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Is Sexual Pleasure Taboo?

…For girls, that is.

A caller on the Diane Rehm radio show just now described himself as “a Christian man” and went on to criticize — justly, in my view — the effect of church attitudes towards towards girls’ sexuality.

The topic of the show was the new book Girls & Sex, with author Peggy Orenstein as the guest. One of the major stunning points of the book is that girls who are sexually active these days aren’t often seeking or receiving pleasure. Their aim instead is to please guys, to strike a balance between the reputations of “slut” and “prude.”


In the part of the interview I heard, which was most of it, spirituality came up once in a question of the role of religion in current teen sexual mores. The answer was in the general direction of: what church a girl is raised in doesn’t really change her situation. (I’m assuming this is referring mainly to the U.S.)

Then came the caller who held churches in large part responsible for girls ignoring their own sexual feelings. Within church cultures, “there’s almost a certain taboo attached to the idea of pleasure.” This seemed particularly true for girls, with shame laid heavily on the prospect. A girl was encouraged to feel that “to experience pleasure isn’t right for her.”

I’m a pro-church person, though not now a church-goer. “The church” does a lot of good in the world. I don’t start out with a bias against the institution. But I sure agree on this point: organized religion tends to stand in the way of female sexual pleasure.

The Great Irony

What is so ironic about this is that the spirituality of sex lies not simply in the communication with another person but in the almost-unique-to-sex boundary-exploding experience of orgasm.

It may well be the most accessible route to mystical experience that most of us find.

Is It A Conspiracy?

No. I don’t think that ministers or Sunday School teachers or congregations generally set out to discourage girls’ pleasure in sexual activity. Many do set out to discourage girls from having sex prior to marriage, which is a different matter. Importantly, however, the “don’ts” — the efforts to keep girls chaste —and the Christian religious importance of virginity easily spill over into don’ts in the domain of pleasure.

Priest reading from the holy bible, close up

Last week at Durham’s Regulator bookstore, author Lee Smith, discussing her new memoir Dimestore, told a story about some church sex ed she experienced as a teenager. Boys and girls were segregated for the talks. Girls were told, among other things, “don’t pet.” Petting, the leader said, caused poison to build up in boys, which could outright kill them.

Such wisdom — even in its more updated versions — is hardly conducive to sexual pleasure and the glimpse of limitlessness that it can give.


(This piece is also published on Huffington Post.)

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  • April 20, 2016 at 7:50 pm Reply

    Peggy, thanks for this excellent post. I recently heard Peggy Orenstein’s interview on Fresh Air, and was struck by the point you highlight — girls’ lack of pleasure-seeking in sex . That’s consistent with everything I remember about being a teenager and even some years beyond,, but until now I’ve rarely heard anyone talk about it. It’s plausible to me that the church bears a lot of blame for starting this phenomenon, but it seems to have permeated the culture and become part of a more general lack of body awareness and girls’ over-valuation of boys’ attention. Anyway, really glad this topic is getting attention, and thanks for your part in putting it out there.

    • Peggy Payne
      April 20, 2016 at 8:43 pm Reply

      I wasn’t even aware until recently of this attitude of girls’ pleasure being unimportant. But I’ve always felt that overvaluation of male attention that you’re talking about. I wonder how much of that attitude is in the chromosomes by now.

  • April 20, 2016 at 8:01 pm Reply

    That is a terrible untruth to tell girls. My mom tried to teach me that sex was something a woman had to tolerate; it was not pleasurable. It was messy and embarrassing. Her teaching had the opposite effect on me than she intended. It made me want to prove her wrong.

    • Peggy Payne
      April 20, 2016 at 8:39 pm Reply

      I’m glad you proved the terrible untruth wrong, kenju. Takes some courage to do that.

  • Dan Wakefield
    April 20, 2016 at 8:28 pm Reply

    Part of the problem is ministers are of an older generation. As one who was born in the 1930s, our “sex eduaton” in elementary school was having boys leave the room and stand in the hall, then the girls left the room and boys went in and the teacher passed around color photgraphs of people in advanced stages of syphilis and gonnhorrea. At enlightned Columbia Colleg the wrestling coach taught the “family and health” course that covered sex. He advised us males (it was all-male in the 1950s )not to read The New york Times Sunday Magazine because the lengerie ads “could lead to masturbation.” I don’t think things changed til after the 1960s. So these attitudes were conveyed by teachers o Sunday School then. I hope its a littlke better today . . .

    • Peggy Payne
      April 20, 2016 at 8:37 pm Reply

      I remember being stricken with guilt over my perusal of the Sears catalogue. And now I remember, Dan Wakefield, your writing in your novel Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree about a Boy Scout manual of the 40s advising boys to take “hip baths” to quell unseemly urges.

      Surely Sunday school is better than it was on the subject. But I’m not sensing a revolution from that direction.

  • Jane Albright
    April 20, 2016 at 9:59 pm Reply

    I remember a survey several years ago that found that church-going women were having the best sex because it was guilt-firee with their husbands. My mother claimed to have orgasm “every time.” My sisters and I are skeptical since that isn’t our experience. But she was only with one man. I just know the love-making was better when I was a virgin and was doing everything but the deed. Gosh, that was hot and wonderful. Since that boundary was crossed long ago, it’s all been too quick to the deed when I would have preferred more pleasuring. Just saying.

    • Peggy Payne
      April 21, 2016 at 1:00 am Reply

      I vaguely remember that too, Jane — about the married church women.Sounds entirely plausible to me. A good solid relationship does relax a body. At the same time, I think that religion helps to install a lot of guilt about sex. Anything that is called a sin, like living in sin, has a religious origin.

  • April 21, 2016 at 3:34 am Reply

    I’m a 74 year old liberal guy, and although I think putting off sex until teens are grown-up enough to understand and deal with the complexities of oral, and/ or genital sex, I know most teens haven’t and won’t put it off. And when, if ever, are most folks grown up enough to deal ethically, safely and wisley with all that stuff ? I don’t know, but I do know a lotta folks suffer a lotta’ pain playing with the fire of uninformed and/or too early sex. I’ve no satisfactory answers.

    And I’m stupefied by the sexual stuff even young teen girls are currently doing , and sad that they and the women they become seem unacquainted with the rightness of their own sexual pleasure, and the wrongness of the cultureal prevention of their getting a balanced view. Sure is damn hard to teach your own kids about all this in a way that both empowers and postpones – at least it was for me.

    • Peggy Payne
      April 21, 2016 at 1:12 pm Reply

      I share your stupefaction, Bob. Can’t imagine what I’d do if raising daughters.

    • Kay
      April 25, 2016 at 2:52 am Reply

      I was so so lucky as a young woman to have Christ centered parents that did not seek to control me, but instead to protect and guide me. My mother was always very clear that I should seek fulfillment on God and myself first, and then a man, and that sex would be wonderful and an important part of marriage. She treated sex as a gift from God and expression of love in marriage, making it a special gift , not something to be feared or avoided. It gave me a great attitude about saving sex, not just for my husband, but for myself.

      • Peggy Payne
        April 25, 2016 at 8:25 pm Reply

        This is a lovely perspective, Kay. Thank you!

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