Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein (Harper, 2016) 301 pages

SAG Orenstein

Last time, I looked at Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls, so this will be a good comparison of books dealing with similar content read more or less back-to-back. I have to say, I liked Orenstein’s breezy style a lot more than Sales’ more formal and “this is really a serious issue” approach. Also, as I mentioned, Sales’ book has chapters organized by age, from 13 to 19, which suggests boundaries that, in my experience, are more in the eye of the beholder than deeply embedded in reality.

I read this book because I liked Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter book from a few years ago. Here, the author, as parent of a young girl, examines the whole “Disney princess” culture and the potential negative effects this “little girl as royalty” might have on girls as they grew up.

Orenstein’s book has chapters organized by theme. So one chapter investigates whether girls today are encouraged to consider themselves as sex objects (only when they want to be, the chapter title suggests) while another explores if the term “virgin” has any meaning when sexual activity, even for very young teens, is much more adventurous that it was not too long ago.

Instead of an age progression based on social media and technology use, Orenstein uses conversations with girls of many ages (but still mainly teens) to structure chapters revolving around sex, from hookups to coming out at a young age as a lesbian to friends and parents. Orenstein does not form judgments often, except perhaps when it comes to the role of alcohol in campus rape scenarios. She doesn’t moan when girls report that being known as a “prude” or a “virgin” might be just as shameful as being called a “slut” (p.3).

In fact, the book begins with a plea on the part of a well-endowed high-school girl that it should not be her (and other girls’) responsibility to “dress to control the boys” (p.9). Why should it be? she asks. Why isn’t the school and the boy’s parents doing more to have boys control themselves? It seems a pertinent question when 100% of girls report being sexually harassed (p.11) and most girls have resorted to wearing shorts under their school uniform skirts because the boys will not refrain from grabbing at the hems and lifting them up. Why aren’t boys encouraged in ads and on TV to wear tight shorts and expose their midsections in freezing weather (p.12)?

As Orenstein points out on p.14, Bruce Jenner, covered in Olympic sweat, used his body, but Caitlin Jenner, covered by a corset from “Trashy Lingerie,” displayed it. And many times, what girls are encouraged to do is to use their bodies to please boys, through sexual activity. Girls in middle school will strip on Skype for their boyfriends, because this remote display was one way to be a “bad girl” without the risks of “real sex” (p.23).

You can find the same kinds of perhaps surprising or even shocking statistics here as in Sales’ book: the new second base is masturbating the boy’s penis while he fingers the girl (p.47), 12-year-olds routinely ask health teachers if they should spit or swallow (p. 48), the concern about queefing (look it up: it was on South Park…p.63), girls are pressured to shave their public hair about the age of 14 (p. 67), and do on.

On the other hand, Orenstein does a very good job of dealing with the perils of date rape and campus drinking. She ties a lot of it in to the concerns about what the book calls “the number”…that is, how many sexual partners are too many (p.98). The book says that the average number of partners a girl has in college is seven. (p.105). But like many averages, a few really high or low numbers might skew the results.

This book goes places where the other book did not travel much. There is a long section on a “Purity Ball” where fathers take their daughters to dances and exchange vows of virginity until marriage vows are exchanged (p.84 on). Like the author, I got a bit of a queasy feeling about this strident display of rejecting all forms of intimacy. If there’s anything that perpetuates the view of a female as the possession of a man, it’s the idea that these girls have to be chaperoned by their fathers (or another close male relative) until they can be safely handed off their husbands (and later, their sons).

There are also long sections on women who have been raped (p.130) and gay sexuality (p.142). The age when girls came out as gay has dropped from about 25 in 1991 to 14-16 today (p.148). One issue I had is that Orenstein tends to split the stories up as she goes through her narrative, so a woman goes on a date on one page, gets drink ten pages later, then wakes up naked more pages later. Some schools have begun teaching “refusal skills” so that fewer women will have unwanted sexual activity (the FBI definition of rape) and still feel compelled to say (as the woman on p.197) to the boy, “Thanks, I had fun.”

The book ends with a frank discussion of how modern society is failing to give women and girls the tools they need to succeed in their relationships. Girls are still more likely to learn “what feels good” when they are touched not by themselves, but from someone else (p.205). There is more consideration in ordering a pizza for a couple (“Ok, you don’t like anchovies…”) than there is about sex (p.207).

Orenstein is not afraid of tangling her sex talk with politics. Once we decided to teach only abstinence in schools, we lost all chance of teaching our children to be responsible at the same time. We expect teens to break rules, but not the ones regarding the denial of their sexual natures (p.221).

On the other hand, I have a hard time agreeing with people that women who post naked photos are “empowered” by their sexuality. I say this because I think the female body has been so fetishized in modern America that an objective appreciation of the nude female form is all but impossible today. I think that a woman (or man, for that matter) should be able to walk down the street naked if they want too and not be at risk of any harm. But we are a long way from that, I think. At this point, I’ll be happy enough to hear about a boy covering a drunken girl with a blanket and staying with her until she sobers up.

American Girls by Nancy Jo Sales

American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Nancy Jo Sales (Knopf, 2016) 404 pages

AG Sales

I actually bought this book when it came out in February and read it sometime in March, I think. But for many reasons, it just percolated up to the top of the pile recently. One reason is that I wanted to talk about it in contrast to Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex, but that will have to wait until next time at the earliest.

I raised one daughter who is now a wife and mother, and my wife Camille teaches K-8 Art (yes, from kindergarten through 8th grade, and she’s watched many a child, boy and girl, grow up and mature along the way). So I didn’t really read this book to find out “all about modern girls” or whatever. I just wanted to see how an author’s perception of the role of social media in the lives of modern American teenage girls corresponded to my personal experiences and the tales I heard my wife and other teachers relate—I promise there will be no titillating details.

For those who came for the “secret lives” promise in the title, the main point the author makes is that teenage girls often live rich lives that remain hidden to their parents, although not necessarily to other parents or the authors of books on social media and teenage girls. I was much the same way when I was a teenager—horrified of my parents finding out something that my friends’ parents knew already—because they caught us doing it. 🙂

I did struggle a bit with the overall organization of the book. A 20-page introduction introduces the reader to the new world of social media in high school and on college campuses, mentioning well-known incidents of sexual and drinking photos posted at Syracuse and ASU. Although I Knew a bit about the problems of early teens “sexting,” a lot of the newer apps like Yeti were new to me. (By the way, in case you’re wondering, I already knew that Facebook was all but obsolete among teens in general, thanks to talks with my wife’s students. Why use anything your parents know well? Are you crazy?)

After the crash-course-social-media introduction, the book is organized into seven chapters spanning the years from 13 (naturally) to 19. A short conclusion chapter ends the book.

I found the structure a bit limiting in letting the reader try to fit together the anecdotes into a coherent whole. And I already knew that some girls in some places at 14 are way ahead of (or far behind) other girls in other places at 16 (although these differences have become more homogenized than a generation or two ago: thanks, MTV et al). If anything, modern social politics has delayed entry into adulthood until after college or beyond, and, as a result, marriage and children come later and later as well. I don’t have to read a book to tell you that many of the kids I went to high school with got married right out of high school (17-18). Only about 50% went to college, and that was in Westchester County in NY.

The rigid structure all but forces Sales into unacknowledged “themes” for each chapter. After all, girls in college at 19 don’t need to watch YouTube videos on how to apply eye makeup like they do at 13 (or 9, if you want to freak out a bit). I did compile a sort of informal list on Sales’ main concerns for each age group:

13: the tech itself. (How many “likes” did I get?) Girls in this chapter deal with 50-100 texts a day (sounds low to me). The Internet traffic is 35% porn, and most kid’s first exposure to on-line porn starts at 6 (p. 13: still the giggly-looky stage…but still), usually through an older sibling or by a Google search gone wrong. (I still recall being absolutely shocked that a middle-school’s computers had no porn blocker…I hope they do today). But no matter: the boys go directly to the girls with “Send noodz” texts, and the girls often produce their own porn just to have some measure of control (p.41). If you want shock, you can ponder the 12-year-old Australian girl’s “I Love COCK” shirt (p.49)

14: The theme here is “Appearance”…it’s all about clothes, makeup, and accessories. There is a lot of Internet celebrities and following them, imitating them, obsessing over them. Sometimes, the girls themselves ARE them. Page 83 has a nice image of a flummoxed dad helpless to understand his daughter’s Internet fame: she won’t do the dishes but she has 100,000 followers on YouTube?

15: The theme shifts to bullying (p.128). About 50% of girls need to “manage their reputation” and for the first time issues of gay/lesbian come along (p.140). Another topic is who-is-cheating-on-whom (all that built-up sexual tension has to go somewhere).  I have to say, bullying is one place where schools I know about are really alert. But stamping out a negative storm of shaming texts is always a problem. For the first time, we meet cutters and other forms of self-harm (p.169).

16: There theme here is “Love” in all its teenage…I was going to say “innocence” but by now it should be obvious there is more innocence on a reality show like Lock Up Raw than there is among teenage girls today. The book relates the 2013 incident in California (p.205 on) where “Uncle Jim” abducts Hannah Anderson. But the usual pervert story is stood on its head when the rescued Hannah, after Jim’s death, becomes an Internet star and brags of her sexual conquests (p.207-208). At 13-14, I think, girls are not often aware of their effect on boys and men (maybe especially men). By 16, however, most know just what they are doing.

17: Love is so 16-ish, don’t you think? As we phase out of high school and into college, the theme is now dating (or rather, the lack thereof) and hooking up. Yes, why date when you can look at a hot guy online and have sex that night, or afternoon, or whenever? And if he doesn’t call, well, why would you want him to, silly? Free love has always been around (p.233), so what’s all the fuss if some of us like it?

18: Now we confront drunk sex and the rape culture. I don’t need to say much here: the case of the California swimmer from Stanford is all over the news. What should be the punishment for fingering a passed-out girl? Should he get points (as someone said) for “not having raped anyone before”? All I can say is it’s as bad as they say.

19: A sobering look at STDs and the risks all this sex talk and action might involve. I have to admit I found the last two chapters a bit depressing (not that Hannah was really uplifting).

So what’s Sales’ conclusion? Well, whether we’re “misunderstood youth” or their well-meaning elders, the author points out that we all manage to grow up. What we want, in the end, is some feeling of intimacy with someone special. The means might change, but as long as the end is satisfying to the partners, people will be all right.

Maestra by L. S. Hilton

Maestra by L. S. Hilton (Putnam, 2016) 309 pages

M Hilton

I read this novel because I know L. S. Hilton as Lisa Hilton, non-fiction author who wrote books about Queen Elizabeth and other Medieval queens. I almost bought one, but didn’t, picking up a history of the Plantagenet dynasty instead. So why is Lisa Hilton, historian, now L. S. Hilton, “erotic” novelist? Probably for the same reason that Harry Turtledove, Byzantine historian (I have his translation of the Chronicle of Theophanes) became the award-winning novelist of alternate histories of WW II: because that’s where the money and fame are. At least Harry kept his name and personal history, while Hilton seems intent to disown any of that intellectual person she once was.

Why? Well, Turtledove’s former life was a good platform for his historical novels, although I wonder how much a deep knowledge of Byzantium had to do with understanding how the history of modern Europe might have played out if a few things had changed. But if what you are writing, as the New York Post said (proudly displayed on the Amazon page) is an “erotic novel [that] makes Fifty Shades look like the Bible”…well, you might want to keep those two careers separate. (I doubt anyone at the Post is familiar with how salacious the Bible actually is…you hear me, Lot?)

Also, if you look at the photo of Hilton on the end flap, that woman looks much more like the jet-setting serial killer in the novel than a history geek (although she is almost 42, the image on the book reveals that she is very well preserved). And when it comes to loving sex, no one can doubt that Hilton began laying the groundwork for an eventual titillating best-seller almost 10 years ago: see her article in the Guardian from 2007.

By the way, the title Maestra comes from the feminine form of “maestro,” meaning a teacher or someone of consummate skill, usually in the field of music. In Italian, oddly, the term maestro is used for both male and female.

Now, about the book itself, which is the first of a promised trilogy. I found the idea of a psychopath who kills and screws her way to fame and fortune intriguing, not in the least because every other female (and many of the males) in the book is either a vapid moron or fodder for the maestra to manipulate and conquer. But I found the sex a bit forced, if done with athletic vigor and sometimes drug-induced enthusiasm. To me it was more a curiosity than erotic (do people really do that? I guess so…but no thanks…maybe I’ll just wait outside).

The narrator, Judith Rashleigh, starts out as an assistant at a London art house, the kind that acquires art at an estate sale, cleans it up and appraises it, and then auctions it off so that international drug dealers can launder their money…I mean, so that discriminating rich people can enjoy fine artwork. But because Judy can’t get enough sex, she’s also a hostess at an upscale champagne bar, the ones where the good stuff costs 3000 pounds…but who cares, because the bank I work for is paying my business expenses, right?

Judy is apparently the only person who wants to better herself (she is tired of working for people who don’t have her Oxford education – as Hilton does – but who come from better families). Judy tries to be good until she stumbles onto a plot to sell a “school of” painting as the real deal (a Stubbs). She decides to celebrate her freedom by talking a client into taking her and a friend to the French Riviera, where the girls manage to administer an overdose to their sugar daddy. This event somehow inspires Judy to become a serial killer and pass herself off as one of the vacuous rich that flit on yachts between France and Italy and Spain as the whim strikes them.

Now, I surely applaud people who want to better themselves and become famous novelists after a series low-paying non-fiction books (ahem). But of course you can succeed by killing everyone and anyone who stands in your way. Especially if every coincidence and messy step with the cops and the mob happens to break your way. The trick is to do it while still playing by the rules. You can always cut the Gordian Knot, sure, but everybody with Alexander the Great could have done that.

This is the psychological thriller equivalent of the zombies who, when they chase others, run like the wind, but when they chase the heroes, stagger with leaden feet and stumbling gait. One or two coincidences and betrayals I could take, but by the third or fourth occasion of just-in-time escapes or great fortune, I started shaking my head and longing for a good evaluation of Queen Elizabeth among the rulers or her day.

No matter who old Judy shoots, stabs, poisons, or strangles, she is always one step or more ahead of those corrupt authorities who are, after all, as evil in their own way as our dear maestra. Probably more so, don’t you think? Because they’re supposed to be good guys, a claim Judy never makes for herself.

I did come away with an enriched vocabulary and a better sense of modern female fashion and style. If I ever need to pass myself off as a hooker in downtown London or an ingénue on the Riviera, I’ll know just how to dress for the lap dance or the dinner party on the big boat (see pages 7-8, 20, 55-56, 68, 77, 96, 144, 124, 144, 161, 244, 264, 279, etc).

Now, a lot of the words used in the book I knew, but seldom encounter in my reading (like the colonic on p.33). Many you can figure out from context (like the gun with the silencer she keeps in her Parisian escritoire on p.284). But I don’t often scramble for the dictionary like I did here (a lot of them are special food/clothes words, but there will be a test): angostura (p.9), peruke (p.26), syllabub (p.41), “ruched her pashmina” (p.45), squiz (p.53), monoï oil (p.74), etiolated (p. 79, but 10 points off for repeating this odd word for “feeble” on p. 270), passarelle (p. 104), kurta (p.124), foulard (p.144), snaffle ([.167), raclette (p.201), and “perse” skin and “kir framboise” (both on p. 215).

One odd oversight, although it is absolutely essential to the plot: the Eden Roc in Antibes on the Riviera (NOT the one in Miami), once noted for taking only cash, now takes finer credit cards. (How do I know? My father might have been a coal miner, but I am not a peasant…)

Note to self: If I can arrange for an illustrated edition of this book with a hot blond (Hilton?) dressed up in all the outfits in the book, especially if I can show the monoï oil on her nether regions, I’ll be a multi-millionaire.

But I’ll probably pass on the next two books. I just could not think of old Judy as someone I wanted to succeed. Actually, I wanted someone she trusted to gut her like a fish, preferably during sex while wearing only her pashmina. Maybe that’s how she ends up…one can only hope.