For Peggy Orenstein, an American journalist, these are symptoms of a larger and more pernicious problem: “the pressure on young women to reduce their worth to their bodies and to see those bodies as a collection of parts that exist for others' pleasure”. In “Girls & Sex”, a wise and sharply argued look at how girls are navigating “the complicated new landscape” of sex and sexuality, Ms Orenstein notes that unlike past feminists, who often protested against their sexual objectification, many of today's young women claim to find it empowering. “There are few times that I feel more confident about my body than when I wear a crop top and my boobs are showing and my legs are showing,” says Holly, a college student. “I never feel more liberated.”
This hardly seems like progress, particularly when only certain bodies, those that are sexy to men, are allowed to be a source of pride. (Even Meghan Trainor's body-positive anthem, “All About That Bass”, celebrates fuller bodies because “boys, they like a little more booty to hold at night.”) Yet both authors argue that girls are embracing their own sexualisation in part because they are living in a culture that prioritises women being “hot”. Just listen to Donald Trump, America's Republican presidential front-runner, or try to find a female news presenter wearing a dress with sleeves.
Both books also blame the “ever-broadening influence of porn”. The internet has made pornography more widely available than ever before. Few view it as realistic, but many consult it as a guide—which makes sense in a country where parents rarely talk candidly about sex with their children, especially their daughters, and few schools fill the gap. Educators commonly advocate abstinence and only 13 states require that sex education even be medically accurate.
The problem is that much of this pornography is not only explicit but also violent, which can influence expectations. A study of Canadian teenagers found a correlation between consuming pornography and believing it is okay to hold a girl down for forced sex. Pornography also tends to present women's sexuality as something that exists primarily for the benefit of men. Ms Orenstein notes that most of the young women she interviewed had removed all of their pubic hair since they were about 14 in order to cater to the fickle, porn-bred tastes of young men. They also tended to prioritise their partners' physical pleasure over their own.
For anyone raising a daughter, these books do not make for easy reading. Expect plenty of stories about binge drinking, random hookups, oral sex and misjudged sexting. Intellectually, many young women believe they can achieve whatever they set their minds to, but most still struggle to obey a sexual double-standard that gives them little room between being chided as “sluts” or “prudes”. As one teenage girl tells Ms Orenstein, “Usually the opposite of a negative is a positive, but in this case it's two negatives. So what are you supposed to do?”