It was not until I was 17 that I learned girls could achieve any sort of orgasm. My parents did not shelter me from sex, and I have always considered myself to be a very sexual person. So, what gives?
This phenomenon, where young girls like myself fail to learn or understand the dimensions of their bodies and their sexualities, is partially due to the lack of representation in American media of young women exploring their sensuality. According to the 2013 annual survey that evaluates female employment in the U.S. film industry, the majority of movies are written, produced and directed by men. This lack of female perspective in the film industry limits the portrayal of women’s sexuality.
Growing up in American culture, I felt this androcentric presence in media through the limited ways that women were depicted in movies. As a child, Disney films lead me through fantastical narratives with damsels in distress and feminized princesses. In my teenage years, movies like “Superbad” and “American Pie” depicted sexualized women as the object of striving and desire. These widely circulated films helped shape my expectations and perceptions of female identity and sexuality, where female protagonists existed in relation to and with dependence on their male counterparts. Throughout high school, I referenced these tongue-in-cheek comedies as cultural capital amongst friends with plot lines that laud the endless male pursuit for sex. The women in these films were one-dimensional and compartmentalized as sexual objects. In modern culture, there have been very few movies that explored early female sensuality or masturbation with the same tongue-in-cheek humor with which male sexuality is portrayed. As a result, young men from an early age learn how to feel more comfortable exploring their libidinous urges, where women feel the need to withdraw from sexual exploration even if they are sexually active.
Historically, society has attached chastity, virginity and preservation to the female identity. Up until the 1960s, sexual expression was limited to the sphere of prostitution where a woman sexually expressed herself by appealing to her male customers. Before the sexual awakening of the mid-20th century, women did not speak openly about sexual desire in public or private spheres. Subject to male and female scrutiny, most women throughout the early 20th century were limited by social norms as nonsexual, delicate and idyllically virginal. Social attachments brought on by the dichotomy of the Madonna and the whore complex prevalent in pre- and post-modern society.
Culturally, the tone of female bodily exploration is more dismissive than accepting. Without a safe space to learn and discuss their sexual urges, many girls feel a hybrid of shame and confusion regarding their sexual selves. These girls internalize this embarrassment, and gradually become skeptical of sexual exploration. Some young women enter their high school years and even college years with zero knowledge of how to masturbate and how to get aroused by their sexual partners. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, found that among 18 and 19 year olds, 66 percent of young girls said they had masturbated, while 86 percent of young men said the same. This discrepancy comes from how girls are educated on their sexuality through media representation and through the dismissive tone that is perpetuated toward female sensuality on a cultural level. We cultivate unhealthy and limited parameters around the sexual development of females.
Men and women alike need to recognize the possibility that a girl can be both bright and sexual and demand more representation of this hybrid. We must facilitate an environment for young women where they can be as confident in their sexuality as boys can be. This starts with the tone of how we accept sexual female exploration on a cultural level.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Nov. 13 print edition. Email Leah Simon at [email protected]