Writing in the New York Times on Sunday, Peggy Orenstein, author of the book Girls & Sex, painted a bleak picture of young women’s sex lives. Even in consensual relationships, female pleasure is often a low priority: According to nationally representative data collected by Indiana University researchers, about a third of women ages 18-and-over report experiencing pain in their sexual encounters (when anal sex is included, the number rises to 70 percent) as compared to about five percent of men. And worse, many view this joyless sex as both normal and obligatory. College-age women, Orenstein writes, are “more likely than men to use their partner’s physical pleasure as the yardstick for their satisfaction, saying things like ‘If he’s sexually satisfied, then I’m sexually satisfied,’” while men are more likely to judge an encounter against the barometer of their own orgasm.
These manifestations of an unhealthy sexual culture aren’t hard to explain in a country where even the most progressive sexual education curricula tend to focus on birth control, STIs, and consent, and adults rarely talk to teens about, as Orenstein puts it, “what happens after yes.” The one thing American sex ed excels at is the entrenchment of a rigid heteronormative gender divide, in which “males’ puberty is often characterized in terms of erections, ejaculation and the emergence of a near-unstoppable sex drive,” while “females’ is defined by periods. And the possibility of unwanted pregnancy.” In other words, boys will be boys, girls will be responsible for managing reproduction, and queer people basically don’t exist. Orenstein lays out how this leaves girls with the lingering impression that, while male desires are normal, theirs are distasteful—and without the tools to navigate the subtleties of going to bed with someone. She only touches briefly, however, on another important outcome of that silence: The way our sexual reticence is also hurting young men.
The most eye-opening passage in Orenstein’s piece compares the sexual norms that reign on American college campuses with those reported by similar groups of young people in the Netherlands. She summarizes research by Amy Schalet, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who found that Dutch men “generally credited their fathers with teaching them that their partners must be equally up for any sexual activity, that the women could (and should) enjoy themselves as much as men, and that, as one respondent said, he would be stupid to have sex ‘with a drunken head.’” These conversations don’t just benefit women by making men into better, more respectful partners; they also make early sexual experiences happier and healthier for men. Schalet found that “young Dutch and American men both often yearned for love,” but that “the Americans considered that a personal quirk.” The idea that “boys will be boys,” so embedded in American culture, actually gets in the way of boys being human beings, hungry for a rich and mutually pleasurable connection.
Though the majority of young American men want love, if they believe that their male peers just want casual sex, they are likely to feel effeminate and ashamed by comparison. They are primed to succumb to this pressure to treat women like sex objects, to the detriment of everyone. This is a central theme in the research of Alan Berkowitz, a psychologist who has done pioneering work in the field of sexual assault prevention. As Berkowitz told me in a recent interview:
We know men’s identity is very much based on having other men respect and like you. There is a huge psychological pressure to fit in and be accepted and be “one of the guys.” But there is a false understanding among men that the minority is the majority. The minority are the men who degrade and abuse and oversexualize women, who use inappropriate language about women. If the majority of men are uncomfortable, for example, with a man talking about what he would like to do with a woman’s body or what he did sexually over the weekend … the research shows that the majority of men are uncomfortable with that but don’t know it and think they’re in a minority. At same time, research shows that the men who are a problem are in the minority, but think they’re in the majority.
These misperceptions, combined with the social pressure to fit in, perpetuate a culture of sexual misogyny, and even assault. Lindsay Orchowski, a researcher at Brown University who has worked with Berkowitz, also described multiple studies that show how greatly men overestimate the amount of sex their peers are having; in one study by sociologist Michael Kimmel, for example, male college students believed that 80 percent of their classmates were having sex on a given weekend, while the real number was five or ten percent. “That can make men feel social pressure to be more active, or to use coercion,” Orchowski says.
Orenstein’s piece traces the way that both American sex ed and American parenting—or, at least, the signals parents receive about how they should deal with “the birds and the bees”—reinforce rigid roles for both genders to play. Even when the sex that results is consensual, the range of young people’s pleasure, both physical and emotional, is acutely narrowed. As the essayist Roxane Gay has written of this unbending normativity, “this is how we all lose.”
It’s hard not to envy the Dutch. Orenstein quotes one young Dutch woman, who responded to a study with a story about telling her mother as soon as she had sex for the first time. The respondent recalled, “[M]y friend’s mother also asked me how it was, if I had an orgasm and if he had one.” The fact that this friend’s mother, with her relatively slight connection, felt comfortable posing these questions conveys that the young woman should also be asking them: of herself, of her partner, of her peers. In this paradigm, it’s not female desire, but rather a lack of reciprocity, that holds the potential for social embarrassment. For both men and women, it’s hard to see that message as anything but a win-win.