In American media and pop culture, there is a constant barrage of fear and panic about teens, especially girls, and sexuality. Are kids having sex too young, too frequently, with too little emotional attachment? Is alcohol causing them to make poor or reckless choices when it comes to sex? Why is sexual assault seemingly on the rise, or are young women just more willing to come forward about nonconsensual sexual experiences? Should we teach them everything they need to know about sex, so they’re prepared when they reach that stage, or should we withhold information so they don’t get ideas? (As a historian of sex education, you can probably guess my answer to that last one.) Peggy Orenstein’s new book tries to address these questions and many more by asking girls themselves about their sexual lives, the social pressures they experience, and what they actually desire from their sexuality. The title of her introduction to the book says it all: she will tell you “Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Girls and Sex (But Really Need to Ask).”
Orenstein is perhaps best known for her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (2011). As her own daughter, Daisy, grew, Orenstein saw the need for a critique of media and advertising that pushed princesses and bubble-gum pink toys on girls, contradicting feminism’s push for gender equality and a “girls can do and be anything” spirit. Girls and Sex was also inspired by her daughter. As Daisy approached adolescence, Orenstein worried about what that next stage would bring. She “needed, as a mom and a journalist, to find out the truth behind the headlines, what was real and what was hype.”1
In interviews with more than seventy American girls between ages 15 and 20 (the ages between which the average girl becomes sexually active), Orenstein had frank and wide-ranging conversations about everything from how teens today conceptualize and define sex; what they consider a “virgin” to be, and how useful that term remains today; sexualization and objectification; the truth about “hookup culture;” lesbian and bisexual experiences; sexual assault, rape, and consent; and sex education.
Across these topics, we can see how girls’ ideas about sex have been influenced by “traditional” gender expectations, by what they see in the media and in pornography, and by a lack of factual information about sex. One thing that stands out is that many teens had inadequate sex education in school and never had honest, open conversations with parents, which led to both misinformation and a general confusion about sexual relationships.
Orenstein found that hookups, almost always influenced by alcohol, are a prevailing experience among young women today. Yet this “culture” is both overstated in media panics and also not a new phenomenon; rather, the rise in casual sex dates back to the debut of birth control pills in the 1960s. “What has changed,” she argues, “is that when relationships do occur, instead of starting with a date, they often begin with noncommitted sexual contact. Rather than being a product of intimacy, then, sex has become its precursor, or sometimes its replacement.”2 For the baby boomers, casual sex was an option. Now, teens believe the way to have sexual intimacy is with no strings attached.
For girls, such hookup culture has both positive and negative effects, according to Orenstein. Many girls embrace the chance to have casual encounters. At the same time, the expectation that this is the best way to start a relationship means that some end up defaulting to such an approach when they really aren’t ready for such intimacy. Orenstein also focuses on how girls’ socialization — as accommodating, never wanting to rock the boat, trying to be perceived as cool and never bitchy or bossy — means that they don’t always find healthy ways to express their desires within sexual relationships and encounters. Oral sex becomes a central focus here — for many of the interviewees, blowjobs are an expected and almost automatic activity between teens engaged in a sexual relationship, but the girls said they rarely receive reciprocal cunnilingus. The girls often see oral sex on themselves as too intimate and gross, or as something a guy just wouldn’t want to do.
Citing statistics about pleasure and successful sexual encounters — when asked about sex, guys see success as reaching orgasm, while girls are more likely to consider their partner’s orgasm in their answer — Orenstein questions how raising girls to be polite above all else may prevent them from standing up for themselves and their own desires in both consensual and nonconsensual situations. As she reflects, “it sometimes struck me that we’d performed the psychological equivalent of a clitoridectomy on our daughters” by focusing more on purity than pleasure, by not critiquing the media’s sexualization of female bodies, and by not encouraging their own exploration before they have partnered sex.3
Sex education is a clear solution to many of the issues that Orenstein identifies among the girls she interviews. Her final chapter focuses on progressive and comprehensive education programs that have helped young people of all genders learn about pleasure and consent. Such programs have pushed them to question the often inherently sexist ideas about sexuality in our society. By sitting in on California classrooms with educator Charis Denison, she sees how the best teachers can push students to think critically about their sexual encounters. Denison focuses on decision making and communication, getting students to interrogate their own default responses to conflict and pressure from others. Identifying their typical responses may help them to step outside their “fallback” responses; if a girl knows she is likely to passively go along with a partner and she practices more assertive responses, she may be better equipped to advocate for herself in the future.
As with all interview-based investigations, Girls and Sex has limitations. Orenstein includes a diverse pool of girls from different classes, races, religious upbringings, and regions of the United States. With the casual style of the book — this is by no means an academic study — it can be hard to see exactly how wide the spread of experiences can be; there is no handy appendix to prove that there is a girl included from every imaginable demographic. She makes an effort to include lesbian and bisexual girls, even one who identifies as asexual, but I believe all interview subjects are cisgender. There is also an implicit class bias — the assumption with these girls is that they will graduate high school and attend a four-year college. These girls have the money to pledge a sorority and the time to attend frat parties on the weekends. There is also one glaring gap in representation — not a single girl interviewed is a teen parent. Fears of pregnancy and STIs are addressed in terms of safe sex, but the girls included in this book have not experienced this ultimate concern with unprotected sex.
I would also be curious to know how this book would differ if written by a younger author. Orenstein is a Baby Boomer (born in 1961), and while she does a wonderful job being nonjudgmental about girls’ experiences and desires, perhaps an author closer in age to the girls in question would bring different questions to the table. That is not a knock against this book, but I would love to see more works in the future engage with young people’s experiences of sex and relationships from many different perspectives, especially written by their fellow millennials. Regardless, this book contains perspectives that anyone parenting today — for both girls and boys — should use to best prepare their children for today’s dating scene.
There is probably no better way to end this review than the way Orenstein ends the book. After covering sexuality and sexualization, girls’ expectations vs. reality, and how we can begin to change conversations about sex to better serve young women, she provides a feminist rallying cry. “We’ve raised a generation of girls to have a voice, to expect egalitarian treatment in the home, in the classroom, in the workplace. Now it’s time to demand that ‘intimate justice’ in their personal lives as well.”4 This seems the least we can do for our daughters, nieces, granddaughters, and all young women in our lives.
- Peggy Orenstein, Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape (New York: Harper Collins, 2016), 3. Return to text.
- Ibid., 104. Return to text.
- Ibid., 72-73. Return to text.
- Ibid., 236. Return to text.