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Peggy Orenstein on Sex, #MeToo, and the Current State of Feminism

“I think Emma González is the face of the new activism, and it’s such an amazing face”

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In 2008, when Hillary Clinton was first running for the American presidency, Peggy Orenstein worried what her daughter would learn from the misogyny directed at the then-senator during the election campaign. Clinton, Orenstein writes in her new collection, Don’t Call Me Princess: Essays on Girls, Women, Sex, and Life, represented “a reflection, a freeze frame of the complications and contradictions of female success.”

Today, you might expect that Orenstein would be a basket case. Instead, she is optimistic about what she sees as the new “ocean” of feminism. “For years it was so unfashionable to be a feminist,” Orenstein told me. “But these days, I feel like I’m in vogue!”

Orenstein began her writing career in 1982 as an intern for Ms. magazine. In the three-plus decades since, she has contributed to the New York Times Magazine and produced bestsellers such as Cinderella Ate My Daughter and Schoolgirls. In Don’t Call Me Princess, Orenstein revisits her writing from ten, twenty, and thirty years ago — revealing that many of the themes she wrote about then are relevant today.

I spoke with Orenstein about her thoughts on nonverbal consent, Twitter feminists, what porn teaches kids, and other topics. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

In a piece about raising your daughter, you wondered whether you were “surfing a washed-out second wave of feminism in a third-wave world.” How can you apply lessons from second-wave feminism today?

I was kind of two and a half, to be honest. Perched between those two, I could see both the value and the limits of both.

Obviously, there is so much that we take for granted now that second-wave feminism accomplished. Things like being able to have a credit card. Yet, there are systemic issues that we keep having to address in different ways for different generations, in kind of a spiral. Everybody’s pushing it a little further, adjusting it, in the way that makes sense for the time.

The branding is so much better [today]. Instead of civil rights and feminism, we have #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. They’ve just found each other. That is a sign of the times that we are in. But the serious issues beneath those little pippy hashtags are the same, and important. It’s so exciting to see people care again.

I think Emma González [who gave the speech after the shootings in Parkland, Florida] is the face of the new activism, and it’s such an amazing face.

Can you expand on that? Are we still in the third wave of feminism, which started in the Nineties? What defines the wave we’re currently riding?

We used to think we were “post-feminist.” That was really popular for a while. Now, I think we are post-wave. It’s just the whole ocean now. There’s no single wave that’s washing up anymore. It’s too big for that.

You have written that self-objectification is part of the rite of passage to adulthood for many teen girls. But where’s the line between self-objectification and exploitation?

Ha, if I could answer that. It’s an ever-shifting line, not only culturally, but for every woman. And it can change from moment to moment, depending on if you’re walking down a threatening street or in a room with your best friends. You can wear the same outfit. It can feel totally differently to you. There’s no easy answer. Every woman has to work that out for herself. And it changes at different ages, at different stages.

What was concerning me was merging the idea of sexiness and sexuality. Girls were very attached to this idea of expressing sexuality through appearance — yet they would say, “I’m proud of my body. I never feel more liberated than when I wear skimpy clothes.” But they weren’t enjoying or understanding their bodies’ responses, and sometimes even felt shame about their genitals, or other aspects of their body. So who cares how much you express your sexuality through appearance, if you have no relationship to your body’s responses?

Self-objectification is related to body distortion, to negative body image, to eating disorders, to self-harm, to depression, to lower sense of political efficacy, to depressed cognition, all these things. How empowering is that?

In the age of the internet, is our definition of “sexy” becoming narrower?     

I was just at a porn convention. And I was looking at the performers who were walking around. And 99.999 percent of them looked exactly the same. They had big, poofy, usually blonde hair. They had puffed up their lips beyond any normalcy. They had huge implants. They were wearing little, tiny, lacy undergarments or something see-through, five-inch heels, and had long painted nails. They were basically like the extreme of the definition of “hot.” I thought, “God, this is boring!”

And, “Why is this thing that requires us to so alter our appearance and be so hyper-aware of everything we eat, spend so much money on hair, and makeup, and clothing, and implants — why is that empowering?”

The increasing level of artificiality has changed, partly, because it could. Things didn’t exist in the past that allowed you to easily inflate your lips, and breasts, quite so readily. And people used to have [pubic] hair, too. But earlier generations thought the idea of self-objectification was something to push back against. For young women today, it’s sold as a form of empowerment, often the form of “self-expression.”

You write that there’s “unprecedented scrutiny towards our intimate parts as women” — yet many of the teen girls you interviewed are deeply ashamed of and embarrassed by these parts.

Women’s genital self-image, as a concept, is under siege. There are new norms around pubic hair and also an exponential rise in labiaplasty among young women. It shows that women feel that they have to prepare and that there’s a right and a wrong way for your vulva to look.

We learn that we’re supposed to feel shame. That we’re not supposed to touch ourselves. Fewer than half of girls fourteen to seventeen have ever masturbated — the only time they’re touching themselves is to shave off their hair. We learn there’s a taboo and a shame around our genitals, in a totally mundane way.

The women who were opening feminine sex-toy stores in the mid-Seventies were making an attempt to radically change that. I grew up in the wake of this. I learned that masturbation was a form of women’s power. That you’re responsible for your own orgasm and you have a right to it. That sex was political as well as personal.

I learned that from women a generation ahead of me — somehow my generation did not communicate that downward.

I’d also say we need to teach the importance of not just sex, but of what happens after sex.

I’m working on a book on boys and sexual and emotional intimacy because I feel like I only wrote one-half of an equation. It’s really important to actively include boys and men in that conversation. One thing that concerned me was how many girls, if I asked, “Do you masturbate?” would say, “No, I have a boyfriend to do that.” His idea of “sexual pleasure” was to rummage around inside of the woman like he was looking for a set of car keys. Especially in high school, there was a certain level of, let’s just say, ineptitude.

So you’re putting your pleasure in the hands of somebody else. Secondly, you’re giving it to somebody who doesn’t even know what they’re doing.

I was really interested, with [my book] Girls & Sex, in what was happening after consent. “I was not raped,” is a very low bar for a sexual experience — so what do we need to be talking to young people about? How can we talk with our partners to create a sexual experience that’s ethical, reciprocal, enjoyable — that doesn’t come out like “Cat Person”?

What do you think about the push for verbal consent? And the more complicated issue of nonverbal consent, cues, like what came up in the Aziz Ansari debate?

The thing with the Aziz Ansari case that I thought was so interesting was getting beyond whether it should or shouldn’t have been reported. I felt like there was so much going on and that what surfaced was something really ordinary, typical — the kind of script that both men and women run by that prioritizes male pleasure, that is kind of porn-y, that, for women, involves a lot of double-thinking, like, “Is this really happening? Do I want this?” This unwillingness to know what they know in a certain way, and fear of speaking about that.

Many people asked why Grace didn’t just get up and walk away. That’s easy to say to the outside of that dynamic — but we all know, as women, that there are many times when you feel a pressure that is cultural and bigger than you, and you don’t get up and walk away. Does that make what happened illegal? No, but it makes it unethical and unnecessary.

Even if it was unethical, I think this issue is complicated by the fact that this was an intimate story, and it was unclear whether Ansari did something that justified being publicly called out.

I remain agnostic about that. But in terms of what can happen from here, it is a tremendous opportunity to really have this conversation about what a mutual, reciprocal, communicative sexual relationship looks like and what the cultural scripts are that men run on and the cultural scripts that women run on, and the ways that those end up just being on completely different tracks and often disastrously so.

Could #MeToo ever go too far?

I don’t feel like we’re at that point. Any time you push something, people immediately say, “You’re going too far.” But we have so far to go on this. We expect a backlash — that’s inevitable. I don’t think you can fear it, though.

It’s going to happen regardless of what we do or don’t do. The entire decade of the Eighties was consumed with backlash. There were years where people would not be interested in what I wanted to write. Editors would not be interested in what I wanted to write, because they wanted something “contrarian.” What they meant by “contrarian” was a woman who would say the things that (some) men wanted to say but couldn’t, because it would make them look sexist.

Someone like Katie Roiphe? What’s your reaction to her argument that “Twitter feminists” are dominating the #MeToo discussion with an extreme, angry voice that leaves out opposing viewpoints?

Katie is kind of one of those contrarian women that I was talking about: “It’s just bad sex. Don’t be a baby. Suck it up.” That is a way to shut down discussion and interrogation of what’s going on in the dynamics of men’s and women’s lives. All those ideas about gender and power and equality and income disparity and violence and well-being — all of those things are contained in our relationship with the other sex. And that doesn’t mean that you walk around saying my marriage is political or whatever, but it’s there.

When you say it’s just bad sex, what does “just” mean? Why is that OK? Does it mean the person should be thrown in jail? Maybe not — but to say it’s no big deal, that’s wrong.

The danger of Twitter is that people pile on and destroy people. And that, that is real, and that’s not specific to the women’s movement — it can be a very toxic place. But I don’t think that what she’s saying is really correct.

You write about what porn — which can now be streamed — teaches young people about sex. What did you find?

In 2005, Pornhub came online. For the first time, you could stream porn — for free. You no longer needed a credit card. That meant that children had access to porn in a way that was unprecedented.

If it was on your computer or your phone, of course you’re going to look at it! On top of that, no parents, no schools, are having any conversations with teenagers about what a sexual relationship should look like. Only thirteen states require sex ed to be medically accurate. So [kids] turn to porn even though they know, on some level, that it’s unrealistic. They look to it as a guide, a script. One of the saddest things about it is that it makes it so you’ve lost the opportunity for imagination about what sexuality is, what sex could be like, what you dream of. It becomes this prescribed thing about what you see online.

When kids are starting to see porn when they’re eleven, particularly boys, they’re really learning arousal and release — before they masturbate for the first time, and they’re learning to masturbate with it. So they’re linking their sexuality to porn from the get-go. That becomes an issue when they go into a room with an actual person. It may be why millennials are having less sex. Why bother?

With girls, there’s a lot of pressure to “be the porn star” in the bedroom. To engage in acts that might not even feel good — because it’s more about how you look to somebody else than understanding your own desire and feelings.

You have a fourteen-year-old daughter. I’m sure you don’t control what she’s watching, so how do you talk to her about sex?

We talk about this stuff all the time. There’s a podcast by Jon Ronson called The Butterfly Effect about the impact of Pornhub — on people, on kids, everything. I talked to her about what he found, saying, “This is the impact on the performers, how they don’t make any money, they end up being exploited,” [etc.]. The argument has shifted from “porn is degrading to women” to “porn is harming boys’ ability to engage in a healthy sexual interaction.” That may be a more effective warning to young men than “it’s degrading to women” — which they usually don’t care very much about.

I always wonder: Why? Why is degradation of women the fantasy? I don’t get that.

It’s not like I was born able to have a conversation about porn with my fourteen-year-old. I had just as little vocabulary as anybody — I was forced to develop it. I have to get over my discomfort and qualms to do it, but you don’t get to pick and choose when you parent — you have to step up.

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