Calling it like it is

Calling it out

I am dangerously addicted to TED talks. Yesterday during an indulgent ‘TED session’ (it was a national holiday here in UK), I was listening to What Young Women Believe about their Own Sexual Pleasure by writer Peggy Orenstein, author of the Girls & Sex and Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Orenstein outlined worrying research in which she found (and I hope I paraphrase this correctly), that whilst girls feel encouraged to engage in sex, they do not necessarily expect to enjoy it.

Those questioned were, in Orenstein’s words, “smart strong women”, of college age in the U.S., yet it appeared that in significant numbers they expected to provide pleasure to men (lesbian relationships turned up different results), but not necessarily receive pleasure in return, and did not have a sense of ‘deserving’ sexual enjoyment.

Orenstein also expressed dismay that half of those she spoke to removed their pubic hair in order to “feel cleaner”, even to avoid “disgusting” their male partners. She found too a growing trend (though small numbers undergo the procedure) for labioplasty amongst teens and young women, noting it to be “the fastest growing cosmetic surgery among teen-age girls”. Labioplasty is a plastic surgery procedure to alter the labia minora and the labia majora, i.e. the folds of flesh surrounding the vulva, usually to neaten them, make them less obtrusive. Specifically, Orenstein noted a procedure called “the Barbie” aimed at giving the ultimate ‘smooth’ (literally ‘plastic’) look – sometimes at a risk to the woman’s own sexual sensation.

Comments under the piece suggested (though entirely anecdotally) that this expectation of pleasuring men but not expecting to be pleasured in return, and the desire to neaten and sanitise the female genital area, had grown more common – i.e. worse – since the 1970s.

Let’s talk openly

In response, Orenstein proposes we should speak more frankly to girls about sex. Encourage girls to name their sexual parts properly rather than leave them unspoken and ‘unspeakable’. The same for their normal bodily functions, such as monthly periods, and see masturbation as a natural process – as we tend to do with boys. And present sex as something women enjoy. This happens, Orenstein notes, in more sexually ‘open’ societies, such as in the Netherlands.

A wider issue

Orenstein does not refer to pornography in her talk; however, I wonder if lot of these trends are a partial legacy of male-orientated pornography. That is to say porn made for what 1970s feminist theorist Laura Mulvey called “the male gaze”, presenting a ‘perfect’ idea of the slim, neat female form, present for the gratification of men.

I wonder too whether erotica has a role to play – not only in a potential source of the problem, but as a solution to it. I am not suggesting erotica be aimed at under-age girls… Although Young Adult (YA) fiction may have a role in presenting affirmative body types and approaches.

No, it’s later on I am concerned about – because those girls will mature into women, potentially carrying the same negative and disempowered ideas about sex. In 2016 a survey conducted by the Eve Appeal (Gynaecological Cancer Research Charity) of British Women, for example, found 44 per cent were unable to identify the vagina on a medical illustration of the female reproductive tract. Sixty-one per cent could not identify their vulva (i.e. the area of the clitoris and labia). The whole discussion of ‘private parts’ appeared to embarrass many women. Eve Appeal’s concern was primarily medical, but this uncovers an issue that can be widened to sexual awareness and satisfaction.

Female-positive erotica

So how could erotica possibly help? Even where it is female-centred, erotica can have a poor reputation. So-called ‘mommy porn’ (itself used as a dismissive term) often does appear to favour portrayal of the tractable and submissive female with the dominant ‘alpha male’ – though it may also be said that if being sexually submissive is an informed and mutually satisfying choice, there is nothing wrong with that.

But not all erotica follows that pattern. It does not have to be that way. And this cuts to a key reason why I myself write erotica. Because I believe erotica for women should make us feel empowered. It should present stories and examples of women enjoying sex on their own terms. The women portrayed may be ‘older’ (i.e. older than their early twenties!), may be un-skinny, Hell, they may even (horrors) retain their pubic hair! But all should know – or come to know – that sex is for them to enjoy.

As I have argued in a previous post (here), erotic writing should also be unafraid to be forthright about naming sexual parts. Tastes and preferences for ‘steam levels’ in erotica vary, but I personally have seen enough bashful euphemisms. And perhaps if we adult women were more positive and frank about sexual matters, we could help the younger female generation grow up to be the same.

Female-positive erotica does not form ‘the’ single answer to the issue, but I think it could be one of them.


TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a media organization which posts its lectures free online, on a huge variety of topics by a wide range of speakers. You can access them here, but if you haven’t listened to any yet be warned: it’s hard to stop at just one.

What Young Women Believe about their Own Sexual Pleasure by Peggy Orenstein, 2016, accessed 02 April 2018.

Eve Appeal,

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