In this excerpt from Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein wonders what effect growing up among Disney Princesses, American Girl Place, and Miley Cyrus has on older girls' sexuality. She's answering your questions (on any book-related topic) in the comments.
Portraying girls as victims, particularly of other girls, is distressing, but it is also comfortable, familiar territory. What happens when girls, under the pretext of sexual self-determination, seem to victimize themselves?
A 2008 survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 39 percent of teens had sent or posted sexually suggestive messages (or "sexts"), and 22 percent of teenage girls had electronically sent or posted nude or seminude photos of themselves. At first I was skeptical of those figures: the teen sexting "epidemic" had the earmarks of media-generated hype, the kind of moral panic that breaks out whenever girls have the audacity to act sexually. Young ladies flashing skin and propositioning boys? Heavens to Betsy, hie them to a nunnery!
Then, mere days after that report was released, a friend of mine found a photo on her fourteen-year-old son's computer of one of his female classmates-a ninth-grader-naked from the waist up. She was not even a girl he knew well. "We're trying to teach our son that women are not playthings," my friend said. "How are we supposed to do that if a girl sends him something like this?"
Good question. How is one to explain such behavior? Part of me, I had to admit, was taken by the girl's bravado: that at age fourteen, she felt confident enough in her body to send a nudieshot to a boy she barely knew. Was it possible that this was a form of progress, a sign that at least some of today's girls were taking charge of their sexuality, transcending the double standard? I wanted to believe it, but the conclusion didn't sit right.
I checked in with Deborah Tolman, a professor of human sexuality studies at Hunter College who for years has been my go-to gal on all matters of girls and desire. As it happened, she had been wrestling with these very questions and had come up with a theory: girls like the one I have described are not connecting more deeply to their own feelings, needs, or desires. Instead, sexual entitlement itself has become objectified; like identity, like femininity, it, too, has become a performance, something to "do" rather than to "experience." Teasing and turning boys on might give girls a certain thrill, even a fleeting sense of power, but it will not help them understand their own pleasure, recognize their own arousal, allow them to assert themselves in intimate (let alone casual) relationships.
Previously, I mentioned that early sexualization can derail girls' healthy development, estrange them from their own erotic feelings. Ninth-graders texting naked photos may be one result. Another might be the annual "slut list" the senior girls at an affluent high school in Millburn, New Jersey, compile of incoming freshmen (which made national news after they posted it on Facebook in 2009); being chosen is at once an honor and a humiliation, marking a girl as "popular" even as it accuses her of lusting after her brother or wanting someone to "bend me over and knock me up." That detached sexuality may also contribute to an emerging phenomenon that Tolman is studying, which she called, bluntly, Anal Is the New Oral. "All girls are now expected to have oral sex in their repertoire," she explained. "Anal sex is becoming the new ‘Will she do it or not?' behavior, the new ‘Prove you love me.' And still, girls' sexual pleasure is not part of the equation."
That is such a fundamental misunderstanding of romantic relationships and sexuality-as a mother, it plunges me into despair. I find myself improbably nostalgic for the late 1970s, when I came of age. Fewer of us competed on the sports field, raised our hands during math class, or graduated from college. No one spoke the word "vagina," whether in a monologue or not. And there was that Farrah flip to contend with. Yet in that oh-so-brief window between the advent of the pill and the fear of AIDS, when abortion was both legal and accessible to teenagers, there was—at least for some of us—a kind of Our Bodies, Ourselves optimism about sex. Young women felt an almost solemn, political duty to understand their desire and responses, to explore their own pleasure, to recognize sexuality as something rising from within. And young men—at least some of them—seemed eager to take the journey with us, to rewrite the rules of masculinity so they would prize mutuality over conquest.
That notion now seems as quaint as a one-piece swimsuit on a five-year-old. "By the time they are teenagers," Tolman said, "the girls I talk to respond to questions about how their bodies feel—questions about sexuality or desire—by talking about how their bodies look. They will say something like ‘I felt like I looked good.' " My fear for my daughter, then, is not that she will someday act in a sexual way; it is that she will learn to act sexually against her own self-interest.
Excerpted from "Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture," from Harper. Republished with Permission.
Say hello to Peggy Orenstein, who is here starting at 1pm EST and is ready to talk about this excerpt, child beauty pageants, whether pink is oppressive or liberatory, and how marketers got so good at selling them to parents and kids alike. Shoot!