Peggy Orenstein has a new book out: Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape
, an excerpt of which can be found here
. Gay Talese is also about to publish a new book, this one about Gerald Foos, a hotel owner who spied on his guests and kept a detailed journal of their sexual experiences. Talese has written about it here
In general, Orenstein found that straight young women in the United States find themselves in very asymmetrical encounters focused on male pleasure (for instance, young women seldom experience orgasms with their partners, and they often give oral sex but generally don't receive it). Here's Orenstein, in a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross
GROSS: Some of the girls you spoke to were lesbians. And some of them figured that out while they were in high school, some of them knew before that. So if you take gender inequality out of the equation as you do when you have a same-sex couple, what were some of the shifts in, say, you know, pleasure and reciprocity in a sexual relationship?
ORENSTEIN: There was a big shift. So one of the things research shows about college-age women and college-age men is that women are more likely to use their partner's pleasure as a yardstick of their own satisfaction. So they'll say he was satisfied, so I'm satisfied, whereas men are more likely - not all men, but men are more likely to use their own satisfaction as a measure of their satisfaction.
That does not change when girls go into relationships with other girls. They're still very concerned (laughter) about their partner's pleasure, so no surprise - girls are much more likely to have orgasms when they're in same-sex relationships or same-sex encounters.
And what they would say to me were things like - that they felt they could go off the script. And once they got to go off that script of what everybody was telling them - what the culture was telling them about what sex was supposed to be like, they were freer to create their own experience that felt good to them.
Meanwhile, Foos (the hotel proprietor in Talese's story) thought that women were generally unsatisfied by their sex lives, and he made this observation:
He had come to believe that the arrival of the birth-control pill, in the early sixties, which he’d originally celebrated, encouraged many men to expect sex on demand: “Women had won the legal right to choose but had lost the right to choose the right moment.” He felt that the war between the sexes had escalated and that sexual relations were getting worse, not better. (Lesbians, whom Foos admired, were an exception.)
So we have an interesting convergence: both Orenstein and Foos observe that lesbians are exempt from the generally miserable (and worsening) sexual experiences of American women. Orenstein finds another exception: straight Dutch women tend to enjoy much more egalitarian, satisfying sexual relationships than straight American women.
Let's take a moment to develop a simple model of sexual interaction. Imagine a game with two types of cards. Each player is given a single card. Half of the cards are labeled "male" and half "female." At the end of the game, if two players with different cards have put them together, they get 100 points, divided according to their privately negotiated agreement. This is basically a version of the "ultimatum game
." All of the players ought to pair off, and the division of the points is difficult to predict. It will probably vary somewhat with the underlying norms—a norm of fairness might hold the distribution pretty close to 50-50.
Now imagine a second round of the game in which a player receives either a male card or two female cards. We should still expect all the male cards to pair off, and half of the female cards to pair off, but the distribution of points might very well go 90-10 or even 99-1 in favor of the players holding male cards. This will again be somewhat constrained by norms and personal quirks, but certainly the players holding male cards should be able to extract a disproportionate share of the points. This is because the players holding the male cards can refuse to match them up on equal terms, knowing that there are super-abundant female cards to match up with. Any female card that doesn't match up gets zero points, so a player holding a male card can offer anything over zero to attract a female card. The "price" of a female card will reflect this dynamic, and will settle somewhere near zero (depending on norms about the division in the "ultimatum game").
There is an intriguing possibility, though. The players holding female cards could all agree to throw away the second card
. This is in the general interest of players holding female cards, in terms of obtaining a larger share of points in the game, but it only works if there is universal or near-universal agreement. A single player, acting on her own, doesn't achieve anything by throwing away one of her cards. If anything she simply loses the handful of points that she might be able to get in the market.
This is essentially the logic behind monogamy and sexual restraint as forces for female sexual empowerment. As technological and social forces make non-monogamy more feasible, women lose their bargaining power and endure unsatisfying (or minimally satisfying) sex, as documented by Orenstein and Foos. They give oral sex but don't get it. The organizing principle of their sexual encounters is generating male pleasure. (I want to emphasize that the game I've described is only meant to convey the logic that relaxing norms of monogamy can be bad for women, it isn't meant to be precise about the mechanism by which this happens. Implicit in all of this is that women and men have different sexual preferences. This seems to be the case, as Ross Douthat has pointed out
—and, consistent with the observations of Orenstein and Foos, Douthat's data indicate that our current sexual marketplace seems to be geared toward satisfying male needs rather than female needs.)
This explains why lesbians would be more satisfied than straight women. Partly it is because their desires diverge less than they do between men and women. But it's also partly a matter of the way market power is distributed in the "game" that they are playing. Their sexual marketplace isn't plagued by the unfairness that characterizes the straight market.
The Dutch, though, seem to be doing something right. It's important to note that good norms can "warm us twice." First, a norm of monogamy can even the playing field so that women are in a position to demand more attention to their sexual desires (monogamy is like throwing away the second card). Second, norms also determine the outcome of the ultimatum game no matter what the balance of power happens to be. If women are encouraged to demand more from their male partners, they may simply walk away from a really unfair division of pleasure, even if they don't have the market power to get it anywhere else at the moment. Foos, by focusing on the birth-control pill, is invoking the former effect. Orenstein, who emphasizes the way Dutch adults communicate with their daughters (and other young female relatives/friends), encouraging them to think more about their own sexual pleasure, invokes the second effect.
Not to re-kindle old debates, but I think what we are seeing in the contrast between straight women in the United States, on the one hand, and lesbians and Dutch women, on the other, is that straight women in the United States are not getting a fair shake from our post-sexual-revolution norms. Some would argue that this simply isn't my business—the only relevant norm is consent, and beyond that it's not for society to say that some other system of norms (like the Dutch one) would be better or more desirable. To me this seems crazy. We have good reason to believe that straight women in the United States are dissatisfied, and that our weird norms that serve to maximize male sexual pleasure are to blame. I know I sound anti-feminist when I say this, but I really think we should consider embracing norms that create a more level playing field and that help women find the sexual satisfaction they deserve.