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?


  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??


  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? 


  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)


  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


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 more willing than boys to engage in sexual activity they don’t like or want [Many women expressed feeling degraded and depressed]. Not a single man surveyed expressed similar feelings. (71)

Women tended to use their partner’s physical pleasure as the yardstick for their satisfaction. (72)

Self-objectification has been associated with depression, reduced cognitive function, lower GPA, distorted body image, body monitoring, eating disorders, risky sexual behavior, and reduced sexual pleasure. (12)

Artists such as Gaga or Rihanna or Beyonce or Miley or Nicki or Iggy or Kesha or Katy or Selena may not be puppets, but they aren’t necessarily heroes, either. They’re shrewd strategists, spinning commodified sexuality as a choice, one that may be profitable but is no less constraining, ultimately, either to female artists or to regular girls. So the question is not whether pop divast are expressing or exploiting their sexuality so much as why the choices for women remain so narrow, why the fastest route to the top as a woman in a sexist entertainment world (just as for ordinary girls on social media) is to package your sexuality, preferably in the most extreme, attention-getting way possible. (28)

Kim Kardashian’s true contribution has been an ingenious “patriarchal bargain”; her acceptance of roles and rules that disadvantage women in exchange for whatever power she can wrest from them. (42)

“Whereas earlier generations of media-literate, feminist-identified women saw their objectification as something to protest, today’s girls often see it as a personal choice, something that can be taken on intentionally as an expression rather than an imposition of sexuality. ...The girls I met talked about feeling both powerful and powerless while dressed in revealing clothing, using words like “liberating, bold, boss bitch, and desirable, even as they expressed indignation over the constant public judgement of their bodies (14)

[Megan got dressed in a tight crop top and tight miniskirt and asked] “Does my stomach look big in this?” she asked a friend, who was standing in the doorway. “Don’t F with me.”

“I’m not F-ing with you, the friend said. “You look hot. Like the skinniest F-ing bitch.” ...As she continued to dress, Megan told me about the Gender Studies class she was taking this semester. “I had never noticed that guy models in ads are always doing something  - playing a guitar or driving - and girl models are just…” She struck a classic pose: head tilted, chin down, hand on hip, coy smile. ...She looked again at her stomach, again at her butt. ...In my gender class I’m all, That damned patriarchy,” she said. “But at night it all goes to shit. The only thing I care about is: ‘Does this skirt make my ass look good?’ Although she hates makeup, she said, it’s part of attracting guys’ attention, so she swiped on dark lipstick and some smoky, sparkly eye shadow. 

….Megan had less transcended limits than tried to legitimize herself within them, despite them. 


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. That seemed a sad, low road to equality. What if, instead, they expected boys to be as sexually giving as girls? What if they were taught that all sexual partners, whether total strangers or intimates, deserved esteem and generosity, just as people do in any human interaction? What if they refused to settle for anything less? (140)

“The same old double standard, the idea that a sexually active girl is a ‘slut,’ while a similar boy is a ‘player.’ Now, though, girls who abstain from sex, once thought of as the ‘good girls,’ are shamed as well. As one high school senior said to me, ‘Usually the opposite of a negative is a positive, but in this case it’s two negatives. So what are you supposed to do?” (3) 

Boys run afoul of dress codes when they flout authority: ‘hippies’ defying the establishment, ‘thugs’ in saggy pants. For girls, the issues is sex. 

[High school boys] downloaded pictures from girls’ Instagram or Twitter accounts (or snapped one in the hallways), captioning each with the girl’s purported sexual history. All the girls singled out were Black or Latina. ...When [one girl] lodged a formal complaint, she was placed in a room with four male school security guards who, she said, asked whether she had actually performed the acts attributed to her on the site. Humiliated, she let the matter drop. (10)

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. (22)

This makes me worry for the mental health of the girl and the boy!! What the hell??

Themes [for fraternity parties at one college include]: “CEO’s and business hos,” “workout bros and yoga hos,” “lifeguard bros and surfer hos,” “GI Joes and army hos.” ...At Cal Poly, the fraternity Phi Sigma Kappa had a party called “Colonial Bros and Nava-hos.” !!! (115)

Students protested after a fraternity at Amherst had a T-shirt printed up for its annual pig-roasting party depicting a woman clad in a bra and thong tied up and roasting on a spit, an apple jammed in her mouth, her sides bruised, and a pig standing beside her. Its caption read, “Roasting Fat Ones Since 1847.”

Who designed that t-shirt? Who printed it? Who decided how many to order and distributed them? How do those boys feel about their mothers? Do they have any sisters? I don’t understand this. 

[In 1987, Mary P. Koss], then a professor psychology at Kent State University, surveyed six thousand students at thirty-two universities and found that more than one in four of the girls had, since the age of 14, experienced a sexual encounter fitting the legal definition of rape. 84% of those attacks were committed by someone the girl knew; 57% took place on dates. When she factored in other forms of unwanted sexual activity, the victimization rate shot up to nearly 54%. A quarter of the boys surveyed admitted involvement in some form of sexual aggression;  one in ten they had verbally pressured a girl into intercourse, 4.4% said they had raped someone. BUT others would say “Yes, I held a woman down to have sex with her against her consent, but that was definitely not rape.” (171)

Thank goodness things are changing. Since Brock Turner and #metoo

[Horrifying stories of gang rapes filmed and posted on social media]: Tracking those incidents, it struck me how often the words funny, or more commonly, hilarious came up among boys recounting stories of women’s sexual degradation. When, during the Steubenvill video an off-camera voice says rape isn’t funny, Michael Nodianos, then a high school baseball player, response, “It isn’t funny, it’s hilarious!” (181)


Watching natural-looking people engaging in sex that is consensual, mutually pleasurable, and realistic …. Is not what the $97 billion global porn industry is shilling. Its producers have only one goal: to get men off hard and fast for profit. The most efficient way to do so appears to be by eroticizing the degradation of women. In the study of behaviors in popular porn, nearly 90 percent of 304 random scenes contained physical aggression toward women, while close to half contained verbal humiliation. The victims nearly always responded neutrally or with pleasure. More insidiously, women would sometimes initially resist abuse, begging their partners to stop; when that didn’t happen, they acquiesced and began to enjoy the activity, regardless of how painful or debasing it was. (34)

Among teenage boys,  regular porn use has been correlated with seeing sex as purely physical and regarding girls as “play things.” (36)

Leslie Bell, a psycho-therapist and author of Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom, “There’s this idea that someone is going to be evaluating your appearance not only outside of the bedroom, which was true before, but also during sex, that your body has to look a certain way then. It seems very pressured and shame-inducing, because bodies don’t look like that naturally.” You’d need self-esteem of steel to remain immune. (37)

The number one reason why girls [give boys oral sex], according to a study of high schoolers, is to improve their relationships. (Nearly a quarter of girls said this, compared to about 5 percent of boys). (53)

“Sometimes,” [a college freshman told me], “ a girl will give a guy oral sex at the end of the night because she doesn’t want to have sex with him and he expects to be satisfied. So if I want him to leave and I don’t want anything to happen…” There was so much to unpack in that short statement: why a young man should expect to be sexually satisfied; why a girl not only isn’t outraged, but considers it her obligation to comply, why she doesn’t think a blow job constitutes “anything happening”; the pressure young women face in any personal relationship to put others’ needs before their own; the potential justification of assault with a chaser of self-blame. “It goes back to girls feeling guilty,” Anna said. “If you go to a guy’s room and are hooking up with him, you feel bad leaving him without pleasing him in some way. But, you know, it’s unfair. I don’t think he feels badly for you.” (55)

Lorelei Simposn Rowe, a clinical psychologist at Southern Methodist University who works with girls on refusal skills, explains, “Guys will start saying, ‘Come on, let’s go further’ or ‘Why not? Or ‘I really like you. Don’t you like me?’ There’s a lot of persuading and pleading and guilt-inducing tactics, along with a lot of complimenting and flattery. And because it’s subtle, you see a lot of self-questioning among girls. They wonder, “Am I reading this right?’ “Did he actually say that?’ “Did he actually men that/” Simpson Rowe and her colleagues have developed a training program that uses virtual reality simulations to help girls recognize and rsis those cues. In pilot trials of high school and college students, incoming participants generally rated themselves as confident that they could rebuff unwanted advances or escape threatening situations. Yet, when role-playing a range of increasingly fraught scenarios- from a male avatar who badgers girls for their phone numbers to one who threatens violence if htey don’t submit to sex - they would freeze. Simpson Rowe was quick to say that only perpetrators are responsible for assault, but assertiveness and self-advocacy are crucial defensive skill.s “What we found is the importance of women being able to make quick, cognitive switches between normal sexual interaction and protecting their safety,” she said. “And part of that involves being able to notice when something has gone from being a normal interaction to pressure.”

The girls in her program worried that a direct rejection would hurt boys’ feelings; they felt guilty and uncomfortable saying no. 

“Girls have all this modeling for being nice and polite and caring and compassionate about others’ feelings,” Simpson Rowe explained. “These are wonderful things -good characteristics. But because they’re so ingrained, a lot of women think this is how they're supposed to be when faced with an unsafe situation, and they're afraid of being seen as rude. The word that comes up a lot is bitchy. So it’s kind ao an ‘aha’ moment when they realize a guy who is pressuring and persuading and not stopping when you say you don’t want to do something is not respecting you aor your boundaries - and at that point, you don’t have to worry about hurting his feelings. We emphasize how the coercive process begins and help them respond to it before it ever gets to violence. “We want to send the message that no one has the right to push or pressure you into what you don’t want to do,” Simpson Rowe said. “You have the right to stand up for yourself as loudly and physically as you want to and can.”

Teaching girls to self-advocate, to name and express their feelings in relationships is important for all kinds of reasons, and it may indeed help some of them stop or escape an assault. Yet, just as focusing on girls’ drinking disregards rapists’ behavior, keeping the onus on victims to repel boys’ advances leaves the prerogative to pressure in place; it also maintains sexual availablility as a girls’ default position even if, as feminist pundit Katha Pollitt has written, she “lies there like lox wtih tears running down her cheeks, too frozen or frightened or trapped by lifelong habits of demureness to utter the magic word.” (199)

What the ‘yes means yes’ [campaign] may do, is create a desperately needed reframing of the public conversation away from the negative - away from viewing boys as exclusively aggressive and girls as exclusively vulnerable… toward what healthy, consensual, mutual encounters between young people ought to look like. (201)

Orenstein uses an example of high school boys posting photos of “hot girls” on Instagram - girls they knew at high school, and posted without their consent. 

“The girls were pissed off [by the sexual Instagram posts] but we couldn’t complain because of all the implications. They said ‘If you complain that you’re on the list, you’re a prude. If you complain and you’re not on it, you’re ugly. If you complain about it being sexist, then you’re a humorless feminist bitch and a lesbian.” (10)

First, the fact that “lesbian” is still used as an insult.

Second, reminds me of the episode on the Ivy Leagues becoming coed, when my reading partner Christie talked about sexually harrassment in middle school and high school and said she just knew her choices were to either laugh or fight, and she knew she would lose a fight and she just wanted to make it stop… so she would laugh. Just to make it stop.

Third, men still don’t understand why behavior like this is insulting and scary and angering. They tell me “it’s a compliment.” I once told a man I know well about an instance in 7th grade - I was 12 years old - when a boy passed me a note in English class - I still remember, we were discussing “The Red Pony” by John Steinbeck - and it was a drawing of an erect penis. I remember him asking me if I wanted to drink his semen. I remember him one day at school telling me he wanted to marry me, and then another day when I came to school wearing mascara and a little bit of eyeliner for the first time, he said “you look like a whore.” I won’t even say some of the explicit other things he said to me. And when I told this male friend as an adult that this had happened, he said  that I should have taken all of that as a compliment because it meant he liked me.

[Sex educator said]: “I talk to a hundred girls a month who are superassertive, feminist, who can correct their teachers about the symbolism of a novel in calss,” she said. “Then they’re at a party and some dude’s hand is on their leg - or between their legs - and they feel like duct tape is over their mouths. They literally can’t say, ‘Can you move your hand?’ Super Assertive, but not in that situation, because they're using a different part of themselves. And then there's regret and shame.” (215)

 [This made Peggy Orenstein think back on a college student she interviewed who was raped by an acquaintance, and as she left his apartment she said to him “Thanks, I had fun.” So trained to always be polite and not hurt feelings or make others uncomfortable.] “I probably could have pushed him off of me or rolled over or screamed loud enough so someone could hear,” she said, “but something prevented me from doing it each time. I’m a very strong person. I have very strong morals. I’m not embarrassed about talking about anything. But I didn't do anything. It was kind of like being paralyzed. (197-198)

“In high school my teacher unwrapped a peppermint patty and put it on the floor,” Annie recalled. “Then she asked if we would eat it. Of course we were all, ‘Ewwww, no!” And she said ‘Exactly! Once you’re ‘open,’ nobody will want you!”

[A girl named Haylee said] “I think it would be really cool not to have your first kiss until your wedding day.” (88)

At the ball, the girls and their fathers… exchanged vows. The girls committed themselves to purity. The men promised to “cover” their daughters, to lead, guide, and pray for them. (90)

This goes all the way back to ancient notions of men owning the daughters until they transfer ownership to their husbands, under the laws of “coverture,” women were “covered” by paternal men for their entire lives. They are perpetual children. 

The fathers were even given a sixpence to keep as a symbol of their daughters’ virtue, until the girls’ wedding day (as in “something borrowed, something blue, and a silver sixpence in her shoe”). What could be more patriarchal, more regressive? At the same time, the sexualization so rampant in secular culture, which measures a woman’s value first and foremost by how “hot” she is, is little better. … To me, purity and hypersexualization are flip sides of the same coin. I’d rather girls were taught that their sexual status, regardless of what it is, is not the measure of their personhood, their morality, their worth. (94)

As I slipped out the door, “Let It Go,” the anthem from Frozen, came on. At the chorus, like young women everywhere, the girls flung their arms extravagantly wide and belted the words. The fathers looked on smiling indulgently, apparently unaware that the point of the song - “No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free!” and “That perfect girl is gone” - is that Elsa, the princess, is coming into her power, rejecting the restrictive, false morality that was imposed on her by her father, the king. (95)

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About the Podcast

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.

About your host

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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.