Book Review: 'Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape' by Peggy Orenstein
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.
Peggy Orenstein is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Time, Mother Jones, Slate, and The New Yorker. She has written four other non-fiction books including the 2012 bestseller, Cinderella Ate My Daughter.
In Girls & Sex, Orenstein relies on existing studies and personal interviews to paint a very complex picture of how girls see themselves sexually. She managed to conduct in-depth interviews with almost 100 young women between the ages of 15 and 20.
I don’t claim to reflect the experience of all young women. My interview subjects were either in college or college bound— I specifically wanted to talk to those who felt they had all options open to them, the ones who had most benefited from women’s economic and political progress. They were also self-selected.
The majority was white, but many were Asian American, Latina, African American, Arab American, or mixed race. About 10 percent identified as lesbian or bisexual, though most, particularly those still in high school, had not acted on their attraction to other girls. Two were physically disabled.
But before she can begin discussing her findings, she has to write the standard, “not all boys do it” disclaimer. She makes it clear that many boys support the girls. But even so, every single girl that Orenstein interviewed admitted that she had been “harassed in middle school, high school, college, or, often all three.”
This leads to a discussion of cat-calling and societal pressure regarding body image and attire that young girls face, from the wasp-waisted Disney princesses of their childhood to the need, at the high school and college level, to look “hot.” This self-objectification can lead to a myriad of issues including eating disorders, depression, reduced cognitive function, and risky sexual behaviors. It has also “been correlated with lower political efficacy: the idea that you can have an impact in the public forum, that you can bring about change.”
Consider a report released by Princeton University in 2011 exploring the drop over the previous decade in public leadership positions held by female students. Among the reasons these über-elite young women gave for avoiding such roles was that being qualified was not enough. They needed to be “smart, driven, involved in many different activities (as are men), and, in addition, they are supposed to be pretty, sexy, thin, nice, and friendly.” Or, as one alumna put it, women had to “do everything, do it well, and look ‘hot’ while doing it.”
Today’s girls are growing up in a hypersexualized world. Pop divas, the internet, and social media have changed the way young girls see themselves. Their lives appear to need to be recorded, liked, and shared on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram before they become real to them. Pop stars like Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus—are they expressing or exploiting their sexuality? But even more important is the question of:
... why the choices for women remain so narrow, why the fastest route to the top as a woman in a sexist entertainment world is to package your sexuality, preferably in the most extreme, attention-getting way as possible.
When Orenstein discusses oral sex with her subjects, it quickly becomes clear that by oral sex, they pretty much only mean fellatio. Although some of her interviewees claimed to enjoy the ability to give a man pleasure, none of them ever reported physically enjoying the act itself. (As a matter of fact, when talking about sex, men talk about pleasure and orgasm. Women talk about an absence of pain.)
Oral sex has increased in popularity partly as a result of the federally mandated abstinence-only education that focused on how dangerous sexual intercourse could be in an era of AIDS and other STDs. Blow jobs appeared to offer a “work-around” and have now been linked to rising rates of Type 1 herpes and gonorrhea. Of course, girls don't engage in fellatio to avoid STDs—the No. 1 reason they give it is to improve their relationships. It is a way to gain popularity without earning the slut label that sexual intercourse would garner. They have to walk a tightrope to avoid being considered either a prude or a slut.
There is virtually no reciprocity in oral sex, and the girls seem to be okay with that. Orenstein finds that a lack of knowledge about their own bodies is a major part of this inequality in oral sex. Girls may be taught how to avoid pregnancy, but they have no clue about their own sexual organs and how they can provide pleasure.
Even the most comprehensive sex education classes stick with a woman’s internal parts—uteri, tubes, ovaries. Those classic diagrams of a woman’s reproductive system, the ones shaped like the head of a steer, blur into a gray Y between the legs, as if the vulva and the labia, let alone the clitoris, don’t exist. Imagine not clueing a twelve-year-old boy into the existence of his penis! And whereas males’ puberty is characterized by ejaculation, masturbation and the emergence of a near-unstoppable sex drive, females’ is defined by…periods. And the possibility of unwanted pregnancy. Where is the discussion of girls’ sexual development? When do we talk to girls about desire and pleasure? When do we explain the miraculous nuances of their anatomy? When do we address exploration, self-knowledge? No wonder boys’ physical needs seem inevitable to teens while girls’ are, at best, optional.
In All the Single Ladies, Rebecca Traister pointed out that the new median age for a first marriage is now 27. That leaves a lot of time for relationships other than serious ones. And so the hookup culture “acts as a kind of buffer, a placeholder until the time for more official adult partnerships begins.” A hookup can include anything from a goodnight kiss to anal sex. But they are always a matter of casual sex, no strings attached. Orenstein points out that they are not the first generation to indulge in casual sex—that would be the Baby Boomers, the first to have access to birth control and the sexual revolution (we also had women’s liberation, which taught us all that girls today do not learn in sex ed). The big difference between then and now is that now, if a relationship develops, sex comes before the first date. But most girls do not want an emotional relationship from casual hookups.
With years of single life still ahead of them, many want to focus their energy on “self-development”: pursuing academic, personal, and professional goals or hanging out with friends. Parents, too, have urged them to focus on ambition rather than romance. Hookups allow them to do all that while still enjoying an active sex life. Besides, how many times can you— or do you want to— fall in love?
Of course, no book about girls and sex can ignore sexual assault—especially on college campuses. Peggy Orenstein, using tales of her interview subjects as well as statistics, covers the entire spectrum from mildly coercive behavior to outright rape. She also covers how campuses respond, or fail to respond, to reports of assault.
She devotes an entire chapter to LGBTQ teens and how the internet has impacted their lives (in many cases being the first place today’s teens come out, and clearly being a place where they have gained information and support). On college campuses there are gender warriors, challenging the gender binary. But a lack, once again, of decent sex ed left more than one of the interviewees wondering if perhaps she was transgender.
Some of Amber’s reasons for questioning her gender identity were similarly retrograde: they included being more dominant in bed, standing up for herself, planning to pursue a career in business, and hating to cook. Nor was Amber the only young lesbian I met who wondered whether her clothing and attitudes meant she was actually male.
When we’ve defined femininity for their generation so narrowly, in such a sexualized, commercialized, heteroeroticized way, where is the space, the vision, the celebration of other ways to be a girl?
Orenstein does not claim to have all of the answers, but she has some very good suggestions—one of which is to move to the Netherlands. If that is not possible, there is still a lot we can learn from the way they teach their children about sex. They teach not just about sex, but pleasure, intimacy, and the importance of a loving relationship. And they teach it to boys and girls.
Today most boys and girls in the age cohort that Orenstein examines appear to acquire a great deal of their sexual knowledge not from their parents or their schools in sex ed classes, but from online pornography. While online porn is good for a variety of situations and people, it cannot be considered an educational resource. Our children really deserve better.
Buy or borrow the book. Read it. Then sit down with your children and have that talk that they actually want. They want to know not just about the mechanics of sexual intercourse, but about intimacy and love, and how to build a relationship. And they want to hear it from their parents.