Commodity: a useful thing, an article of trade, a product

Several years ago, around the same time the vaccine for human papillomavirus, or HPV, became available for girls, I recall a conversation with friends about girls being diagnosed with genital warts in their throats. While penetration was on the decline, fellatio was on the incline, and some girls got something to show for practicing the age-old, what some would call, art form. Flash forward to Peggy Orenstein’s book, “Girls and Sex,” and this paragraph: “Oral sex is like money or some kind of currency,” Sam, one of the girls in the book, explained. “It’s how you make friends with the popular guys.” Yay! Score one for the ERA.

A few pages over, another girl Orenstein interviewed, talked about the tacit understanding that the price of admission to parties, alcohol, drugs and rides is sexual suggestion if not outright sexual acts. “Every girl knows that when you walk into a fraternity house your most valuable asset is your sex appeal.”

You walked into the party like you were walking to trade your what?

It would be disingenuous to assert this exchange is not as old as Methuselah. What’s so disturbing about it is that if the stories are to be believed, the girls, despite their protestations of liberation via hook-ups, are but mere receptacles in the one-sided transaction that is new sex.

Reciprocity comes as a surprise to them, if it occurs, and when penetration is part of the deal, they fake climax to be done with intercourse. Conjunction Junction, What’s This Dysfunction? Girls Hooking Up With No Pleasure, No Compunction?

In a “Fresh Air” interview, Orenstein told Terry Gross that hook-ups without pleasure and the girls’ idea of being hot today is “so commercialized and so linked with porn” that it leads to a disconnect between girls’ bodies and minds. Girls who “self objectify,” Orenstein said, experience less pleasure, less agency and less ability to talk to their partners about pleasure and intimacy than girls who don’t do so. Thus, if pleasure and power are what the girls are after, self-objectification is not the way to get there, she said.

Arguably the girls in the book exercise power in the initiation of their hookups. Notwithstanding non-consensual acts, the girls of “Girls and Sex” and elsewhere, are well versed in the laws of sexual attraction inasmuch as they’ve grown up with a constant barrage of sexual images and acts via television and the Internet. Sadly, the power realized in the moments it takes to get a “random” aroused and satisfied doesn’t extend past the encounter.

Even more unfortunate may be that each act of self-objectification, undermines equality for women everywhere: in the boardroom, director’s chair, legislative floor, tech start-up, science lab and manufacturing line. Will we ever be equal if we give our power away so easily and without (or even expectation of any) reward?

What if we legalize prostitution?

In a gut-wrenching New York magazine article, “Is Prostitution Just Another Job,” Mac McClelland interviews prostitutes, including a 15-year-old, one in her 40s selling sex for the second time around despite horrific violence to her as a teen and an escort in the Bay Area, who charges $400 per hour and $2,000.00 per night. The latter wanted to go to law school to fight to legalize her trade. Cheerful and confident, she likes what she does. May we all be so passionate about our work.

Skylar, who started to sell sex at 15, is the object lesson. She had her first child at 13 and needed money for food. Sex work wasn’t her first choice, but she said, “That was the only option I had because … Payless is going to hire a 15 year-old who’s going through school and has a kid?” She described clients who left encounters because at 15 they didn’t think she was young enough. Later, when she graduated from high school with three children, she was able to screen clients for safety.

Arrested before college orientation and ordered into a mandatory program for sexual exploitation, Skylar had to choose between college and going to jail because college and program classes were at the same time. This is similar to the jackpot others in courts everywhere find themselves in when they have to choose jail or a job. She chose to not go to jail but condemned the system for cutting her off at her knees, so to speak, at the very time she was getting it together.

Had Skylar gone to college, what would she have thought about free blow jobs to get into parties with no reciprocation and unpaid hook-ups with faked orgasms? Would she call herself an overachiever like one of the girls in “Girls and Sex” did (“Everyone plays this game — and since at my school we’re all overachievers we do it really well!”)? Or would she be grateful to make it out of the furthest thing from a game imaginable — alive?