Aug 21 16 5:46 PM

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‘Hot’ Sex - YoungGirls

Danielle, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, 2010; photograph by Rania Matar from her book A Girl and Her Room (2012), which collects her portraits of teenage girls in their bedrooms in the US and Lebanon. It includes essays by Susan Minot and Anne Tucker and is published by Umbrage Editions.

Rania Matar/Institute


Zoë Heller








By some measures, girls appear to be

faring rather well in twentyfirstcentury

America. Teenage pregnancy rates have

been in steady decline since the 1990s.

Girls have higher graduation rates than

their male counterparts at all educational

levels. The popular culture abounds with

inspirational images and anthems of girls

“leaning in” and “running the world.” But

according to two new, rather bleak books,

these official signs of progress have given

us an unduly rosy impression of the

modern girl’s lot.

In American†Girls, a study based oninterviews with more than two hundred girls, 

Vanity†Fair†writer Nancy Jo Sales argues that the most significant influence on

young women’s lives is the coarse, sexist, and “hypersexualized” culture of social media.

American girls may appear to be “among the most privileged and successful girls in the

world,” she writes, but thanks to the many hours they spend each day in an online culture

that treats them—and teaches them to treat themselves—as sexual objects, they are no

more, and perhaps rather less, “empowered” in their personal lives than their mothers were

thirty years ago.

All young female social media users, Sales contends, are assailed “on a daily, sometimes

hourly, basis” by misogynist jokes, pornographic images, and demeaning comments that

“are offensive and potentially damaging to their wellbeing

and sense of self-esteem.”

In addition to this steady stream of low level

sexual harassment, many girls are subject tomore aggressive forms of sexual teasing and coercion: 

having their attractiveness crudely assessed on “hot or not” websites, receiving unsolicited “dick pics” 

on their phones, being pestered or blackmailed for nude photos. (A group of thirteen year olds in Florida explain

to Sales that girls who acquiesce to demands for “nudes” run the risk of having their

photos posted on amateur porn sites, or “slut pages,” while those who demur are usually

punished in some other way—by being branded “prudes,” or by having sexual rumors

spread about them.)

The unsparing gaze that social media train on girls’ sexuality—the supreme value that they

place on being sexually appealing—engenders a widespread female anxiety about physical

appearance that is highly conducive to “self objectification,” Sales claims. All of her

interview subjects agree that on sites like Instagram and Facebook, female popularity (as

quantified by the number of “likes” a girl’s photos receive) depends on being deemed

“hot.” “You have to have a perfect body and big butt,” a fifteenyearold

from the Bronx observes grimly. “For a girl, you have to be that certain way to get the boys’ attention.”

Girls who spend long enough in this competitive beauty pageant atmosphere don’t need to

be coerced into serving themselves up as masturbatory fantasies, Sales argues. Taking their

cues from celebrities like Kim Kardashian—whose vast following on Instagram Sales

identifies as a marker of social media’s decadent values—they post “tit pics,” “butt pics,”

and a variety of other soft porn selfies as a means of guaranteeing maximum male

attention and approbation. “I guarantee you,” a seventeen year old

from New Jersey tells Sales, every girl wishes she could get three hundred 

likes on her pictures. Because that means you’re the girl everybody wants to fuck. 

And everybody wants to be the girl everybody wants to fuck. Every girl who isn’t 

that girl secretly hates herself….  It’s empowering to be hot…. Being hot gets you everything.

The “empowering” nature of hotness is a theme that crops up frequently in Sales’s book. A

number of the girls she meets vehemently reject the notion that they are oppressed or

objectified on social media. On the contrary, they tell her, they are proud to be sexy “hos”

and their highly sexualized self presentation is a freely chosen expression of their “body confidence.” 

Naturally, Sales is not much persuaded by these claims. 

The fact that being“the girl everybody wants to fuck” can now be characterized 

as a bold, feminist aspiration is one measure, she suggests, of how successfully old fashioned

sexual exploitation has been sold to today’s teenage girls as their own “sex positive”


Peggy Orenstein, the author of Girls†and†Sex, is equally skeptical about the emancipatory

possibilities of hotness. “Whereas earlier generations of media literate, feminist identified 

women saw their objectification as something to protest,” she writes, “today’s often see it

as a personal choice, something that can be taken on intentionally as an expression rather

than an imposition of sexuality.” Her investigation into the sex lives of teenage girls finds

plenty of evidence to suggest that the confidence and power conferred by “a commercialized,

 one-dimensional, infinitely replicated, and, frankly, unimaginative vision of sexiness” is largely illusory. 

This generation of girls, she argues, has been trained by a “porn saturated, image centered, commercialized” 

culture “to reduce their worth to their bodies and to see those bodies as a collection of parts 

that exist for others’ pleasure; to continuously monitor their appearance; to perform rather than to feel sensuality.” 

As a result, they are eager to be desired, but largely clueless about what their own desires might

be, or how to satisfy them; they go to elaborate lengths to attract male sexual interest, but

regard sex itself as a social ritual, a chore, a way of propitiating men, rather than as a

source of pleasure.

Orenstein, it is worth noting, is not concerned about the quantity of sex that young women

are having. (There is, she points out, no evidence to suggest that rates of sexual intercourse

among young people have risen in recent decades. ) Her interest lies rather in the quality

of young women’s sexual experiences. “The body as product…is not the same as the body

as subject,” she observes sternly.

Nor is learning to be sexually desirable the same as exploring your own desire: your

wants, your needs, your capacity for joy, for passion, for intimacy, for ecstasy…. The

culture is littered with female body parts, with clothes and posturing that purportedly

express sexual confidence. But who cares how “proud” you are of your body’s

appearance if you don’t enjoy its responses?

Orenstein interviewed more than seventy young women for her book, each of them chosen

to represent those who had “benefited most from women’s economic and political

progress.” All were at college or college bound, and almost all struck her as “bright, assertive, ambitious” students. 

Yet their sexual histories, she reports, were characterized less by joy, ecstasy, 

or even minimal satisfaction than by discomfort, intimidation, and a

chronic lack of “self efficacy.”

Half of them had suffered “something along the spectrum of coercion to rape.” 

And much of what they described about even their consensual

experiences was “painful to hear.” Although many of them led active sex lives and

professed to find sex “awesome,” few had ever achieved orgasm with a partner. (Most of

them had faked it.) And while the majority of them regarded providing oral sex as a

mandatory feature of the most fleeting sexual encounter, they rarely received, or expected

to receive, oral sex in return. (Several rejected the idea of cunnilingus as embarrassing and

worried that their vaginas were “ugly, rank, unappealing.”)

Some of the misery of teenage girls’ sexual experiences is attributable, 

Orenstein contends, to the “hookup culture” in which sex, “rather than being a

product of intimacy…has become its precursor, or sometimes its replacement.”

(Rates of female orgasm are much lower for casual encounters, she notes, than for

sex that takes place within committed relationships.) Another contributing factor,

she suggests, is the part that pornography now plays in determining normative standards of teenage sexual behavior. 

As one example of this, she points to the fact that most of her interview subjects 

had been dutifully shaving or waxing their “bikini areas” since the age of fourteen. 

(Rather like Ruskin, whose ideas about the naked female form are said to have been gleaned from classical statuary, 

modern porn reared boys expect female genitalia to be hairless.)

She also notes that, in the years since the Internet made hardcore porn widely accessible to

teenage boys, anal sex has become a more or less standard feature of the heterosexual

repertoire. (In 1992, only 16 percent of women aged eighteen to twenty our

had tried anal sex; today, the figure has risen to 40 percent.) Despite the fact that most girls report finding

anal penetration unpleasant or actively painful, they often, Orenstein claims, feel

compelled to be good sports and submit to it anyway. (According to one study she cites,

girls are four times as likely as boys to consent to sex they don’t want.) Among the girls

she interviewed, the most common reasons given for doing so were a fear of being

considered “uptight” and a desire to avoid “awkwardness.”

History has taught us to be wary of middle-aged people complaining about the mores of the young. 

The parents of every era tend to be appalled by the sexual manners of their

children (regardless of how hectic and disorderly their own sex lives once were, or still

are). There were some in the 1950s who were pretty sure that the decadent new practice of

“going steady” augured moral disaster. Both Sales and Orenstein have undoubtedly grim

and arresting information to impart about the lives of American girls. And neither of them

can be dismissed as a sexual puritan. (They are not troubled about teenagers leading active

sex lives, they assure us, only about the severely limited forms in which female sexuality is

currently allowed to express itself; they are not even against casual sex per se, just eager to

ensure that there should be, as Orenstein puts it, “reciprocity, respect, and agency

regardless of the context of a sexual encounter.”) Even so, neither of their books entirely

avoids the exaggerations, the simplifications, the whiff of manufactured crisis that we have

come to associate with this genre.

Both writers make rather invidious comparisons between the frenzied, romancefree

social lives of today’s young women and their own halcyon youths. Sales recalls walking back

from school with her ninth grade boyfriend to do homework together at her house. “The

point of being together was not to have sex, necessarily. It was to become intimate,” she

writes. Orenstein observes that her college experience was not about binge drinking

and hookups, but “late night talks with friends, exposure to alternative music and film, finding

my passions, falling in love.”

To use these sun dappled recollections of life before the iPhone as a way of pointing up the

misery of girls’ present conditions is a little misleading. To be sure, certain kinds of sexism

have been amplified—or perhaps transmitted more efficiently—in the Internet era, and

girls are now under pressure to present themselves as pliable sexual creatures at a much

earlier age than they have been in the past. But even in the faroff

1970s and 1980s, young women experienced their share of exploitation, abuse, 

and unsatisfactory sex. Witness the feminist writer Ellen Willis drily reporting on 

the state of the sexual revolution in 1973:

For men, the most obvious drawback of traditional morality was the sexual scarcity—

actual and psychic—created by the enforced abstinence of women…. Sex was an

illicit commodity, and whether or not a sexual transaction involved money, its price

almost always included hypocrisy; the “respectable” man who consorted with

prostitutes and collected pornography, the adolescent boy who seduced “nice girls”

with phony declarations of love (or tried desperately to seduce them)….

Men have typically defined sexual liberation as freedom from these blackmarket

conditions: the liberated woman is free to be available; the liberated man is free to

reject false gentility and euphemistic romanticism and express his erotic fantasies

frankly and openly…. Understandably, women are not thrilled with this conception of

sexual freedom.

If the good old days were never as good as both writers are wont to imply, the dark days of

our present era are not quite as unremittingly desperate either. Notwithstanding the vicious

influence of pornography, social media, and Miley Cyrus, contemporary girls still manage

to have high school boyfriends; some of them even get around to watching alternative

films at college. Fifteen year olds may go online to learn how to perform fellatio, but they

also post fearsome rebukes to boorish boys on Facebook and have lengthy debates on

Twitter about whether or not Kim Kardashian is really a good “role model.” Girls use

editing apps to whiten their teeth in their selfies and fret about the size of their “booties,”

but they also celebrate the sororal power of “girl squads” and attend Nicki Minaj concerts

to hear the rapper sermonize on why a woman should never be financially dependent on a


ales portrays social media as an irresistible and ubiquitous force in the lives of young

women. All of the girls in her book, regardless of their socioeconomic background or

individual circumstances, are presented as being equally in thrall to their phones and

computers. Some are queen bees, most are drones, but all are trapped in the social media

hive. None of them appears to have a single cultural resource or pursuit outside of its

ambit. (The one exception is a young woman who doesn’t own a smartphone—but that’s

because she’s homeless and itinerant.) Is this an accurate representation of social media’s

utter dominion, one wonders, or a reflection of Sales’s rather narrow line of questioning?

(If you gathered up two hundred young women and asked them exclusively about their

pets, you could probably write a shocking exposé of the outsized role that domestic

animals play in the lives of American girls.)

Orenstein offers a rather more nuanced and measured account of the way girls live now,

but she too has a tendency to underestimate the heterogeneity of teenage culture and the

multiplicity of ways in which girls engage with it. At the start of her book she notes that

the meanings of cultural phenomena are complex. Selfies are neither simply “empowering”

nor simply “oppressive,” and wearing a short skirt is neither just “an assertion of

sexuality” nor just “an exploitation of it.” Better, she suggests, to think of these issues in

terms of “both/and.” Yet more often than not, she ignores this advice and opts for the

reductive language of “might seem, but is actually.” Thus, Beyoncé may appear†to be an

inspiring, powerful figure, but she is actually†“spinning commodified sexuality as a

choice.” Girls may think†they’re powerful when they look hot, but in fact, “‘hot’ refracts

sexuality through a dehumanized prism regardless of who is ‘in control.’”

Orenstein is most convincing when she addresses the passivity, the “concern with pleasing,

as opposed to pleasure,” that characterize her interview subjects’ approach to sex. Young

women’s propensity to give male satisfaction priority over their own is not a new

development, but Orenstein is surely right to be indignant about how little has changed in

this regard over the last fifty years. Her belief that new, stricter definitions of consent on

college campuses are a step toward establishing “healthy, consensual, mutual encounters

between young people” is perhaps unduly optimistic. Setting aside the question of whether

it is useful or fair to apply the bright line of “yes means yes” to sexual situations that tend,

by her own admission, to be blurry and complicated, the new college codes assume a

female confidence, a willingness to challenge the primacy of men’s sexual wishes, that

many of Orenstein’s subjects have specifically demonstrated they lack. Making young men

more vigilant about obtaining consent and discouraging their tendency “to see girls’ limits

as a challenge to overcome” is no doubt essential, but if young women are still inclined to

say “yes” when they mean “no”—are more willing to endure unwanted sex than to risk

being considered prudish—the new standards of consent would seem to be of limited


Far more interesting and persuasive are Orenstein’s recommendations for revising the

American approach to sex education. In place of the failed “abstinenceonly”

programs (that have used up $1.7 billion in government funding over the last thirtyfive

years) she proposes offering classes that frankly address all aspects of teenage sexuality, including

female pleasure. (Even the most comprehensive sex education classes currently on offer in

high schools fail to mention the existence of the clitoris, she notes.) In addition to candid

discussions of “masturbation, oral sex, homosexuality, and orgasm,” this new sex

education curriculum would offer guidance on how to make decisions and to “selfadvocate”

in sexual encounters.

The idea of encouraging girls to speak up for themselves—of promoting their ability to ask

for what they want and to refuse what they don’t—seems an eminently sensible one.

“Assertiveness training” for women has gone out of fashion in recent years. Indeed much

of the recent discourse about girls and sex has tended to reinforce rather than to challenge

the idea of female vulnerability and victimhood. It would be a salutary thing to have some

old school feminist pugnacity injected back into the culture.

"I would no more be a Master than a slave. It does not conform to my idea of Democracy." Abraham Lincoln 1856.