Last Monday, I went to hear Peggy Orenstein speak on her new book Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. In her talk and her writings, Orenstein poses a question: “What happens after yes?” We, as a society and specifically as a college campus, have put an emphasis in recent years on consent. We have MARS, SHAPE and the Women’s Center who all define consent as a knowing, active, voluntary, present and ongoing “yes.” But none of them tells us what comes after yes. Orenstein boldly states “consent is a low bar.”
And damn, is she right.
Consent is mandatory. Without it, sex isn’t sex; it’s rape. But after yes, sex should be amazing, and no one is teaching young women how to make that happen – not parents, not peers, not sex ed and definitely not porn.
This piece is not a plea to diminish the amount of time we spend discussing sexual assault and teaching prevention. In fact, I think there should be more mandatory dialogue on the subject, especially a space where people are not just saying what they think they are supposed to say. Rather, I want to talk about the discrepancy between genders when it comes to their conceptions of and relations to sex and “loving yourself.” Think back to your high school sex education. Women get the enthralling opportunity to learn about our menstrual cycles; we sure as hell didn’t learn about clitorises, let alone that masturbation is healthy and natural. Meanwhile, as the New York Times reports, for boys “puberty is often characterized in terms of erections, ejaculation and the emergence of a near-unstoppable sex drive.” Peers and societal messages then add to that by encouraging sex and porn, while expecting chastity and purity from women.
This imbalance has led me to frustrating experiences with sex in the past. It’s not instant, sometimes it hurts and, frankly, it’s fucking hard (pun intended). When I say this, I am mostly talking to the ladies out there. I became frustrated because, to me, having sex was not as straightforward as I had been taught it was for men. I believe I may have said, “The wind blows and they get hard.” Now, by no means is this a universal truth; this is a way we have characterized our country’s horny teenagers, and it is evident in our own Northwestern community.
For example, I was sitting around with some buddies from the sailing team last Wednesday night discussing pornography. Of the males in the room, all had watched extensive amounts of porn, whereas the women had either never seen porn or seen it maybe once. What I figured out was that we were expressing more than just our porn consumption habits, or lack thereof; we were hinting at our comfort with and frequency of masturbation. The gender divide in those regards is massive. It is evident on this very campus, but it starts way before we march through the Arch. It begins in those high school health classes.
I have the privilege of being a Peer Health Educator, which means I teach ninth and tenth graders in Chicago Public Schools about their mental, physical and sexual well-being. Last week we had our second workshop on sex. A large portion of the class was spent answering anonymous questions from the students. We started with, “Isn’t the first time supposed to hurt?” As an educator, I told them no, while as a woman I couldn’t help but think how sad the question itself is. Though a common sentiment and, unfortunately, a reality, this imbalance will always make me upset. Because, somehow, by the time they are 15, we have convinced an entire gender that the act of sex is not for them. Fortunately, I had the rare opportunity to set the record straight. I was able to tell this classroom that sex should not be painful. (“Unless,” of course, “you’re into that,” a student, Dash, corrected.) And that masturbation could be the key to good sex, because it’s a low-pressure way to know what you like.
This week is Sex Week and to honor it I propose a few things:
- A survey: Do you masturbate? (allow to put gender, sexual orientation, frequency). Start with this one.
- A call to action: the masturbation gap is real, people. Talk about it.
- A word to my fellow women: If you don’t find yourself satisfied with sex, try doin’ it for yourself. Buy a vibrator, or don’t. Play some music, or don’t. Watch some porn, or don’t. If that is too big of a jump, then take a smaller step toward understanding yourself. Look up some diagrams, and not just the ones that look like a “ram’s head,” as Orenstein says. Grab a mirror, find some good overhead lighting and figure out what you got going on down there. It may seem silly, but so be it. Orgasms should be had by all who want them. It might just take a bit of inspection and introspection first.
Enjoy your Sex Week and happy masturbating!