Woman on the Edge of Time was first published 40 years ago and begun three-and-a-half years before that.The early 1970s were a time of great political ferment and optimism among those of us who longed for change, for a more just and egalitarian society with more opportunities for all the people, not just some of them. Since then, inequality has greatly increased.
At the time I wrote this novel, women were making huge gains in control of their bodies and their lives. Not only has that momentum been lost, but many of the rights we worked so hard to secure are being taken from us by Congress and state legislatures every year.
But we must also understand that the attempt to take away a woman’s control over her body is part of a larger attempt to take away any real control from most of the population. Now, corporations and the very wealthy 1% control elections. Now, the media are propaganda machines and the only investigative reporting is on Comedy Central, HBO, or the web.
The powers that be have allowed for certain social rather than economic gains. We’ll soon finally have legalised marijuana and gay marriage in every state – but unions are being crushed and the safety net of the New Deal and the Johnson era is being abolished one law at a time, while women are forced into the back-alley abortions that once killed so many. We have made some social gains and many economic losses. The real earning power of working people diminishes every year.
During the heyday of the second wave of the women’s movement, a number of utopias were created (Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, James Tiptree’s Houston, Houston Do You Read?, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Elisabeth Mann Borgese’s My Own Utopia from The Ascent of Woman, and Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground among them) and now they aren’t. Why? Feminist utopias were created out of a hunger for what we didn’t have, at a time when change felt not only possible but probable. Utopias came from the desire to imagine a better society when we dared to do so. When our political energy goes into defending rights, and projects we won and created are now under attack, there is far less energy for imagining fully drawn future societies we might wish to live in.
Writing about a strong community that socialises children and integrates old people is a response to women living in a society where a mother is often alone with her children and old women are treated just a step better than the excess pets executed daily in pounds and shelters.
We are ever more isolated from truly intimate contact with one another. Many men prefer pornography to actual sex, where they have to please a woman or must at least pretend to try.
I also wanted Woman on the Edge of Time to show an ecologically sound society. The lives and institutions and rituals of Mattapoisett all stress being a part of nature and responsible for the natural world. In imagining the good society, I borrowed from all the progressive movements of that time. Like most women’s utopias, the novel is profoundly anarchist and aimed at integrating people back into the natural world and eliminating power relationships. The nuclear family is rare in feminist utopias and banished from this novel.
I projected a society in which sex was available, accepted and non-hierarchical – and totally divorced from income, social status, power. No trophy wives, no closeting, no punishment or ostracism for preferring one kind of lover to another. No need to sell sex or buy it. No being stuck like my own mother in a loveless marriage to support yourself. In the dystopia in Woman on the Edge of Time, women are commodified, genetically modified and powerless.
I am also very interested in the socialising and interpersonal mechanisms of a society. How is conflict dealt with? Again, who gets to decide, and upon whose head and back are those decisions visited? How does that society deal with loneliness and alienation? How does it deal with getting born, growing up and learning, having sex, making babies, becoming sick and healing, dying and being disposed of? How do we deal with collective memories – our history – that we are constantly reshaping?
Utopia is born of the hunger for something better, but it relies on hope as the engine for imagining such a future. I wanted to take what I considered the most fruitful ideas of the various movements for social change and make them vivid and concrete – that was the real genesis of Woman on the Edge of Time.
Marge Piercy, from her introduction to the new edition of Women on the Edge of Time (longer version here)
I went to my first sexual consent classes when I started university in 2014. Along with talks on fire safety and how you can’t live solely off crisps were sessions on the complexity of sexual consent. I laughed them off at the time – but now, I’m running them.
The classes didn’t get the warmest reception. One boy mockingly printed off “official sexual consent permission forms”, which he handed round to everyone. When we talked in the sessions about what we’d do if someone tried to stop during sex, responses included “I’d call her a bitch,” and “I physically can’t stop having sex once I’ve started”.
Those classes taught me more than I’d expected. That sex isn’t necessarily the smooth, wordless encounter we are constantly fed in films. That consent is retractable – proving that someone has consented at some point doesn’t prove they weren’t raped. Even discussing what I already knew wasn’t pointless; having an honest conversation about sex the first time I met my university friends made me feel safer and more at ease. Plus it was a pretty cool way to break the ice.
The 45-minute sessions are not patronising “Orwellian” lectures, as Spectator journalist Brendan O’Neill has described them, but informal discussion groups run by student volunteers. Attendees are given a list of scenarios to talk through which describe situations in which consent is a grey area. One might involve a sexual encounter where someone is continually pushing you away; another where someone is extremely drunk. Eventually, the students come to a definition of consent as active and ongoing.
And already, the sessions have left a positive mark on student life. The workshops introduce incoming freshers to people they can go to when they need help or advice.
Some of the culture you’re exposed to at university can be difficult to speak out against – particularly for people who are disempowered due to gender, ethnicity, disability or sexuality. At my institution, there are drinking society events where the girls go round lifting up their tops while the boys cheer louder if they have “nicer tits”. I’m sure they are some people’s idea of a great night out. But in the intimidating climate of the first couple of terms at university, it’s nice to know there’s another option.
The classes also support victims, helping them to recognise what has happened rather than having to deal with the shame, guilt and feelings of emptiness alone. One girl approached me after we ran a session on rape and said that she had had an experience the previous summer which she had blamed herself for. Only now did she identify it as a crime – and she’d resolved to contact the police.
A 2013 survey released by the ONS estimates that one in five women aged 16 to 59 experience sexual violence after the age of 16, with 90% of assailants being someone the victim knows. And yet, only 6% of reported rape cases end in conviction.
Talking about consent as part of the freshers’ induction curriculum allows us to locate the debate in our culture – as a topic we all have the duty and power to tackle – instead of treating every case as a tragic exception.
To an extent, the sceptics are right about the limitations of the initiative. They are right that most people become sexually active before arriving at university – education about sexual consent should begin much earlier.
They are also right that classes alone can’t solve the deeply rooted causes of sexual coercion in our society. But maybe, in talking about it openly, we can help to elevate it to a status which it is still being denied: that of being recognised as a problem.
QotD: “Action against sexual harassment in schools is more about protecting the male orgasm than girls”
How much pain and suffering is the male orgasm worth? Is there ever a time when a man’s right to access hardcore pornography is outweighed by the rights of young women to feel safe?
I am wondering this in light of today’s Women and Equalities Committee Report into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. The way in which young men see their female peers is tainted, poisoned by broader cultural narratives about what female bodies are for. Boys are not born with a need to hurt and humiliate for pleasure, but they are acquiring it, and fast.
The findings of the report are dismaying, if not altogether surprising. It states: “A number of large scale surveys find girls and young women consistently reporting high levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence in school.”
Data published in September 2015 found that over 5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools over the course of three years, including 600 rapes. Almost a third of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching in school, while 41 per cent of girls aged 14 to 17 in intimate relationships reported experiencing sexual violence from their partner. Sexual harassment starts in primary school, with lifting up skirts and pulling down pants, driving some girls to wearing shorts under their school skirts.
One obvious conclusion to draw might be that boys do not like girls very much. They see them as objects to sneer at, flesh to grab at, holes to penetrate. They don’t see them as people, at least not in the way that they see themselves.
The report claims that, “boys and young men . . . are adversely impacted themselves by a culture of internet pornography that has become so prevalent amongst young people”. The images they are seeing distort their beliefs not just about what women want, but what women are.
Of course, it’s not as though sexism and rape culture are products of the internet. They have been with us for millennia. We tell ourselves that we are making progress. Eventually – not in my lifetime, though, nor even in my children’s – such things should not exist. Yet it seems that as soon as one channel for hate disappears, another emerges. The report posits “a correlation between children’s regular viewing of pornography and harmful behaviours”:
“The type of pornography many children are exposed to is often more extreme than adults realise . . . The government should immediately update its guidance on SRE [sex and relationship education] to include teaching about pornography. The new guidance should offer advice to schools about how to approach this topic in an age-appropriate way. It should also include suggestions of how schools can work in partnership with parents to address the impact of pornography on children’s perceptions of sex, relationships and consent.”
While I don’t disagree with any of these recommendations in particular, there’s something about the whole enterprise that makes my heart sink. It’s as though pornography is a natural disaster, something terrible that cannot be avoided, or some strange, dark offshoot of youth culture – a modern version of painting your walls black while listening to Joy Division – around which the grown-ups must tiptoe and fret.
You’d never think it was something created, paid for and used by men of all ages and classes, as part of the way they systematically dehumanise, objectify and exploit female bodies. You’d never think it was a multibillion pound leisure industry in its own right. You’d never think that violent, abusive pornography only exists because huge numbers of men want it to.
I understand the arguments. It’s here now and there’s nothing we can do about it (other than make more of it, harder, faster, crueller, the lines between consent and coercion increasingly blurred). The only thing we can do now is hope that SRE (sex and relationship education) lessons at school – followed up by consent lessons for those in higher education – will counteract the worst effects.
It’s as though misogyny itself is not something to be eradicated, but something young men must learn to enjoy in moderation. Grown men can handle it, we tell ourselves (after all, it’s not as though they’re sexually harassing and raping anyone, is it?). It’s the young ones you’ve got to worry about. They just don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality. Unlike the punter who can magically tell whether the person he is penetrating has been coerced, or the viewer with a sixth sense that informs him whether the rape he is watching is real or fake. We’re genuinely meant to think it’s only children who are at risk of not seeing the humanity in others.
I am tired of this. I do not want my sons to grow up in a world where watching violent pornography and paying to penetrate the body of someone poorer than you are seen as a perfectly acceptable recreational activities as long as one is over 18. Where watching scenes of choking, beating and rape – without knowing how much is acted, how much is real – is justified on the basis that nothing that gives you an orgasm ought to be stigmatised.
I do not want my sons to attend the “sensible, grounded sex education” lessons being proposed by Women and Equalities Committee chair Maria Miller if all they learn is how not to be too “laddish”, how to keep their misogyny at an acceptable level for polite society, how to pretend women and girls are human without truly seeing them as such. Because then this is not about equality at all. This is about etiquette. The gentrification of misogyny: down with lad culture (so vulgar!), up with hardcore porn on the quiet. No rapes until home time, this is a serious establishment.
It’s not good enough. Girls are suffering, horrendously. Their self-esteem – their very sense of self, their belief that their bodies are their own – are being destroyed. What if the cost of ending their suffering would be to say “Enough. The male orgasm is not sacrosanct”? There is nothing liberal or enlightened about promoting an age-old system of exploitation via the cum shot. Men – adult men – could end this if they wanted to. Surely a first step would be to stop pretending otherwise.
Very mainstream, ie no mention of male entitlement, and being overly concerned with the quality of men’s sex lives, but still worth a read:
When a therapist friend told Allison Havey that her then 13-year-old son was almost certainly viewing online pornography, she felt angry. “I was offended because I thought, why would he be doing that? It’s deviant behaviour and he’s not deviant.”
What Allison now knows is that it’s natural for boys to want to look at sexual imagery. In fact, the average age for first exposure to online pornography in the UK is 11. For slightly older boys, it’s completely normal – of 3,000 boys aged 13-18 surveyed, 81% said they looked at it.
Allison – who with Deana Puccio has written a book dealing with this and other issues for parents in the digital age – says that there are two major consequences. First, this suggests that conversations about sexual behaviour have to happen much sooner, and within the family.
Second, the conversation is now much more important because of the proliferation of online pornography, which boys are looking at on their mobile phones.
There is a risk to this generation, say Allison and Deana, that online pornography could damage the sexual sensitivities of boys and their future relationships. Girls, who are far less likely to be interested in pornography at this stage in their lives, are at risk too, from their partners and future partners who could mistake the fiction of online pornography for the “norms” of satisfying sex.
This has far-reaching consequences, and it’s something most parents don’t know enough about. But if you go online and look at what today’s young people are viewing, it’s a world away from the type of pornography a generation who grew up in the 70s and 80s might be familiar with. We’re not even talking about hardcore images; it’s the relatively tame videos that focus, obsessively, on male pleasure, particularly oral sex. The vast majority of women have surgically enhanced breasts and female pubic hair is almost entirely absent. By normalising such things, pornography could be conditioning boys to have unrealistic expectations of the women with whom they will have sex.
It’s not only the images. The language on pornographic sites is very particular too: verbs such as “nailed”, “hammered”, “screwed”, “pummelled”.
“Anyone would think it was an advert for a DIY store,” says Allison.
According to a 2014 IPPR study, 77% of young women say that they feel pornography pressurises girls or young women to look a certain way and 75% say it has led them to act in a certain way. Anal sex is just one of the sexual acts increasingly regarded as normal. “But the truth is that anal sex is a sophisticated, intimate act, not something 14-year-olds should be regarding as ‘normal’ teen behaviour,” says Allison, whose own children, a son and a daughter, are 19 and 14.
Researching the book, Allison and Deana realised that laddism – which they refer to as “lad-itude” – far from being a phenomenon of sixth form and university years, is actually prevalent among boys from as early as year 8 – in other words, 12 to 13-year-olds.
“We have spoken to teenage girls who describe their guy friends as real Casanovas, collecting girlfriends like stamps and loudly bragging,” says Allison.
Sexist, misogynistic, homophobic and racist language and attitudes are also common. In the book, Allison and Deana list the kinds of everyday sexism boys use and girls overhear: “Would you?” “I would.” (Boys discussing girls as they walk past.); “On her knees, that’s where she belongs”; “I would destroy her”; “She’s a fuck and chuck.”
So what are the messages parents should be giving children – and how should they do it? Allison, who with Deana runs schools workshops as part of a project called Rap (Raising Awareness and Prevention), says that when she asks groups of pupils how many have ever discussed online pornography at home, only a tiny fraction put up their hands. She’s convinced, though, that opening discussions with children at the start of adolescence, perhaps as young as 10, is vital. “The thing you need to get across to your kids is that the sex they see online is far removed from real-life experience,” she says. “What’s almost always missing are the very things a real relationship thrives on: kisses, hugs and sensuality.”
When parents are brave enough to have the conversation, there’s no doubt their words carry weight. The quotes in Allison’s book from boys whose parents have talked to them about pornography show that they remember what they have been told. “My dad told me not to ram women like they do in porn … that women don’t like it that hard,” a year 11 boy said; a year 12 boy said: “Dad told me that real men don’t watch porn. They have confidence with women and know how to take care of them.”
The fact is, Allison says, all parents want to protect their children: and online pornography is making victims out of teenage boys, as much as teenage girls because both sexes are extremely vulnerable and are all too often looking at these images and videos alone. And, of course, as Allison says, material designed for older men will deliver a quite different message to a 14-year-old in his bedroom.
The good news is that teenage boys, when asked “Do you want a close, intimate, fulfilling and happy sex life?” still say yes. So here’s the essential ingredient to get across: if that’s what you want, you need to think about more than online pornography and smutty playground humour.
“We say, if you want to have a great sex life, follow the age-old formula,” says Allison. “What you need to do is talk to girls, if you’re going to find out what you both want. We tell them, you need to think about three things – the three things any good sexual relationship is based on. Friendship, romance and intimacy.”
One big problem for parents and educators like Allison and Deana is “lad culture” and the difficulty for teenage boys, in particular, in stepping out of line and questioning friends who tell rape or sexist jokes; or making them understand that distasteful jokes about women and sexual behaviour is having an adverse effect on behaviour and expectations.
“We need young people to know that when you stay silent when a friend delivers a rape joke, you’re being complicit and therefore supporting this behaviour,” says Allison.
Anyone who plays sexist video games or watches degrading music videos and hardcore pornography online is supporting a sexist, misogynist culture. Parents, in other words, have to play their part. The online threat is real but parents are far from powerless.
How Orgasm Politics Has Hijacked the Women’s Movement, by Sheila Jeffreys
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, it was widely believed that the sexual revolution, by freeing up sexual energy, would make everyone free. I remember Maurice Girodias, whose Olympia Press in Paris published Story of O, saying that the solution to repressive political regimes was to post pornography through every letterbox. Better orgasms, proclaimed Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, would create the revolution. In those heady days, many feminists believed that the sexual revolution was intimately linked to women’s liberation, and they wrote about how powerful orgasms would bring women power.
Dell Williams is quoted in Ms. as having set up a sex shop in 1974 with precisely this idea, to sell sex toys to women: “I wanted to turn women into powerful sexual beings…. I had a vision that orgasmic women could transform the world.”
Ever since the ’60s, sexologists, sexual liberals, and sex-industry entrepreneurs have sought to discuss sex as if it were entirely separate from sexual violence and had no connection with the oppression of women. Feminist theorists and anti-violence activists, meanwhile, have learned to look at sex politically. We have seen that male ownership of women’s bodies, sexually and reproductively, provides the very foundation of male supremacy, and that oppression in and through sexuality differentiates the oppression of women from that of other groups.
If we are to have any chance of liberating women from the fear and reality of sexual abuse, feminist discussion of sexuality must integrate all that we can understand about sexual violence into the way we think about sex. But these days feminist conferences have separate workshops, in different parts of the building, on how to increase sexual “pleasure” and on how to survive sexual violence — as if these phenomena could be put into separate boxes. Women calling themselves feminists now argue that prostitution can be good for women, to express their “sexuality” and make empowering life choices. Others promote the practices and products of the sex industry to women to make a profit, in the form of lesbian striptease and the paraphernalia of sadomasochism. There are now whole areas of the women’s, lesbian, and gay communities where any critical analysis of sexual practice is treated as sacrilege, stigmatized as “political correctness.” Freedom is represented as the achievement of bigger and better orgasms by any means possible, including slave auctions, use of prostituted women and men, and forms of permanent physical damage such as branding. Traditional forms of male-supremacist sexuality based on dominance and submission and the exploitation and objectification of a slave class of women are being celebrated for their arousing and “transgressive” possibilities.
Well, the pornography is in the letterboxes, and the machinery for more and more powerful orgasms is readily available through the good offices of the international sex industry. And in the name of women’s liberation, many feminists today are promoting sexual practices that — far from revolutionizing and transforming the world — are deeply implicated in the practices of the brothel and of pornography.
How could this have happened? How could the women’s revolution have become so completely short-circuited? I suggest that there are four reasons.
(I posted this back in 2012, but I think it could do with a re-read)
QotD: “More than 150 people in Wales have been reported to police for meeting children following sexual grooming over the last five years”
More than 150 people in Wales have been reported to police for meeting children following sexual grooming over the last five years, new figures show.
Dyfed-Powys Police saw the highest number of recorded complaints with 60, while North Wales had the lowest with 26.
Almost 60% of the crimes reported from 2011 to 2015 included online grooming.
NSPCC Cymru wants compulsory online safety lessons to become part of the curriculum.
Figures obtained by the charity under the Freedom of Information Act, showed 155 complaints were filed against adults accused of meeting a child under the age of 16 following sexual grooming.
South Wales Police received 35 reports while Gwent Police got 34.
Dyfed-Powys Police reported the highest number of crimes involving online grooming with 37, followed by Gwent Police with 22, North Wales Police with 17 and South Wales Police with 16.
NSPCC Cymru has called for mandatory online safety lessons in schools from September to teach pupils about the dangers of social media and online grooming.
NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless said: “Education is the key to teaching children how to use the internet safely so they don’t find themselves at risk of serious harm.
“Online safety is a 21st century child-protection challenge and it is something that we need to tackle head on.”
The Welsh Government said it had an “extensive” e-safety education programme, which included online resources and classroom materials to help pupils “think critically, behave safely, and participate responsibly online”.
“We have also created an online one-stop shop, Hwb, providing help for children and young people to stay safe on the web,” a spokesman said.
South Wales Police, Dyfed-Powys and Gwent Police said they worked with schools to educate pupils on issues including grooming, sexual exploitation, the taking and sharing of inappropriate images and staying safe online.
Gwent Police Supt Leanne Brustad said the force gave 1,874 lessons to almost 50,000 pupils in 2014/15, while South Wales Assistant Chief Constable Con Jon Drake said it worked with agencies to ensure those working with young people understood the signs of such abuse.
Dyfed-Powys Police said it had put more resources into tackling the issue and it had a team of digital detectives, forensic computer and mobile phone investigators.
North Wales Police has been asked to comment.
By some measures, girls appear to be faring rather well in twenty-first-century America. Teenage pregnancy rates have been in steady decline since the 1990s. Girls have higher graduation rates than their male counterparts at all educational levels. The popular culture abounds with inspirational images and anthems of girls “leaning in” and “running the world.” But according to two new, rather bleak books, these official signs of progress have given us an unduly rosy impression of the modern girl’s lot.
In American Girls, a study based on interviews with more than two hundred girls, Vanity Fair writer Nancy Jo Sales argues that the most significant influence on young women’s lives is the coarse, sexist, and “hypersexualized” culture of social media. American girls may appear to be “among the most privileged and successful girls in the world,” she writes, but thanks to the many hours they spend each day in an online culture that treats them—and teaches them to treat themselves—as sexual objects, they are no more, and perhaps rather less, “empowered” in their personal lives than their mothers were thirty years ago.
All young female social media users, Sales contends, are assailed “on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis” by misogynist jokes, pornographic images, and demeaning comments that “are offensive and potentially damaging to their well-being and sense of self-esteem.” In addition to this steady stream of low-level sexual harassment, many girls are subject to more aggressive forms of sexual teasing and coercion: having their attractiveness crudely assessed on “hot or not” websites, receiving unsolicited “dick pics” on their phones, being pestered or blackmailed for nude photos. (A group of thirteen-year-olds in Florida explain to Sales that girls who acquiesce to demands for “nudes” run the risk of having their photos posted on amateur porn sites, or “slut pages,” while those who demur are usually punished in some other way—by being branded “prudes,” or by having sexual rumors spread about them.)
The unsparing gaze that social media train on girls’ sexuality—the supreme value that they place on being sexually appealing—engenders a widespread female anxiety about physical appearance that is highly conducive to “self-objectification,” Sales claims. All of her interview subjects agree that on sites like Instagram and Facebook, female popularity (as quantified by the number of “likes” a girl’s photos receive) depends on being deemed “hot.” “You have to have a perfect body and big butt,” a fifteen-year-old from the Bronx observes grimly. “For a girl, you have to be that certain way to get the boys’ attention.” Girls who spend long enough in this competitive beauty pageant atmosphere don’t need to be coerced into serving themselves up as masturbatory fantasies, Sales argues. Taking their cues from celebrities like Kim Kardashian—whose vast following on Instagram Sales identifies as a marker of social media’s decadent values—they post “tit pics,” “butt pics,” and a variety of other soft-porn selfies as a means of guaranteeing maximum male attention and approbation. “I guarantee you,” a seventeen-year-old from New Jersey tells Sales,
“every girl wishes she could get three hundred likes on her pictures. Because that means you’re the girl everybody wants to fuck. And everybody wants to be the girl everybody wants to fuck. Every girl who isn’t that girl secretly hates herself…. It’s empowering to be hot…. Being hot gets you everything.”
The “empowering” nature of hotness is a theme that crops up frequently in Sales’s book. A number of the girls she meets vehemently reject the notion that they are oppressed or objectified on social media. On the contrary, they tell her, they are proud to be sexy “hos” and their highly sexualized self-presentation is a freely chosen expression of their “body confidence.” Naturally, Sales is not much persuaded by these claims. The fact that being “the girl everybody wants to fuck” can now be characterized as a bold, feminist aspiration is one measure, she suggests, of how successfully old-fashioned sexual exploitation has been sold to today’s teenage girls as their own “sex-positive” choice.
Peggy Orenstein, the author of Girls and Sex, is equally skeptical about the emancipatory possibilities of hotness. “Whereas earlier generations of media-literate, feminist-identified women saw their objectification as something to protest,” she writes, “today’s often see it as a personal choice, something that can be taken on intentionally as an expression rather than an imposition of sexuality.” Her investigation into the sex lives of teenage girls finds plenty of evidence to suggest that the confidence and power conferred by “a commercialized, one-dimensional, infinitely replicated, and, frankly, unimaginative vision of sexiness” is largely illusory. This generation of girls, she argues, has been trained by a “porn-saturated, image-centered, commercialized” culture “to reduce their worth to their bodies and to see those bodies as a collection of parts that exist for others’ pleasure; to continuously monitor their appearance; to perform rather than to feel sensuality.” As a result, they are eager to be desired, but largely clueless about what their own desires might be, or how to satisfy them; they go to elaborate lengths to attract male sexual interest, but regard sex itself as a social ritual, a chore, a way of propitiating men, rather than as a source of pleasure.
Orenstein, it is worth noting, is not concerned about the quantity of sex that young women are having. (There is, she points out, no evidence to suggest that rates of sexual intercourse among young people have risen in recent decades.*) Her interest lies rather in the quality of young women’s sexual experiences. “The body as product…is not the same as the body as subject,” she observes sternly.
“Nor is learning to be sexually desirable the same as exploring your own desire: your wants, your needs, your capacity for joy, for passion, for intimacy, for ecstasy…. The culture is littered with female body parts, with clothes and posturing that purportedly express sexual confidence. But who cares how “proud” you are of your body’s appearance if you don’t enjoy its responses?”
Orenstein interviewed more than seventy young women for her book, each of them chosen to represent those who had “benefited most from women’s economic and political progress.” All were at college or college-bound, and almost all struck her as “bright, assertive, ambitious” students. Yet their sexual histories, she reports, were characterized less by joy, ecstasy, or even minimal satisfaction than by discomfort, intimidation, and a chronic lack of “self-efficacy.” Half of them had suffered “something along the spectrum of coercion to rape.” And much of what they described about even their consensual experiences was “painful to hear.” Although many of them led active sex lives and professed to find sex “awesome,” few had ever achieved orgasm with a partner. (Most of them had faked it.) And while the majority of them regarded providing oral sex as a mandatory feature of the most fleeting sexual encounter, they rarely received, or expected to receive, oral sex in return. (Several rejected the idea of cunnilingus as embarrassing and worried that their vaginas were “ugly, rank, unappealing.”)
Some of the misery of teenage girls’ sexual experiences is attributable, Orenstein contends, to the “hookup culture” in which sex, “rather than being a product of intimacy…has become its precursor, or sometimes its replacement.” (Rates of female orgasm are much lower for casual encounters, she notes, than for sex that takes place within committed relationships.) Another contributing factor, she suggests, is the part that pornography now plays in determining normative standards of teenage sexual behavior. As one example of this, she points to the fact that most of her interview subjects had been dutifully shaving or waxing their “bikini areas” since the age of fourteen. (Rather like Ruskin, whose ideas about the naked female form are said to have been gleaned from classical statuary, modern porn-reared boys expect female genitalia to be hairless.)
She also notes that, in the years since the Internet made hardcore porn widely accessible to teenage boys, anal sex has become a more or less standard feature of the heterosexual repertoire. (In 1992, only 16 percent of women aged eighteen to twenty-four had tried anal sex; today, the figure has risen to 40 percent.) Despite the fact that most girls report finding anal penetration unpleasant or actively painful, they often, Orenstein claims, feel compelled to be good sports and submit to it anyway. (According to one study she cites, girls are four times as likely as boys to consent to sex they don’t want.) Among the girls she interviewed, the most common reasons given for doing so were a fear of being considered “uptight” and a desire to avoid “awkwardness.”
History has taught us to be wary of middle-aged people complaining about the mores of the young. The parents of every era tend to be appalled by the sexual manners of their children (regardless of how hectic and disorderly their own sex lives once were, or still are). There were some in the 1950s who were pretty sure that the decadent new practice of “going steady” augured moral disaster. Both Sales and Orenstein have undoubtedly grim and arresting information to impart about the lives of American girls. And neither of them can be dismissed as a sexual puritan. (They are not troubled about teenagers leading active sex lives, they assure us, only about the severely limited forms in which female sexuality is currently allowed to express itself; they are not even against casual sex per se, just eager to ensure that there should be, as Orenstein puts it, “reciprocity, respect, and agency regardless of the context of a sexual encounter.”) Even so, neither of their books entirely avoids the exaggerations, the simplifications, the whiff of manufactured crisis that we have come to associate with this genre.
Both writers make rather invidious comparisons between the frenzied, romance-free social lives of today’s young women and their own halcyon youths. Sales recalls walking back from school with her ninth-grade boyfriend to do homework together at her house. “The point of being together was not to have sex, necessarily. It was to become intimate,” she writes. Orenstein observes that her college experience was not about binge-drinking and hook-ups, but “late-night talks with friends, exposure to alternative music and film, finding my passions, falling in love.”
To use these sun-dappled recollections of life before the iPhone as a way of pointing up the misery of girls’ present conditions is a little misleading. To be sure, certain kinds of sexism have been amplified—or perhaps transmitted more efficiently—in the Internet era, and girls are now under pressure to present themselves as pliable sexual creatures at a much earlier age than they have been in the past. But even in the far-off 1970s and 1980s, young women experienced their share of exploitation, abuse, and unsatisfactory sex. Witness the feminist writer Ellen Willis drily reporting on the state of the sexual revolution in 1973:
“For men, the most obvious drawback of traditional morality was the sexual scarcity—actual and psychic—created by the enforced abstinence of women…. Sex was an illicit commodity, and whether or not a sexual transaction involved money, its price almost always included hypocrisy; the “respectable” man who consorted with prostitutes and collected pornography, the adolescent boy who seduced “nice girls” with phony declarations of love (or tried desperately to seduce them)….
“Men have typically defined sexual liberation as freedom from these black-market conditions: the liberated woman is free to be available; the liberated man is free to reject false gentility and euphemistic romanticism and express his erotic fantasies frankly and openly…. Understandably, women are not thrilled with this conception of sexual freedom.”
If the good old days were never as good as both writers are wont to imply, the dark days of our present era are not quite as unremittingly desperate either. Notwithstanding the vicious influence of pornography, social media, and Miley Cyrus, contemporary girls still manage to have high school boyfriends; some of them even get around to watching alternative films at college. Fifteen-year-olds may go online to learn how to perform fellatio, but they also post fearsome rebukes to boorish boys on Facebook and have lengthy debates on Twitter about whether or not Kim Kardashian is really a good “role model.” Girls use editing apps to whiten their teeth in their selfies and fret about the size of their “booties,” but they also celebrate the sororal power of “girl squads” and attend Nicki Minaj concerts to hear the rapper sermonize on why a woman should never be financially dependent on a man.
Sales portrays social media as an irresistible and ubiquitous force in the lives of young women. All of the girls in her book, regardless of their socioeconomic background or individual circumstances, are presented as being equally in thrall to their phones and computers. Some are queen bees, most are drones, but all are trapped in the social media hive. None of them appears to have a single cultural resource or pursuit outside of its ambit. (The one exception is a young woman who doesn’t own a smartphone—but that’s because she’s homeless and itinerant.) Is this an accurate representation of social media’s utter dominion, one wonders, or a reflection of Sales’s rather narrow line of questioning? (If you gathered up two hundred young women and asked them exclusively about their pets, you could probably write a shocking exposé of the outsized role that domestic animals play in the lives of American girls.)
Orenstein offers a rather more nuanced and measured account of the way girls live now, but she too has a tendency to underestimate the heterogeneity of teenage culture and the multiplicity of ways in which girls engage with it. At the start of her book she notes that the meanings of cultural phenomena are complex. Selfies are neither simply “empowering” nor simply “oppressive,” and wearing a short skirt is neither just “an assertion of sexuality” nor just “an exploitation of it.” Better, she suggests, to think of these issues in terms of “both/and.” Yet more often than not, she ignores this advice and opts for the reductive language of “might seem, but is actually.” Thus, Beyoncé may appear to be an inspiring, powerful figure, but she is actually “spinning commodified sexuality as a choice.” Girls may think they’re powerful when they look hot, but in fact, “‘hot’ refracts sexuality through a dehumanized prism regardless of who is ‘in control.’”
Orenstein is most convincing when she addresses the passivity, the “concern with pleasing, as opposed to pleasure,” that characterize her interview subjects’ approach to sex. Young women’s propensity to give male satisfaction priority over their own is not a new development, but Orenstein is surely right to be indignant about how little has changed in this regard over the last fifty years. Her belief that new, stricter definitions of consent on college campuses are a step toward establishing “healthy, consensual, mutual encounters between young people” is perhaps unduly optimistic. Setting aside the question of whether it is useful or fair to apply the bright line of “yes means yes” to sexual situations that tend, by her own admission, to be blurry and complicated, the new college codes assume a female confidence, a willingness to challenge the primacy of men’s sexual wishes, that many of Orenstein’s subjects have specifically demonstrated they lack. Making young men more vigilant about obtaining consent and discouraging their tendency “to see girls’ limits as a challenge to overcome” is no doubt essential, but if young women are still inclined to say “yes” when they mean “no”—are more willing to endure unwanted sex than to risk being considered prudish—the new standards of consent would seem to be of limited value.
Far more interesting and persuasive are Orenstein’s recommendations for revising the American approach to sex education. In place of the failed “abstinence-only” programs (that have used up $1.7 billion in government funding over the last thirty-five years) she proposes offering classes that frankly address all aspects of teenage sexuality, including female pleasure. (Even the most comprehensive sex education classes currently on offer in high schools fail to mention the existence of the clitoris, she notes.) In addition to candid discussions of “masturbation, oral sex, homosexuality, and orgasm,” this new sex education curriculum would offer guidance on how to make decisions and to “self-advocate” in sexual encounters.
The idea of encouraging girls to speak up for themselves—of promoting their ability to ask for what they want and to refuse what they don’t—seems an eminently sensible one. “Assertiveness training” for women has gone out of fashion in recent years. Indeed much of the recent discourse about girls and sex has tended to reinforce rather than to challenge the idea of female vulnerability and victimhood. It would be a salutary thing to have some old-school feminist pugnacity injected back into the culture.
When I have my first appointment with a new client I’m usually a bit anxious, because I’m not sure what to expect. You don’t know whether a client is going to be sobbing, angry, defensive or filled with shame. Even though I’ve been a sex and porn addiction therapist for 25 years, I still worry whether or not I’m going to be competent enough to help them with their problem.
I work with what is a growing issue: there’s a huge social stigma that stops addicts coming out in public. I feel a lot of compassion for them and want to do whatever I can to make them feel more comfortable and confident in talking to me.
At some point, mainstream porn stopped giving addicts the same sort of arousal, so they escalate to more hardcore fetish stuff, and then won’t have sex with their partner unless they’re acting out a fantasy. Porn sites offer variety and novelty, which their partners just can’t compete with. I sometimes find I’m performing a balancing act between providing a service that’s beneficial to the client, and then feeling awkward when asking them to pay me at the end of the session.
Managing my own internal responses includes huge sadness at their loss, anger at the injustices that often lead to addiction, and frustration at society for not being more understanding. Recently, one client put it really succinctly: “I know most guys look at porn and I’ve not got an issue with that, but I’m a wanker. And no one wants to be a wanker.”
There’s a lot that’s depressing in the Women and Equalities Select Committee report on sexualisation in schools. There are the children who report being pressured into sexting or sexual acts; the 18 per cent who say they’ve been sexually harassed at school, and the 12 per cent who say they’ve been sexually assaulted. But one of the most depressing things of all is this comment from 17-year-old Lucy on how the problem might be addressed: “People should be taught that everyone is different,” she says. “It’s OK if you want to have sex and post pictures of yourself but if you don’t feel ready to do that it’s OK, it’s just that you are young and immature.”
How sex positive, how broadminded, how utterly, utterly grim the two acceptable options laid out there are. It’s OK to be your own pornographer and share naked selfies, but it’s also OK not to because you might just not be ready to take that great step into adult relationships. It’s often said that the alternative to the impoverished curriculum that passes for sex education in the UK should be something called “consent education”, in which children learn the mantra “no means no and yes means yes”. But how can that ever be sufficient when girls like Lucy have already imbibed the underlying code that no means you’re infantile and undesirable?
The version of sex that children are introduced to in the classroom is all too often a hopeless abstraction, concerned only with the arid mechanics of reproduction and disease-avoidance, and narrowly fixated on penis-in-vagina. Rather than preparing children to navigate the sexual world with confidence, this curriculum tends to leave them baffled and ignorant about the actualities of relationships. “How funny that we can’t bring ourselves to tell our children the most fundamental truth about sex, that most of the time we have sex, we have it for pleasure,” says the science writer and activist Alice Dreger, reflecting on her son’s experience in the US school system.
And yes, it is funny that sex education is so coy when it comes to feelings. But pleasure isn’t the only emotion associated with sex, as the Women and Equalities Committee report makes clear. There is also pressure, shame, vulnerability and a total absence of pleasure – at least, when it comes to girls’ experiences. Because despite committee chair Maria Miller’s insistence that “we need to address this issue now, and stop it from blighting the lives of another generation of young people – both male and female,” this is not a gender neutral issue and we cannot address it by pretending there is some kind of equality of victimisation. The lives being blighted are very nearly always female ones. When boys are the targets, their distress is real; but thanks to sexual double standards, it’s rarely as devastating as it is for girls.
Just look at the stories told by the young people interviewed in the report. Here’s a girl who sent intimate pictures to a boy because “she thought it would make him love her”; he forwarded them to the whole school. Here’s a girl who went to a friend’s house and ended up performing for a webcam before she’d even had her first kiss; the pictures were circulated, and left her feeling “disgusted with myself”. Here’s a boy who “wanted his girlfriend to dress like a porn star and do what a porn star would do.” One girl explains with icy clarity how the constant pressure of porn and pornified culture has worn away her belief in even the possibility of no: “My view of being a woman was so warped I kind of felt like I just had to accept it and give men what they want.”
You could point out that all this is nothing new, and you’d be right to. Women’s dead-eyed submission to men’s sexual demands is as old as patriarchy: “Hundreds of thousands of years have shown us that women cope, effortlessly, with having joyless sex,” writes Caitlin Moran (in a 2012 column that, curiously, makes this an argument in favour of prostitution). And Lynsey Hanley, in her new book Respectable: The Experience of Class, recalls being a child in the Eighties: with porn mags circulating at school and Benny Hill on TV, this was no golden age of innocence. “If things seem bad now,” she caution, “the timbre of the culture then was easily as fixated on women as objects, as things to be chased and to be torn apart once they’ve been used.”
So it’s possible to argue that the report reveals not a frightening internet-fueled increase in male violence and sexual entitlement, but a perverse positive: finally, girls are naming the abuses against them. Possible, but wrong. Pornography is no longer restrained by paper, but replicates and spreads virus-like on mobile phones – and every child has a mobile phone. That means that every child has a camera, too, and can make themselves a direct participant in the economy of exposure that seems to make up the adult world. Selfies are rated. Nudes are coaxed, then distributed. Lives are trashed.
In the annual anxiety about girls outperforming boys at GCSE, it’s rarely mentioned that female academic success has barely dented the wage gap. Maybe that’s because boys are learning something so much more valuable at school than simply how to pass an exam: they’re learning how to dominate. They don’t even have to be direct participants to benefit: a boy can refrain from pinging any brastraps himself and still acquire the useful habit of filling all the space left by girls who’ve been aggressively taught to shrink themselves out of harm’s way. So let’s teach girls more than consent. Let’s teach them refusal. Non-compliance. Let’s raise a female generation that knows the giddy pleasure of laughing off heterosexual drudgery. And then the boys, if they don’t want to be left behind completely, will have no choice but to learn to do better.
QotD: “The government has rejected calls for compulsory sex and relationship education, but denying children knowledge about the world puts them at risk”
The myth of childhood innocence dies hard. Many parents hope that their kids won’t have to deal with the complex world of sex until they are in their teens, keeping childhood as one of the last places untouched by adult desires. But such hopes seem illusory in the face of evidence that the scale of child sexual abuse in this country is much greater than we previously believed, and is increasing due to technology.
A rise in prevalence, as opposed to reporting, is the development that everyone working in the area dreads. Following the exposure of Jimmy Savile, police forces were inundated with reports of historic rapes and sex attacks, almost universally believed to reflect a greater willingness of victims to go to the police. It was widely welcomed, not because a woman revealing that she has been raped is ever good news, but because confidence in the criminal justice system is essential to stopping rapists.
Now, though, one of the country’s most senior police officers is saying something very different about the increase in recorded cases of child abuse. Simon Bailey, chief constable of Norfolk and the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, believes that technology has made it easier for predators to search for victims online, driving an increase of more than 30% in recorded cases last year.
According to the NSPCC, a total of 45,456 child sexual offences were recorded in the UK, with some victims aged five or under. Shocking though that is, the figure is low compared to estimates contained in a report last year from the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield. It suggested that there had been between 400,000 and 450,000 victims of child sexual abuse in England alone between 2012 and 2014.
There is always resistance to such estimates, which are based on different types of evidence including surveys of adult survivors, while the apparent mishandling of historical allegations against some well-known individuals has led to claims of a witch-hunt. But the NSPCC’s figures represent recorded cases of child sexual abuse and Bailey says that the police are seeing “exponential increases” year-on-year. He doesn’t believe that there has been a rise in the proportion of the population with a sexual interest in children, but technological advances have vastly expanded opportunities for paedophiles.
No one would argue that it is possible or even desirable to keep children away from the internet. But we are already living in a different universe in terms of child sexual exploitation: in 1990 it was estimated that there were approximately 7,000 indecent images of children in circulation in the UK and predators had to take enormous risks in order to share them. In 1978 a former diplomat, Sir Peter Hayman, was investigated by the police after he left a package of paedophile material on a London bus.
Now it is believed that there may be as many as 100m indecent images of children in circulation. There is so much material, in fact, that the police have been accused of unacceptable delays in getting round to interviewing people who have been flagged up as suspects. In 2014, Essex police were criticised for waiting nine months to question a deputy headteacher from Southend, who was later discovered to possess more than 400 films and still images of children undressing at his school and a local swimming pool.
Children cannot possibly be expected to anticipate this kind of behaviour from someone in a position of trust. That is why they need to be told about warning signs, making sure they know what to look for and who to tell if they are worried by someone’s behaviour. The obvious place for that to happen is in schools but a vociferous lobby exists, dedicated to opposing every attempt to introduce compulsory sex and relationships education on the ground that it would unnecessarily “sexualise” kids.
The truth is the opposite: denying children knowledge about the world puts them at risk from paedophiles who may inflict lifelong damage. But the present government flatly refuses to make personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) mandatory. Last month the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, rejected another call for compulsory PSHE, despite a campaign by MPs, peers and a coalition of 100 concerned organisations.
I regularly sit in meetings with senior police officers who deal with the horrors of child sexual abuse on a daily basis. They can’t say so publicly but they are tearing their hair out over our society’s failure to teach children how to spot predators. I’m afraid that childhood innocence may be something we can no longer afford if we’re serious about protecting kids from dangerous people.