Moral panics about female sexuality seem nearly old as humanity itself: Eve, the original victim of slut-shaming. In more recent times, furors have erupted over casual sex on college campuses, the media-fueled tizzy around "rainbow parties" (supposedly rampant oral sex events involving high school girls and boys). Kids and adults alike tend to inflate teenage sexual activity to comical proportions, but as journalist Peggy Orenstein's "Girls & Sex" documents, "it's not exactly the fall of Rome out there."
The problem with teen sex isn't the quantity but the quality of it, especially for young women. Orenstein's book sketches a sobering portrait of their maturation into sexual self-hood through interviews with more than 70 young women, ages 15-20, discussing aspects of sexuality, including the stigma of virginity, the thorny politics of "looking hot" and the blurred lines of sexual consent.
"Girls & Sex" is a sequel of sorts to Orenstein's "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" (2011) — her investigation into the marketing of corporatized femininity to children — and "Schoolgirls" (1995), which examined self-esteem among adolescents. "Girls & Sex" moves into the later teen years, relaying how girls explore a social terrain studded with conflicting expectations about their behavior yet blanketed in premeditated silences around their pleasure and agency.
Orenstein cites her own adolescent daughter and nieces as inspirations to write the book, and likewise, my 11-year-old daughter was a reason I wanted to read it. She's just coming into her own awareness about sex, and I wanted to anticipate what lies ahead. As you may imagine, it's not reassuring.
The young women Orenstein interviews are trying to become sexual subjects amid pressures to serve as sexualized objects. Men go unburdened with these contradictions, but as one of her older interviewees insists, "every college girl's dream" is finding a balance between being "just slutty enough, where you're not a prude but you're not a whore." Welcome to the new Sophie's choice.
Orenstein notes that the roots of this maddening double standard partly lie in societal expectations for women to uphold the moral standard for both sexes; a woman's modesty is treated as "the inertia that stops the velocity of male libido." In the U.S., the sexual revolution of the 1960s created more leeway for many adult women, but the book chronicles how panicked parents and lawmakers "responded by treating teen sex as a health crisis." Since the 1980s, that hysteria has given rise to $1.7 billion in federal spending for abstinence-only sex education that has been derided as an utter failure.
In short, a host of social institutions failed or abdicated their responsibility to foster an honest discussion with youth about any aspect of sex besides its perils. That void's been left to be filled by mass media, especially a culture of pornography that Orenstein claims is predicated on "eroticizing the degradation of women." Young women experience little encouragement to understand their bodies, let alone desires, and instead grow up to associate sex as an act of "pleasing" bereft of their own pleasure. Orenstein brutally assesses this state of affairs: "We'd performed the psychological equivalent of a clitoridectomy on our daughters."
At its most pernicious, this atmosphere of sex negativity doesn't only discourage women from exploring what they want from sex, it also shades into a reluctance to state what they don't want. The issue of consent and sexual assault is Orenstein's most recurrent theme, and she states within the first few pages that half of her interviewees "had experienced something along the spectrum of coercion to rape." At least on college campuses, "public-witness bearing" by assault survivors alongside student activism and Title IX lawsuits have forced action by legislators and administrators, including "affirmative consent/'yes means yes'" policies that several states, including California, have implemented. Importantly, Orenstein stresses that while these changes hold promise, men must be held responsible for preventing sexual assault while women should be encouraged to master "assertiveness and self-advocacy [as] crucial defensive skills."
Surprisingly, though Orenstein insists that "nearly all the girls I interviewed are bright, assertive, ambitious" they rarely appear as such. Part of her point is to highlight that as confident as they may be in other parts of their lives, they're ill-prepared for sexual situations. But it's discouraging that the most self-actualized women she profiles tend to be adult researchers and educators rather than her teen interviewees.
Relatedly, Orenstein's tone can be slightly parental and smacking of middle-class respectability. Within the spectrum of "sex-positivity" she leans more center-left than radical, and there's a subtle air of disapproval in how she discusses such topics as porn, hooking up and especially anal sex, which is always framed negatively.
More concerning is how most of her interviewees seem like younger versions of herself: white, well educated and upper middle class. Included is the standard boilerplate that she doesn't "claim to represent the experience of all young women," but Orenstein also justifies her exclusive focus on collegiate or college-bound students by describing them as those who "had all options open to them, the ones who had most benefited from women's economic and political progress." That's premised on a rather staid notion of "progress" solely centered on the experiences of middle-class white women. Elided are the generations of both the working class and women of color who've had to negotiate sex, desire and power with different challenges, strategies and outcomes.
All this said, I appreciated Orenstein's bluntness, especially around the role that parents must play. As a dad, it was disconcerting to know that only two of her respondents "had ever had a substantive conversation about sex with their fathers." I'd like to flatter myself and my wife as being less taciturn: Our 11-year-old already has her own copy of "The New Our Bodies, Ourselves," and we don't censor ourselves when she has questions about sex. But as Orenstein makes clear, we won't be the only ones shaping her sexual self-hood. What will she learn from her peers? From pop culture? From her first boy/girlfriends? If assertiveness and self-advocacy are survival skills, they need to be encouraged at home but reinforced elsewhere.
As least for now, these concerns can feel more abstract than immediate. When I first brought "Girls & Sex" home, my daughter saw the title and loudly proclaimed, "ewwwwww!" She's still at that age where sex is mysterious enough to perk her curiosity yet weird enough to be discomforting. We both could laugh at her reaction. Yet I know that sex will get more serious soon enough, and I wonder how well prepared either of us will be when that moment arrives.
Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape
Harper: 336 pages, $26.99