Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein (Harper, 2016) 301 pages

SAG Orenstein

Last time, I looked at Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls, so this will be a good comparison of books dealing with similar content read more or less back-to-back. I have to say, I liked Orenstein’s breezy style a lot more than Sales’ more formal and “this is really a serious issue” approach. Also, as I mentioned, Sales’ book has chapters organized by age, from 13 to 19, which suggests boundaries that, in my experience, are more in the eye of the beholder than deeply embedded in reality.

I read this book because I liked Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter book from a few years ago. Here, the author, as parent of a young girl, examines the whole “Disney princess” culture and the potential negative effects this “little girl as royalty” might have on girls as they grew up.

Orenstein’s book has chapters organized by theme. So one chapter investigates whether girls today are encouraged to consider themselves as sex objects (only when they want to be, the chapter title suggests) while another explores if the term “virgin” has any meaning when sexual activity, even for very young teens, is much more adventurous that it was not too long ago.

Instead of an age progression based on social media and technology use, Orenstein uses conversations with girls of many ages (but still mainly teens) to structure chapters revolving around sex, from hookups to coming out at a young age as a lesbian to friends and parents. Orenstein does not form judgments often, except perhaps when it comes to the role of alcohol in campus rape scenarios. She doesn’t moan when girls report that being known as a “prude” or a “virgin” might be just as shameful as being called a “slut” (p.3).

In fact, the book begins with a plea on the part of a well-endowed high-school girl that it should not be her (and other girls’) responsibility to “dress to control the boys” (p.9). Why should it be? she asks. Why isn’t the school and the boy’s parents doing more to have boys control themselves? It seems a pertinent question when 100% of girls report being sexually harassed (p.11) and most girls have resorted to wearing shorts under their school uniform skirts because the boys will not refrain from grabbing at the hems and lifting them up. Why aren’t boys encouraged in ads and on TV to wear tight shorts and expose their midsections in freezing weather (p.12)?

As Orenstein points out on p.14, Bruce Jenner, covered in Olympic sweat, used his body, but Caitlin Jenner, covered by a corset from “Trashy Lingerie,” displayed it. And many times, what girls are encouraged to do is to use their bodies to please boys, through sexual activity. Girls in middle school will strip on Skype for their boyfriends, because this remote display was one way to be a “bad girl” without the risks of “real sex” (p.23).

You can find the same kinds of perhaps surprising or even shocking statistics here as in Sales’ book: the new second base is masturbating the boy’s penis while he fingers the girl (p.47), 12-year-olds routinely ask health teachers if they should spit or swallow (p. 48), the concern about queefing (look it up: it was on South Park…p.63), girls are pressured to shave their public hair about the age of 14 (p. 67), and do on.

On the other hand, Orenstein does a very good job of dealing with the perils of date rape and campus drinking. She ties a lot of it in to the concerns about what the book calls “the number”…that is, how many sexual partners are too many (p.98). The book says that the average number of partners a girl has in college is seven. (p.105). But like many averages, a few really high or low numbers might skew the results.

This book goes places where the other book did not travel much. There is a long section on a “Purity Ball” where fathers take their daughters to dances and exchange vows of virginity until marriage vows are exchanged (p.84 on). Like the author, I got a bit of a queasy feeling about this strident display of rejecting all forms of intimacy. If there’s anything that perpetuates the view of a female as the possession of a man, it’s the idea that these girls have to be chaperoned by their fathers (or another close male relative) until they can be safely handed off their husbands (and later, their sons).

There are also long sections on women who have been raped (p.130) and gay sexuality (p.142). The age when girls came out as gay has dropped from about 25 in 1991 to 14-16 today (p.148). One issue I had is that Orenstein tends to split the stories up as she goes through her narrative, so a woman goes on a date on one page, gets drink ten pages later, then wakes up naked more pages later. Some schools have begun teaching “refusal skills” so that fewer women will have unwanted sexual activity (the FBI definition of rape) and still feel compelled to say (as the woman on p.197) to the boy, “Thanks, I had fun.”

The book ends with a frank discussion of how modern society is failing to give women and girls the tools they need to succeed in their relationships. Girls are still more likely to learn “what feels good” when they are touched not by themselves, but from someone else (p.205). There is more consideration in ordering a pizza for a couple (“Ok, you don’t like anchovies…”) than there is about sex (p.207).

Orenstein is not afraid of tangling her sex talk with politics. Once we decided to teach only abstinence in schools, we lost all chance of teaching our children to be responsible at the same time. We expect teens to break rules, but not the ones regarding the denial of their sexual natures (p.221).

On the other hand, I have a hard time agreeing with people that women who post naked photos are “empowered” by their sexuality. I say this because I think the female body has been so fetishized in modern America that an objective appreciation of the nude female form is all but impossible today. I think that a woman (or man, for that matter) should be able to walk down the street naked if they want too and not be at risk of any harm. But we are a long way from that, I think. At this point, I’ll be happy enough to hear about a boy covering a drunken girl with a blanket and staying with her until she sobers up.