By some measures, girls appear to be faring rather well in twenty-first-century America. Teenage pregnancy rates have been in steady decline since the s. Girls have higher graduation rates than their male counterparts at all educational levels. And everybody wants to be the girl everybody wants to fuck. Being hot gets you everything. A number of the girls she meets vehemently reject the notion that they are oppressed or objectified on social media.
Peggy Orenstein, the author of Girls and Sex, is equally skeptical about the emancipatory possibilities of hotness. Orenstein, it is worth noting, is not concerned about the quantity of sex that young women are having.
There is, she points out, no evidence to suggest that rates of sexual intercourse among young people have risen in recent decades. Nor is learning to be sexually desirable the same as exploring your own desire: The culture is littered with female body parts, with clothes and posturing that purportedly express sexual confidence. Most of them had faked it. And while the majority of them regarded providing oral sex as a mandatory feature of the most fleeting sexual encounter, they rarely received, or expected to receive, oral sex in return.
Another contributing factor, she suggests, is the part that pornography now plays in determining normative standards of teenage sexual behavior. Rather like Ruskin, whose ideas about the naked female form are said to have been gleaned from classical statuary, modern porn-reared boys expect female genitalia to be hairless. She also notes that, in the years since the Internet made hardcore porn widely accessible to teenage boys, anal sex has become a more or less standard feature of the heterosexual repertoire.
In , only 16 percent of women aged eighteen to twenty-four had tried anal sex; today, the figure has risen to 40 percent. Despite the fact that most girls report finding anal penetration unpleasant or actively painful, they often, Orenstein claims, feel compelled to be good sports and submit to it anyway. The parents of every era tend to be appalled by the sexual manners of their children regardless of how hectic and disorderly their own sex lives once were, or still are.
Both Sales and Orenstein have undoubtedly grim and arresting information to impart about the lives of American girls. And neither of them can be dismissed as a sexual puritan. Sales recalls walking back from school with her ninth-grade boyfriend to do homework together at her house. To be sure, certain kinds of sexism have been amplified—or perhaps transmitted more efficiently—in the Internet era, and girls are now under pressure to present themselves as pliable sexual creatures at a much earlier age than they have been in the past.
But even in the far-off s and s, young women experienced their share of exploitation, abuse, and unsatisfactory sex. Witness the feminist writer Ellen Willis drily reporting on the state of the sexual revolution in For men, the most obvious drawback of traditional morality was the sexual scarcity—actual and psychic—created by the enforced abstinence of women….
Men have typically defined sexual liberation as freedom from these black-market conditions: Understandably, women are not thrilled with this conception of sexual freedom.
If the good old days were never as good as both writers are wont to imply, the dark days of our present era are not quite as unremittingly desperate either. Notwithstanding the vicious influence of pornography, social media, and Miley Cyrus, contemporary girls still manage to have high school boyfriends; some of them even get around to watching alternative films at college. Sales portrays social media as an irresistible and ubiquitous force in the lives of young women. All of the girls in her book, regardless of their socioeconomic background or individual circumstances, are presented as being equally in thrall to their phones and computers.
Some are queen bees, most are drones, but all are trapped in the social media hive. None of them appears to have a single cultural resource or pursuit outside of its ambit. Orenstein offers a rather more nuanced and measured account of the way girls live now, but she too has a tendency to underestimate the heterogeneity of teenage culture and the multiplicity of ways in which girls engage with it.
At the start of her book she notes that the meanings of cultural phenomena are complex. Even the most comprehensive sex education classes currently on offer in high schools fail to mention the existence of the clitoris, she notes.
Indeed much of the recent discourse about girls and sex has tended to reinforce rather than to challenge the idea of female vulnerability and victimhood. It would be a salutary thing to have some old-school feminist pugnacity injected back into the culture.
Another survey published earlier this year by the Centers for Disease Control found that the number of American high school students who reported having had sexual intercourse had actually decreased over the last decade from 47 percent to 41 percent.