GIRLS & SEX: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape
by Peggy Orenstein
This book is well researched, incredibly interesting, somewhat alarming, brutally honest, and essential reading for any and every parent and student. Orenstein is open, honest, caring, concerned, non-judgmental, and willing to offer frank advice on ways to engage our children in conversation that will focus on their health, well-being and sexual satisfaction and safety.
What follows are some comments from the book I found most interesting, but I strongly encourage you to read the entire book for yourself. I read it in a matter of hours.
Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Sex, but Need to Ask
Girls are frequently targeted as the cause for misbehavior from the opposite sex. They are told to dress differently so that boys will act differently. One student, Camila, tells her principal that it is not okay to blame girls for harassment, as it is extremely sexist and promotes a ‘rape culture.’
Camila later reflects that “the truth is, it doesn’t matter what I wear. Four out of five days going to school I will be catcalled, I will be stared at, I will be looked up and down, I will be touched. That doesn’t happen to guys.”
Boys need to be addressed directly and have their assumptions challenged. Girls’ bodies do not exist for them to judge or touch, however and whenever they wish.
Orenstein states clearly that not all boys engage in the behavior her book addresses; however, every girl she spoke with – EVERY SINGLE GIRL – regardless of class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation; regardless of what she wore, her appearance, had been harassed in middle school, high school, college, or often, all three.
Girls’ fashions urge body consciousness at the very youngest ages – bikinis for infants, skinny jeans for toddlers, Disney princesses, etc. No one is trying to convince 11 year old boys to wear itty-bitty booty shorts or bare their bellies in the middle of winter. Clothing sales are related to incessant self-objectification: the pressure on young women to reduce their worth to their bodies and see those bodies as a collection of parts that exist for the pleasure of others. Their bodies are meant to perform rather than feel sensuality.
Girls today often feel intense pressure to be smart, driven, involved in activities, successful at school, and be pretty, sexy, thin, nice and friendly. They are expected to do everything well and look hot while doing it. Boys are not held to the same standard or expectation.Sydney is asked if she feels good about herself or expects validation for her appearance when she dresses slutty. She replies, “My whole life is an attempt to figure out what, in the core of myself, I actually like versus what I want to hear from other people, or wanting to look a certain way to get attention. And part of me feels cheated out of my own well-being because of that.”
Questions are asked about selfies and social media: are selfies empowering or oppressive? Is sexting harmful or harmless? Is that short skirt an assertion of sexuality or an exploitation of it? There are no easy answers, but parents and their children need to be having the conversations – often and repeatedly.
Where are kids learning their sexual expectation and behaviors? Most students reply something like, movies, porn, American Pie. Kids have a sense of right and wrong, but once exposed to certain themes repeatedly, they are likely to pick them up, internalize them and have them become part of their sexual scripts. Women having multiple partners and being used as sex objects for the pleasure of males is a repetitive loop – with no counterargument going on.
Mainstream TV has absorbed the scripts of porn, and 70% of prime time now contains sexual content. College men who play violent, sexualized video games are more likely to see women as sex objects as well as to be more accepting of rape myths, more tolerant of sexual harassment and consider women less competent. Sex is presented often as fun and advisable; rarely is it awkward or silly or messy and almost never is it actively negotiated or preceded by discussion of contraception, disease protection, or any discussion of what may feel good for the female.
Girls are shown how to please men, but no one is asking them about their wants, their needs, their capacity for joy, for passion, for ecstasy. Being ‘hot’ is the expectation, but being aware of their own desire, their own body parts, and their own capacity for orgasm, are all topics left out of the conversation.
Are We Having Fun Yet?
A chapter dedicated to the culture of ‘hooking up’ and what it is – no one is really certain, but there are a variety of definitions stretching from touching and kissing all the way to blow jobs and anal sex. It is a completely vague term that is hard for anyone to specify. Most of the terms used do not connote intimacy, joy or pleasure.
The old baseball themes from the past are spun in a whole new way, with third base being oral sex – but only if the guy is on the receiving end. “Girls don’t get oral sex. Not unless you’re in a long-term relationship.” WHAT? For this generation, oral sex (girl to guy) is no big deal – everyone does it.
“Oral sex is like money or some kind of currency. It’s how you make friends with the popular guys,” one girls explains. Having someone’s penis in your mouth is now seen as impersonal, vaginal sex takes place once you have achieved a high level of intimacy within a relationship.
A professor of psychology at City University of New York found through her research that girls thought of fellatio kind of like homework: a chore to get done, a skill to master, one on which they expected to be evaluated, possibly publicly. They were both dispassionate and non-passionate about oral sex.
These girls are considered intelligent, high achievers, strong in the classroom and on the athletic field, with leadership positions at their schools, yet they are afraid to disappoint guys and willing to provide sexual favors if the slightest pressure is applied. They often give in to the demands of guys just to appease them or because they don’t want to make waves or upset anyone. Hardly the empowered young women we may think we are raising.
In discussing sex, men often talk about good sex in terms of pleasure and orgasm. Women talk about the absence of pain. 30% of female college students say they experience pain during their sexual encounters as opposed to 5% of men.
There is a whole discussion about losing your virginity and the fact that over half of the students polled in national samples were drunk for the occasion. Studies on rape (on or off campus) show that most acquaintance and date rape (which are the most common forms of rape) have alcohol and/or drugs as part of the mix.
Many students are drinking four to eight shots in a half hour before going to the parties, so it is not surprising that many women are dazed and confused about some of their sexual encounters. It is also no surprise that girls are often confused about whether they have been raped, and if they have, whether they will be blamed for it. Our society spends a lot of time discussing the drinking culture and blaming the victim, but not much on the mentality of the people committing the rapes.
One alarming encounter, the female student talked about giving a boy a blow job so that she could go home, but he saw it as her interest in having sex. After raping her, she spends the night with him. Once back in her dorm, she realizes that she was raped, but the boy remains confused about the message he feels he was given. Although she said no to sex, she had performed fellatio. These are common dilemmas on college campuses (read Jon Krakauer’s latest book, Missoula, for an indepth look into the rape culture of colleges – not just in Montana but across the country).
A survey of over six thousand students at thirty two universities by Kent State University professor Mary Koss, found that 27.5%, more than one in four, of the girls had, since the age of fourteen, experienced a sexual encounter fitting the legal definition of rape.
Many girls are stuck in a virginity conundrum. Do I lose my virginity and get labeled a slut? Do I keep my virginity and get labeled a prude? Neither label is very appealing, so many girls race to get rid of their virginity without seriously considering their own sexual desires, just to get through the awkward phase of dealing with friends questions.
Many students reveal that non-committed sex acts or sexual contact are now the precursor for relationships. The hookup culture has shifted the timing for intimacy and dating in strange new ways, and navigating the system is no easy feat. The list of hookup types seems endless, from one-time, to repeated, to friends with benefits.
Campus parties are given a bit of a spotlight. Greek life themes include: “CEOs and business hos,” “lifeguard bros and surfer hos,” “GI Joes and army hos.” You see the theme here.
The blurred lines of rape and consent are addressed and Orenstein argues that waiting to address rape until your child’s college years is too late. She makes the argument that instead of Telling Girls Not to Drink, we should Tell Rapists Not to Rape. Hence, this conversation has to include boys too. If 80% of campus rapes include alcohol, and both parties are drunk, when do we address this. NOW.
A review of how to get to YES and what YES means is discussed in light of the spotlight shining on colleges right now. This is a great discussion to have with your son or daughter, as everyone loses when two people are under the influence and no one actually remembers what happened in clear detail.
What If We Told Them The Truth?
Orenstein provides clear rationale for talking frankly with our children about the joys, pleasures, challenges and obstacles associated with sex. The more honest and accurate information they have, the better decisions they will make. She provides studies about different schools and countries where accurate information is provided and discussed and the statistics about sexual contact associated with those places. She rips into our government for focusing most of its’ funding on abstinence education and applauds places where schools, parents and communities are focusing instead on educating kids about their bodies, their responsibilities and their rights to sexual pleasure.
She encourages parents to talk to their children about their bodies, to encourage them to explore what feels good alone before adding in another person, and then when they do, to be open about what they want and how to achieve it with their partner. She encourages teaching children to set boundaries, feel free to opt out of sexual activities even after trying them once, and to continue an on-going discussion about their sexual exploration and development.
She normalizes the fact that many kids don’t experiment sexually early in life and many juniors in high school are not sexually active. She encourages us to open up to the fact many people are not aware of their own body parts, much less aware of what will make them feel good when engaging in intercourse (oral, vaginal, anal or otherwise) with a partner.
This book is about GIRLS, the obstacles they fact in their quest for healthy sexual expression and the cost they are paying in terms of well-being.
She wraps up by encouraging us to look to Dutch parents for ideas on how to help our daughters (and sons) to engage in healthier practices (physically and emotionally).
A. Autonomous – understand desire and pleasure, assert sexual wishes, set limits, prepare responsibly for sexual encounters
B. Build egalitarian, supportive relationships that value shared interest, respect, care and trust
C. Maintain and nurture connection with your child
D. Recognize the diversity and range of sexual orientation, cultural beliefs and development among peers
Orenstein wants girls to enjoy their sexuality despite the risks of exploring it. She wants them to revel in their bodies’ sensuality without being reduced to a physical object. She wants them to ask for what they want in bed, and to GET IT. She wants them to be safe from disease, cruelty, violence and unwanted pregnancy. She wants us to raise a generation of girls who have a voice, and expect egalitarian treatment – not just in the classroom or workplace – but in their personal and sexual lives.Posted by Sheila Souder on 05/09/2016.