Body Guides

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An entire generation of girls now define themselves by how active (or not) they are sexually

Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape | Peggy Orenstein | HarperCollins | Pages 320 | $26.99

INTERCOURSE IS AN achievement. Sexting causes more trauma than real-life sex. And every girl’s dream is to be ‘just slutty enough’, when she’s considered neither prude nor whore. These are some of the new-age sexual scenarios that journalist and girl culture expert Peggy Orenstein highlights in her new book. Through interviews with girls between the ages of 15 and 20, Orenstein tries to understand why girls, despite significant advancements in opportunity, still lack the freedom to make their own sexual choices, resist stigma and explore their bodies.

The intimate details and revealing one-liners (given by the girls Orenstein met) make her study of hookup culture, revenge porn, body shaming and campus rape a first in many ways. Instead of simply focusing on what leads to sex, she places equal emphasis on what happens after the ‘yes’. As she writes in the introduction, ‘No adult had ever before inquired about their experience of sexuality: what they did, why they did it, how it felt, what they hoped for, what they regretted, what was fun… They told me how they felt about masturbation, about oral sex (both giving and receiving), about orgasm. They talked about toeing that line between virgin and slut. They told me about boys who were aggressive and boys who were caring; boys who abused them and boys who restored their faith in love.’

From ‘sex drafts’ (where boys rank girls in order of ‘who they wanted to fuck’) to ‘the walk of shame’ (when girls walk back home after a one-night-stand, still in their party clothes), there are plenty of case studies to shock readers. But the chapter on hookups still manages to be an eye-opener. Orenstein writes, ‘The word hookup itself, as I’ve said previously, is ambiguous, indicating anything from kissing to oral sex to intercourse to anal sex.’ She explains the confusion, pressure and loneliness faced in colleges through the parallel stories of two college girls— Holly and Megan.

Megan is a sophomore majoring in Economics at a midwestern public university. She describes herself as a ‘good girl’ and someone who never kissed till she was 17. But her years of ‘no kissing and no blowjobs’ make her feel so ‘behind’ in college that she turns desperate to ‘get rid’ of all the ‘firsts’ with her boyfriend, often faking orgasms for his benefit. Megan’s experience with sex eventually turns sinister. When she is raped in the shower, the only physical resistance she offers is to turn the hot water tap ‘all the way, hoping that would make him stop.’ The next morning, when he drops her home, she replies with, ‘Thanks, I had fun.’

The story of Holly is eerily similar. A Spanish and Psychology major, Holly is not only a ‘good girl’ but also harbours ‘good girl’ thoughts of saving sex for a loving relationship. Orenstein once again shows how quickly girls get initiated into the world of campus sex. She writes, ‘Her fourth night at school, she made out at a party with a guy she barely knew. It was fun. A week after that, she gave the same guy a hand job, and he fondled her breasts.’ But at what cost? Holly too ends up having nonconsensual sex, ‘blaming her drinking and not the boy who took advantage of it.’ In another instance, she berates herself for being a ‘…skank who just has sex with people.’

Clothes and sexual packaging find several other mentions. The chapter on self-objectification includes stories of girls who are so uncomfortable with their bodies that they prefer to give but not receive oral sex. Orenstein observes, ‘‘Hot’ tells girls that appearing sexually confident is more important that possessing knowledge of their own bodies. Because of that the confidence that ‘hot’ confers comes off with their clothes.’ To highlight how much pressure there is for girls to display their bodies in the most attention-getting way possible, Orenstein cites the example of Caitlyn Jenner’s 2015 Vanity Fair cover (‘As a man, he used his body, as a woman she displayed it’).

It is in this all-pervasive culture of hypersexuality (that has become ‘so visible as to be nearly invisible’) that communication, expression and pleasure in bed has broken down. When girls are reduced to what they wear, how much sex they have and who they have it with, there is little space left for understanding themselves, their bodies and the people they choose to share it with.