Peggy Orenstein on the difference between sexuality and sexualization

Last week, I went to a reading by Peggy Orenstein from her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, now out in paperback. I’m such a huge Orenstein fan and I’ve written so much about her on this blog, that I wondered if after I saw her read, I would have anything left to blog about.

Guess what? I do!

Mostly, I’ve written about Orenstein’s research on the princess culture and how it affects little girls. But at the reading, Orenstein spoke a lot about older girls and also the potential, deep, long-term effects of relentlessly teaching girls through play and media to focus on their appearance.

I blog a lot about how girls get trained early (through toys about dressing dolls, roles in movies and TV, incessant compliments for their dresses, shoes, hair etc) that they get attention for and an actual identity from how they look. Orenstein spoke about how this emphasis can set girls in a pattern that puts them at risk. For what? Eating disorders, depression, low self-esteem, and sexual dysfunction.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter traces how the real life Disney stars/ girl princesses (i.e. Lindsay Lohan, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus etc) attempt to make their transitions from girl-princesses into adult ones; or more crassly, from virgin to whore. Orenstein writes it’s impossible to commodify one end of the spectrum and not the other, and there are so few models of healthy female sexuality out there.

Our daughters may not be faced with the decision of whether to strip for Maxim, but they will have to figure out how to become sexual beings without being objectified or stigmatized.

All that early training for girls to focus incessantly on their appearance lasts a lifetime. What happens when these girls try to grow up? Orenstein writes that girls learn: “Look sexy, but don’t feel sexual, to provoke desire in others without experiencing it themselves.” How does this emphasis on dressing up and attention for appearance affect kids as they grow? In CAMD, Orenstein quotes Stephen Hinshaw from his book The Triple Bind:

“Girls pushed to be sexy too soon can’t really understand what they’re doing…they may never learn to connect their performance to erotic feelings or intimacy. They learn how to act desirable, but not to desire, undermining, rather than promoting, healthy sexuality.

In short: sexualization is performance; it’s all about being desirable to others. Sexuality is understanding and connecting to your own desire.

At the reading, Orenstein shared this passage from Cinderella Ate My Daughter:

Let me be clear here: I object– strenuously– to the sexualization of girls but not necessarily to girls having sex. I expect and want my daughter to have a healthy, joyous erotic life before marriage. Long, long, long before marriage. I do, however, want her to understand why she’s doing it: not for someone else’s enjoyment, not to keep a boyfriend from leaving, not because everyone else is. I want her to explore and understand her body’s responses, her own pleasure, her own desire. I want her to be able to express her needs in a relationship, to say no when she needs to, to value reciprocity, and to experience true intimacy. The virgin/ whore cycle of the pop princesses, like so much of the girlie girl culture, pushes in the opposite direction, encouraging girls to view self-objectification as a feminist rite of passage.

This distinction between sexuality and sexualization is not made often enough. If you’re against the sexualization of girls, it’s often concluded that you’re somehow anti-sex, on the same team with Phyllis Schlafly or a fan of “traditional family values.”  The political agenda to promote healthy sexuality is actually the opposite and must include access to contraception for all women, sex education in schools, and full reproductive rights.

The sexualization of girls has nothing to do with real sexuality.

7 thoughts on “Peggy Orenstein on the difference between sexuality and sexualization

  1. I totally respect that people will have different opinions, but I don’t understand the disdainful attitude about ‘traditional family values.’ It’s possible to hold to such values and still celebrate healthy sexuality. The difference is that healthy sexuality is within the context of a healthy marital relationship, not just something to be pursued for individual purposes.

    I agree with a lot of what you are doing. We need to help our girls not be sucked into the media and marketing messages that want to devalue them or make their worth tied only to appearance or sex appeal. I just wish you’d be willing to work with those with “traditional values” rather than make it sound like one has to choose between your cause of helping girls value themselves and to be empowered to succeed and having the view I expressed above.

    • Hi Michelle,

      Maybe its just semiotics. I’m married and I love being married. I never thought I would be that into it, but I think its pretty great. That said, I support all peoples right to be married or not, I do not think a two parent home is necessarily better than single (often its not) straight is better than gay etc, so that’s what I meant by tradtional family values. Maybe what I support is “family values” lose “tradition” and expand definition of “family.”


    • “The difference is that healthy sexuality is within the context of a healthy marital relationship, not just something to be pursued for individual purposes.”

      This is awfully dismissive towards people who have sex within committed, non-marital relationships. A piece of paper or a church ceremony isn’t going to change my level of commitment towards my SO, and any explanation of how we only view sex as “something to pursue for individual purposes” would apply equally to married couples. One of the reasons that a lot of people are disdainful towards “traditional family values” is that it’s become a dog-whistle phrase for the devaluation of and discrimination against non-traditional families.

  2. I have not yet read this book, however, from what you say in this post, no mention is made of the other models young women have for their sexuality: their mothers and grandmothers. There is a book written by French gynecologist and acupuncturist Dr. Daniele Flaumenbaum that discusses how mothers transmit to daughters an understanding of our bodies and of pleasure. But what is it they hand down since their mothers were not necessarily enjoying pleasurable sex? She discusses various difficulties women have with their sexuality and pleasure in this light, and then goes on to discuss the journey women can make to awaken their own desire to enjoy sex as a fully encompassing, joyful, empowering experience that is energizing and impacts life in a positive way. It is a fantastic book that should be coming out in English soon. We are currently translating it at Le French Book.

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