On Modesty and Male Weakness: “Pegging” and Feminism at Jezebel

I had two posts up at Jezebel this week:

Hot Girls in Tight Clothes Do Not Keep Boys From Learning Excerpt:

That modesty culture places an unreasonable burden on girls is undeniable. What gets missed is that it also sets men up for a lifetime of believing that they aren’t responsible for their own sexual urges. Boys don’t need to be protected from their own horniness (any attempt to provide that protection will end in failure), they need tools to learn to manage the intensely powerful feelings that they’re having. Teenage lust is a biological reality, but the socially-constructed assumption that it is only truly overwhelming for boys is destructive in two ways. It shames girls for being horny (because sexual desire is framed as exclusively masculine) and it teaches boys that they are at the mercy of urges they can’t be reasonable expected to control. What boys need, and aren’t getting, is the message that lust and learning aren’t mutually exclusive experiences.

If You Want a More Thoughtful Boyfriend, Try Pegging Him (Trigger Warning for, um, vulgar language) Excerpt:

The payoff for clearing those hurdles, Glickman says, is nothing less than the radical transformation of heterosexual sex. In 2011, Glickman wrote a column entitled “How Pegging Can Save the World,” arguing that no other erotic experience a man can undergo can create greater empathy with women than being penetrated by his partner. “For men who have never been on the receiving side of penetration, sex is something that happens outside the body. And when sex is external to your body, it can be easier to do when you have a headache or you’re not quite in the mood. A lot of men discover than when sex is about catching rather than pitching, their mood, their emotions, and their connection to a partner can often have a bigger influence on what they want to do and how it feels.” Men, Glickman and Emirzian suggest optimistically, will be a lot less likely to rush foreplay once they’ve experienced how long it takes to relax sufficiently in order to comfortably take a dildo (or other sex toy) in the ass.

For women, Glickman and Emirzian write, the experience of pegging a man can be equally revelatory, suggesting that “many women who use strap-on dildos discover how much work, responsibility, and (sometimes) power can be part of fucking someone.” It’s intellectually reckless to impose political meanings onto private acts, but it seems telling that in an “End of Men” era where exhausted and stressed-out women already are shouldering so much more “work” and “responsibility” than ever before, those burdens are extended — in a novel way — to the bedroom as well.

Only Secrets are Safe: Prurience, Predatory Boys, and the Policing of Girls’ Sexuality

My Genderal Interest column this week has proven my 2nd most successful (in terms of page views) since I began writing for Jezebel just over a year ago. Here’s If It’s Not a Secret, It’s Not Safe: Girls, Boys and the Pleasure Paradox.

Excerpt:

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.

Teaching Sexuality, Respecting Student’s Privacy: Where and How to Draw the Line

My latest at Role/Reboot looks at how we set healthy boundaries in college courses that focus on sexual subjects: I Don’t Need to Know if You Masturbate.

Excerpts:

As college courses on sexuality proliferate, professors across the country are increasingly finding themselves in trouble because of what they’ve shown, asked, or assigned. In separate incidents in April, instructors at Fresno State in California and Appalachian State in North Carolina were each placed on leave, accused of showing “objectionable” sexual material to their students. Last year, a professor at Northwestern University got in trouble for hosting a live sex demonstration (which was optional for students to attend).

It’s not just videos or live presentations that have attracted controversy. Earlier this month, a student at Western Nevada College claimed that her human sexuality professor required students to share their sexual histories in journals, papers, and class discussions. According to Inside Higher Education, “students were asked to describe different types of orgasms and describe how they sexually stimulate themselves, specifically referring to certain parts of the female anatomy.” The professor, Tom Kubistant, promised not to read the explicit journal entries, claiming he would only “scan” his students’ scribblings to make sure they’d actually covered the topic. A federal complaint has been filed against Dr. Kubistant.

The safest places to talk about sex are—not entirely paradoxically—those that are desexualized. When students know that they won’t be mocked, won’t have their privacy invaded, and won’t be the subject of a professor’s prurient interest, they are able to do what we so rarely do in our culture: discuss sex candidly and (almost) fearlessly. The need to feign an insouciance or expertise that they don’t actually feel can slip away. The more students know that their boundaries are respected, the more comfortable they’ll be sharing their stories and listening non-judgmentally to those of their classmates.

Read the whole thing.

Of teen sex and suitcases

On this Shrove Tuesday, we start the new term at Pasadena City College with painful cutbacks.

One of my colleagues (who as far as I know has been unaware of the controversy surrounding me) greeted me in the office this morning and said “Good morning, Hugo! You look like you’ve aged ten years.”

But all is well regardless. I’ve got a piece up at Role/Reboot this morning: Teens, Sex, and the Suitcase Rule. Inspired by Amy Schalet’s wonderful Not Under My Roof, the post looks at different attitudes towards teen sex, including my own family’s particular approach to the issue. Excerpt:

American parents, Schalet claims, use a strategy of “connection through control.” By imposing rules (curfews, blanket prohibitions on pre-marital sex), parents seek to demonstrate love and to maintain a vigilant presence in their children’s lives. Parents in the United States pursue connection through control even when they know it won’t work; the American adults Schalet interviewed were often pessimistic about their own ability to regulate their adolescent children’s behavior. Contemporary parents often assume that their kids will have sex anyway; they describe their own efforts as “swimming against the tide.” But because American parents tend to see teenagers as fundamentally irresponsible, they often believe that they have no choice but to continue to do whatever they can to regulate their teens’ private lives, even if they doubt the efficacy of the strategy.

In the Netherlands, according to Schalet, parents also want to protect their teens. But their technique is the reverse: “control through connection.” Like American adults, Dutch mothers and fathers believe adolescent sexual experimentation is inevitable. But rather than grimly soldiering on in the effort to repress teen exploration like their American counterparts, many Dutch parents seek to integrate teen sexual discovery into family life. Teens are expected to bring their boyfriends and girlfriends home to meet the relatives and to participate in family activities. Sons and daughters are encouraged to integrate their romantic lives into communal domestic routines. In due course, typical Dutch families will permit their teenage children to invite boyfriends or girlfriends to spend the night. Unlike in my family, the luggage and the bodies all sleep in the same bedroom. Sexual discovery is private, but it’s also sanctioned. The end result is, Dutch parents hope, a safer and happier experience for their children.

Humiliation and affirmation at Jezebel

My weekly Genderal Interest column at Jezebel looks at “facials” (the sex act, not the beauty treatment). He Wants to Jizz on Your Face, but Not Why You Think features interviews with my friends Charlie Glickman and Megan Andelloux, two wonderful sex educators on opposite sides of the country. Excerpt:

A few years ago, in a humanities course on the body, my class was discussing one of the most famous selections from the now-iconic Vagina Monologues, “Because He Liked to Look at It”. The monologue tells the story of a woman who thought her vagina was “incredibly ugly” until she meets a man named Bob, who loves to stare at —and taste — her vulva with delight and wonder. Bob’s embrace of her body is the key to her self-acceptance. During our discussion of the monologue, a male student noted bravely that he thought many men felt the same way about their penises. Perhaps, he suggested, the intense appeal of facials in porn (and real life) was about men’s desire for that same experience of being validated as desirable, as good, as “not dirty.” For a young man raised with the sense that his body – and especially his penis – is “disgusting”, a woman’s willingness to accept a facial is an intensely powerful source of affirmation.

In my conversations with Glickman and Andelloux, I shared this anecdote. Both agreed that rather than seeing the facial as rooted in the impulse to denigrate, it might indeed be better to view it as longing for approval. Andelloux pointed out that in her experience, many women (often with good reason) have a difficult time believing that degradation isn’t at the root of straight men’s fascination with facials. In any case, humiliation and affirmation aren’t incompatible reactions to the same act; a feeling of indignity when your partner ejaculates on your face isn’t contingent on his intending to demean you. No one should be obligated to endure humiliation for the sake of someone else’s longing for validation.

“Because it feels good”: the starting point for talking to kids about sex

My friend Alison told me a story the other day about her husband and her eight year-old daughter. While on a family camping trip over the long Fourth of July weekend, little Jade asked her parents, “Why do people have sex?”

Alison and Cooper were shocked. Like so many parents, they weren’t ready for the question; even those moms and dads who prepare themselves well to talk about the subject get thrown off by the timing or wording of these first queries about sex. And as Alison told me, she and Cooper expected to have the “sex talk” with Jade when she was ten or eleven at the earliest. Not eight.

Before Alison could say anything, her husband blurted out. “People have sex because it feels good.”

“Oh”, Jade said, and went back to eating dinner, uninterested in continuing the conversation.

Cooper was beside himself, telling Alison that he felt like an idiot for giving their daughter that answer. “I don’t know what I was thinking; it was the first thing that came into my head”, he said. His wife reassured him that they could have a more detailed conversation with Jade when she was a little bit older, but for now the answer was honest and fine. Cooper wasn’t convinced, and second-guessed himself for the rest of the family camping trip.

As I told Allie yesterday, her husband didn’t get it wrong at all. In fact, from a developmental standpoint, he gave the best one-sentence answer he could possibly have given. “Give him a high-five from me”, I said, “Coop nailed it.”

So many adults are fearful that telling kids that sex is pleasurable will simply encourage young people to have it before they are physically and emotionally ready for the consequences. Better, they imagine, to emphasize that it’s important to wait and to stress the risks. But as it turns out, centering pleasure is a great way to minimize the chances that a teen will be pressured into doing something that they don’t want to do.

When we tell girls that sex is something people do when they love each other, it sets them up to believe that sex is sacrificial. So when Jassie falls in love with Bobby, and Bobby pushes for intercourse, she’s conditioned to focus on “giving it up” for him rather than on thinking about what feels good for her. The more she’s taught that her pleasure matters, the less likely she’ll be coerced into going farther than her body is ready to go. “It’s supposed to feel good”, she may remember, “and right now, being rushed and pawed doesn’t feel good. So I want to stop.” Centering pleasure gives young women a power that centering love doesn’t.

The same is true with boys. When we teach them that sex is about feeling good, we remind them that it isn’t about “losing it.” We think of adolescent boys as hormone-addled horndogs, and many of them are. (There are some pretty damn horny teenage girls too, though we’re less comfortable acknowledging that.) But what drives so many boys to focus on having heterosexual intercourse isn’t the pursuit of pleasure for either themselves or their partners. It’s the longing to “become a man” or to “score” in a competition that’s really about winning praise and validation from other men. Pleasure becomes less important than being a “stud” in other boys’ eyes. That’s not a lot of fun.

So Cooper got it exactly right. While there are other reasons why people have sex, the desire to give and share pleasure is perhaps the most basic. And the more we center pleasure in our discussions with children, the more we equip them to say no to what hurts, what’s coerced, and what’s unwanted. And the more we empower them to say “yes” only to what feels good.

That’s the best foundation for good sex education I know.

Against Shame, Against Douthat: for pleasure-based sex ed

Ross Douthat, the most conservative columnist in the modern history of the New York Times, offered an exasperating op-ed over the weekend: Why Monogamy Matters.

Douthat is clever enough to know his relatively liberal audience may be suspicious of his agenda, so he’s careful to cloak his argument in seemingly reasonable and reassuring tones. He tells his readers he doesn’t really believe in teaching teens to wait until heterosexual marriage; rather, he’s in favor of teaching them to wait for someone. And, like so many contemporary conservatives, he dresses up his argument in favor of abstinence with feminist language, suggesting that the religious right may care more about the well-being of young women’s hearts than the secular left:

Female emotional well-being seems to be tightly bound to sexual stability — which may help explain why overall female happiness has actually drifted downward since the sexual revolution.

Among the young people Regnerus and Uecker studied, the happiest women were those with a current sexual partner and only one or two partners in their lifetime. Virgins were almost as happy, though not quite, and then a young woman’s likelihood of depression rose steadily as her number of partners climbed and the present stability of her sex life diminished.

One assumes that Douthat missed critical thinking courses. As many others have pointed out, Douthat makes the basic mistake of confusing causation with correlation. If we’re going to use Ockham’s razor, the simplest explanation for why young women with high numbers of sexual partners report depression is because we live in a society in which the sexual double standard is alive and well. As with the old studies that found gay teens at greater risk of unhappiness and suicidal ideation than their straight peers, the misery is not rooted in the sexual activity itself but in the way that behavior is mercilessly judged by our still-puritanical culture.

This failure in logic isn’t the only problem in Douthat’s piece. His assumption that the overwhelming majority of human beings will find their deepest joy in an enduring romantic and sexual connection with one other person erases and ignores the lived experience of an astonishing number of people. As someone who is inclined towards both monogamy and marriage, I have the good sense not to universalize from my personal predilections. I’ve met too many people whose lived experience makes clear that profound joy can be found outside of the traditional model for sexual relationships.

What troubles me most about Douthat’s piece, however, is not his faulty reasoning or his disingenuous appeal to our concern for the emotional and physical wellbeing of our children. What is most annoying is his continued defense of abstinence-only education, despite the established fraudulence of its ideological and psychological underpinnings. The jury is still out on whether abstinence-only education encourages teens to wait longer to have intercourse (the verdict is already in on whether it leads to a delay in other kinds of sex, and the answer is clear that it doesn’t have much impact.) But even if we concede that “waiting” is invariably a good idea (and I’m not at all sure that’s true), shaming young people into waiting is indefensible.

Make no mistake, abstinence-only education is shame-based. When we teach young people that kids with healthy self-esteem won’t have sex, we send the unmistakable message that teens who do choose to be sexual with themselves or others lack self-respect. When we teach, as many abstinence programs do, that a future spouse will be put off by too much pre-marital sexual experience, we’re telling kids that pleasure is dirty, leaving a stain that doesn’t wash off. That’s an absolute guarantor of shame.

I’ve been a sex educator more than half my life, since I joined the pioneering Peer Sexuality Outreach as a counselor my sophomore year at Cal. Since 1986, I’ve spoken to teens and adults in school, church, and community settings about virtually every imaginable aspect of sexuality. How I teach and what I teach and how I think about what I’m teaching has evolved a lot in the past quarter century. But there are certain principles I’m committed to, principles that I think must undergird any responsible sex education curriculum.

1. Pleasure is a purpose. While one kind of sex can be reproductive, most kinds of sex aren’t. Human beings don’t exist merely to procreate; we exist to delight in our bodies and to share that delight (if we choose) with others. The clitoris doesn’t exist to pass urine or feed a fetus; it exists solely for delight. We need to remember to teach that at its core, sex is about more than making babies and more even than about connecting with another human being. Sex, at its most basic, is about our right to pleasure. And pleasure is perhaps the most basic driving motivator in our existence.

2. Shame is the enemy. Shame and guilt are not the same; guilt is what we feel when do something wrong (like deliberately hurting another person.) Shame is what we feel when we believe we are bad because of what we’ve done, even if we haven’t caused anyone pain or harm. Shame is what we feel when we believe we want too much, feel too much, need too much. Guilt is healthy; it keeps us from hurting each other. Shame is toxic — it acts as a barrier to pleasure and intimacy with ourselves and others.

3. There is no one-size fits all approach. For example, some teens are emotionally and physically ready for sexual intercourse. Some aren’t. Some people will be happiest limiting sexual expression with other people to committed, monogamous relationships. Others will find their greatest joy outside of the confines of traditional fidelity. We must surrender the tempting but unsound idea that each and every human being has the same basic longings. My Christian friends should know this: the apostle Paul mused that it would probably be best if everyone were celibate, but he had the good sense to know that what worked for him would not work for everyone else. Would that those who follow whom he followed had his same reverence for diversity!

Responsible sex education informs, encourages, comforts and inspires. It honors the individual needs and wants of each person, and teaches the importance of honoring the boundaries of others. As Douthat’s social conservative allies in Congress seek to defund Planned Parenthood and other providers of women’s health care and sexual education, we need to redouble our commitment to standing for pleasure, for safety, and against the twin evils of shame and ignorance.

The kids are all right: on awareness, sex-positivity, and political activism

Academics are famous for their tendency to see the wrong more clearly than they see the right. Trained as we are in graduate school seminars to be critics, encouraged to elevate suspicion to the cardinal virtue, we’re often much more articulate in explaining the problems than in proposing workable solutions. And we often tend to forget to celebrate what’s right and what’s good.

After my flurry of recent posts on sexualization, my friend Elyse wrote me and suggested, tactfully, that while I had made a pretty good case for the negative impact contemporary culture is having on young women, I ought to focus as well on what’s exciting and good. Last Wednesday’s post on webcams and privacy was inspired by a query from a student about what changes I’d witnessed in my years of teaching. And it certainly isn’t the only major change I’ve seen.

So, three bits of good news about college students from my perspective.

1. Now in my eighteenth year of community college teaching, I’m excited by the way in which my students in recent years have embraced the Internet to become much more savvy about feminism and gender justice. In my introductory women’s studies course, I still get plenty of students who have no idea what feminism is or why it matters. It was always so. But each semester, the number of young people who enroll already possessed of a feminist foundation grows. Some already read Jessica Valenti and Courtney Martin years ago, or have been visiting feminist websites — famous and obscure — since ninth grade. When I started teaching, radical notions about women’s equality were confined to college campuses and specialty bookstores; they were largely inaccessible to, say, the daughters of immigrants going to high school in the San Gabriel Valley. Now, thanks to the ‘net, those ideas are widely disseminated, often presented in ways that click with a multi-cultural and economically challenged population of young women. By the time they hit my classroom, many of my newest students already have been given a thorough primer in gender justice. That’s a novel and exciting development, and it bodes well.

2. My students today are much more comfortable talking about sexuality than were students just fifteen years ago. In class discussions as well as in their journals, the young women I’m working with are far more willing to talk about issues like masturbation, birth control, enthusiastic consent, and exploring same-sex attraction than were the students I taught when I first came to PCC. (To be fair, I’m a much better teacher today than I was then, and a much safer presence. But I hear similar things from feminist colleagues who’ve been at this gig as long as I have, so I don’t think this new openness has much to do with my particular personality or teaching style.) For example, as recently as a decade ago, I very rarely had female students argue passionately in defense of pornography. When they did take that stance, they invariably took it on First Amendment grounds; today’s students, many of whom have explored visual erotica since the onset of puberty if not before, tend to take a much more positive view of the liberating potential of cybersexuality.

“Sex-positivity” among young women isn’t just an over-hyped media creation, it’s a real and growing trend in the lives of this particular generation of college students. This is the flip side to the Paris Paradox, the equally real problem of being “sexy” but not “sexual”. This is a generation of young women who’ve been able to buy vibrators online from sites like Babeland, and a generation that’s used the same Internet to get the truth about sex education concealed from them by noxious and stultifying abstinence-only campaigns. (Scarleteen is the indispensable source for detailed and authentically empowering information.) This generation of girls grew up more bombarded than ever with confusing messages about what it means to be a young woman — but they also grew up with more tools to decide the question for themselves than any generation before them. I’m excited for them, and excited for what they’ll do in the world. And I’m very excited to meet their younger siblings.

3. There’s been a huge upswing in political activism. I spent my adolescence as a lonely progressive in the early Reagan Era, surrounded by high school classmates who saw apathy as a virtue. The situation was not much better when I started at PCC, in the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Between 1995 and 2006, I served as an advisor to no fewer than six different feminist-themed clubs. Time and again, I tried to interest my students in gender justice activism. Time and again, a club would get started by a few wonderful young people — and then the club would collapse as soon as those leaders graduated. There was no sustained interest in having a presence on campus dedicated to exploring issues around sexuality, feminism, reproductive rights and so forth. But in 2007, with the help of Feminist Majority, we got another club — the seventh since I’ve been here — up and running. And for three years now, it’s thrived.

The club was active in the 2008 election, and when the inevitable hangover came, I worried that many young people would lose interest in feminist work. Instead, I saw the club grow in 2009, galvanized in particular by the assassination of George Tiller and by the campaign to end the disaster of abstinence-only education. In talking with feminist organizers from groups like Planned Parenthood and Feminist Majority, I discovered that our happy experience at PCC was being replicated across the country. We’ve seen a renaissance of feminist political activism on college campuses, a rebirth heavily assisted by social networking. (I have no idea how we’d put a Feminist Club meeting together on this campus without Facebook.) The confluence of these new social networking technologies with a more anxious and politicized era has given birth to a new generation of young women activists. The issues are largely the same as when I started teaching: economic justice, body image, violence prevention, reproductive freedom, the right to pleasure. But the percentage of students involved in the struggle has risen exponentially, and the tools they use to connect to fellow activists are astonishingly effective. There is much reason to hope, and much reason to rejoice.

The Paris Paradox: how sexualization replaces opportunity with obligation

I’ve often quoted Courtney Martin’s now-famous line from her Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters:

We are the daughters of feminists who said, “You can be anything” and we heard “You have to be everything.”

I call it the Martha Complex, others call it the Supergirl syndrome; whatever name you give it, most of us who work with young people agree that it’s absolutely rampant among contemporary girls and young women (even those whose mothers weren’t feminists!) The complex has many sources, but one factor that particularly exacerbates the problem is sexualization.

Ariel Levy, in her powerful and controversial Female Chauvinist Pigs, quoted Paris Hilton’s remarkably perceptive remark about herself that she was “sexy, but not sexual.” Hilton isn’t alone. My students today, who are mostly in their late teens (though I have many older ones as well) were deeply influenced by Hilton, who was at the peak of her notoriety four or five years ago, when these now-college freshman were just entering high school. And sadly, not unlike many of their older sisters, they find themselves stuck in what we might call the “Paris Paradox”.

Young women with the Paris Paradox were raised in a culture that promised sexual freedom, but what they ended up with looked a lot more like obligation than opportunity. It’s not hard to understand why the pressure to be sexy so often trumps the freedom to discover one’s authentic sexuality. As Levy and Martin and others have been pointing out for the past decade, we’ve begun to sexualize girls at ever earlier ages, as anyone who noticed the Halloween costumes marketed to tween girls will be aware. The explicitness — the raunchiness, to use Levy’s word — of this sexualization is relatively new. But when that sexualization (or pornification, to use another popular term) meets the far-older pressure on young women to be people-pleasers, we have a recipe for misery. Continue reading