Girls and Sex by Peggy Orenstein
For adults who really want to be honest with teens about sexuality, this is the books we’ve been waiting for. For teens–guys as well as girls–who are having trouble navigating teen sexual culture, this is the book you’ve been waiting for.
Will you enjoy reading it? Honestly, it made liberal-hearted me a bit squeamish as it covered all the bases: hook-up culture in both high school and college, including the demand on girls that they give guys whom they don’t even know blow jobs (because the current generation of teens has a mantra that this isn’t real sex)–and the need for these girls to get pretty drunk in order to allow themselves to think this was OK/normal; the culture of ‘purity pledges’ that has come as a backlash (and the research that shows that the purity pledges don’t work/that teens who take them are more likely to get pregnant than those who don’t); date rape; rape on college campuses; binge drinking and rape; sexist images and stereotyping of female bodies; pornography that degrades and objectifies women as one of the only sex education tools that teens use because they are getting ‘abstinence only’ education at school; the negative to disastrous sexual encounters that result from ‘porn-ed’ and’ abstinence-only-ed’ (painful, humiliating sexual encounters modeled after porn and tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money poured into abstinence with virtually no resulting decline in teen sex); the bizarre and very public tightrope walk girls must take between frigid prude and social-media-shamed slut.
Yes, the issues are so vast and numerous, it makes you spin. While there is discussion in the book of LGBTQIA issues (and interviews of lesbians girls), the book is largely about cisgender teens, about how girls and boys see themselves relating to one another sexually; about discomfort in challenging norms and about how to be assertive in taking back authority for one’s own body and one’s own pleasure.
Orenstein navigates the charged environment of high school and college sexual practices by interviewing over 70 girls about their experiences; she attends purity balls; she attends abstinence-only sex ed classes and classes where the discussion of sexuality is much more frank and without any judgment. Her research is eye-opening. By the time she arrives at her final chapter, which includes some suggestions for supporting girls and young women to be assertive about their sexual needs, even the faint-hearted will be agreeing with her. As she discusses the much more open and frank education that teens in Holland are given, we wish for the same for our own children. Yes, the conversations are difficult, even embarrassing for some adults (who had their own very lousy sex education as teens–so this is not a blame game). But when teens–boys and girls–are told the truth about their desires and then encouraged not to subvert them into a hook-up culture, but to form loving, respectful partnerships, everyone benefits. As it now stands–and as Girls and Sex makes very clear–the sexual culture for girls is one where girls are coerced into giving sexual pleasure to boys (often by somehow ‘owing’ oral sex to boys because they ended up at the same party) without getting any sort of sexual pleasure in return. So, uncomfortable as it is to discuss, the sexual pleasure of girls must be addressed.
Orenstein summarizes very well in her final paragraph:
“I want sexuality to be a source of self-knowledge and creativity and communication despite its potential risks. I want them to revel in their bodies’ sensuality without being reduced to it. . . . I want them to be safe from disease, unwanted pregnancy, cruelty, dehumanization, and violence. If they are assaulted, I want them to have recourse from their school administrators, employers, the courts. . . . We’ve raised a generation of girls to have a voice, to expect egalitarian treatment in the home, in the classroom, in the workplace. Now it’s time to demand that ‘intimate justice’ in their personal lives as well.”
High school housekeeping: While this is an adult book–and a very frank one–the discussions with the interviewees are about real life in high school and on college campuses. It would be sad to force you to navigate this craziness alone–but that’s what adults are doing when they hide the frank conversation and the possible solutions from you. So–I recommend that all high school students read this. Yes, boys, you need to read it, too. It will help you to understand why having sex with a passed-out girl (or boy, as in one case in the book) is rape. And it will help those of you who would never consider such a thing to understand how to talk to girls about what they want and need. So, yes, read it.