7 Crucial Factors That Affect Young Women's Sex Lives

How can sex be better for young women? More pleasurable and less dangerous, actually empowering rather than a way to validate self-worth, less fraught with pressure, and frankly, more fun? That’s the investigation undertaken by Peggy Orenstein in her new book released today, aptly titled Girls & Sex. Though it doesn’t claim to have all the answers, Orenstein’s exploration, for which she interviewed more than 70 young American women, raises many insightful and important questions — even if they might make most teenagers bolt from the room.

Author of several bestselling books on different aspects of girlhood, including Cinderella Ate My Daughter (about girlie-girl culture) and Schoolgirls (about the confidence gap), Orenstein is a mother herself, and approaches the topic of sex among teen girls as a curious, concerned, and, yes, “cool” mom. While a certain amount of handwringing is to be expected from any mom, regardless of her generation, Orenstein approaches her subjects on their own terms, and comes away from their conversations with valuable intel from the front lines of teenage sex.

From the consequences of selfie culture to the tyranny of virginity, here are the seven most crucial takeaways Orenstein serves up about girls and sex.

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Everything from bad sex to low self-esteem can be traced back — in part — to our failure to teach girls how to achieve and value pleasure.

Remember when you discovered the clitoris? It probably wasn’t when female anatomy was covered in sex-ed. What Orenstein calls “psychological clitorectomy,” or hiding the truth from girls that sex should feel good, allows boys’ pleasure (which has much more obvious signs) to take priority during sex.

“Those classic diagrams of a woman’s reproductive system...blur into a gray Y between the legs, as if the vulva and the labia, let alone the clitoris, don’t exist. Imagine not cluing a 12-year-old boy into the existence of his penis! And whereas males’ puberty is characterized by ejaculation, masturbation, and the emergence of a near-unstoppable sex drive, females’ is defined by...periods. And the possibility of unwanted pregnancy.”

According to studies Orenstein cites, in place of physical pleasure, it’s often the absence of pain and their partner’s pleasure that stand in as measurements for sexual satisfaction among young women.

“If a girl goes into an encounter hoping it won’t hurt, wanting to feel close to her partner, and expecting that he will have an orgasm, then she’ll be satisfied if those criteria are met. There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel close to a partner or wanting him to be happy, but ‘absence of pain’ is pretty low bar for your own physical fulfillment.”
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Whether girls consider virginity as something precious to be protected or a rite of passage to rush through, it overemphasizes the milestone of vaginal sex over other sexual acts and encourages girls to orient their self-worth around whether or not they’ve had sex.

It’s not just girls with religious upbringings for whom sex is a no-turning-back milestone. After spending time with girls who pledge to remain chaste, Orenstein reflects, “[These] girls who are ‘virgins for god’ weren’t really so different from those who imagined virginity as a ‘gift’ or even those who saw it as an embarrassment: they all believed that one sexual act would magically transform them — for better or worse — and they all risked harm to their sexual and emotional development as a result. They all based their worth, calibrated their self-respect, and judged other girls’ characters (tacitly or overtly) based on what was happening, or not happening, between their legs.

“By focusing on virginity, young people minimize (and often rush through) other forms of sexual expression, denying themselves the very opportunities for knowledge and experience that they seek.”
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Truth: The internet is full of porn, and a lot kids are watching it; for many, it’s their first exposure to sex. Here’s what’s real:

“Among teenage boys, regular porn use has been correlated with seeing sex as purely physical and regarding girls as ‘play things.’” In the words of one woman Orenstein talked to, a college sophomore, “[Boys] think they’re supposed to do this hammer-in-and-out thing and that’s what girls like. They don’t realize, ‘Dude, that does not feel good.' It’s all they know. It’s what they see.”

As for girls, Orenstein writes, “On one hand, the girls I met knew porn was about as realistic as pro wrestling, but that didn’t stop them from consulting it as a guide… [One] 11th-grader [confided], ‘I watch porn because I’m a virgin and I want to figure out how sex works.’”

These are just examples; obviously there are many ways in which porn consumption affects approaches to sex for men and women of all ages. But particularly for teenagers just discovering sex, Orenstein does admit, “Watching natural-looking people engaging in sex that is consensual, mutually pleasurable, and realistic may not be harmful — heck, it might even be a good idea.” While it’s not a point she feels comfortable exploring here, given the prevalence of porn use among what Orenstein calls “Generation XXX,” it’s worth asking: How and what kind of porn could actually help girls value their own pleasure, particularly if they’re not being taught to do so by anyone else?
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According to Orenstein, social media encourages many girls to commodify themselves as brands and objects to be liked based on their sex appeal, and she isn’t so sure that “empowered” pop divas like Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, and Miley Cyrus, are helping.

“The girls I met with 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 judgment of their bodies. They felt simultaneously that they actively chose a sexualized image — which was nobody’s damned business but their own — and that they had no choice.”

The young women Orenstein spoke to pointed to female pop stars as role models, but Orenstein isn’t so sure that’s the best idea. “Female artists, they insist, are taking control...of a hypersexualized industry that too often exploits women. Yes, these women may be products, but they are also producers… 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... 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.”
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The internet serves as a double-edged sword for LGBTQ teens: a source of cyberbullying to which they disproportionately fall victim, but also a much-needed avenue for self-discovery.

Citing a 2013 study, Orenstein writes, “[LGBTQ teens] experience cyberbullying at three times the rate of heterosexuals — girls more often than boys. Yet LGBTQ kids turn to the web for information and support — crucial for a population whose attempted suicide rate is five times that of other teens. Over half of LGBTQ young people who were not out in person used the internet to connect virtually with others like them, according to the report. More than one in 10 disclosed their sexual identity to someone online before telling anyone in the ‘real’ world, and over a quarter were more out on the internet than they were in their offline lives. Ideally, queer teens wouldn’t need to resort to trolling gay chat rooms for information or acceptance. At the same time, the internet has provided an unprecedented pathway to normalizing and embracing sexual identity.”
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Ordering a pizza is actually a perfect metaphor for sexual consent.

You may have heard this one before; it comes from a renowned Philadelphia educator named Al Vernacchio (profiled in The New York Times Magazine in 2011). But it bears repeating because it’s just too good. Sex as it compares to ordering a pizza, in Orenstein’s words:

“Both start with internal desire — with hunger, with appetite. In both cases, you may decide, for any number of reasons, that it’s not the right time to indulge. If you do proceed, there should be some discussion, some negotiation — maybe you like pepperoni and your dining companion doesn’t, so you go halfsies, or agree that one person will get his pick next time, or choose a different topping altogether — and a good-faith effort to satisfy everyone involved. There is no rounding the bases metaphor, no striking out. The emphases are on desire, mutual consent, communication, collaboration, process, and shared enjoyment.”
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Maybe we should all just move to the Netherlands. No, really.

According to a study Orenstein cites of American and Dutch women at two similar colleges, “[The] Americans, much like the ones I met, described interactions that were ‘driven by hormones,’ in which boys determined relationships, male pleasure was prioritized, and reciprocity was rare. As for the Dutch girls? Their early sexual activity took place in loving, respectful relationships in which they communicated openly with their partners (whom they said they knew ‘very well’) about what felt good and what didn’t, about how ‘far’ they wanted to go, and about what kind of protection they would need along the way. They reported more comfort with their bodies and their desires than the Americans and were more in touch with their own pleasure.”

Their secret? As reported in the study, teachers, doctors, and especially parents spoke candidly with the Dutch girls about sex and pleasure, and both “the joys and responsibilities of intimacy.”

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