Did you hear the story of the sex columnist who never had an orgasm? True story: Tracy Clark-Flory, sex writer for Salon.com and an enthusiastic defender of casual sex and "hookup culture," has just written here that she faked orgasms for more than a decade. Every time. Every boyfriend. Every casual encounter. It felt powerful, and even enjoyable, she assures us, to become "the master of the 'faux' petite mort," but let's not beat around the, um... whatever. This was shrieking, moaning "Harry Met Sally" fakery and it didn't stop until -- brace yourself -- Ms. Clark-Flory fell in love. And then, in her own words: "right about the time I first told him I loved him, I started having real orgasms. It was like my climactic circuitry had been plugged in and electrified."
Interestingly, the editorial staff of Elle magazine took a different message from the author's confessional: "Tracy Clark-Flory spent her twenties having lots of good sex, but faked her way through nearly every climax. Which prompts the question: Do we really need that happy ending?" (Italics mine ) Is Elle magazine actually suggesting a decade of faked orgasms is no big deal and a perfectly reasonable, sex-positive, I'm empowered/you're empowered way for a young woman to go through life?
Clearly, I haven't kept up with contemporary sexual norms. Lena Dunham's new HBO series, "Girls," is an apparent treasure trove of female sexual misadventure and humiliation. The show features graphic sex scenes described variously by critics as "uneasy," "cringe-worthy," "uncomfortable" and "some of the worst sex you've ever witnessed " But don't suppose these scenes are drawn broadly for comic effect. As Dunham explained in her response to a query about the depictions of "deliberately unpleasant" sex, "We live in a world that's tough for a 24 year-old woman to navigate. There are things you're going to face that are totally debasing... We all have mortifying experiences constantly that we compartmentalize, and my way of feeling better happens to be saying, Omigod guys, did you hear what happened to me today?"
Routine debasement? I thought this called for a little more inquiry, so I went straight to my favorite source: the college women on the campus where I live. I've spoken with more than a few women so far and, to a person, not one has said any of this surprised her in the slightest. Several conceded that Ms. Clark-Flory's work/life disconnect seemed a little extreme, but not a single woman expressed surprise at Clark-Flory's or Dunham's experiences.
Color me moronic, but I really can't believe this. How is it possible that young women in the 21st century have such incredibly low expectations about relationships?
Clark-Flory and Dunham may be unusual cases. For one thing, they are mining their own vulnerabilities and humiliations for public consumption, something few of us would either dare or have enough material to do. I'm not drawing a sweeping, sociological conclusion from a sample size of two. But I do feel some of my small inchoate glimmers of concern about young women that had been bubbling up have finally breached into one big, anguished "why?"
I've been wondering for a while if this whole 'ho-bag,' bedazzled vajayjay shtick was delivering as advertised. Are these the spoils of feminism? The right to have crappy, ersatz-male experiences? To have sex like guys, in service to guys, and then feel the need to shrug it off or lie about it for years on end because not wanting those kinds of stereotypical sexual experiences is just too shameful to admit?
Seriously, ladies? Is this working for you? Do you even know if it's working for you? Or have you just bought wholesale the idea that liberation means trying every trick under the sun except caring for your own needs and desires?
Girls never talked about their vaginas when I was a teenager. Ever. It was always confusing to us that boys were both desperate for access to vaginas and so freaked out by them. And this awkward code of silence around vagina-talk -- which has largely fallen by the wayside, post "Vagina Monologues" and Oprah -- translated into a feeling that it wasn't only women's sexual parts, but also women's sexual feelings that weren't totally legit. Even in the freewheeling, pre-AIDS '80s, a lot of women were being called sluts (un-ironically) and faking orgasms and hooking up with men with less than full-on enthusiasm.
It's shocking to see the extent to which things remain unchanged. At Harvard, where I work, young men still largely dictate the terms of sexual and romantic relationships. You see scantily dressed girls lined up like beauty pageant contestants outside the male-only final clubs (of "Social Network" disrepute), waiting to be allowed in on a Saturday night. It's still "No Girls Allowed" (except for sex) in the tree house.
Is this what generations of women were fighting for? I thought my daughter was going to grow up in a different place, where girls were more generous with themselves, less punished by society's expectations, more free to define their own view of healthy relationships. Yeah, sure. And I have some bridges to sell you.
As is often the case, the solution lies largely with the people most affected by the problem. For starters, how about topping off that fake 'O' tonight with a little self-respect?
Erika Christakis, M.P.H., M.Ed., is an educator and public health advocate. As House Master of one of Harvard's twelve undergraduate residential communities, she is responsible for the well-being of 400 young adults. Follow her work at www.erikachristakis.com.