Girls and Sex

Disclaimer: This is an unusual topic for my blog, and not really one that you’re going to want to read with the kids sitting near you. Just thought I should warn you in advance.

Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New LandscapeGirls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Six years ago I had a daughter who was obsessed with Disney Princesses. Ariel and Belle were her favorite people in the world, and she had a quite a collection of movies, toys and costumes related to the princesses. I always felt a frisson of disquiet about her princess obsession, and at the time, I read a book by one of my favorite authors, Peggy Orenstein, that confirmed that there was a reason why I instinctively felt that Disney Princesses were not the healthiest role models and how our culture grooms girls from the youngest ages towards sex appeal and sexualization.

Fast forward six years. I now have a daughter who is a tween. She’s starting to go through the changes of puberty (No one prepared me for how bad the mood swings are!). I am beginning to wonder what the teen and young adult years are going to be like, and as someone who has enjoyed more than one of Orenstein’s books in the past, when I saw that she had a new book, Girls and Sex, I knew I was going to want to read it. Despite her work as a researcher and journalist, I view her as, like me, a mother in the trenches.

In this book, Orenstein interviews almost 100 teen and young adult ladies about their sex lives. Orenstein explains that she didn’t really have to ask questions. These ladies were ready to talk all about their sex lives, and the truth was many of them were having a lot of sex. Young ladies that were members of sororities might be going to parties and participating in some form of sexual behavior (along with drinking many drinks) on an at least four times a week basis. Other ladies were more serious about their sex lives, but even the ones who had started out committed to purity would often abandon it as they began to have serious boyfriends. Statistically, as Orenstein points out, the average age for first sexual intercourse in the United States is seventeen, so the odds are that by the time a child graduates high school, they will have had intercourse for the first time.

Orenstein points out statistics. She gives examples from different girls lives. She draws conclusions that our hookup culture does mean that girls are having positive sexual experiences. Every girl she spoke to “every single girl—regardless of her class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation; regardless of what she wore, regardless of her appearance—had been harassed in middle school, high school, college, or, often, all three. Who, then, is truly at risk of being “distracted” at school?”

A full half of the girls that she talked to had felt pressured to have sex. Many had been raped. Some realized it. Others didn’t seem to realize it. Many who felt pressured described how they didn’t want to disappoint the guys, they wanted to be nice or they felt like they were expected to at least have oral sex.

Other girls thought they were having a good time, but they noticed that they were putting out a lot, and their sexual acts weren’t being reciprocated by the guys that they had favored with their gifts. Many times girls didn’t know how to ask for what they wanted or froze up and couldn’t ask for what they wanted or to say know to what the guys they were dating or just hooking-up with wanted.

As a reader, I was appalled by this look at high school and college culture. I was surprised by how much sex these girls were having and how many partners they were with. I was surprised to hear that oral sex was the new “third base,” and that sexual contact didn’t really count if you were drunk. If you were drunk, it wasn’t awkward because everyone knew that your emotions weren’t involved. I was shocked by how often these boys seemed to want their hook-up partners to act like porn stars. I looked up from my reading at one point and said to my husband, “I’m thinking community college or online college might not be a bad option for the kids.” It was that bad.

I was interested and brokenhearted to see how pornography and women’s liberation had factored into sexual conduct that was not at all caring and kind. If this is empowering to women, then women’s liberation is a myth. None of these girls were happy with how their sexual contact was turning out, and only the chapter on lesbian girls had girls that were truly in caring and committed relationships. It is not what I had hoped to see.

I also found it disturbing that sexual contact was often a prelude to dating. Our hookup culture now means that many high school and college age people begin to know each other with noncommittal sexual contact, and that friends with benefits is the “holy grail” of relationships. I had heard on Albert Mohler’s briefing how millennials feel that meeting a significant others parents was more intimate than having sex with their partner, and after reading this book, I can see why.

My only quibble with this book is that in the 100 or so girls that Orenstein interviews, a big part of the girls she featured in the book were tied into the fraternity/sorority campus culture. I would have liked to have experienced far more examples of girls who were not tied into sororities. I feel like by mainly representing “Greek culture” on the campus that there are many everyday sexual experiences with girls that were underrepresented as sorority girls were represented as the norm. However, having said that, I think that her statistics make for a compelling case that there is more sex going on in high school and college than most parents would like to admit.

As a parent, I think that experiencing this book will change the way that I parent both with my boys and my girls. I think that communication is a key here. The girls were very timid about communicated what they wanted or if they even wanted sexual contact. Meanwhile, the boys were only about their own pleasure. It’s every horrible stereotype brought to life. I thought a lot about how I want to teach my children (boys and girls) to be kind and generous to all those in their lives.

I also need to continue to work with my children about how to communicate their desires and still be nice. On the part of my tween daughter I received an object lesson on that a while back. She had received a set of Lego mini figures that she loved as part of her Christmas present, and she had taken them to show off and play with at a homeschool group thing. By the time she left, she had been pressured out of three of them by other kids she “wanted to be nice to.” If she’s pressured out of her favorite toys, how can I expect that she won’t be pressured to do something with her body because she “wants to be nice.” Many of the girls in this book used that very excuse for why they had had unwanted sexual contact. If that’s general feeling, I have a lot of work to do with my daughter.

The very idea makes me cringe because of my strong religious ideals. However, I must be realistic that my own children may make different choices and to be prepared to discuss with them how to make sure that their choices are truly theirs and not choices that they make out of pressure and out of the need for either pleasure or to just be nice. Many of the girls in this book started out with ideals (religious or otherwise) that they did not end up keeping because they drifted into intercourse or sexual contact, many times without truly wanting it.

It’s a very new and different world from the one that I grew up in, and reading this helped me to understand just how much things have changed in just a few years. Because of the way that it raised my awareness and made me think about my own parenting, I found it to be an excellent book to read. It was horrifying though, and very explicit, so be prepared if you choose to read this book.

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