Uncomfortable as it may be for parents to ponder, today’s girls – from high school through college – are facing an entirely new sexual landscape that includes the strong influence of pornography and highly sexualized celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, the rise of casual sex, hookup culture, realities of assault, and much more.
California-based journalist Peggy Orenstein examines these issues and more in her buzzworthy new book, Girls & Sex, drawing on in-depth interviews with over 70 young women and a wide range of psychologists, academics, and experts to provide insight as to how girls are navigating this complex new world, and what parents can do to help.
Parenting Times recently spoke with Orenstein about her book, a must-read for parents.
What were the pressing questions and concerns that spurred you to delve into the hidden truths of girls’ sex lives?
Honestly, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time. If you went back to my first book, to Schoolgirls, you’d see that I was sort of playing with the ideas in that book, I was playing with the ideas in my next book.
And Cinderella Ate My Daughter, the book just previous to this one, was really about how the commercialized pink and sparkly girly-girl culture was teaching girls objectification, basically; it was teaching them that how they looked was more important than who they were. And my idea was that it was going to have impact down the road.
I’m a mom now. I have a daughter who is almost 13, and I was thinking about these issues around her, and I was listening to my friends with older kids who were telling me stories about the hookup culture and sexting and binge drinking and – there’s a way when you’re the parent of a younger kid that you want to just not hear it, because parenting from ignorance and fear is always an excellent idea.
I’m not a “don’t want to deal with it” kind of a person, I’m a “let’s make it better before she gets there” kind of a person. So I wanted to check it out.
The other thing that made the book so relevant, particularly relevant right now, was that we were having this umbrella conversation in the culture around sexual assault on campus. That is a really, really crucial conversation, but it really should be the beginning point rather than an end point.
We weren’t asking what happened after “yes.” That was the piece I wanted to look at: how were girls – what they think, attitudes, ideas, experiences with consensual sex – were those skewing ideas towards healthy relationships, healthy sexuality, or were they in some way contributing to what we were seeing on campus.
In high school too, I might add, we just don’t talk about it as much in high school.
“Intimate justice” is an intriguing term that appears throughout the book. Can you talk about what that means?
We know who washes the dishes or who vacuums the rugs in your home. It’s a personal decision, but it’s also a political decision, it takes place in a cultural context.
And in the same way, sex has those politics in it and it brings up these questions of personal power and mental health and violence and economic disparity and all those other things.
What intimate justice wants us to do is to ask who is entitled to engage in a sexual experience, who is entitled to enjoy that experience, how each partner defines good enough, and who’s the primary beneficiary of the experience.
Frankly, those things are tricky for adult women to confront — and I think that’s part of the issue.
When we’re talking about young girls and these formative experiences that they’re going to have, I just didn’t want early experiences to be something that girls have to “get over.”
You write that “women grow up in a porn-saturated, image-centred, commercialized culture …” reflecting on the rise of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, and the emergence of social media, sexting, etc. How does all this factor in girls’ behaviour and perceptions of sex?
The pressure on girls to present as “hot,” and hot being valued before anything else. “Hot,” which is a very narrow, very commercial, very superficial idea of attractive and sexy.
That pressure is ubiquitous and whereas an earlier generation of moms, Gen X moms or Baby Boom moms, might have pushed back against that as self-objectification, it’s now sold to girls as empowering, and as the source of confidence as long as they are supposedly in control of it, which is a very tricky, tricky interpretation.
Every girl knows she’s going to get more likes in a bikini picture than a picture with a parka on. One girl said to me, she was showing me a picture of herself going out to a party in a crop top and a miniskirt on and sky-high heels, and she said, “I’m proud of my body,” which is the constant refrain, “and I never feel more liberated than when I wear skimpy clothing.”
But then a few minutes later, she said she never would have worn that outfit a year earlier, because she was 25 pounds heavier, and in her words, she said: “I’d be afraid the jerky boy would call me a ‘fat girl,’ and that would be bad for my mental health.”
You have to ask: How liberating is this if ridicule lurks just around the corner?
There is years and decades of research on the negative impact of self-objectification on girls; on their mental health, on their cognitive performance, on their emotional wellbeing, and perhaps the most ironic bait-and-switch: in their sexual satisfaction.
Girls that are more self-objectifying are less likely to be sexually satisfied, because they’re so engaged in body monitoring. So more often than not, when I talked to girls, that confidence came off with their clothes.
I think there’s this fundamental disconnect that I’ve been looking at since Cinderella Ate My Daughter — between a culture that is littered with female body parts, used to sell everything, everything sexualized, sex everywhere, drenched, drenched, drenched – and absolute silence around honest, truthful, connected conversation between adults and kids around sexuality.
I was particularly fascinated by the point you made about objectification and how so many young women are claiming it as a personal choice – as with casual sex, hookups, and so on. In doing so, they’re waving the empowerment flag, but it seems rather hollow.
Because they choose to do it. Of course, it feels good to show off the right body. But it’s a very narrow little band of what’s OK there, and it’s constantly based on how other people are perceiving you. And it’s body first.
When I talk to women about Kim Kardashian and they say, “Well, Kim’s in control of her image, and she’s choosing to do this,” that’s confusing. That’s really confusing for young women.
“So why isn’t that empowering? She’s making a ton of money, she’s a business mogul, she’s a heck of a lot richer than I am.”
I think it can be deconstructing for women. What the argument online devolves into is: Kim is a feminist or Kim is a slut. Those are not the only two options. Those should not be the only two options.
The term that I came across around that, to explain her, was “patriarchal bargain.” It was another one of those terms: “now, I get it. Now I know how to understand this.”
What that is is the idea of accepting the rules and roles that typically disadvantage women, and grabbing all the power you can, out of those roles and rules, without changing them.
What Kim has just done is made a brilliant and lucrative patriarchal bargain. And if you can understand it that way, yeah, that is a choice. That’s absolutely a choice. But it’s not a choice that broadens or empowers anyone beyond her. She’s not doing anybody any favours.
She’s a great businesswoman. She has taken something that typically is a problem for women, this constant body monitoring, and she’s making a lot of money off it! That’s a trick as old as time, though. There’s nothing new about that. Women have been doing that forever.
She’s following the rules for women, and so yes, she will be rewarded for that, until she doesn’t look right anymore, and then she’s going to have to do more and more plastic surgery.
And then you on social media, getting the same kind of rewards, if you do some version of that. It’s very, very confusing, and it’s very, very hard to resist because you will be rewarded. To a point.
If girls are always trying to find a comfortable spot to sit between, as one girl said to me, usually the opposite of a negative is a positive. With sex, it’s two negatives: you’re a slut or you’re a prude.
So they’re trying to find the spot to be, and Kim has given them one spot to land and they defend her because it feels like they’re being attacked for doing what the culture tells them to do.
The culture tells them to enjoy their sexuality, and be as sexy as possible, then when they do it, they get called a slut. That makes them mad.
They see that she has beaten them at their own game. She has not changed anything, but she has beaten a certain kind of criticism by embracing it and flaunting it. And I understand why that would make somebody feel vindicated. But I don’t think it’s going down a path that’s useful, ultimately.
They’re reacting to some very real limits and contradictions and social justice dilemmas that they face growing up in the female body. And I think the best that we can do is look at the culture that pushes girls to value themselves, first and foremost, by how hot they can be, and looking at ideas about self-objectification and talking to girls about it, and not demonizing the girls, but understanding the culture.
What do parents need to know in order to open a healthy dialogue about sex?
One of the things that really struck me in looking at the research on how parents talk to kids about sex was that despite what they say, kids actually want us to talk to them, and particularly around the emotional and relational ideas around sex; and number 2, is looking at the difference between the way American parents and Dutch parents talk about sex with their kids, because the outcomes were so very different between American college girls and Dutch college girls and how they talked about their early experience with sexuality.
The Dutch girls had everything that we would want for our daughters: fewer negative consequences like pregnancy, disease, regret, drunkenness and more positive consequences like delaying intercourse, having fewer partners, enjoying their experiences more, positive body image, being able to communicate with their partners, who they know very well; all those things.
But that’s not what the American girls had at all, and the difference was that parents, teachers and doctors talked very frankly and honestly and openly about ideas around sex to their kids, the Dutch ones, from a very early age. And particularly the parents — whereas American parents tend to talk to their kids about risk and danger, the Dutch parents talk about balancing responsibility and joy. And I think that’s one of the big takeaways.
It is not enough to warn your child about all the bad things that could happen to them. I think it’s really useful to ask: what do you want for your child? What is the positive vision that you have for how they engage? We define sex so narrowly as intercourse, and you can’t do that, you have to think about oral sex, you have to think about manual sex, you have to think about touching, kissing, all these things. Everything along the line.
You want your daughter to feel in control of her experience, you want her to enjoy her experience, you want it to be intimate, you want it to be trusting, you want it to be satisfying. Think of those things. So how are you going to get there? The only way to get there is to talk to her about it.
One of the things I talk about in the book is the psychological clitoridectomy we perform on our daughters: we don’t talk about the clitoris. When babies are born, we tend to only name all the parts on boy babies.
You learn about that thing that looks like a steer head between your legs, and it greys out between the legs, and you never hear the word “labia” and you never hear the word “clitoris. “ No surprise, fewer than half of 14-to 17-year-old girls have never masturbated. And then they go into partnered experiences, and again, from that intimate justice perspective, we have set them up for inequality.
We have taken their pleasure out of the equation. Why are they there? They’re there to serve boys’ pleasure. It’s not about them. We have taught them that it’s not about them.
We have done that out of some misguided idea that if we tell girls that they have a capacity for sexual pleasure, they might then want to check that out.
Part of the reason this book has caused such an explosion is that I don’t think anybody thought about it. I don’t think that a lot of parents were necessarily against at least talking to their daughter about it — we just did what we were told.
We just haven’t re-evaluated in any useful way. We went into this long, dark age of abstinence-only education, which we’re still fighting. It’s not over. There’s more data to fight.
Later in your book, we hear from a youth advocate who says “Sexual activity should be a source of pleasure for teenagers” – for many, this is a hugely controversial notion.
I’m not saying that all kids should be going out and having intercourse. Most girls probably aren’t going to enjoy that, regardless of whether we’re sex-positive or sex-negative. It’s not that much fun for teenage girls generally.
Sex is a pool of experiences that involve touch and affection and desire and attraction and sensuality and pleasure and orgasm and intimacy and all of these things, and what they learn instead is that it’s a race to a goal, or around some bases or whatever it is that they use as their metaphor.
I am not in any way advocating hedonism or promiscuity. I’m advocating that if girls had more sense of what they deserved, if they had more knowledge about their bodies, if they had more control and agency within their bodies, I think they would actually be more particular about their sexual experiences, by defining them and engaging in them.
It’s all about girls being not present in their bodies. Part of the solution is, when we talk to kids about sex, not focusing on intercourse as the line in the sand between experience and innocence, which, among other things, completely negates gay teens, and also, it’s so broad – you’re sexual when you hold hands with somebody. You’re sexual when you caress and kiss. All these things are sexual.
It’s about these learning experiences of enjoying and learning about your body and someone else’s body and learning about what that means – it’s not about checking off your bucket list.
As a parent, you’d like it to be about intimacy and caring and affection and all these other things. Communicating our own values. It’s about sex, but it’s about everything: it’s about decision-making, it’s about how you handle a difficult situation, it’s about understanding, it’s about respect for other people, how we treat other people. We spend a lot of time teaching our kids about respectful treatment of other people in every other realm. Clearly, there’s a lot of disrespect going on in this realm.
It’s interesting to note the recent changes to Ontario’s Health and Physical Education curriculum, with its focus on sexual health, including “a thorough understanding of sexual consent and respecting other people’s boundaries, including social, emotional and legal implications of posting or forwarding sexually explicit photos (sexting).” It’s been met with some opposition and controversy. Some parents have even threatened to pull their kids out of school.
It’s still kind of focused on negative, isn’t it? It’s still risk- and damage-control.
You don’t walk into an English test without knowing what book the exam’s going to be on. But we let kids walk into these parties, and walk into their sexual experiences, with no clue. We don’t give them the critical thinking skills that we cultivate in the academic realm, and in the personal realm.
I’m not sure what people are afraid of when they’re protesting a curriculum like this. If they took one look at other countries, if they looked at France, the Netherlands, Sweden, they would see the outcomes when you have positive comprehensive sex education that talks about balancing responsibility and joy; that starts when kids are really little, talking about families and babies and caring for babies and moves on to encompass more and more nuanced and more overtly sexual ideas – that only ends up with better outcomes. It’s just clear. Everything that we know is that that is a good idea.
So what is the fear? The fear is that if we tell our kids about sex, that they’re going to have it? That doesn’t seem to be affected in either direction by sex education, whether it’s abstinence education or comprehensive education.
It does affect the rates of disease transmission, it does affect the rates of pregnancy, and I think it’s affecting consent and coercion issues. I think we have allowed, with a culture that is so sexualized, whether it’s movies, music or porn or advertising, we’ve allowed that to educate our kids.
No one is more important and influential in the discussion of sex than parents. In the book, you write about how as a mom, you find the idea of your child being sexually active mortifying – I can totally relate.
I don’t have a hard time imagining that anymore. I really want her to enjoy her sexuality. It’s a process of learning how to do it.
Two years into writing the book, I realized I had never told my daughter what the book was about. I was embarrassed; I didn’t want to talk to her about it. We’ve gone from that to talking really openly about masturbation and about oral sex and all these things.
I think there was also a period where I was just so worried that I was going to way overload on scary stuff. I think I’ve broken through that now to thinking: I really want to focus on what I do want for her. And that is my long game.
So what do I say to her as she gets older? What do I want to say to her that will help her with her decision-making. That will help her with her framework. That will help her be responsible. That will help her make choices that are enjoyable and reciprocal and affectionate and communicative. I just keep asking myself those questions, and just little by little, opening the door.
Another section of your book I found particularly interesting was the reference to the father-daughter Purity Balls. I agree that there is some positivity in the dads’ engagement, and a discussion of values relating to sex, where in so many cases, the dads just don’t engage on that level at all. And, as you point out, moms are often not much better. What’s important for dads to know about how to engage in sex-related discussions in a progressive, not regressive, and not sexist or judgmental way?
Just be that dad who expresses what a relationship ought to be to your daughter. How she should be treated and valued. How she should value herself. How you as a father value her mother. Seeing those things has a deep impact on how girls perceive relationships. Not retreating, and continuing to really model that idea of “You are not there to serve boys’ needs.”
I also think that fathers can be really useful with helping daughters learn how to articulate their wants and needs and limits, not just sexually, but period. That’s something that’s very hard for women to do. Knowing what you want, being able to say what you want, being able to say “stop that,” being able to say “yes” — I think fathers can help their daughters learn those skills.
I really enjoyed the pizza-sex metaphor and the idea of helping young girls and guys view sex as a shared experience, rather than someone simply “rounding the bases.” Can you talk about that?
The bases are a ways to a goal. You can’t just say: “Gee, I think I’ll hang out at first. This feels good.” It’s a coercive metaphor. It’s inherently coercive. And pizza, by contrast, is an experience that we all know you share with somebody.
You choose: whether you’re going to go out to pizza together, you negotiate the toppings. Every body knows you shouldn’t shove a piece of pizza down somebody’s throat if they don’t want it. It’s a metaphor that’s about a shared experience.
If you talk to teenagers about that, that’s a really concrete thing they can think about and a shift they can make. In baseball, there’s winners and losers. In sex, who’s the winner supposed to be?
*This interview has been condensed and edited.