‘Hot’ Sex & Young Girls


Zoë Heller reviews Nancy Jo Sales's American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers and Peggy Orenstein's Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape in the NYRB:

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, romance-free 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 hook-ups, 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 far-off 1970s and 1980s, young women experienced their share of exploitation, abuse, and unsatisfactory sex.

More here.