If It’s Not a Secret, It’s Not Safe: Girls, Boys and the Pleasure ParadoxS

The expectation that young women should be "sexy, but not sexual" –- or the Paris Paradox — isn't new. As the annual round of not-entirely-unjustified complaining about girls' Halloween costumes begins once more, the most popular solution seems to be one of the least helpful: urging young women to put their sexuality in temporary cold storage. If you want to be safe, we tell our girls, keep your desires (which we'd rather pretend you don't have in the first place) secret.

Writing in Australia's Daily Life, Clementine Ford laments the refusal to distinguish between the pressure on young girls to perform an inauthentic sexiness for others' benefit and the liberatory development of their own sexual selves. "It's impossible for some people to believe that girls can actually engage with their sexuality, can seek out sexual experiences willingly and responsibly and without risk of permanent psychological damage," she points out. Part of that disbelief comes from the suspicion that those who claim to support young women's sexual discovery are motivated either by the desire to sell them something or (worse still) to exploit teens' exaggerated erotic autonomy. No one wants to be labeled a predator; as Ford notes, "discussing it taps into that fear that others will think we're preoccupied with it." The safest tactic is to say nothing, or to join the chorus that wants young women to avoid being either sexy or sexual until they reach adulthood.

Ford makes a compelling case that we must empower teen girls to discover sexuality for themselves, starting by "encouraging and normalising young female masturbation." It's surely solid advice; even Oprah has famously embraced the vibrator as an ideal gift for a mother to give her adolescent daughter. Yet "encouraging" young girls to masturbate isn't without risk, either –- just not the risk imagined by anxious moralizers. We live in a perfectionist culture where, as Courtney Martin writes, girls tend to hear "you can be anything" as "you have to do everything."

For young perfectionists, opportunity has a nasty way of getting reframed as obligation. That's as true of self-pleasure as anything else; think of the notorious scene in Black Swan where Natalie Portman masturbates on instructions from her ballet director. The fact that she's alone (or thinks she is) as she touches herself in bed doesn't change the fact that she's getting herself off at least in part to please an authority figure. It's as clever an encapsulation of the perfectionist pleasure paradox as one could ask for.

The risk of masturbation becoming still another duty in the lives of anxious teen girls seems admittedly slight. (Though the pressure from boys to perform self-sex on Skype is not an unheard-of-phenomenon in girls' lives.) Orgasms are a hell of a lot more likely to reduce stress than to add to it. The real problem — what makes Ford's wise prescription still just out of reach for so many –- is a culture that still sees women's sexuality as something upon which men have a legitimate claim.

In teaching courses on sexuality, I've heard what's essentially the same anecdote from many female students. They tell stories -– usually from their high school years — of being asked by male friends if they masturbate. If they say "no," they're accused of lying; if they say "yes," they're almost invariably peppered with requests for explicit details of how they get themselves off. Some of these guys may be looking for reassurance that girls really are sexual creatures, but many seem to be trying to feed their own masturbatory fantasies. The assumption that Ford mentions –- that those who ask about young women's pleasure are pruriently preoccupied with it –- may not always be accurate, but it's at least partly grounded in the real experiences of many girls. Pleasure itself may not be dangerous, but talking about it in the wrong company can be.

Another aspect of the problem is the enduring myth that masturbation is a mere substitute for sex with another person. Normalizing self-pleasure as part of healthy adolescent development makes sense, but that entails more than a vibrator for one's 15th birthday. It requires ending the remarkably persistent stigma that masturbation is a sign of desperation, social ineptitude, or sexual insatiability. Reframing pleasure as responsible self-care is part of the answer, but so too is making it clear to men and boys that young women's horniness isn't a proclamation of sexual availability.

In a class discussion recently, one student recounted that when she had admitted to a male high school acquaintance that she had a vibrator, not only did he ask to see it, but he assumed that because she liked to have orgasms she'd automatically be interested in sex with him. "He was upset when I rejected him," my student said, "because he actually couldn't seem to understand how wanting to come in private didn't translate into a willingness to fuck all of my guy friends." For too many guys, women's sexual desire is something fungible, easily transferred from vibrator to dude to dude. This myth is at the heart of slut-shaming: in guy culture, women who don't confine their sexuality to one monogamous relationship with a man have a kind of democratic moral obligation to make their bodies available to every interested male party.

To say "I like sex, I just don't want to have it with you," is challenging for any young person trained to be a people pleaser. Much easier to pretend one isn't interested in sex at all than to explain why –- even though you have an admittedly healthy libido – you don't want to have sexy times with Trevor or Tyler or Timmy. Dealing with young men's sense of wounded, sulky entitlement can be exhausting if not genuinely dangerous. Many parents know this, which is why even the most progressive moms and dads may equate their daughters' sexual self-discovery with frightening vulnerability to pressure or coercion.

The answer, of course, isn't to treat girls' sexuality like the Ring of Doom, something that must be kept secret in order to be kept safe. As Ford writes, "we do our girls no favours by refusing to acknowledge the raw complexities of their own sexual desires." But helping girls own their own pleasure will take more than explicit encouragement to masturbate. It means teaching men of all ages, in no uncertain terms, that women's sexuality belongs to women. Just as we need to reiterate that sexy Halloween costumes and short skirts aren't an invitation to harassment, so too we need to remind our boys -– loudly and clearly -– that girls' interest in sex isn't an open invitation. Until we do that, the grim "policing" of young women's sexuality will continue.


Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.

Image by Jim Cooke, source photo via Michael Blea/Shutterstock