Part one of the Everyday Empowerment series for girls and women.
They say youth is wasted on the young. If my first teenage sexual experiences were anything to go by that's certainly true -- hours and weeks spent half naked with the same very well endowed boy and not the first clue what to do with him. We groped endlessly in the dark (literally and metaphorically), both teetering on the torturous brink of orgasm but never quite making it.
In short, I was not sexually empowered. It took a few more years and several rereads of The Female Eunuch before I could either contemplate tasting my own menstrual blood (as Germaine Greer famously advocated) or feel entitled enough to orgasm with a man.
Thirty odd years later, I'd like to think this has all changed for young women. Surely, now, girls are growing up naming their vaginas, celebrating their clitorises and owning their orgasms. They know exactly where their boundaries are and how to keep themselves emotionally and physically safe, don't they?
In a world where porn sites get more traffic than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined, and where the average age of first viewing explicit online porn is just 11 years old, there can be no mystery, ignorance or guesswork left about sex, can there?
Well, when it comes to teenage girls' pleasure, YES! Because here's the real rub -- as a leading source of sex education for most young people, mainstream online porn is scripting our teenagers' sexuality on a grand scale. And with its misogynistic, male-centric default, girls are getting the rawest deal -- female arousal and orgasm are simply not being prioritised, catered for or acknowledged. In pornland, time is money -- the average six minute (male) porn time spend is making sexual etiquette and reciprocity expendable.
Peggy Orenstein confirms this trend in her new book, Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated new Landscape. In more than 70 interviews with young American women between the ages of 15 and 20, she discovered a striking sense of sexual disempowerment. The teenagers tended to be preoccupied with how men saw them, to prioritise male satisfaction over their own, to use porn to learn how to satisfy a man, and talked repeatedly about unsatisfactory or sexual encounters -- with unreciprocated oral sex being a common expectation of boys and men, even outside of a relationship. Few of the girls had experienced an orgasm with a partner but most had faked one.
Today, a teenage girl who finds herself in a sexually charged encounter with a boy is likely to be up against the accumulative influence of thousands of porn images on which his (and possibly her) sexual expectations and arousal have been incessantly and indelibly fused since puberty. Their sexual exchange is likely to hurtle towards his orgasm before she has time to reach for the tissues.
In my day, at least mutual ignorance was a kind of bliss -- sexual tension was guaranteed since it could take a few weeks for a boy to work up the courage and skill to undo your bra. Nobody knew what they were doing or expected anyone else to. If he managed to (prematurely) ejaculate, it was much more likely to be experienced with embarrassment than entitlement, maybe even an apology and an offer to make amends if you were lucky.
So how can we help our daughters set their own sexual agendas and challenge the effects of the new porn-damaged boys and men they meet? As a mother, children's advocate, and lifelong pleasure seeker, here are my top five tips:
1. Teach critical thinking from a young age
Teaching our daughters to only ever be on the sexual defensive against boys and men -- to just keep saying "no" -- is simply not good enough. Young women need the critical thinking skills to lead the discourse, to understand the source and inequity of male entitlement, to pursue their own desires, to be the agents and the subjects of their own sexuality.
Problem solving and decision making are central to our children's survival and success in ALL areas of their lives, not just academically. We wouldn't send our teenagers into an exam, interview or on vacation without knowing they have thoroughly prepared first. The same applies to their first sexual experiences. Our daughters must be able to analyse, plan, risk assess, and reflect, when they begin exploring their sexual feelings or selecting sexual partners.
Dr Linda Elder, president of The Foundation for Critical Thinking, in The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking, says: "The quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought."
To this end, we need to encourage our children to have their own opinions and question everything from a young age. This way, when they reach their teens, they can ask and answer the important questions for themselves: What are my sexual feelings? How are they being influenced? How do I want to explore them? What do I want out of this sexual experience? What are the risks?
The Foundation for Critical Thinking does not provide specific sex education resources but does have an extensive range of critical thinking tools for all age groups which can be applied to all areas of life.
2. Let's talk about sex
Knowledge is power and never more so than when it comes to talking to our children about their sexuality. The more open, natural and positive our (age appropriate) discussions are with our children, the safer and happier their sexual journey will be.
Deborah Roffman, leading sexuality educator and author of Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know about Becoming Your Kids' "Go-To" Person about Sex, says in her blog: "We know from decades of research that children and adolescents raised by adults who educate and converse with them about sexuality grow up in healthier ways than their peers."
But consent, safe sex and saying "no" are the tip of the iceberg. Building connectedness, openness and mutual respect with our children from a young age is the key to fostering a sense of confidence, responsibility and ownership over their sexuality.
Prof Amy Schalet, in her book Not Under MY Roof, underlines the importance of open discussion. She explains that in Holland -- where parents, teachers and doctors discuss sex more openly and in more positive terms with young people -- teenage girls' experience of sex is better according to all leading indicators including: sexual satisfaction, body image, unwanted pregnancy (some of the lowest teen pregnancy and abortion rates in the industrialised world) and sexually transmitted diseases. Dutch girls are more likely to become sexually active later, have fewer partners, enjoy their experience more, and express their needs and desires to their partners more clearly. Also see Prof Amy Schalet's The New ABCD's of Talking About Sex With Teenagers.
3. Re-thinking sexual definitions
One of the problems with sex education is our rigid definition of sex -- we tend to think of sex in reproductive terms: partnered, penetrative, and heterosexual. But sexuality is as much about how we feel as what we do (or don't do).
Our daughters need to be encouraged to define what sex means for them, definitions that are both more flexible and more individual; personal blueprints that will stop them racing towards a one-size-fits-all, male, penetrative imperative.
Critically thinking about their ideal sexual outcomes for any given scenario is a good place to start -- writing them down is even better. Would they involve talking, touching, kissing, conversation, arousal, penetration, orgasm? How long would it last? How would it feel emotionally? Where would it take place? What would it exclude?
4. Discuss porn before your daughter ever sees it
Like teaching healthy eating choices, we need to educate ourselves and our children about the online porn menu before they ever go there. This is not about the rights and wrongs of pornography per se -- it's about a misogynistic, cynical, multi-billion dollar industry doing our teenage daughter(s) (and son(s)) a sexual disservice. Despite its ubiquity and apparent variety, mainstream porn is mind numbingly formulaic and predictable in powerfully subjugating ways for girls and women. Here are three things your children will learn about human sexuality by watching mainstream porn:
- The only point of any sexual exchange is male penetration and ejaculation (usually on a woman's face).
- Women exist to facilitate 1.
- No emotional intimacy, love, romance, passion or reciprocation is necessary for 1. to occur.
It's the McDonalds principle -- it satisfies quickly and reliably, without nuance or imagination, and after sufficient repetition makes you go back for more, whether you're bored of Big Macs or not. I hate to sound like an erotica snob about this but mainstream porn is homogenizing our children's sexuality from something endlessly complex, individual, reciprocal, creative, emotional, and diverse into nothing more than a sprint to male ejaculation.
5. Masturbation matters
Where can girls (and women) go to have their desire (as opposed to their desirability) prioritised, to be aroused, to experiment, develop and express their preferences without always first having to ask themselves "How do I look?" or "How is this making him feel?"
The first step is very simple but has been surprisingly absent in mainstream sex education: we need to encourage girls to masturbate and fantasise more. Self love is so fundamental to empowering girls' sexuality that this post could have been headlined Why Teenage Girls Need to Masturbate More.
Peggy Orenstein found that only a third of the teenage girls masturbated regularly with a staggering 50 per cent saying they had never masturbated at all. This is in line with other research which also indicates that more than three quarters of teenage boys masturbate regularly.
American youth advocate Charis Denison believes it's time for female masturbation to be on the sex education curriculum. In her talks with teenage girls, Charis covers contraception, safe sex and consent but places it firmly in the context of sexuality. She uses an anatomically correct 'vulva puppet' to show 10th graders where the clitoris is and how to masturbate, encouraging girls to discover what feels good for them.
6. Celebrate female pleasure
Another thing that came out of the Dutch research was that adults in Holland, particularly mothers, emphasise the joy and responsibility of sex to their daughters whereas Americans focus on the dangers and risks.
We need to talk to young women with passion and enthusiasm about female pleasure, about arousal, about women's superlative capacity for orgasm -- that we have the only piece of human anatomy designed entirely to make us feel good. Girls need to hear these positive messages over and over again.
Ultimately, we must enable our teenage girls to thoroughly understand, explore, define and value their personal sexuality so they can be firmly in control of their own sexual destiny.