Episode 59

Girls and Sex, by Peggy Orenstein

Published on: 2nd November, 2021

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today we will be discussing Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex. I consider this book essential reading for anyone who is a girl or loves a girl, but I’m including it in this podcast on patriarchy because in our historical timeline, it contributes meaningfully to a conversation that we started in the very first episodes. Remember that for millennia, men thought of women’s bodies as their possessions, and their reproductive capacity was considered a commodity. Up until about 100 years ago women were still considered to be “owned” by their husbands under the laws of coverture, and marital rape was outlawed only in 1993, a vestige of the belief that a man owned his wife’s body and was his, to do whatever he wanted with it. Then in 1931 Virginia Woolf said that the one thing women couldn’t write about was sex (even though men could), and in many ways that is still true today. Our Bodies, Ourselves paved new paths in the 1970’s, but we are still figuring out girls’ and women’s bodies and sexuality in the context of always having been overseen and monitored and controlled by men. I think it’s important to remember that historical context as we consider this book as it relates to patriarchy. 

Also, obviously, given the title of the book, this episode is about sex, so please be advised of the subject matter, which we are (on purpose) going to discuss very openly.


And I am very  excited to discuss this book with my reading partner, Natasha Helfer! Thanks for being here, Natasha!


Natasha: (Response)


Amy: Natasha Helfer and I met in Northern California a few years ago at a lunch for progressive Mormons - I was seated next to Carol Lynn Pearson, who is a hero of mine, and I was in heaven because whenever I turned to my left I got to talk with her, and whenever I turned to my right, Natasha I heard you and my husband Erik talking about sex shame in conservative religions, which is something I think about a lot so I felt torn at that lunch! I knew who you were and admired you so much - I had heard you speak on sexuality on several podcast episodes and was such a huge fan of your work. And I still am! So I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about this book, but before we jump in, I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit about who you are. Where you come from and what makes you you. 


Natasha: Bio


Amy: Awesome. And I also like to ask my reading partners what interested them in participating in Breaking Down Patriarchy. Do you have a thought or two on that?


Natasha: Thoughts on this topic


Amy: Thanks so much. Our last step before we start discussing the book is to learn just a little bit about the author, Peggy Orenstein. I’ll read just a bit about her and what led her to write this text. 


Peggy Orenstein  was born in 1961 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She earned her bachelor's degree from Oberlin College in 1983, and began her career in New York City, as an Associate Editor at Esquire Magazine. She subsequently served as editor of multiple other publications before moving to San Francisco to become Managing Editor of Mother Jones. She left that post to write full time in 1991.

Orenstein lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and their daughter.

She is the author of many books, including Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Girls and Sex, which we will be discussing today, and her newest book, Boys and Sex, which I will be reading soon as well.

Orenstein has been a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and AFAR, and has also written for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker, and has contributed commentaries to NPR’s All Things Considered. She has been featured on many television shows and on NPR’s Fresh Air and The PBS News Hour, and her TED talk, “What Young Women Believe about their own sexual pleasure,” has been viewed over five million times.

So let’s dig in on some of these topics. Natasha and I have both read the book multiple times, and for this episode I chose passages that I thought were really important, and Natasha, I’ll ask you what you thought of them. 

Amy: So most of my reading partners would have murdered me if I had asked them to just answer questions about the book on the fly without any preparation, but because you’re a professional sex therapist and because you’ve read this book so many times, you told me you’d rather have me read the passages of the book and just ask you questions about them, so that’s how we’ll structure today’s episode. 


  1. Shame of Being Female

The most memorable part of  Orenstein’s TED talk for me (which I listened to years ago, before I read the book) was her saying that girls felt that their parts were both “sacred” and “icky”



Women’s feelings about their genitals have been directly linked to their enjoyment of sex. College women in one study who were uncomfortable with their genitalia were not only less sexually satisfied and had fewer orgasms than others but were more likely to engage in risky behavior. So how young girls feel about “down there” matters. It matters a lot.” (66)


Have you seen this in your practice, Natasha? And if so, how do you counsel women who want to rehabilitate their relationship with their anatomy?



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  1. Sexuality vs. Sexualization
  • She talks about young girls dressing very sexually, which reminds me of some dance recitals I’ve seen. She says:


“No one is trying to convince eleven-year-old boys to wear itty-bitty booty shorts or bare their bellies in the middle of winter. As concerned as I am about the policing of girls’ sexuality through clothing, I also worry about the incessant drumbeat of self-objectification: the pressure on young women to reduce their worth to their bodies and to see those bodies as a collection of parts that exist for others’ pleasure; to continuously monitor their appearance, to perform rather than to feel sensuality.” (12)


And she sums it up with this sentence:

“When little girls play at ‘sexy’ before they even understand the word, they learn that sex is a performance rather than a felt experience.” (2)


Can you talk more about that concept, Natasha, that sex is a performance rather than a felt experience? 



  • She talks about how high school girls and college-age women keep up this “performance” of sexuality, and I really related to this next part.


“If the script handed down by our hypersexualized culture expanded the vision of “sexy” to include a broad range of physical size and ability, skin shade, gender identity, sexual preference, age; if it taught girls that how their bodies feel to them is more important than how they look to others; if it reminded them that neither value nor “empowerment” are contingent on the size of their boobs, belly, or ass; if it emphasized that they are entitled to ethical, reciprocal, mutually pleasurable sexual encounters; then maybe, maybe I’d embrace it. The body as product, however, is not the same as the body as subject. Nor is learning to be sexually desirable the same as exploring your own desire: your wants, your needs, your capacity for joy, for passion, for intimacy, for ecstasy . It’s not surprising that girls feel powerful when they feel “hot”: it’s presented to them over and over as a precondition for success in any realm. But the truth is that “hot”refracts sexuality through a dehumanized prism regardless of who is “in control.” “Hot” demands that certain women project perpetual sexual availability while denying others any sexuality at all. “Hot” tells girls that appearing sexually confident is more important than possessing knowledge of their own bodies. Because of that, as often as not, that confidence that “hot” confers comes off with their clothes. (43)


They feel powerful because they’re winning at the game the men set up for them. Who is hottest? I am! I am!!


Ok, and I have just one more passage on this topic that I want to read and then I’d love your thoughts, Natasha. She says:


“A Bay-Area high school senior...asked me, ‘Isn't there a difference between dressing slutty because you don’t  feel good about yourself and you want validation, and dressing slutty because you do feel good about yourself and you don’t need validation?’

‘Could be,’ I replied. ‘Explain how you know which is which.’

‘I can’t,’ she said after a moment. ‘My whole life is an attempt to figure out what, in the core of myself, I actually like versus what I want to hear from other people, or wanting to look a certain way to get attention. And part of me feels cheated out of my own well-being because of that.’ (16)


Ok, Natasha, how do we know which is which??


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  1. Modesty

“Enforcing modesty is considered a way both to protect and to contain young women’s sexuality; and they, by association, are charged with controlling young men’s. (9)


Not all boys engage in such behavior, not by a long shot, and many young men are girls’ staunchest allies. However, every girl I spoke with, every single girl - regardless of her class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation; regardless of what she wore, regardless of her appearance - had been harassed in middle school, high school, college or often, all three. Who, then, is truly at risk of being “distracted” at school? (11)


Thoughts on modesty, Natasha? 


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  1. Misogyny/Men Own Women’s Bodies

Pressure to have sex is seen as a masculine right. ...Despite changing roles in other realms, boys continue to be seen as the proper initiators of sexual contact. ...Boys’ sex drive is considered natural, and their pleasure a given. They are supposed to be sexually confident, secure, and knowledgeable. Young women, as I’ve said, remain the gatekeepers of sex, the intertia that stops the velocity of the male libido. Those dynamics create a haven for below-the-radar offenses that make a certain level of sexual manipulation, even violence, normal and acceptable. (195)


She then describes Maroon 5’s video of the song “Animals”:


Maroon 5’s promise to hunt a woman down and eat her alive. (In the video, lead singer Adam Levine stalks the object of his obsession while dressed as a butcher wielding a meat hook, then has sex with her in a blood-drenched finale.) (2)


Ok, I thought maybe this was an exaggeration so I watched it, and I was so horrified and so angry. Seeing the face of that actress - especially now that I have college-age daughters - and thinking “what are that girls’ hopes and dreams? Who are her parents and her siblings and her grandparents who have adored her since she was little?” And seeing Adam Levine stalk her and fantasize about butchering her… and then putting it out there for the world to see, so that boys can grow up learning that sex = objectifying, stalking, and then murdering women? I was incensed. 


What are your thoughts on misogyny, Natasha? And how can we teach boys and men to do better?


Addressing boys directly is the only way to challenge the assumption by some that girls’ bodies exist for them to judge - and even touch - however and whenever they wish. (9)





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  1. Women Don’t Want to Hurt Feelings/Offend, so they get pressured to go along with things they don’t want to do


Orenstein talks with girls who are giving guys oral sex all the time “so the guy won’t feel bad” or be disappointed that they don’t want to have sex. And she even talks about rape victims who are being held down and they’re struggling, but don’t actually say the word “no” because they don’t want to offend or damage the relationship. One girl actually did say “no,” but said she felt paralyzed and after being raped she still smiled at him and said “thanks, I had fun.”


“For years, psychologists have warned that girls learn to suppress their own feelings in order to avoid conflict, to preserve the peace in friendships and romantic partnerships. ...Whether they hoped to attract a boy’s interest, sustain it, or placate him, it seemed their partner’s happiness was their main concern.” (53) 


Then she goes on to say:

“Nearly all the girls I interviewed were bright, assertive, ambitious. If I had been interviewing them about their professional dreams or their attitudes toward leadership or their willingness to compete with boys in the classroom, I might have walked away inspired. (57) [One girl summed it up by saying], “I guess no one ever told me that the strong female image also applies to sex.” (58)


This is reminding me of our episode on Sexual Politics by Kate Millett, where she says there are implications of female subordination not only on capitol hill and in the boardroom, but also in the bedroom, even in marriages. 


Do you see this, Natasha? 




For our last topic, we’re going to address what will feel like a completely different topic, but might be surprisingly connected.


  1. Purity culture


The first thing I want to mention here is that patriarchal purity culture doesn’t just harm women - I remember Conan O’Brien saying once that to grow up Catholic means feeling bad every time you have sex (the audience laughed, but you could tell it wasn’t a joke). And then there’s an episode of “This American Life” with Elna Baker called “But That’s What Happened” where she talks about discussing her sexual feelings and acts as a teenager with an older man… she did this so many times that now even as an adult she feels like she has a man in a suit sitting looking over her shoulder whenever she does anything sexual. I know SO many people who can relate to that - even if each individual patriarch in the church was a well-meaning, really nice man just doing what he was told was the right thing to do, the presence of that  symbolic “man in the suit”  in the bedroom has destroyed the sex lives of so, so, so many people. 


But anyway… Orenstein doesn’t cover Mormonism; instead she takes on Evangelical Christian purity culture. She says:


The world’s first Purity Ball was organized in 1998, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, by a pastor named Randy Wilson. As the father of seven children, five of them girls, Wilson believed it was his duty to “protect” his daughters’ virginity. …[These events are] an outgrowth of a larger “True Love Waits” movement launched by the Southern Baptists Convention in the mid-1990’s. … By 2004 more than 2.5 million had pledged - 1 in 6 American girls. (85)


So Orenstein goes to a “purity ball” which is like a giant Daddy-daughter dance where the daughters pledge their sexual purity. She’s talking with the dads and daughters and one of the dads tells her: 

“If someone put a gun to [my daughter’s] head every day and said if you lose your purity, I’ll shoot you, I guarantee she wouldn't lose her purity. It’s all about choice.” (91)




So how does this approach play out?

Three quarters of white evangelical teens disapprove of premarital sex, as opposed to half of mainline Protestants and a quarter of Jews. Evengelical virgins, incidentally, are also the least likely to imagine that sex will feel good. Despite that, evangelicals are the most sexually active of those groups. They lose their virginity younger, at an average age of sixteen, and are less likely to protect against pregnancy or disease, perhaps due to a lack of education or perhaps because preparing for intercourse would make their fall from grace appear premeditated. 

They remain less likely to use contraception and drastically less likely to protect against disease. Pledgers have the same rates of STD’s and pregnancy as the general population. (88-89)


Also, a 2014 study of young evangelical christian men offered a glimpse into the post-abstinent marriage bed: It turned out the men couldn’t shake the idea that sex was “beastly” after the prohibition against it was lifted. They were surprised to find themselves still beset by temptation: pornography, masturbation, other women. What’s more, back when they were single, they had the support of other abstinent men. Once wed, they found that talking to friends about sexual problems was considered a betrayal of one's wife, and they had no idea how to communicate with their spouses directly. A young woman who had taken a virginity pledge in the Baptist Church at age ten told a similar story on the website xoJane. After marriage, she couldnt’ let go of the shame and guilt that had been drummed into her: “Sex felt dirty and wrong and sinful even though I was married and it was supposed to be okay now,” she wrote. “Sometimes I cried myself to sleep because I wanted to like sex, becasue it wasn’t fair. I had done everything right. I took the pledge and stayed true to it. Where was the blessed marriage I was promised? (90)



Thoughts, Natasha?


If there is time, I’ll ask you for a takeaway from the book/the discussion/something you want to leave with listeners

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Amy/Natasha: Thank you, you’re amazing, etc.  :)


On our next episode of Breaking Down Patriarchy, we will be discussing the book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, by British science journalist Angela Saini, written in 2017. If you’re interested in the sciences, but even if you’re more of an arts and humanities person, I would recommend this book to everyone. So see if you can grab a copy, or put it on your reading list for later, but either way, join us for the discussion of Angela Saini’s Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy. 



Notes we didn’t have time for


[So many girls admitted to feeling ashamed of their vaginas, as well as not knowing what they looked like. She quotes a male writer saying they] are “objectively gross,” [among other very explicit and insulting things.] If that weren’t enough to plunge the average young woman into a shame spiral, heartthrob actor Robert Pattinson, whose fame and fortune were forged from the erotic fantasies of teenage girls, breezily confessed to Details magazine, “I really hate vaginas. I’m allergic to vagina.” (65)


Girls are four times...

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Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.