The Girls and Sex Problem Affects Adult Women, Too

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A Trojan "pleasure cart" in Los Angeles
A Trojan "pleasure cart" in Los AngelesPhoto: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

The subtitle of Peggy Orenstein’s book, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, refers to the widespread availability of porn, the pressures of social media, and much-maligned “hookup culture.” But the problems it outlines are not confined to young women who are just starting to have sex. They plague most of us who are women. Especially those of us who sleep with men.

Perhaps it was too depressing to subtitle the book “A New Generation Navigates Age-Old Problems.” Because even though the girls Orenstein interviewed are more than a decade younger than me, their stories sound familiar. I know adult women who don’t masturbate very often. Who worry that their vaginas smell or look “weird.” Who are extremely attentive to their male partners in bed but don’t demand reciprocity. For whom sex is more performative than it is pleasurable. Who have had unprotected sex — not because they really wanted to, but because they felt like a buzzkill for insisting on a condom. Who have yet to articulate their true desires, even in long-term, supportive relationships.

Show me an adult woman, and I’ll show you someone who has struggled to make peace with her body, felt she’s failed at intimacy, had bad sex, and experienced men’s sexual entitlement. These problems are not the stuff of high school. They are the problems of women. And apparently I’m not the only one who sees it that way. “I’m getting emails from a lot of adult women in their 30s and 40s who are saying, ‘I wish that I had this when I was a teenager,’” Orenstein told the Cut this week. “Or, ‘I still have these issues now.’”

In fact, as I read Orenstein’s litany of horrible shit that teen girls are dealing with, I was struck by the ways in which these problems are internalized and the silence passed down. If older women can’t admit to ourselves that we still aren’t having the sex we want to be having, how the hell are we supposed to help younger women to get what they deserve? Like the teens Orenstein interviewed, adult women are aware that they should feel good about sex. And when they don’t, especially after multiple partners, they assume that something must be wrong with them. It’s not an easy thing to talk about.

Generation after generation, heterosexual women tell themselves the same story: If he feels good, I feel good. Here’s a 17-year-old girl quoted in Orenstein’s book, in a section on going down on boys: “I guess I like that feeling of, ‘Ha! You can’t get this from anyone else. I am in control here!’ … I mean, it’s sort of fun getting into the rhythm of it. But it’s never fun fun.” Here’s a 32-year-old woman, quoted in a 2014 study on faking orgasms: “Sometimes just because I want to get it over with, and I know they’re trying to wait for me to go, I just make them feel better. Like, ‘YAAAAAY’, or whatever.” And here’s a woman in 1976, quoted in the famous Hite Report on women’s sexual behavior: “I guess I get very tied up in how he is feeling also, and so when I can make him climax, I feel as though I have also, so that I don’t need to any more.”

As we get older, most of us learn to work through our hangups and make our own pleasure more central, sometimes with the help of a good therapist or a particularly attentive sex partner. Or we make peace with some of the behavior that Orenstein laments, and realize that we’re actually totally fine with faking a few orgasms or not receiving oral. As Alana Massey has pointed out, “It is more emotionally laborious for a lot of women to explain why they don’t want to have mediocre sex than to simply have the mediocre sex.” Time passes. We rediscover hand jobs. We forget our bad teenage or college experiences, and care less about the bad experiences we’ve had as an adult.

It’s easy to project our concerns onto girls and worry if we’re raising them right. It’s a lot harder to grapple with the fact we probably haven’t because most of us are still trying to figure out this stuff well into adulthood. Orenstein makes a convincing case that young women today navigate a uniquely tough landscape when it comes to body issues and sexuality, thanks to social media and porn. But the internet merely offers new ways of experiencing the underlying problem: Women’s worth is still tied to their appearance, and women’s sexuality is poisoned by that fact. The “orgasm gap” persists, right alongside the wage gap.

For those of us who are grown and relatively settled in our sexual patterns, change can be difficult. Pleasure is such a private thing. I mean, we all know the options if you want to work on it: vibrators, sex coaches, therapy, a variety of books. But, as with all deep, thorny issues, the first step is admitting you have a partner-sex pleasure problem — and cluing in your partner as well. For adult women who aren’t long-term coupled, every new relationship is a chance to reset the sexual terms. Establishing your own desires as important should be a goal in the “hookup” phase, which we all know isn’t limited to teen dating.

“Perhaps in the future we will be able to feel we have the right … to touch, explore, and enjoy our own bodies in any way we desire,” feminist sex researcher Shere Hite wrote 40 years ago, “not only when we are alone but also when we are with another person.” We’re not there yet, but I’m still hopeful for future generations. So yes, including information about the clitoris in sex-ed classes is important. Yes, the mainstream conversation about consent might help. And yes, buying every 15-year-old girl a vibrator, as one parent in Orenstein’s book did, would be cool.

But for this to not be a persistent problem, men have to be more active about solving it. Where is the Boys and Sex panic, I wonder. Orenstein describes young men who are at worst coercive and at best clueless about female sexual pleasure. Caveats about teen hormones aside, you can teach some of this stuff, and most boys would be eager to learn. Girls who sleep with girls, Orenstein notes, are more likely to get off. (This is true well into adulthood.) I’m sure Grown-Ass Men and Sex would be a follow-up best seller as we shift some of the responsibility for women’s pleasure from women to their male partners. I think it could work, but I can’t be sure. No generation has ever tried it before.