When it comes to sex, what’s normal? And what is popular culture, including romantic fiction, communicating to young women about what’s expected of them sexually?
Sometimes a topic strikes me and ends up in the newspaper in my opinion column. This one will probably wind up there eventually. For now, the topic is rolling around in that cavernous space known as my “cranium,” knocking aside cobwebs and scaring bats as it goes. While I realize this may be a controversial topic, I’m okay with controversy — provided everyone involved is civil and respectful of others.
When I was growing up, I saw the covers of Playboy magazines (and, yes, more than a few centerfolds, too), as well as Cosmopolitan and other women’s magazines. I even managed to sneak a Playgirl into the house when I was about 15 so that I could satisfy my curiosity about male bodies. What did I learn from this (besides the fact that penises really can be comical)?
Here are some of the lessons I took away. Maybe some of them are familiar to you:
- Women must be sexy to be worthy of male attention.
- Being sexy means being pretty, having big breasts and being good in bed.
- You must be sexy and good in bed — but don’t be a “slut.” It’s up to you to figure out how that balance works.
- There are tricks you can use to be good in bed. Cosmo has new ones each month. They sound a lot like the old ones from last month. (But what do 15-year-old virgins know anyway?)
- You must have an orgasm or your lover will think there’s something wrong with you. (If he can’t get it up, there is also something wrong — with you.)
- Vibrators will help you learn how to have an orgasm, but don’t let your boyfriend know — and don’t become addicted to vibrators because real women have real orgasm with men.
The messages I got as a teen still float around in popular culture, perhaps with sharper edges than they had back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. There were teenage girls at my sons’ high school who’d already had breast implants. Talk about pressure! Bulimia, anorexia... It’s all symptomatic of a culture that tells young women they must fit a certain standard of beauty in order to be worthwhile. And that’s perhaps the least of it.
Thanks in part to the Internet and the easy availability of even extreme porn, teenagers probably see it all before they do it all. And when they read romance, they can choose books that range from mild to wild, describing acts from hand-holding to double penetration and hardcore BDSM. That’s a huge change from when I first started reading romance.
The question that I found myself pondering is this: What are we normalzing for young women these days?
If I were 17 and hopped onto Redtube.com or some other free porn site, I could watch hentai rape, anal sex, spanking, oral sex, multiple partner sex, and a whole range of bizarrely acrobatic sex and kink that doesn’t even look fun (at least to me).
Some of this is clearly vanilla: vaginal sex, oral sex, mild bondage. Much of the rest of the world is okay with anal sex. But caning? Three or four or five partners at once? Rape machines? Huh?
If I saw these things as a young woman today, would I come away expecting my boyfriend to videotape us? Would I expect myself to consent to being tied up? Spanked? Shared? Would I wonder whether it’s okay to not be a double-stuffed blonde? Would I feel guilty if I didn’t want to have anal sex?
The subculture of leather masks, chains and orange gag balls used to a subculture. I didn’t know about it until I was married and had kids. (I learned about it from the film Pulp Fiction, believe it or not.) But teenagers today see it all.
Though I think the porn industry is the most extreme in what it attempts to depict as normal or desirable sexual behavior, romance novels have certainly stretched to accommodate more, too. I’m fine with that, over all. I’m not standing in judgment of people who like to read or watch hardcore erotic materials. As long as whatever you do in real life is consensual and involves human adults, it’s your business.
All I’m doing here is asking this question: What are we as a society encouraging young women in particular to believe is normal or expected of them when they cross the threshold into sexual activity?
It’s an issue that concerns me because, as a journalist who has built my career around advocating for women, I want to know that young girls are coming into sexual maturity in a healthy way that ultimately leads to happiness and satisfaction. (Note that I haven’t said a thing about abstinence or marriage. It’s not a choice between celibacy until marriage or having sex with 15 guys and a gazelle. There is a happy, healthy balance in there somewhere, I think.)
I’m a journalist, so I’ve never been one to advocate government censorship or hiding nudity from children. When people get all ticked off because a mother breastfed her baby in public, I roll my eyes and call them silly. Breastfeeding is normal and natural. Bodies are normal and natural. Sex, for that matter, is normal and natural.
Is being a double-stuffed blonde — or redhead or brunette — normal and natural? What about being beaten with a belt? Or, as the creators of hentai seem so fascinated by, being raped by mutant multi-tentacled plants from outer space?
The one thing I’ll say about romance novels, is that in most cases the story revolves around love. And that’s perhaps the one thing we as a society don’t emphasize enough — the connection between love and sex. Young women who read romance, even BDSM romance, are going to get the message that love is special. And that’s a good thing.
Okay, so those are my thoughts. I’ll step out of the way now and list to what you have to say.
And I can only imagine the kind of views I’m going to get from people searching the internet for some of those more X-rated terms...