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She Doesn't Get It
Commenté aux États-Unis 🇺🇸 le 9 février 2020
Water on the floor may be a sign of a leak in the roof. Those who stare at the floor and complain about the water may say many true things and make many sound observations, and even some helpful suggestions about dealing with the puddle, but in the end are missing something essential. Peggy Orenstein's book examines the current puddle of adolescent girls' sexual practices, at least among the middle/upper middle class girls who predominate in her interviews.
I listened to the Author's reading on 6 compact discs, which was clear and well-paced, but with an almost-calculated quality. No one knows more about the puddle than she! A veteran of the Sexual Revolution herself who now has a teen-aged daughter of her own, she interviewed over seventy girls from college and high school who responded to an invitation to discuss these matters, and she read some studies. She begins with a survey of the "hook-up" culture, wherein sexual experiences precede relationships. These experiences may simply be "grinding" on the dance floor, or oral sex, or intercourse. Surveys report something like 10% of middle school girls, 40-50% of high school girls and 75% of college women having had "sex." A significant number report some of the experiences as regretted, a majority reporting that the way in which they gave up their virginity was a disappointment (or worse). About half of the above report experiences that may qualify as rape: I say "may" because the respondents themselves are confused in their own minds and do not always accept the legal definitions. Our Author notes the role of alcohol in obscuring boundaries and excusing the participants from responsibility for what happens. I am not sure of her theory here, that girls drink in order to excuse themselves from responsibility for their choices; I believe it is part of the adventure, part of the ritual, and, in part, an anesthetic.
In all the conversations reported, not one mentions girls who became pregnant and subsequently had an abortion, or gave birth. These topics were mentioned in passing, usually as possibilities or perhaps a statistic, but not in any of the "portraits," descriptions of interviewees and dialog which are the strength of this book, putting human faces on the experiences reported. The real focus of concern is the distressing fact that 4 times as many boys as girls report satisfaction with their sexual encounters. She contends that education is needed so girls may understand how their bodies work and advocate for their own pleasure in all this. It is interesting that boys appear able to achieve satisfaction without such specialized education.
The reported experience of lesbian girls is much more positive in this regard, and the achievement and acceptance of alternate sexual identities is advocated. But as a true feminist, our Author is uncomfortable with the trendiness of transgenderism, based as it is on cultural stereotypes of what it means to be male/female. She reports the family which recognized their infant son as really a girl because it preferred the pink blanket to the blue blanket at 4 months. Our Author dryly notes that infants cannot distinguish color at that that age.
Our Author does not approve of hypersexualization but cannot really explain why. Miley Cyrus is shocking, but maybe that is not so bad. Expressing oneself is a good thing, after all ( unless you are a male remarking on her legs). Our Author recognizes provocative words but not provocative clothing.
She does not approve of restricting girls' freedom, unless they make the wrong choices, then they need education. She objects that left "on their own" teens develop a culture that pressures girls to sexual performance for others rather than satisfaction for themselves. She blames a lot on the entertainment media (and recognizes too late that Tipper Gore was right) for molding expectations of girls. However, our Author appears to regard hyperfemininity as a greater evil than hypersexuality. This is one of those wrong choices that require education.
If you are a social conservative, prepare for some disdain in the course of this read. She scorns abstinence education and all the government money spent on teaching things that "aren't true." She notes the relatively high pay a particular abstinence advocate receives, but not that of the California masturbation advocate who is described in terms reminiscent of a folk hero. She backhandedly acknowledges that the cultural investment of mothers in guiding/supervising kids, i.,e., staying home until children left the home, had an effect in discouraging sexual activity among them, but is not going there. She advocates Fathers involved but objects to patriarchy; apparently fathers are to support their children in whatever they want to do, regardless. She declares that virginity and purity have no markers that are not arbitrary, and their only function is to cause shame. The same might be said of "age of consent" laws/assumptions, but again, she is not going there.
Our Author "discovers" the ambiguity of sexuality but doesn't know what to do about it. Many of her interviewees report dressing provocatively and feeling good about it until something, perhaps a change of mood, or rude remark, causes her great embarrassment. The college campus "walk of shame" is described, as when girls glammed up go to a fraternity party, walk home after spending the night there the next morning, seen in evening clothes by everyone who knows they got drunk and knocked up. Many of her subjects report being blamed for being a prude and for being a slut. Her conversations with groups of kids reveal deep disagreements and confusion about what constitutes consent, which goes to the heart of ambiguity, and whether the conscious choice to seek sexual experience, subject oneself to peer pressure, drink illegally/irresponsibly, etc. has anything to do with meaningful consent.
I was fascinated in retrospect by the overall 1960's shape to our Author's thinking. Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir's comment on the 1967 Haight Ashbury "Summer of Love" is strikingly applicable to our Author's views of sex in this book: " It was about exploration, finding new ways of expression, being aware of one's existence." Elements of her thinking include: 1) individual choice (autonomy) trumps conformity to a standard; 2) technology changes everything, enabling more choice, more autonomy, and therefore progress; 3) youth conditioned and at home with the new technology are more attuned to progress and are the authorities whose lead we should (or can't help but) follow. Given these beliefs, parents and conservatives are regarded as obstacles to progress.
Among her helpful suggestions, embedded among others which guarantee rejection by social conservatives, is decision-making skills. These skills are applicable to all areas of life- identifying what is at stake, what values are at play, what alternatives are, and cost/benefit analysis. That these should be applied to sexual decisions as well as to any other significant decision, goes without saying. Communication skills, distinguishing between passive, assertive, and aggressive modes of responding to others, is another helpful measure toward addressing the problem. (These are already mandated in some form or another in most state curricula, but teaching them effectively is the challenge.)
So, what does our Author not "get"? First, she is indifferent to several dysfunctional aspects of adolescent behavior. First is dishonesty- lying to parents, refusal to be accountable to authority. Our Author actually celebrates acts of defiance, the "slutwalks," etc., as praiseworthy. Deliberate evasion of law in alcohol use by minors is passed over. Drug use also is passed over for moral condemnation. It is not only in matters of sex that adolescents lack restraint.
Related is the often uncritical acceptance of peer influence. While "society" may be condemned for its stereotypes, and consumerism responsible for sexual exploitation of women's bodies, the hook-up culture is not condemned, but accepted as a given to which we (our children and our policy) must adapt.
Perhaps the most fundamental point of disagreement, is in the Author's sundering of the connection between sex and reproduction. Just as food is pleasurable but this pleasure needs to be subordinate to nutrition, so sex has as its purpose human reproduction. Traditional families provide the best homes for children in public health studies (whether measured by birth weight, academic achievement, self-esteem, economic standing, reported happiness, suicide rate, etc.), so there is more than ample grounds for regarding this as the normative model for public policy.
A strange lacuna in this discussion of adolescent sex is the matter of risk-taking. This is what makes the hook-up culture exciting, the fact that there is risk. The predominant philosophy for educators in general and feminists like our Author, is to affirm risk-taking. This, along with that defiance of authority which our Author also implicitly endorses, leads directly into the sorry state of sexual inequality and dissatisfaction bemoaned in this book.
Although one of her interviewees states that sex is about the most personal thing there is, the implications of this insight are not worked out. Since sex is so personal, it ought to be shared only with those whom one can trust, one you can communicate with, one who you have influence over. In fact, it tends toward monogamy. Flaunting one's sexuality is so contrary to this, inviting strangers to appraise and judge. It involves the thrill of risk-taking, which turns on the ambiguity of sex both socially and personally. This private nature of sex, and the dysfunctional practice of making the private public, is another aspect overlooked by our Author.
Our Author is shocked to see the pattern emerge whereby once a girl has had sex with a guy, she is expected to continue consenting there after. What she does not realize is that sex is not a discreet act so much as a relationship. Just as gifts create relationship of mutual obligation between people (and why you should not accept gifts from strangers), so sex creates intimacy and familiarity which is not easily withdrawn. Our Author reports a kind of monogamy emerging within this hook-up culture whereby feelings of possessiveness and their social accommodation restrict the freedom of girls to be available to others.
The final point which our Author doesn't get is that boys and girls, men and women, are different. Males are much more visual and respond to provocative clothing; females enjoy attention and do that which gets attention. According to her own reporting, the girls are concerned to please their partners, while the boys are out to please themselves. What she fails to acknowledge is the greater need boys have which gave rise to the social expectation that women control ("civilize") their men. An old saying is that women trade sex for love. In the hook-up culture, created by segregating adolescents and allowing them to structure their own interactions, women are the losers, as documented by our Author's own findings. She has identified the puddle, but has no clue how to fix the leak.
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