Americans have made a lot of progress in the way they teach and talk about sex. Virginity is losing its sacred status: according to a 2014 Gallup poll of over 1,000 adults, 66% of Americans believe that premarital sex is morally acceptable. This ideological evolution is good news for young women in particular, who have historically born the brunt of the stigma surrounding sex out of wedlock.
As attitudes toward premarital sex evolve, many parents, teachers, and other authorities have begun to emphasize safe sex and consent. Yet despite all these changes, girls remain deeply unequal in the bedroom. Just because they’re making the choice to have protected sex with boys doesn’t mean they’re having fun.
This problem becomes clear over the course of Girls & Sex, a new book by New York Times Magazine contributing writer Peggy Orenstein that casts a critical eye on the American politics of sexuality. Over the course of her research, which includes interviews with 70 girls in high school and college, Orenstein identifies a troubling pattern: American culture is still teaching boys and girls that sex should be centered on the goal of male satisfaction. Meanwhile, girls learn to prioritize being seen as objects of desire over experiencing pleasure themselves.
“In the same way that who does the dishes in your home or who does the laundry is a political as well as a personal decision, the dynamics of our sex lives also reveal and reflect politics and can be looked at from a social justice perspective,” Orenstein says in an interview.
The unequal distribution of pleasure is evident in Orenstein’s research on how teenage boys and girls engage in oral sex. Boys generally feel they are owed oral sex from young girls and expect them to provide it in casual encounters, with no expectation of reciprocity. Research (pdf) by City University of New York psychology professor April Burns, Orenstein reports, shows that girls think of fellatio much like homework. “Oral sex is like money or some kind of currency,” one girl tells her in the book. “It’s how you make friends with the popular guys.”
Other girls offer oral sex to boys as a kind of consolation prize when they don’t want to go farther—a tendency that reveals the pressure that girls feel even when they make an active choice to engage in sexual relations, in contrast with many boys’ sense of entitlement. “Although [girls] took satisfaction in a task well done,” Orenstein says in an interview, “the pleasure they described was never physical, never located in their own bodies.”
Among young heterosexual partners, it’s far more rare for girls to receive oral sex, Orenstein says. That’s both because boys are less likely to offer it, and because girls feel the act requires a deep level of trust in their partners. Both reactions, according to Girls & Sex, relate to the continued stigma that surrounds women’s genitals, which are frequently viewed as shameful or disgusting.
The deprioritization of women’s pleasure is also evident in the increasingly popularity of anal sex among teenagers and young adults.
“There’s a real rise in anal sex among kids, and research shows that it’s driven by boys,” Orenstein says. A national survey in 1992 found only 16% of women between ages 18 and 24 had tried anal sex, her book reports. Today, 20% of women have had anal sex by the time they’re 18 or 19; by the time they hit age 24, 40% of women have.
That’s not a problem in and of itself. But Orenstein says she found that boys want to have anal sex not because they’re looking for an intimate experience with a partner, but because they’re looking to check another item off their bucket list.
“They expect their partner to have to be coerced and they believe they can,” Orenstein says. “The girls report it hurts.” And yet both boys and girls blame the pain on the girls, insisting that it’s because the women have failed to relax.
When both boys and girls expect girls to endure physical pain for their partners’ benefit, it’s clear that we need to change the way we talk about sex—starting with the idea that it’s supposed to feel good for everyone involved.
Girls & Sex makes a strong case for changing the way Americans approach sex education. “When kids go into puberty education classes, they learn that boys have erections and ejaculations and girls have periods and unwanted pregnancies,” Orenstein tells Quartz. Many parents are equally guilty of this kind of framing, whether out of moral concern or simple embarrassment. “In the US, we emphasize danger and risk. The Dutch talk about responsibility and joy.”
An alternative approach is offered in Orenstein’s portrait of the open-minded youth advocate Charis Denison, who uses an anatomically correct vulva puppet to show a room full of 10th-graders where the clitoris is, gently recommending that girls try masturbation in order to figure out how they like to be touched. While Denison is careful to discuss safe sex and respecting boundaries, she also goes a step further: She wants all her young students to know that sex supposed to bring them physical pleasure.
In addition, given that many young people growing up in the digital age learn about sex from online porn, it’s the least parents can do to teach their children that what happens on their computer screens is not a reliable depiction of reality. The same goes for onscreen depictions of sex in mainstream movies and television.
“On one end of the spectrum, girls would say, ‘My boyfriend wants to know why I don’t make noises like the women in porn when we have sex,’” Orenstein tells Quartz. “And I’d say, ‘Look, it’s a movie, it needs a soundtrack, so they have to make noise. It’s not real—it’s a performance.’” The information was liberating, she recalls. “They’d say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re right!’ It had never occurred to them.”
Technology may also help turn the tides toward a healthier understanding of women’s bodies. The smartphone app HappyPlayTime uses touchscreens and a cute cartoon character to teach users to the art of female masturbation, and could be educational for partners, too. And the instructional website OMGYes, which aims to be the “Khan academy for pleasure,” uses pragmatic but explicit videos to teach interested parties about techniques for pleasing women.
“I haven’t actually looked into them that much,” Orenstein admits. But she adds that a quick browse of OMGYes had won her qualified approval for its realistic, supportive depictions of female pleasure.
In my own opinion, fixing the problem will also require a shift in American’s moral understanding of where boys’ responsibilities lie in the bedroom. One friend of mine recalls that his father gifted him a copy of She Comes First as a teenager. While it was an embarrassing moment for him at the time, the message got through.
We should teach boys that they should strive to be attentive to their partners’ feelings and desires—an imperative that includes consent and condoms, as well as a larger sense of generosity. While it’s important to help girls learn to be more vocal about what they want in bed, it’s equally necessary to teach boys to be more considerate.
This point is evident in Orenstein’s research on how girls define what it means to have a good time in bed. “Young girls are more likely to say that they measure their satisfaction by their partners’ pleasure,” Orenstein says, “and that holds true in same-sex relationships between girls as well.” But women in same-sex pairings report having significantly more orgasms than women in heterosexual couplings. What this suggests is that there’s nothing wrong with focusing on a partner’s pleasure. Instead, boys need to learn to be as invested in girls’ pleasure as girls are in theirs.