[img_assist|nid=2391|title=|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=150|height=225]“Any girl can look glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” – Hedy Lamarr
Young women today have it so much better when it comes to sex than we did… right?
Now and then, when talking about the population I work with and the work I do with them, I will hear or face women in their late thirties or older stating that now that we live in a post-feminist world here in the states, they’re shocked to hear that young women are struggling with sex and sexuality….well, just like we were. And some struggle even more.
Let’s get that post-feminist mishegoss out of the way first. I remember the first time — it was near the end of the 80s, which probably should have tipped me off to the fact that clearly, the end of the 80’s was indeed nigh — I ever heard someone use that phrase, as blithely as if they’d just said the earth were round. I wondered how the heck I missed the final end of sexism, patriarchy and gender inequality. Surely, if this were so, I’d have heard the long, whining wail of even just one of the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world?
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I’ve found the only conclusions I can ever come to when it comes to those who hold the idea that we’re post-feminist are that they must a) be feeling the membership they have on the other team is so valuable yet so tenuous that any sign of fraternization (as it were) with the enemy would bring their exile, b) that many women are simply either tired from the struggles of feminism or who see how tired other women have become and don’t want to be that worn out themselves, and/or c) be indulging in some seriously wishful thinking and have outrageously low expectations for equality.
I agree: it feels like we should be further along than we are, and should have to wait less long to get there. It feels like we — and certainly younger women than we — should be there already. But we’re not.
I can understand why it can seem like young women have it easier when it comes to sex and sexuality. Their access to many kinds of birth control and to abortion is certainly better than it has been for women in the past, even though that access has had limits imposed upon it in the last ten years and has, at times, been at serious risk. GLBT youth in the U.S., in so many ways, certainly have a more welcoming environment. Many teens and twentysomethings are have information on their bodies and their sexuality available to them which many women not only did not have as easily before, but more of that material available is also being penned by women, for women, and is even truly about women sometimes. Better support services are available for this generation when it comes to rape and abuse than even the generation right before them had, and cultural awareness about rape and abuse continue to increase. Positive and negative body image are things they hear about. Sex and exuality are discussed more openly and widely.
But all those benefits can also pose some not-so-beneficials, and some very real challenges. Young women now have some extra bags to carry that we before them may not have had to, or found quite so heavy, and either overflowing or vacant with scarcity everywhere we turned.
A majority of young American women today do grow up aware that no means no, and told that they have permission to say no. However, many grow up also experiencing that while no may mean no, they don’t always have an easy time saying it or feel the permission to. Too, many young women are more frequently, and at earlier ages — which for some is due to sexual development happening earlier historically than it ever has for women before — finding themselves in the position of responding to sexual invitations and situations. Statistically, the earlier young women become sexually active, the more frequently they report those very early experiences are coerced: saying no in a highly loaded situation, no matter what generation we belong to, tends to be something that is a lot more difficult the younger we are. As well, the younger women are when they become sexually active, the older their partners tend to be, and the less likely it is that contraception or safer sex practices are used.
When they can get past the no, past the maybe, and to the yes, that yes often tends to end in a question mark instead of an exclamation point. The "yes" to sex and sexuality I hear young women often express sounds like the way many of us who took other languages in high school and trying to speak them in the country of their origin in our later years. Like asking with a feigned confidence where the drivel is when we wanted to ask where the bathroom was. Too much of the time, that’s unfortunately what the yesses young women discuss sound like to me. ¿Dónde está la bana?
Sparing emergency contraception, there have not been any new advances in available birth control in the last decade: the female condom and the implant were released in the early 90’s, and even emergency contraceptive pills were given FDA approval ten years ago, though they’d already been around for some time. Mostly, we’ve added a couple new ways of delivering the same old hormones we already had. We’ve had no advances in non-hormonal methods, which is no small deal for teens who may not have access to hormonal methods, or who they may not be so great for, both in terms of their health and their ease-of-use for teens (the typical use rate for the pill drops nearly 10% for adolescents from the adult typical use rate). Too, the use of hormonal methods for menstrual suppression is becoming more popular. With more older women talking about how awesome not having a period is, women in their teens having a hard enough time already accepting the adult changes in their bodies get another message that those changes are as awful and gross as they feel. I’m starting to notice that much in the same way women my mother’s age have talked about how the advent of the pill could make it tougher for them to say no to sex (because "I’m worried I’ll get pregnant" stopped being such an easy out), some younger women seem to feel pressure from peers and partners to suppress periods for greater sexual accessibility to them.
Even EC is only so much of a great advance for them, since in the U.S. it remains out of reach of many women under the age of 18 who cannot buy it over the counter, and who face intense judgment from both their physicians and their pharmacists when they seek it out, and with less chutzpah to draw on to counter that. It also can sometimes result in those same sorts of pressures to provide sex to wanting partners my mother’s generation experienced with the popularity of the pill. While abortion access for women as a whole is indeed better, many people don’t know or forget that for many women under the age of 18, the same rules do not apply. Only three states outright allow ALL minors to consent to terminations. Six have no policy or law about minors and abortion. All the forty-one remaining states carry some restriction for teens adult women do not have. American girls and young women now have also come of age also strongly wedged into a culture war, which often makes making reproductive choices even more loaded for them than many of their older counterparts.
And whooooo doggy, that culture war, all by itself, also has no small effect on every aspect of their female bodies, sexuality, sexual choices as a whole, nor per how others view them. Let’s bear in mind most of us my age also did not grow up hearing about the virginity pledges on the same night we casually flipped the remote past an ad for Girls Gone Wild.
GLBT youth do have more and more avenues of support, greater visibility and every now and then, we seem to come close to getting some actual civil rights. But being visible’s not so fantastic when you’re visible in the middle of rural Alabama, when your boyfriend is only okay with your bisexuality if you’ll screw your best friend for his entertainment, and when you don’t adhere to the "right" ways of being queer in a heterosexist environment, which for many lesbian and bisexual young women, means things like presenting all your same-sex relationships as a sexual lark, never privileging girlfriends over boyfriends, and being sure that if you are going to "look gay," you look like an extra on the set of the L-word, not like you just came home from a rugby match. For trans youth, there is absolutely more awareness and more support, but still no evidence-based medicine on care for trans youth. That’s particularly problematic when some trans youth are also feeling peer pressures to transition earlier and earlier. A colleague of mine shared a story with me about a young trans client who, at 16, said how she needed to know how much surgery would cost because she’s planning it for when she’s 18. She then went on to say how that was "waiting forever" and how she’s "obviously going to transition later in life". I’ve heard similar feelings expressed by questioning women who feel they aren’t allowed time to question their orientation, but need to come all the way out as early as possible.
The Internet is, of course, the big newbie. Most of us had some good measure of time to get used to life without it, before the ever-increasing measure of input started to snowball. Most of them don’t remember a time without it. The Internet, and all its various tools and services, creates a whole host of new challenges, such as trying to figure out how to manage an online relationship and set boundaries in a space which feels as boundless as it is yet pretends to be private; where intimacy is all too easy to misrepresent or misunderstand or navigating the difference between the person you are offline and the persona you get more easy approval for online, especially if you up the ante with sex. The ‘net has changed the nature of their relationships not unlike the way that the steam engine, the car, postal mail, movie theaters, singles or gay bars, the telephone, or personals ads changed the nature of relationships in the past.
With the Internet, for many young women and men alike there exists a far greater and constantly replicating mass of pornography and other representations of sexuality and the body than most of us grew up managing. In our generation, your dad’s porn was something you most often tended to find after a very intentional expedition, not something that popped up in your face before you even had a single, self-compelled curiosity about sex.
In some respect, online pornography and other representations of sexuality have certainly helped diversify concepts of sexuality and what it might look like or feel like to be sexual, and younger women have very much been exposed to more diversity, and more women’s voices in this regard than many previous generations of women. However, it — like every other media — has also continued to more frequently broadcast from and for the lowest common denominator and they are inundated with an even greater volume of homogeneous and sexist sexual messages, beauty and sexual ideals and representations of sex from men and/or for men but dripping over with women in whatever mold they imagine into being for themselves. The feeling that sex needs to be about performance and one-upwomanship — and one young women often express feeling sex-as-competition is not merely between they and friends but they and professional sex performers — rather than personal expression seems to be growing, which is hardly surprising.
Even without the Internet, television alone is a much different critter than in days of yore. In 1985, that average television at home showed just under 19 channels. In 2007, the average home now received over 100 channels. So, even if nothing at all had changed when it comes to the content of television — and we know well it has — we know with absolute certainty that when young women today say that they are faced with pressures and mixed messages everywhere they look, they really aren’t kidding.
When we’re not talking about entertainment, but education, more information doesn’t always equal more knowledge. Yeah, they have more information and greater access to it. But more information is not always better information, nor information that’s really about them, which is accurate, information they can contextualize soundly or even know how to look for in the first place.
With so much available information in such a vacuum, navigating it all can sometimes leave young people feeling like they know less, rather than more. Very few young people have had education in determining credibility or bias in media, after all. Many, when reading, will tend to absorb emotional tonality first and facts second. Young women today are certainly no more savvy when it comes to filtering all of that media through a realistic lens: I’d actually argue that the majority of them are less able to do so. They have, after all, grown up in a culture in which the line between real and ideal, reality and reality media are as solid as a Slushee in August. And when it comes to sexuality, so much sexual information that is available is not only heterosexist, sexist and full of every other kind of -ist you can think of, it’s often intended for a group of people of a different age group, whose sexual issues tend to be different, and who often have better agency and resources as well as more experience with real-life sex and relationships to draw upon.
Speaking of more information, In the 80’s, home video recorders became widely available. Plenty of us likely had our own forays into creating media with them, whether that was a lip-synched video with friends or a videoptaped sexual escapade. But our home videos, even the most explicit of them, were unlikely to present anything close to the same possible risks of impact. We were not likely to find them broadcast to everyone else we went to school with in a matter of minutes, nor then to anyone around the globe who can pull up a page on YouTube. The cultural climate was such that any of us who had adventures in amateur quasi-porn for Beta back when were unlikely to find ourselves or a partner facing child pornography charges. While we may relate to the same possibility of being labeled a slut or a sexual victim, what we probably can’t relate to is hearing that in a chorus which spans the planet or having it put on our permanent criminal records. If you’ve not managed to be spared all the flurry about "sexting," you also know that the activity itself is something a lot of adults are having pretty forceful opinions about (with selective memory, it appears, about those home videos, those tape recordings or those polaroids), especially when the bodies onscreen are female.
All of this en masse exposure and dual celebration and damnation of exposure can result in many young women feeling an expectation to be exhibitionistic, even if that’s not part of their unique personality and nature. Even though it’s a bit of a given that we likely have some underreporting, exhibitionism is not something statistically found to be anything close to as common for women as for men, but you’d never know that if you only observed or listened to teens right now, nor would they.
In print, young women find themselves seeing women more and more commodified, with less on in far more places — and less to cover in the first place. The cult of thin is hardly shiny-new nor is it the first unhealthy beauty ideal we ever had, but I do think we can say it’s gotten more and more pervasive and extreme, and it is an ideal that has ten-year-old American girls trying to starve off womanhood before it can start. A bustle, a muscle or an hourglass daydream this isn’t.
Too, some of women’s new touted "choices," are entirely about not only appearances, but about conformity of appearance, and have resulted in young women facing new pressures. Labiaplasty, breast implants and other cosmetic surgeries, botox and pubic hairstyling have not only come on the scene and increased with every year, they have become increasingly normalized. From 2002 to 2003, the number of females younger than 18 who underwent breast augmentation tripled. So, young women feel an increasing normality and sense of what’s "natural" and the way so many older women continue to rag on their own normal bodies, go under the knife and talk up and glorify cosmetic surgery sure doesn’t help. Don’t even get me started on the way I so frequently hear young women talking about their vulval appearance, and how the push for cosmetic procedures has amplified those body image fears and insecurities.
Better support services are available for them with rape and other abuses, and the rate of rape in the U.S.was on a slow but steady decline since around 1990 when it peaked, though the rate we’re at now is higher than it was in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The rates of sexual, physical and emotional abuses within young adult relationships have been increasing, and plenty of young women have been reared in families or communities where some or all kinds of abuse are still considered "just the way it is." Rape also remains something more women suffer under the age of 18 than those over 18. Plying women with substances as a means to rape them is hardly new, but the date rape drugs of the last decade or two pack a much bigger punch than a shot of gin or a ‘lude, especially when young women already have alcohol or other recreational drugs in their systems. It’s worth mentioning that the growing acceptability of friendships between the sexes, which in so many ways is obviously a positive, can be not-so-positive when a pack of guys who you thought were your "friends" turn out to be anything but, and you didn’t ever see it coming.
Many young American women (as well as young men, which is certainly an issue) also seem to be going without other responsibilities in life which can help prepare them for managing the responsibilities which sex requires. Plenty do not work part-time in high school, do not get themselves to and fro to places by foot, bike or bus, nor have many household responsibilities. For some, things like cars, cell phones or computers aren’t joint purchases or items earned by some kind of show of needed responsibility, but gifts. A great many young people here aren’t leaving home at 18 anymore (and for those who do, sometimes that means going right into romantic cohabitation or marriage, rather than living alone or with platonic roomies), nor do some feel any impetus to do so anytime soon.
While all that may seem like a blessing — how lucky the ones who are so comfortable are! — working out responsibility for the first time when things like pregnancy, STIs and the whole of your heart are on the line without having had practice with things which pose far less risk and are far less loaded? Not so lucky, after all.
The very expectation that young women today should or do have it so much easier, in and of itself, can be a pressure. Many older women expect younger women to be apt at managing all of these issues and more in ways that they themselves were not and may still not be. The notion that younger women should have better sex lives from minute one then their older counterparts — especially if their older counterparts have conditioned them with the same old ideas about sex and women’s place in it — can be a lot to put on them, as can the idea that things like permission to use to birth control, a greater cultural awareness of the clitoris and some measure of sex education will somehow be all they need to have healthy, happy and satisfying sex lives. The idea that because things are so much better for them they need less help, support and information, however need more controlling, is a serious doozy. (Oddly enough, a similar kind of pattern emerged around 100 years ago with girls in the working classes who were beginning to exhibit a freedom with sexuality their mothers did not have. This is the part where we all sing along to "Everything Old is New Again.")
There’s one other thing, though, which many young women also don’t have the benefit of in this arena which many of us also did not, many of our mothers did not, many of our grandmothers did not. It might even be the most important thing. It’s certainly the easiest to remedy.
That’s ongoing, nonjudgmental support, ideally coming from a woman in their life who listens at least as much as she talks. From someone who doesn’t so much show up to "tell it like it is" (read: tells it like she, herself, has experienced it and judged it, and as she, herself, feels is best for others based on her own subjective experiences), but to listen to what it’s like, reflect back and offer support, acceptance, respectful guidance, compassion, information — which they may have to look up anew, as many rely on what they know about sex from only their own lives or outdated information — and no small measure of love. In the essay I wrote for Yes Mean Yes, I talked about this a bit. There are obviously aspects of making thing better for young women that we just can’t provide on our own steam. We can keep working towards them as a collective (which may well be helped by never, ever uttering the term "post-feminist" again, not until after the fat neoconservative sings, anyway), but we can’t often do a whole lot more than slowly chip away at the albatross at hand.
However, we most certainly can earnestly seek to connect with the younger women in our lives and do them the justice of not presuming they have it any easier than we, our mothers or or grandmothers did. We can allow them the same kind of gradual learning curve any of us should be allowed, the same feelings of injustice and frustration, the same occasional notion that things which are substandard are super-great, the same stumbling journeys, the same irritation with all the things which are NOT easier and those which are tougher. We can never tell them that they’re lucky when they’re in a state of crisis or confusion, or that they should be grateful they don’t have it as bad as we did. We can do our best to be sure we’re not making their teenage or twentysomething sexual life and self some sort of Valhalla because ours either was or was not, or because our own sexual lives and selves at our age are or are not as great as we’d like, and check our own feelings, motivations, judgments and choices if and when we are saying there are things we haven’t got but they do. We can recognize — ideally, within earshot of younger women — that we still have our own evolving to do in this arena, our own changes and improvements to seek out, our own revolutions hardly completed, and that we don’t expect them to have it any more together than we do ourselves.
We can do our best to never presume that what might look glamorous is anything but, nor that the person standing still and looking stupid is not the one being looked at, but the one (not) doing the looking.
This piece is part of the blog tour for the anthology Yes Means Yes!