I had the enormous pleasure of speaking recently with Peggy Orenstein about her groundbreaking, insightful, and thoughtful book Girls & Sex, in which she interviewed high school and college girls about their relationships. Orenstein was just as smart and informative in person, and she graciously answered my questions about her book, which I’ve been recommending wholeheartedly to parents all year.
Peggy Orenstein: For me it’s really about starting a conversation, and giving parents and teenagers a neutral space in which they could read about what was going on in teenagers’ lives and read about it in teenagers’ own words. They could use it as a launching off point to have a conversation themselves about sexuality that was often hard for us to have as parents.
As you were talking to these high school and college girls, what assumptions did you have that they challenged or overturned during your conversations with them?
I have to admit that I blew my first couple interviews because I wasn’t prepared for what I was hearing on the issue of the lack of reciprocity. And I think I betrayed such surprise that I frightened the young women I was talking to, and they would never talk to me again. I had to really learn how to talk to young women in a way that was not judgmental and so that I could really hear them and validate their experience. What was the most surprising to me was this idea that we’ve raised this generation of young women who have such a strong voice, who are ambitious, have high professional aspirations for themselves, and leaning in like crazy, but they’re still toppling in their personal lives—they felt like they were entitled to engage sexually but not entitled to enjoy it.
That’s why those first couple interviews were hard for me—it was hard for me to hear that. Some people would say to me, “Well, hasn’t it always been hard for women to be sexually self-actualizing?” and I thought, “Well, when we have changed so much else in the public realm for girls and women, why is this the one place where we’re willing to say, ‘Oh, never mind, it doesn’t matter since this is the way that it was 100 years’?”
When I was reading your book, I was wondering what boys and young men are thinking as well, and what struggles they are going through.
I think that boys have expectations and assumptions that are imposed on them too. There was one study that I looked at called Not Under My Roof that compared Dutch and American teens, and one thing she found with boys was that American boys said they wanted love but they thought that that was a personal quirk. Dutch boys said, “Well, of course you want to be in love with your partner. My father taught me that.” So I think there’s a lot of pressure on boys in a culture that objectifies women and tells men that girls’ limits are a challenge that men are supposed to push past, to be aggressive and to be adversarial. And I don’t know that boys want that either.
I feel like as a parent I didn’t realize that so much of my job was going to be managing media and the impact of media on my child. I think this has been a central shift in responsibilities for parents of our generation. We weren’t raised to know how to do that. We didn’t know it was going to happen and it took us by surprise. And part of that media managing is around gender roles and sexuality. Whether it’s talking about the tyranny of the need to be “hot” for girls and how it affects them, or the tyranny of porn on boys and girls and how it changes their expectations of sexuality, managing the media and their message is critical.
When I grew up, we were lucky to have sex education classes, but it was all about not getting diseases and not getting pregnant. You learned the mechanics of what you thought would be good sex through porn, because you had no idea how else to figure it out.
Absent information from parents and absent information from schools, kids turn to porn. Now it means they have a 24/7 ability to access porn, and to access it at a younger age, and to see porn that was much more explicit—and that forms their expectations of what sex is supposed to be. Girls said that to me all the time: “I didn’t know how the parts fit together, so I looked it up on porn.” There’s research that showed that 60% of college students looked at porn as part of sex ed., even though 75% of them knew that it was as realistic as pro wrestling. And given that the purpose of porn is male gratification (aside from the occasional feminist porn site), the role of women is to perform for men. So it gives you a skewed impression of sex, of women’s bodies, of women’s pleasure, such as women are immediately and infinitely orgasmic. And this came through in girls’ conversations with me. On the more benign end of the spectrum, one girl said, “My boyfriend asked me why I don’t make the noises that women make in porn when we have sex.” I would get frustrated that this was something that they had to think about. I would say, “It’s a movie, so it needs a soundtrack.” It’s the same thing about pubic hair. Women don’t have pubic hair in porn not because it’s not something you should aspire to but because they’re trying to get the shot and the hair is in the way.
It’s something that parents have to get out in front on. If we’re not teaching them something to counteract that—both in terms of reality, and how kids should be engaging ethically and responsibly and with reciprocity of mutual pleasure—porn-style sex is what they’re going to be doing.
What other books have you been recommending to people who want to learn more about girls, their development, and their relationships?
Untangled by Lisa Damour, about teenage girls as they turn into adults. I’m also recommending Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski, which is great on understanding the distinctiveness of women’s sexuality and has the message that we are all normal as we are. It really encourages understanding, appreciating, and taking control of female sexuality on its own terms. I think it’s great for adult women, because we don’t know the information in this book. But I think it’s really great for college-age women.
I also recommend for kids themselves the Robie Harris books (It’s So Amazing!, It’s Not the Stork!, It’s Perfectly Normal) plus the American Girl books, The Care and Keeping of You, though that’s more about puberty than sex. Those books are perfect for meeting kids at where they are developmentally and explaining about the body, development, reproduction, and communication. They are books I used when my daughter was younger.
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