your sexuality—that’s expressing sexiness. Expressing your sexuality would be having a true understanding of your body, your wants, needs, desires, limits, capacity for joy and being able to communicate that to a partner. Dressing sexy? That’s easy. And we’ve bifurcated the culture now so that “sexuality” for women is all about that performance whereas men are tasked with feeling pleasure in their bodies. It’s about how she looks and how he feels. And again, I think awareness is the first step in changing that. Getting back in our bodies, appreciating what they give us, feeling entitled not just to engage in a sexual experience, but to enjoy it. And truly? I think most men would be down for that as well.

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