Girls & Sex — Hot topics, Cool approach

How savvy of Peggy Orenstein to choose such a provocative title for her most recent book; who wouldn’t be intrigued by something called Girls & Sex? Fortunately, the rest of the title, “Navigating the Complicated New Landscape” indicates that what will be discussed is not for those with prurient interests, but rather contains a rich discussion of the current societal conditions surrounding girls and sex in the United States. Orenstein does a skillful job of covering the complexities of the so-called “new landscape” without sounding alarmist. Each chapter incorporates components from conversations with girls who volunteered to speak with her and share their experiences with sex and sexuality. The girls’ narratives provide both a “boots on the ground” angle and a personalization that makes each topic deeply compelling. From those narratives, Orenstein adds powerful facts, a wealth of information from distinguished professionals, societal context and informed commentary.

Most parents who attend my “Prepared Parents, Confident Kids” workshops express how overwhelmed they feel because it seems like things are so different now than when they were teens:

“We didn’t have the internet!”

“All of my porn came from magazines or blurry pictures from the premium cable channels.”

“Everyone was either straight or gay.”

“Blow jobs were considered more intimate than sex!”

“How can I send my girls to college where boys are chanting “No means Yes and Yes means Anal?”

Their focus is usually on how many unfamiliar (and therefore, often, scary) topics there are and how they feel ill equipped to handle them. I reassure them that their key message — what I call their “personal mission statement” for talking with their kids about sex and sexuality — can be used as a framework for all conversations, regardless of topic. Orenstein’s book is a gift for parents to facilitate these talks since she addresses many “hot button” issues: objectification, pleasure and reciprocity, virginity, hook-up culture, consent, gender, sexual orientation and social media with the eye of a journalist, the brain of a researcher and the sentiment of a mother. This is a brave and fascinating approach.

Daring to consider pleasure in regards to teenage sexuality in the “Are We Having Fun Yet?” chapter, she quotes many girls who explain what their experiences have been like so far. Her assessment is that girls go into heterosexual sexual encounters “hoping it won’t hurt, wanting to feel close to her partner, and expecting that he will have an orgasm, then she’ll be satisfied if those criteria are met.” (p.72) The narratives again and again demonstrate that there is a disconnect between how many girls feel about their sexuality and how they think they should feel or behave. She then goes on to ask a powerful set of questions. “What if understanding one’s physical responses, truly “expressing your sexuality” instead of just impersonating sexiness, could actually raise girls’ expectations of intimate encounters? What if self-knowledge encouraged them to hold a higher standard for their experiences, both within and outside relationships?” (p.73) While I found myself nodding along with her cogent points, people who are of the “Abstinence Only” education mindset would likely be shaking their head in outrage. (I admit that this makes me smile.)

Asking questions is only one approach that Orenstein incorporates to assess the status quo. Chapter 4, “Hookups and Hang-ups,” is an overview of college campus experiences as seen through the eyes of her interviewees, the media and society. This, too, seems to be the intention of chapter 6, “Blurred Lines, Take Two” (which seems like a partner chapter to chapter four) for her to delve more deeply into consent, rape, and alcohol. Instead of contributing to the ongoing hand-wringing about hook-up culture (and the role alcohol plays), the discussion in these chapters should lead to insightful and potentially galvanizing conversations between parents and their children. Recognizing the many layers at work will help to not only better prepare kids who are college-bound, but may change the tenor of the broader scope of discussions in our society.

It could (and likely will) be argued that “Girls & Sex” is too heteronormative/heterocentric, doesn’t give enough specifics or actual tools to help people (parents or teens) “navigate,” and that her reliance on personal narratives does not incorporate a broad enough scope. Others may quibble at the use of “girls” instead of “women/young women.” Still others may argue that the topics do not receive equal treatment or that some deserve more facts or statistics.

My response is that all books cannot be all things to all people, and I am impressed and inspired by how effectively Orenstein covers so much content and keeps it accessible, rich and honest. Her approach is a welcome one for those of us working hard to promote inclusive, comprehensive and fact-based sexuality education. As a sexuality educator who runs workshops for parents who just want to know “HOW can I help them navigate/talk with my kids about sex and sexuality?”, I will encourage parents to consider this an incredible resource.

Her conclusion about one thing that parents can do is the same as mine: have open and ongoing conversations, focusing on truth, facts and values. And a key part of that truth, besides the “mechanics” (parts and acts) and safety (including assault, abuse, STI and pregnancy prevention) is that sex can be — and ought to be — pleasurable. As Orenstein writes, we must teach them, “how to ensure reciprocity, respect and agency regardless of the context of a sexual encounter” (p.112) and as parents we must “forge ahead with discussions (that’s multiple discussions) that include ideas about healthy relationships, communication, satisfaction, joy, mutuality, ethics, and yes, toe-curling bliss.” (p.236)

Yes to that, and yes to Girls & Sex.

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