“The young women I met felt entitled to engage in sexual behavior, but they didn’t feel entitled to enjoy it.”
Peggy Orenstein, who interviewed more than 70 young women to complete her new book “Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape”, addressed the Franklin & Marshall College community March 30 about the complexities of female sexual empowerment.
Orenstein spoke at Common Hour, the campus community discussion held every Thursday classes are in session. Her interviewees, ages 15 to 20, were in college or college bound. While the interviewees were of various races, socioeconomic backgrounds, religions, sexual orientations and geographic locations, Orenstein focused on the “beneficiaries of the feminist movement,” women who had opportunities and resources to “lean in” as leaders and voices in their communities.
Professional and educational access has expanded greatly for women to create their own success. Yet, there is little progress in empowering women to expect healthy and satisfying sexual encounters, Orenstein said.
As they view a media landscape of female objectification and airbrushed standards for beauty, girls are socialized to value their self-image, especially commercialized versions of “hotness,” but they are not socialized to express their own sexual wants and needs, Orenstein said.
She cited Sara McClelland, assistant professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, who deemed this problem a form of “intimate injustice.” In her research, McClelland examined the often-unequal dynamics of sexual and personal relationships to reframe the debate with several questions. Who has the right to engage in sexual behavior? Who has the right to enjoy it? How does each partner define “good enough”?
In fact, Orenstein said studies show women often measure their sexual satisfaction by how their partner feels while men often measure their satisfaction by how they personally feel after sex.
These inequalities are prevalent on college campuses, especially when young women and men are immersed in a “hookup culture,” marked by ambiguous terms and expectations. A study showed 75 percent of students prefer to date while 80 percent prefer loving relationships. Driven by the culture to make choices that often do not reflect their desires, college students experience increasingly higher rates of depression and anxiety. At the same time, sexual violence on campuses is dangerously common. Orenstein’s book focused on consensual sexual encounters, but she acknowledged a culture that puts so many young men and women at risk.
Reading from the final pages of her book, Orenstein issued a call to women and the people who love, mentor, engage and protect them.
“After talking to so many girls, I now know what to hope for,” she said. “I want sexuality to be a source of self-knowledge and creativity and communication, despite its potential risks.”
“We’ve raised a generation of girls to have a voice, to expect egalitarian treatment in the home, in the classroom, in the workplace,” Orenstein concluded. “Now it’s time to demand that ‘intimate justice’ in their personal lives as well.”