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I grew up in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, then lived in Denmark and traveled throughout Europe before coming back to Colorado. I have two adult sons, whom I cherish. I started my writing career as a columnist and investigative reporter and eventually became the first woman editor of two different papers. Along the way, my team and I won numerous state and several national awards, including the National Journalism Award for Public Service. In 2011, I was awarded the Keeper of the Flame Lifetime Achievement Award for Journalism. Now I write historical romance and contemporary romantic suspense.

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Seductive Musings

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

When it comes to sex, what’s normal?




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.
From romance novels, I learned very little about sex other than it must be fantastic. Those were the days when descriptions of sex were mild, and you had to wonder what was happening. It was all about “manroots” and “her center.” What — like her belly button? The books seemed mostly to be about love, and they made my heart beat faster. I loved the passion of the relationship between the hero and the heroine, even if I didn’t have a reference point for what it meant to “move together in an age-old rhythm.”

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...

20 comments:

Nina said...

Ok, so what are we normalizing for young women these days?

I remember reading in a psychology book that romance novels gives women unrealistic expectations to relationships, much in the same way that porn gives men unrealistic expectations to sex (now, I’m so lucky that when my boyfriend saw the covers of the I-team books, he got very competitive).

To understand what we are normalizing, I think we need to look at where young women get their information from – the media. The media has a lot of responsibility, but if you look at the British tabloids you’ll find Victoria Beckham’s implants, Cheryl Cole’s waistline and the page 3 girl in the Sun.

Depression appears to be more common in girls than in boys at puberty (Wichstrom, 1999). One possible reason may be that their consistent concern over body image and the need to maintain a level of physical attractiveness – in short, the beginning of the development of sexual identity – two features that could meet with as much acceptance as rejection. Girls become increasingly concerned with their weight and shape after the onset of puberty.

I read the UK Cosmopolitan in my teens and I remember one article about body confidence. It said that the guy is so happy and grateful to get you naked, that he won’t care if you have any wobbly bits. Yes, the same magazine contains ads for plastic surgery and has a terrible double standard. However I think they’ve gotten better at encouraging sexual confidence in women (finding your sexy weight, respecting your limits etc).

A couple of months ago I attended a dinner party in Ireland. We were both men and women in our twenties and early thirties from Norway, Germany and Ireland. We talked about sex education in school, and I was shocked at the differences between the three countries! In Norway I was taught to value my own body and was encouraged to explore on my own what felt good and right. I think this is an important lesson that we learn from romance novels, too. That it’s important to respect yourself and your partner. Now, an Irish friend told us that when she was sixteen a nun had held up a poster of a flaccid penis. My friend spent the next five years wondering how part A was going to fit into slot B. She was also told that if she had sex, she would get AIDS and die. This she was told by a nun (who was celibate, mind you!) in a public Irish school. This was only 15 years ago. Now, things have changed in Ireland. The Magdalene Sisters are gone. But this is a country where abortion is illegal, so sexual education is priceless. That’s why it’s so important that girls respect themselves and their limits.

Nina said...

“As long as whatever you do in real life is consensual and involves human adults, it’s your business.” I think Pamela makes a very good point. Whether you’re into spanking, anal sex etc. is individual. (A German friend of mine went into an Irish pharmacy and asked for anal condoms. The poor old lady who worked there nearly fainted, but times are changing).

The Internet can be a great source of information (it can be empowering for those who were taught in the Irish school 15 years ago to read up on STDs). It can also be a way to understand that you’re not abnormal if you’re into anal sex or BDSM as long as it is consensual and involves human adults. I have gay friends who grew up in Christian hamlets, and for them the Internet confirmed that they were normal.

If the romance novels with “manroots” set the norm some decades ago, one might say that the Internet sets the norm today. It seems better to live in an age where everything goes, rather than not. Now, my Irish friend still won’t enter a sex shop in case her priest is hiding there to catch sinners.

Yes, young women dress beyond their years and they need a good role model. Ultimately they should learn that happiness comes from within, and not from silicon implants.

I want to commend Pamela for her portrayal of women. In Hard Evidence Tessa had a gently rounded belly (which made Tessa seem real to me! She ate food!) and Kat saved herself for her special someone. Bravo!

Nina said...

*Yes, young women/girls wear skimpy clothes and they need a good role model.

I've always found that a lot of the kinkier things (multi-tenticle monster for example) stem from a cultures history. Japan has a history of art work depicting women and tentacles. You also have to keep in mind that some cultures are okay with things we would never even dream of before a hundred years ago. But a lot of what is now available is due in part to globalization, and the easy access every one has to every other country and its underworlds.
Another thing is debauchery has always existed (Picture of Dorian Grey, prime example) Things that used to be considered the seedy underbelly of pristine civilizations usually worsened and became more heard of during times of extreme suppression, a time that I fully believe we are in the middle of heading back into.
History is a pendulum. We are always swinging back and forth between allowing ''liberalism' and 'conservatism' The prim and proper Victorian era led to the wild roaring 20's, who were so wild that you turn into the 50's, a time when men and women didn't share a bed even during wedlock. Then you get the drugs and free love of the 60s, worsened in the 70s, and that culture has been getting "worse" since then. It's only a matter of time, if you ask me, before the world starts sharing separate beds again.

I hope that made sense, I had a long day at orientation, but I wanted to voice this theory I have. I love history, and fully believe you can learn from it, and also predict the future based on it.

Christine said...

I've always found that a lot of the kinkier things (multi-tenticle monster for example) stem from a cultures history. Japan has a history of art work depicting women and tentacles. You also have to keep in mind that some cultures are okay with things we would never even dream of before a hundred years ago. But a lot of what is now available is due in part to globalization, and the easy access every one has to every other country and its underworlds.

Another thing is debauchery has always existed (Picture of Dorian Grey, prime example) Things that used to be considered the seedy underbelly of pristine civilizations usually worsened and became more heard of during times of extreme suppression, a time that I fully believe we are in the middle of heading back into.

History is a pendulum. We are always swinging back and forth between allowing ''liberalism' and 'conservatism' The prim and proper Victorian era led to the wild roaring 20's, who were so wild that you turn into the 50's, a time when men and women didn't share a bed even during wedlock. Then you get the drugs and free love of the 60s, worsened in the 70s, and that culture has been getting "worse" since then. It's only a matter of time, if you ask me, before the world starts sharing separate beds again.

I hope that made sense, I had a long day at orientation, but I wanted to voice this theory I have. I love history, and fully believe you can learn from it, and also predict the future based on it.

Christine said...

and my bad, I meant to delete the comment form mardihearti and fix the spacing, and now it won't let me.

Wow! I thought folks would be tearing up cyberspace with comments. Maybe this isn't an interesting discussion topic...

Hej, Nina — Tak! In Danish sex ed, they teach boys about the clitoris and talk about how to give a woman pleasure. The same is true in reverse for girls. Very matter-of-fact and actually about how to have sex, not just the details of puberty and reproduction, which tend to be the focus here.

I agree the media play a huge role in this. And I agree with you that girls need to feel comfortable with their own limits. And yet that's tough when so many people are uncomfortable talking with their kids about sex. So if a girl can't talk about her desires and limits with her parents, she does so with her friends — and that's where media influence comes in.

I guess this post is a way of asking, "Can girls grow up knowing their limits in our mixed-message culture, and and are they comfortable standing up for those limits when there are so many expectations put on them?"

Is this an issue you've studied? I appreciated the scholarly citations. :-)

I'm LOL about the German friend asking for anal condoms in an Irish pharmacy. (I actually didn't know such a thing existed, to be honest.)

What a horrifying way to learn about sex! It's a wonder your friend ever ventured near a man.

And thank you for your kind words about Tessa and Kat. I catch some guff from people who think my heroines are wimpy, "rescue-me" types, but I do prefer feminine heroines, not sheroes. But I also like them to know themselves and what they want from life. That to me is strength. I want heroines who are strong but in feminine ways, not kick-ass ways.

Hi, Christine — No worries about the duplicate post. Strange things happen in blogdom.

I had no idea about the Japanese cultural women/tentacles thing. I wonder where that comes from... I've seen a couple of hentai films and was utterly bemused.

I love history, as well, and I can't figure out where we are on the pendulum swing. I have this vision of I Love Lucy in my head when you talk about separate beds. SO FUNNY that even mentioning pregnancy on TV used to be forbidden.

Wendy said...

I only have a SECOND to write, so I just want to say that this post is the reason the debate over gay marriage makes me so angry. Get the hell out of people's bedrooms! What people do in their beds - as long as it's HUMAN ADULT CONSENTUAL - leave them alone. Gay marriage (and the whole "do gays have rights?") is such a non-issue.

When millions of dollars poured in to defeat california's prop allowing gays to marry, I couldn't believe it. Schools are crippled, millions of people are out of work and THIS is where money goes??

Off-topic, I know. This is about young women. But I hope I threw in a little food for thought.

Hi, Wendy — Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I had heard about the schools being on the brink of insolvency. It boggles the mind! One pundit was asking if California is going to go bankrupt. SCARY!

I figure if people keep their noses out of my bedroom, I can keep my nose out of their bedroom.

Anonymous said...

I was just thinking about this. On Goodreads it seems everybody is reading at least as many erotica ebooks as ‘regular’ books these days. It’s got to the point where every straight young woman thinks it’s perfectly normal to read homosexual and multiple partner erotica, very often involving BDSM. I have absolutely no problem with homosexuality (my brother’s gay), but it seems very weird that women who used to read romance novels for the romance are suddenly seeking out things that used to be so far out of most people’s comfort zones.
The internet has got everybody believing more extreme sex is the norm. I’ve had teenagers ‘friending’ me on Goodreads who don’t seem to realise they’re still underage. There’s no way I’d be seeking out that stuff at their ages.
In my weird Irish Catholic family I’ve somehow ended up with some elementary school aged cousins, and their parents seriously have no idea what their kids are getting up to. Their mother thinks that just because she doesn’t know much about the internet her children are still innocent little things like she was at their ages (they’re not).
What people can access on the internet is frightening. It’s especially bad as usually the extent of the security is a ‘click here if you’re over thirteen/eighteen’ button. Because, yeah, the kiddies are really going to be honest about that.

Anonymous said...

Tessa’s one of the main reasons I’ve become an I-Team groupie. I don’t understand why women always seem to want their heroines to be as tough as a Marine. Tessa’s so strong, and yet she’s a woman. The women who read these novels with shemen in them wouldn’t be like that in real life, in those situations. I like to identify with the heroine, not be afraid of her!

Luci said...

I am not good with complicated discussions because i have very simple views about everything. I was very naive and sheltered right up until i met my husband at 17.

Since (and i am 35 today) I have become very open minded and i don't mind exploring new sexual positions etc etc. I can openly talk about it, read about it, watch porn - no problem at all.

Though, having said that I do try to limit the type of books I read. I do not know if i will keep on managing to do that but till now I have. My reasoning is this. I do not want to read a book with sharing and multiple partners, because, as you said, these stories revolve mostly around love, and while it might be possible to equally love multiple partners I do not want it to become a normal way to look at love for me.

This might sound weird, but reading books involves an emotional involvement and i do not want to read book after book with multiple partners that make me feel at the end of the day as if i am missing out on something or that it is a 'normal' situation. Watching a porn movie is a bit different for me since sometimes its so fake it borders on ridiculous - so no emotions involved form me there.

My fear is that while i was introduced to certain aspects of sex at an already mature age, with everything so readily available to youngsters today what was normal for us and what will be normal for our children is vastly different. My only hope is that they will be able to handle the situation without undermining their dignity and enjoyment.

I do not want them to participate in acts that they find uncomfortable because it would seem 'unnormal' for them not to do so. I guess that's where I come in as their mum, and i am not past discussing anything with them although peer pressure can be pretty tough. As an ex-anorexic I am fully aware of the tricks the mind can play.

To explain myself better maybe - if you enjoy anal sex - kudos to you. If it hurts or is an uncomfortable position for you, I believe no partner can force you no matter how much more heightened a sexual experience it is for him. Sex should be about mutual enjoyment and mutual respect can never be forgotten.

I don't think many people - except perhaps advertisers - would dispute that kids, especially girls, are being sexualized far too early, before their minds or bodies are ready. As a teacher I see it all the time. It's almost impossible to turn off the bombardment, but we can lessen it by limiting exposure and providing healthy alternative experiences. If a kid has a life - interests, friends, something they know they're good at - they're less vulnerable to the unhealthy stuff.

Another thing that helps is encouraging girls to support each other. At my last scholl we had regular 'women's circles' where the female teachers and students talked about issues pertaining to them, and believe me, those discussions were very frank. The male teachers and students had their 'circles' as well.

It's amazing what you encounter. We had one girl come to school with bruises on her face. Another student told a teacher this girl had an older boyfriend who was abusing her. When we called her father, he said she didn't come home at night half the time and there was nothing he could do.
The boyfriend was 40. When I was sixteen, if a 40-year-old man had slapped me around my father would have been on the street with his rifle. There was no mother in the picture - she was three thousand miles away, making money up north in Yellowknife. Kids can't withstand the pressure without support.

I don't think the messages have changed much - be thin, be pretty, be compliant - but they've gotten so much more intense. Girls need to be strong to make sexual choices that fell good and are good for them.

Sonya said...

I am not American, but I have lived in a number of countries and spent a lot of time in some others. The United States is fascinating because on one hand there is so much sexual freedom, and on the other you’ve got all those made-up brand new churches full of extremists who don’t like anything - dancing, singing, drinking, enjoying your life in any way.

There’s a statistic we’re very fond of quoting in Australia. It’s that there are statistically far more teen pregnancies in the US than here, and that’s because so many Americans refuse to educate their children about sex. (I swear, the US is better in every other way though!!) I started Sex Ed in third grade here - I was eight. I’m so glad I learnt that way - with all my peers - instead of waiting for some crappy, half-correct parental version you might get overseas.

That said, there’s so much sex these days it’s scary. I read about all these school kids doing everything before they’re even legal age (and here the age of consent is sixteen). When I was that age, ‘going out’ with someone involved seeing them across the playground in the lunch break! Now apparently it means meeting for sex in a spare room!

But look at the parents now. There’s sexy lingerie on sale in the children’s sections of department stores. The people I know with young girls are encouraging them to be sexual. I have a relative who’s still in primary (elementary) school, and she’s been told by her mother and other family members to ‘act sexy’ since she was four.

On the issue of body image, here’s a completely pointless story, but these days I think it’s kind of funny. I nearly died (literally) of anorexia - I was just over sixty pounds when I graduated from high school. I didn’t do it to look sexy though - I was a ballet dancer and I was told to (my teacher put me on a diet of one tomato a day).

One of my strongest memories of that time is walking through the bus station one day after school. I had waist length blonde hair and all the stuff guys are supposed to like, and from a big distance guys were whistling at me. But when I got closer they started laughing hysterically and yelled, “Oh my God, she has no tits!!” It was a wake up call for me.
That told me about all I need to know about what men prefer. No, I’m not saying you should be fat, but starving yourself is such hard work. In fact, now I’m twenty-eight I’m losing weight for some reason I wish I could prevent, and every time I look in the mirror I freak out because I look like a skinny kid. It’s embarrassing being skinny, and I know it’s not what men prefer.

Ridley said...

I won't say I've read much on the subject, but I can add my own personal experience here.

I turn 30 this fall, so I was in high school during the AOL days just before the internet started to blow our minds. Regardless, scrambled cable boxes and older siblings' porn stashes educated us fine. I lost my virginity at 14 and tried pretty much everything but multiple partners and S&M by the time I was 17. There was the public sex, sex with inanimate objects, anal, bondage, rape roleplay, you name it. I was a busy high schooler despite my baggy clothes (this was the tail end of grunge era, after all.) If my mother knew this, she'd probably feel like a failure.

But you know what? I don't think it was a bad thing at all. I ended up meeting my now-husband at 19 and marrying him at 25. I got my exploring done, figured out what I liked and didn't, then settled down just fine.

I don't see a problem with sexed-up teens, really. Rather than teach them that having sex is bad, and daring them to rebel, I think it's better to focus on how sex can be good if both people are in control and comfortable. Sex shouldn't be something men do to women. It should be something both partners have a say in. Provided everyone uses condoms, what's so bad about a little "hide the pickle" between friends?

Hi, Anonymous — I didn't realize so many women were reading gay erotica. Interesting! I have several extremely close gay friends (writers, mostly) and I've enjoyed some of the photographic mags they have of nude men (the HOTTEST guys are in gay mags), but I've never enjoyed gay porn or gay erotica. It just doesn't interest me. Love is love, absolutely. But being a hetero woman, I want to read about men and women falling in love.

But the nice thing about romantic fiction nowadays is that there truly is something for everyone. So I have no objection.

I do wish more parents were truly in touch with their kids. I raised my boys more like a Scandinavian mother would — very open about all sexuality-related topics, contraception, etc., even homosexuality and such from the time they were little. I think that more girls would grow up knowing their limits and knowing what they're comfortable with if they had relationships with their parents that enabled them to ask any question without fear of getting in trouble. For parents to be oblivious means that the kids don't trust them.

As for Tessa, I'm so glad you like her. Yeah, I don't want to read about or write she-men either. I like men to be good for something, so they can carry most of the guns. (not necessarily all of them, but most of them.) LOL!

Hi, Luci — I've met other women who watch what they read for similar reasons -- they don't want to be titillated by something they think is wrong. It sounds to me like you found your way to what's comfortable to you, and that's great!

Hi, Jennie — Interesting to have a teacher's perspective. Those groups sound really interesting. I can't imagine schools in the US having groups that discuss sexual issues openly. It's all political here. But I've read studies about how being part of single-sex groups really helps girls especially. So it's cool that you're doing that.

If a 40-year-old man here was sleeping with a 16-year-old and slapping her around he'd be arrested (and rightfully so) for statutory rape and assault. That's despicable! :-(

Hi, Sonya — I'm glad you were able to overcome your anorexia.

You're right that some parents have a hard time talking about sex with their kids. And then the kids turn to the media and their friends for answers. Those answers aren't always helpful. I've actually met men here in the US -- FATHERS no less -- who didn't know the difference between a woman's vulva and her vagina. They thought everything between her legs -- everything -- was "vagina." Um. No.
That perplexes me -- how can a man be that ignorant? Well, he's just never learned, never been taught.

Lingerie in children's sections? Wow, I haven't seen that.


Hi, Ridley — Nice to see you here! I see your name on Goodreads here and there...

I think sexual experience is so individual. The main thing is that girls and women feel free to choose for themselves without being pressured by society as a force or by the men (or women) that they're being sexual with. So what consensual adults do -- or if everyone is a teen, consensual teens -- is up to them.

Sex itself isn't the problem. The issue for me is just whether we're creating what I guess could be called a hyper-sexualized environment in which girls feel pressured to do things they don't want to do.

Sex is good. ;-)

Being pressured to have sex (or to do sexual things you don't really want to do) isn't.

Thanks for your responses, everyone!

Thanks for sharing.I learn a lot.Hope to hear more of you!!!

Katelyn Doyle said...

I'm 20 years old, only a few years out of high school. So I can give you some input on how a younger woman feels about this issue.

In high school, we learned about the consequences of not having safe sex. I don't recall a teacher every telling me, "don't have sex until you're married." But they did say that abstinence is the best way to avoid the consequences.

Pamela, you said that you knew some men who couldn't tell between a women's vulva and vagina? Well, a couple of years ago someone mentioned clitoris and a girl didn't even know where that was on her body! Honestly, I never really "learned" about the male and female body parts until I took Biology in college.

I remember having the sex talk with my mom when I was younger. But I really learned about sex through the media, books or "out on the street."

To the question do young women feel pressured to have sex? Absolutely! If you are in a relationship and not having sex, most likely the boyfriend won't say. Or he'll cheat. (This may not be the case, but it's what some believe) So I believe girls have sex even if they aren't ready because they don't want to lose what they have. I can only think of one friend who hasn't had sex before.

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