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Episode 2: Today’s Not So “Liberated” Sex Culture (2/2)

In the second part of our conversation with Peggy Orenstein, we analyze the effects of pop culture, how sexualized it has become, and the ways this affects how young girls are living their first sexual experiences. Peggy talks about how these first sexual experiences tend to be a performance rather than a reflection of feelings- as a result of misleading ideas from the media regarding what empowerment and being a “feminist” actually means. Peggy Orenstein is a New York Times best-selling author of the book Girls & Sex and was voted one of the “40 Women Who Changed the Media Business in the Past 40 Years,” by the Columbia Journalism Review. Show Notes! Follow us on Instagram! Facebook BBXX website Sign up for our digital “book” club — a twice-weekly curation of the best digital content about identity, sexuality, intimacy, and relationships!

Sasza
About the research that you did, the conversations you had. What were kind of some of the more, I know we’ve learned about more some of the negative consequences and where our culture is today and how things have gotten worse, there’s anyways which it’s gotten better? and how…

Peggy
[Laughs] Hum, well you know I think obviously that the fact that we are now differentiating between sex and rape is definitely better, you know.

Sasza
Yeah.

Peggy
And I think it’s really interesting to talk to people generationally, because young women and to increasing degree young men, have a much more nuance definition of sexual assault than people that are parent aged, they’re parents too and parents are always like; it’s amazing how people develop scripts and when you interview people, you find that they said the exact same thing, the exact same way, all the time.

Sasza
Yeah, the same script.

Peggy
And so people who are like the age of parents of college students always saying: «I don’t know I mean you know the stuff the my kid talks about, I just I don’t know if I would say and like when I was young, we would say that was bad sex”. [Laughs] And they all say it the same way it’s so interesting, but I found myself sometimes thinking; how do I think about the story that this person is telling me,  you know. But I think that young people are much more advanced and that they are creating new ground rules and demanding new ground rules, and I think that’s really cool.

Sasza
And speaking of kind of that culture of consent and a little more in the pop culture as well and the influence of the media, the movie Liberated, the documentary on Netflix for anybody listening who’s not familiar. I remember a friend recommended it to me and the way she described it to me was; it’s a movie about this new wave of feminism and kind of the medias effects on it, and what it is; is that these young girls/women think that looking at people; Beyoncé I don’t know who are the popular people are now, Rihanna and these videos that are so sexual its empowering, you know. You can go out and sleep with whoever you want, you can have casual sex, you can you know not give a fuck or have feelings attached but then at the same time, these people think that that’s what they’re supposed to be because that’s what they see in the medias but they’re not.

Peggy
Right.

Sasza
So they then, it’s this like backwards trying to be more progressive, more empowered but then they’re just trying to pretend that they are something they’re not.

Peggy
It’s a profound of sexuality, yeah.

Sasza
And then they go and they feel terrible inside, they have all this cognitive dissonance where they’re doing things that they don’t actually agree with or regret, but then again just trying to pretend to be something they’re not. So I’d love to hear your full thoughts about that.

Peggy
That was the whole you know crux of what I was writing, right. You’re entitled to engage but not to enjoy.

Sasza
Right, and also entitled to engage not even in terms of consent but like you can be what people might call “prude” and you know, that is just as being a feminist because you’re doing what you want and what you believe in.

Peggy
Right, and what you think you want and believe in, that’s so complicated, I would ask girls all the time. You know, I think that’s the thing that there’s this incredibly sexualized culture where the ultimate thing is to be hot and that’s the ultimate validation, and that is sold to girls as the form of  personal empowerment, sexual expression even though we know that self-objectification every bad psychological thing that can happen to you [Laughs]. It’s a product of self-objectification, so it’s a bait and switch in your head that when you reduce yourself to your value being, your body… Yeah, you’re gonna get a lot of attention and its gonna feel ultimately really crappy to you in the end, and what really interested me in that film was that they have these girls who were like doing the bikini contest and all these people yelling ” Take your top off, Take your top off “, and then they switch to them and they had a really sophisticated analysis of the whole thing, that was crazy to me.

Sasza
I actually watched the movie and for anybody listening who hasn’t seen it, I basically can’t describe how disturbing the movie is.

Peggy
Really disturbing.

Sasza
And like I actually felt sick throughout the movie and afterwards I couldn’t stop thinking about it, it’s sickening, it’s very disturbing and at the same time it’s just so profound.

Peggy
 Yeah, so real.

Sasza
It is so real and the reflections that I don’t think the girls and the experts featured but it is so profound in a way that I honestly think that anybody over the age of 13 should watch this film or be required to watch this film because there’s no way that after watching Liberated on Netflix you could possibly think that’s what you want be.

Peggy
Yeah, great.

Sasza
And that’s what’s the media’s feeding you and it’s so easy to buy into it, it’s not anybody’s fault but if you watch this movie there’s no way anybody could think; I want to be like this kind of some of the pathetic and just terrible people were featured in, there’s no way.

Peggy
 And girls would say to me all the time, isn’t there a difference between you know (they would call dressing slutty, but you just give it their language), dressing slutty because for yourself versus doing it because of media pressure and I just say: ” Sure, okay but how would you tell?” And they would just kind of go; I don’t know, I spent my whole life trying to figure that out. Or a girl who said: ” I love Beyoncé, I think she’s amazing, I think she’s like a queen, I love her but I always wonder could she say the things she said if she doesn’t look the way she looks?”.

Sasza
Right.

Peggy
high school girls look at that, they think that, and that’s the line they’re walking, that’s a contradiction they’re living with. You have to keep asking yourself, there’s a girl who showed me a picture of herself in a sonority party and she’s wearing what those girls are wearing like crop top and little skirt and five inch heels, and she used the word Liberated; she’s like I never feel more Liberated than when I’m wearing skimpy clothes and I said: ” Okay, tell me more” and as we were talking she said: ” five years or excuse me, a year ago I wouldn’t have worn the same outfit because she was 25 pounds heavier and I was afraid that some ass holy guy would have called me the fat girl and that would’ve been bad for my mental health”. So I mean first of all like setting aside why being called the fat girl is the worst that can happen to her.

Sasza
Right.

Peggy
 But you have to ask; okay so it feels really good of course to have the right body and show that off, right. Of course you’ve got attention, that feels empowering.

Sasza
But who defines the right body.

Peggy
 find the right body, right? And under what circumstances and how liberating is it? Is humiliating lurks right around the corner? So girls are always navigating that and like going back and forth and forth and back and meanwhile none of that is about how they feel in that body?

Sasza
And not to mention that the most attractive thing of all is confidence, so really you have the control over all of that in the way…

Peggy
 But they think that you sold the idea that that’s what confidence is. And if it were, if those girls then were having great sex, having a voice feeling like you know, they could truly create their own script.

Sasza
Yeah.

Peggy
I would say: “Okay, then I’m wrong”. But the confidence comes off with the clothes.

Sasza
Right, when it should be the opposite.

Peggy
Yeah, and instead you get in all like rates of depression, rates of anxiety and you get spectatoring where instead of being in their body during sex, they’re watching themselves from the outside and thinking; shouldn’t I let go here? Does my leg bit there? What is my hair doing? You know, and…

Sasza
Right, you’re the only one noticing.

Peggy
Yeah, they’re the only one noticing faking orgasm, not having orgasm, not knowing what orgasm is. I mean it’s like there’s so many strands that collude into women learning that sex is not really about their embodied feeling, that it’s how they look when they’re doing it.

Sasza
Mm-hum, make it look like they look.

Peggy
Yeah, the performance not the feeling and I just feel like at every step of the way if we have girls in our lives, we’ve got to interrupt that, we’ve got to work with them on critique, we’ve got to work with them on feeling, and I think that people do more talk to girls especially in social media world about the falseness of the image but they don’t do the other piece which is talking to them about feeling good in their body, their body is for their pleasure that they should be masturbating, that they should touch their body, that they should feel sensual in their body, that all of these things that are about their feeling, their desire and their pleasure and stopping to locate that. That we don’t talk to them about enough.

Sasza
And speaking of social media, I think that a lot of people think; Oh yeah, people put up things that aren’t real. But they don’t really actually process that everything you see on social media is just a perception of something that most it is not real. Whether the filter whether it’s the angle or the lighting or the clothes or the caption, just none of it is real but people really forget to be reminded of that and even in the way all that the stories you hear in not rumors but the self-fulfilling prophecies in a way of this social media in terms of word of mouth being a form of media that again people don’t realize it’s scripted, right. It’s also not real.

Peggy
Right, I remember talking to my daughter, she doesn’t like when I talk about her anymore but when she was in eighth grade, they went on a field trip to the beach and we live in the bay area so the beach is freezing, the beach is not warm and one of the girls took a picture with… had her bathing suit under her clothes and took her clothes off, took a selfie and then put her clothes back on and my daughter was like “it was freezing out there”.

Sasza
Yeah, that’s literally metaphor for life and every bikini catalog you’ve ever seen right?

Peggy
Right, It was totally fake and I said : “Please honey remember that moment because that’s exactly what social media is, it’s pretending that it’s warm and sunny and you’re wearing the bikini and feeling good, and then immediately it’s freezing”.

Sasza
But you’re really a clinically depressed and in the clouds, you know?

Peggy
Treaving sweat suit to go into the water [Laughs].

Sasza
Yeah, so speaking of that script and the need to be really rewriting that script for parents, for young women and young men, anybody in between all of those things, what kind of you mentioned some of the words of wisdom that you’ve learned from these interviews with these young women, how could we use what they’ve told you in some of these really insightful messages and observations to kind of start creating a new script what if some of the things will be put into that new script?

Peggy
Well, that’s a really big question. I start in some ways in one on one I mean I wrote a book in order for people to read it so they could start talking about that new script or I encourage people when they have kids to have them watch the Ted talk that I did or listen to the fresh air podcast or this podcast and actually talk about it.

Sasza
Yeah, in the words of some of the young girls.

Peggy
The book itself with the words of the girls, what I wanted to create sort of like a window and a mirror so that people and young people in particular girls and boys could look into it and see other people’s experience, but also see their own experience reflected and I get so much e-mails from girls and from boys too that read, and again I sort of don’t want to force, you know. There’s other ways but a lot of young people who read the book, who feel like its change the paradigm and change the way that they want to move forward and look at these and prioritize the idea of reciprocity and mutuality and sexual ethics. And there are really wonderful curricula it’s not reinventing the wheel, I mean there’s really great resources out there, our whole lives is really unexpansive, the population council has to create a curricula for parents on my website which is just my name, I have just oodles and oodles of resources for people but you know ideally to change the script, you’re not starting when your child is 17 or18, you can but ideally you’re starting when they’re born and you’re naming their body parts and you’re saying, you know preschoolers if you have one they masturbate all the time, right. And you say like; it feels really good to touch your vulva but we don’t do it at grandma’s thanksgiving table something that we do in our room you know?

Sasza
Right.

Peggy
You say it, it’s just part of the conversation and I know that when I was writing “Girls & Sex” that I think I started when my daughter was 10 or11 I can’t remember and I realized that for years that I hadn’t told her what I was writing about [Laughs].

Sasza
[Laughs].

Peggy
And I asked her if she knew and she said: “No” and I said I’m writing a book about girls and sex and she said: “Well, that seems like a good idea” and I said yeah, do you know that some girls don’t even know what their clitoris is, not that is for making good feelings that that’s what it’s for?.

Sasza
Its only purpose.

Peggy
Yeah, that’s its only purpose because you already learned that in school, I’d seen I had said in her puberty end class so she was probably in sixth grade by this time and she said: “That’s interesting mom can we please talk about something else” [Laughs]. And we did but you know we continue and do continue to this day to have these conversations all the time, and the more I saw that she had sent a text to a friend where I had a new book that’s out called Moan: anonymous stories of female orgasm and that was sitting on the dinner table just cuz I had just gotten it in the mail and I had just tossed it there, and she had taken a picture of it and sent it to a friend and said this is the kind of book that’s laying around my house [Laughs]. I think it’s a little bit of humble bragging you know.

Sasza
[Laughs] Yeah.

Peggy
But it’s just normal conversation in our house because why wouldn’t it be?

Sasza
Right, just normalized something that should be like statistically speaking, the number of people who have sex in the world. It has to be one of the most normal things that exists, right. And so why can’t we talk about as if it is…

Peggy
Yeah, why wouldn’t she, you just have normal conversations about the existence of female orgasm, about what a clitoris is, about what you expect from a relationship, about not getting into high drama situations in a relationship where somebody’s going out with somebody else but says they really want to be going out with you, you know. Like all these things, why wouldn’t you just be talking about that as a matter of course in your child rearing, I don’t understand that. What is it you’re afraid of?

Sasza
Right, and that’s kind of what BBXX is trying to provide a bit of that education to that you don’t get at school or at home about relationships from anything from sexuality to intimacy.

Peggy
And kids they desperately want it and they say that all the time. Every survey says yes you know, they want information about sexuality but they also really want information about relationships, and one of the things that was interesting again going back to the Dutch with boys there’s a book called Not under my roof by Amy.T.Schalet, about comparing Dutch and American experience in the way that we talk about sex and the way we raise our kids around this. And one of the things that she said was that where love was concerned, that Dutch boys assumed their capacity for love they say well of course you would want to love you know it’s the same and American boys think they’re the exception like all my friends just want to hook up but I really want to love somebody.

Sasza
Wow, that is so profound.

Peggy
I know, so it’s the way we’re raising our kids here and it doesn’t have to be this way, and there was a point in history where after the sexual revolution when the pill came along etc. What we call it sexual revolution just really half a revolution but still, the Dutch looked at that and said this has happened, we need to make sure that the kids are engaging in a positive way and they did this massive reform of sex education and that’s why they have what they have. At the same time and before sexual revolution American and Dutch attitudes towards premarital sex were the same. So, they just went; okay life has changed let’s make it happen let’s make it work, the Americans went into this highly politicized state where sex education became the ground zero battleground for our moral souls or something. So, on one side we had people who were just trying to make it stop and on the other side were people who weren’t doing that, but they also didn’t want it to do what the Dutch did. They tried to retain what they could by coming at it from a perspective of danger and that’s why what we call comprehensive sex education is all about risk and danger, because that was the only weapon that they had against this moral argument that it was bad. And it neither has served neither the abstinence-only nor truly the risk/danger model has served our kids very well.

Sasza
Yeah, so I think going back to that script and it being such a process and just storytelling really being at the root of all this.

Peggy
Yeah, or even doing things like I’ve seen in sexy classrooms where they take scenes from teen movies like the you know like Superbad or American Pie or whatever kids are watching, and sex scenes and they just break them down like how did they negotiate consent? Did they negotiate consent? Who is enjoying? What are taking this scene from like Animal House? I don’t know if you’ve watched Animal House recently, right. Well there’s this one scene where Tom Hulce who’s like the nice boy, the virgin boy. He’s trying to have intercourse for the first time and so he gets this girl drunk and she passes out, and there’s this whole scene where there’s like the little angel and the little devil on her shoulder arguing about whether he should have intercourse with her or not. And it’s like it supposed to be funny. I mean there’s so many scenes that are even like we don’t have the baseline of consent, and they cease so having into talking about it through the media is one way to approach it talking about real, or teachers who gather real-world scenarios over the years from their kids and have the kids talk them through; what would you do what do you do if you’re in the car and you say “I love you” and your partner doesn’t say it back, what happens then? You know, like just having a conversation about that with a group of kids is an interesting thing to do. There’s so many really great ways that I’ve seen to approach these issues and challenge the script, and then you know I would wish that Hollywood now that we’re have been thinking about and writing about this, we’re having this big meeting of men; how about changing the literal script, how about changing the scripts in Hollywood for sex. So, that the symbols that they use indicating that sex has happened are different because right now… 

Sasza
All their pleasure has happened, you are different rather than just that scene the classic scene where they roll in different direction, she’s like oh my god that was the greatest thing ever. But we actually have no idea.

Peggy
After having intercourse up to the wall with nothing else going on not even, I mean I say that all the time that people talk about porn and certainly you have to talk about that with your kids, but I remember seeing a scene just like that where it was like kiss kiss kiss, everybody rips their clothes off, they have intercourse, there’s nothing besides kissing to intercourse in the missionary position for approximately 10 seconds, and they’re done. And everybody’s had an orgasm and I’m like; wow that’s no more realistic than porn. And so I said to my daughter, you know how when they show a cab ride in a movie? They show people getting into the cab and then they show people getting out of the cab. But they don’t show the whole cab right cuz that would be irrelevant that would be boring, similarly when sex happens in a movie. Hollywood has invented these symbols that indicate sex and pleasure have occurred but they have absolutely nothing to do with what happens between two people and PS: they are totally from a male gaze perspective. 

Sasza
And what happens in between shouldn’t be as boring as the taxi ride, I see you need to…

Peggy
Well, that too but it would be boring to sit there and watch it in a movie and I would kind of take us away from the plot and I get it. But we have to find a different way to indicate that a sexual encounter has occurred between two people in a movie.

Sasza
And I think it’s so… I did an interview with one of my good friends, she’s an actress and she talked about how much she used to love movies as a girl and that she rewatched the sex scenes, it was like again again again and then she got to the age where she was having sex and she just felt so betrayed, and she goes you know it’s two seconds nor a hand near anything, near a vagina. No foreplay, two minutes later everybody is coming as if it’s the mind-blowing thing ever and then it’s done. And she also talked about though, for men how everything portrayed and the media is the scene of them having sex and it’s day and it’s night and it’s day and it’s night again, and she goes I mean that’s not fair to men at all because there are literally so many young boys/men who think well; I can’t have you know 18 orgasms in a day and that’s sex like two hours each time and she goes I mean if you watch that and you think that’s remotely real, what penis tell me what penis, where in the world is capable of doing that? None, zero.

Peggy
And they do definitely that, is definitely something boys talk about too so yeah I mean the whole thing, just pointing out the lack of realism I think he’s doing kids a service because nobody… You know there’s one scene I remember that really challenged that there was this movie in the 80s called the Big Easy.

Sasza
mm-hmm.

Peggy
I don’t know if you saw that, there was Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin and he’s a cop and she’s a D.A, and there is the hottest sex scene in that movie that is totally… She’s very uneasy and it’s just all about her, and you rarely see that. And I remember at that time and just thinking; oh my god I’ve never seen that on screen, it is the sexiest. You gotta go find it I’m sure it’s not going to…

Sasza
Perfect.

Peggy
It’s like rated… It’s probably still rated PG even though it’s…

Sasza
It should be, people should do that.

Peggy
Well, they don’t you know I don’t think they really show anything, it’s a good movie.

Sasza
Well, I think that just goes back again. So in conclusion, just that even need to change that script but changing the script through real stories, changing you know what we perceive in the media and actually creating the realness through perspective, through you know conversations and sharing.

Peggy
And seeing
these things is like seeing you know these conversations about me too and conversations about sexual pleasure and conversations as consent, I mean it’s… and making sure that we’re not only talking about girls as victims because I think in this very weird way we’re more comfortable with that, and it’s easier to talk about girls as potential victims than as agents of sexual pleasure, of their own sexual pleasure.

Sasza
mmm-hmm. Amazing, well for all you listening you can check out Peggy’s latest book Girls and Sex, one of her New York Times bestsellers and get some more insight on Depth learning more about the stories and how to help shape your own and share it to help everybody, change the script.

This is the second part our two-episode series with Peggy Orenstein. Peggy is the author of the New York Times best-seller Girls & Sex, as well as Cinderella Ate My Daughter and Waiting for Daisy. In 2012, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) named her one of its 40 Women Who Changed the Media Business in the Past 40 Years.

In the second part of our conversation with Peggy, we analyze the negative effects of media and pop culture. We talk about how the over-sexualization we see in media – from commercials, to movies and music – is always framed with the purpose of a performance, rather than an authentic
experience or feeling, which perpetuates misleading ideas about what female empowerment and feminism actually means. Young girls learn to imitate what they see, without knowing that it’s simply a facade.

Not so “Liberated”

The Netflix movie, Liberated, dives even deeper into this idea of the media’s effects on women and girls, and the toxic hookup culture it cultivates. We return to the idea that women are “entitled to engage but not to enjoy,” and the sexual self-objectification in young women’s minds that is a tricky bait and switch. Some young women in the movie, for example, feel that they need to live up to the new wave of feminism and should be having casual sex to be cool and shouldn’t have too many feelings about it, but in the end they aren’t really staying true to themselves. The movie also touches on the fact that men are also facing this problem – of trying to live up to what
they think it means to be “cool” and “desired,” even if they don’t feel like it is true to who they are.

There is this incredible sexualized culture where the ultimate thing is to be hot and that is the ultimate validation – and that has assaulted girls as THE form for sexual empowerment and sexual expression.

Contradictions

Girls in high school are dealing with contradictory messages about what empowerment and feminism is – from their clothing to the role models that pop culture is offering to them – and as a result end up questioning their self image. Who defines the “right” body and under what circumstances?

“The confidence comes off with the clothes”

The media has sold the idea that the dressing scandalous and being down with casual sex represents self-confidence – but in many of these cases, the confidence comes off with the clothes. This is where research finds high rates of depression, anxiety, and “guest spectatoring,” which is where instead of being present during sex, girls tend to watch themselves from
outside – and sex becomes about judgment and performance, not about self-embodiment and feelings.

I wanted to create a window and a mirror, so boys and girls could look into it and see other people’s experiences and also see their own experiences reflected

Wonderful sexual ethics resources

Ideally, to change the script you are not starting when your kid is already 17 or 18 years old; you are starting when they are born and you are naming their body parts.

Coffee table book recommendations: Moan: Anonymous Stories of Female Orgasm

“Dutch boys assume their natural capacity for love. Meanwhile, boys in the United States think they are the exception among their friends – there’s something wrong with them – if they want love, not just a hookup.”

The Dutch boys’ book: Not Under My Roof by Amy Schalet

The Language of Sex in Movies

Hollywood needs to come up with a new way for showing sex that is healthier and more authentic. In some Sex Ed classes they break down sex scenes to help teach kids to recognize the misrepresentations – for example Animal House and the scene about consent.

Recommendation: The sexiest sex scene, in the movie The Big Easy

Stop talking about girls as victims, and start talking about them as agents of their own sexual pleasure.

About the Expert

Peggy Orenstein - profile

Peggy Orenstein

Peggy Orenstein is a New York Times bestselling author, award-winning journalist, and internationally recognized speaker on gender issues, especially those related to teens, sex and relationships. She was voted one of the “40 Women Who Changed the Media Business in the Past 40 Years,” by the Columbia Journalism Review. Her work has also been honored by the Commonwealth Club of California, the National Women’s Political Caucus of California and Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Additionally, she has been awarded fellowships from the United States-Japan Foundation and the Asian Cultural Council and been a grateful resident at Mesa Refuge and the UCross Foundation.