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Most parents of teen girls have no idea what their daughters are facing in today’s sexual world, Peggy Orenstein says in her important new book, “Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape.” What’s changed since we parents were teens? For a shorter answer, we might ask what hasn’t changed.

Orenstein, a longtime journalist and the author of the best-selling “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” talked to numerous experts and interviewed more than 70 girls to get the inside scoop on teen girls’ sexual lives and how they feel about them. Her writing is clear and compelling, her analysis is incisive and thorough, and her findings are downright troubling.

What she found was a perplexingly ambivalent culture in which girls seem to be empowered in every sphere except the sexual one. Today’s young people are coming of age in a time where pornography is both increasingly aggressive and more widely available than ever, where it’s normal for sexual contact to precede emotional intimacy (should it come at all), and where casual oral sex, especially that performed by girls, is considered no big deal.

Orenstein also covers the failure of abstinence education (participants neither delay intercourse nor have fewer partners, and are actually more likely to become pregnant than nonparticipants), alcohol-fueled campus culture and the confusion over consent and rape, and girls’ worrying lack of sexual pleasure coupled with regrets about early sexual activity in today’s supposedly modern, feminist sexual landscape.

Reassuringly, the last chapter of “Girls & Sex” focuses on solutions – or, rather, ideas for solutions, since we are still fumbling toward a coherent, healthy cultural consensus on sexuality in America. First and foremost, Orenstein focuses on the need for parents to crack the conversation about sex wide open with their children, and to talk frankly about mutual pleasure, emotional intimacy, reciprocity and respect, and not just about abstinence or pregnancy prevention.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Peggy Orenstein about “Girls & Sex.”

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]


Orenstein’s new book

Sharon Holbrook: I am a mother of three elementary school kids, and my overwhelming reaction to your book is apprehension about the coming sexual maturity of my children, both daughters and son. Is that fair, and are you alarmed at the current sexual landscape for teens in America?

Peggy Orenstein: Well, I’m a mom, too, and that is what really set me ticking on this. I have a daughter who’s about to be a teenager. I know I’m raising her in this culture that is complicated, contradictory and saturated with sexual imagery, and yet in which we never really talk honestly and frankly to our kids about sex. I know also that as a parent our first response is, “Ooh, I don’t want to know! I don’t want to see it!” But parenting from fear and ignorance is never a very good idea. So what I wanted to do was to go out and talk to girls, listen to what they had to say and bring their voices back so that we could really start a substantive conversation that would help both boys and girls balance the risks and dangers of sexuality with the pleasures and the joys.

SH: Did you feel like your comfort in talking about sex with teenagers was there from the beginning?

PO: No! [Laughing.] I was so wildly uncomfortable at the beginning! Who’s comfortable with that? We didn’t grow up with learning to be comfortable with it. So my first interviews, actually, were really a wake-up call for me. First of all, I was shocked. I didn’t know that these days sex was a precursor rather than a product of intimacy, that this was a norm now. I didn’t know about these issues of nonreciprocal oral sex, and I think what actually scared [the girls], to be honest, was that I kept asking them about their own pleasure, and I think it freaked them out. I had to really learn to listen to girls and to think about what would not be judgmental in my listening, and about what they got out of their experience, even if it was experience that kind of disturbed me. And, also, what would support them.

SH: I actually feel like having read the book, and getting over my shock away from my kids — not filtered through their experience, but just kind of getting a sense of the landscape — made me feel like I’m more equipped to be rational and to come in with some knowledge and understanding of what they’ll be facing.

PO: Yes, you can read the book, have some time to reflect on what you want to say to your child, and how you think about it, and what might be different than what you thought.

One thing that was really, really important to me was that American parents tend to focus on risk and danger. When you compare that to the Dutch, studies show that Dutch girls are more likely to become sexually active later, have fewer partners, enjoy their experience more, talk to their partners more, and express their needs and desires, and they feel better about their bodies and about their experience. And the main difference [from American girls] was the way their parents talked to them, particularly their mothers, because fathers in America don’t tend to talk to their daughters [about sex] at all. So American parents focused on risk and danger and the Dutch mothers talked about risk and danger, yes, but they also talked about joy and pleasure very overtly.

Those conversations can be hard to start. But when you start integrating them into normal life when you see a sexualized image or when you have an opportunity – and it’s not just in this special box of “the talk”— it does become easier, it really does.

SH: What can we do about porn? You’re not the first expert I’ve talked to who has identified it as a major problem – and to some extent, a new problem — in healthy sexuality for today’s teens. However, I don’t think it’s high on parents’ radar.

PO: Porn is much more accessible, and at much younger ages. Because there’s so much of it, and because it’s trying be competitive with itself to get more viewers, it becomes more extreme. It presents an image of sexuality that is about as realistic as pro wrestling and an image of women and women’s bodies and women’s pleasure that is about as accurate as “The Real Housewives” is to marriage.

SH: So what do we do? Is it just a matter of talking about it since we can’t stop this tide?

PO: It’s really, really a tough one. I think it’s something that we have not adequately addressed as a culture. I think we really have to talk about it with girls and boys. I mean, we really have to talk about this with them. Talking to kids about it, and talking about what real sex ought to be, is very important. And it’s not just porn. The culture is littered with women’s body parts. It’s really important that we help our kids develop media literacy around that – both girls and boys. I think those sexualized images are really harmful to boys as well, and what happens is – because boys do look at porn more than girls — they bring those values into the bedroom. I can’t tell you how many girls have said to me, “My boyfriend wants to know why I don’t make the noises that women in porn make.” Everything in porn is a performance, and it’s encouraging girls to see sex as a performance and boys to see girls’ sexuality as a performance. And we have to really battle against that.

SH: How we can we point out hypersexualization of girls in the media and other troubling images and themes in our culture without becoming nags? “There goes Mom again, overanalyzing everything!”

PO: I’m not sure I’m the right person to ask that! [Laughing.] I think if you talked to my daughter she’d say, “She is a nag!” My feeling is this: I want my voice so deeply installed in my daughter’s head that she’s going to hear it whether she wants to or not. And you can say I’m brainwashing my kid, but if I don’t brainwash my kid, the culture’s going to brainwash my kid. I want her to hear my values. I want to her to have my perspective. I want her to have that critical [thinking] voice. If that means doing it to a little bit of a fault, I’m okay with that. The images that she is going to grow up with – she is going to see thousands and thousands and thousands of images that tell her the opposite [of what I’m saying]. Occasionally she’ll tell me, “Mom, can we please just watch the movie?” But I also find she’s a really good critical thinker now.

You can’t just say, “Don’t listen to any of that, don’t watch any of that, don’t play with any of that.” You’re not going to be able to do it. So you have to teach them to understand it and resist it. Will that be enough? I honestly don’t know. I hope so. I hope most of the time it will be.

SH: Some of our readers will know your 2011 book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” in which you offer in-depth analysis of princess culture and how it affects our girls.  Chronologically, “Girls & Sex” seems to pick up right around the age where Cinderella ends – the beginning of the teen years.  How do you see the analysis in these two books fitting together?  In other words, do you think princess culture has negatively affected girls’ later sexual lives?

PO: Yes, and if you look back at “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” you’ll find two or three pages about this, about wanting girls to feel like sexuality is something in their body and not something they perform for other people. And I think that what the princess culture encourages is this idea that how your body looks to other people is more important than how it feels to yourself. That continues as girls get older, and intensifies, so that they’re encouraged to look at sexuality as a performance. Obviously, that’s true in porn, but not just in porn.

One of the things that struck me about that recent kerfuffle about Kim Kardashian’s nude selfie was how she says, “I’m just expressing my sexuality.” I look at that, and I think, “That is not expressing your sexuality.” No, expressing your sexuality is about self-knowledge, this pool of arousal and touch and understanding of your responses and communications with a partner, and mutuality and reciprocity — an actual felt experience that you actually can’t communicate in a picture because you can’t touch another person in a picture.

She’s displaying her body, and she’s expressing a form of commercialized sexiness, but that’s not the same as her sexuality. We are telling girls all the time that it is. This idea of “hot” is so narrow, and so commercialized, and it’s sold to girls as a form of power. This is the other way that it connects with the princess culture. Princess culture does this with “pretty-pretty,” and then it becomes “hot,” and both are sold to girls as a form of personal power and confidence.

One girl told me she felt proud of her body, and she never felt more liberated than when she was wearing skimpy clothing. But she also said later that if she gained weight, she wouldn’t feel that way anymore because she’d be worried that some jerky guy would call her the “fat girl,” and that would be bad for her self-esteem. You have to ask, who gets to be proud of their body, under what circumstances, and which bodies? And how liberating is that if the threat of humiliation always lurks? Because of that, I really saw that purported sexual self-confidence came off with their clothes.

SH: “Girls & Sex” isn’t a parenting book per se, but you favor more openness about sexuality generally. Do you think your findings speak more to sexual education in schools, sexual education at home, or both?

PO: I think ideally, both. We are in a very sorry state with sex ed in schools. Only 23 states mandate sex education, and only 13 mandate that it be medically accurate. We still have vast swaths of the country that use abstinence-only education, and the $2 billion that we have spent on that as a country might as well have been set on fire. It has made no impact on abstinence, and it has only increased rates of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

SH: When it comes to sex education in schools, there is a vast “values gap” — among both parents and policymakers — about what kids should be taught. Is it going to be abstinence, or bowls of condoms in the nurse’s office? Do you think there is some common ground that could be agreed upon by adults with differing sexual values — say, debunking porn, emphasizing mutuality and respect, and being honest about both the appeal and risks of sexual behavior?
PO: I think there is some common ground [between different visions of sex ed], but we have to acknowledge — come clean — that the abstinence-only thing has been a disaster, and a failure. It is not serving our kids, and it’s got to stop. However, I do feel there are ways to conduct sex education that respect the personal values of all the students in the room. That is why I went into the classroom with [sex educator] Charis Denison at the end of the book, because she talks a lot about that, and about talking to kids about making choices that end in joy and integrity, rather than in shame and regret. That is a construct that works regardless of what your personal values are.

If we could do it, there’s wonderful opportunity in school. However, in most places right now that is not the case, so that means it’s doubly important that we parents take that deep breath and talk to our kids – boys and girls — not just about consent, not just about reproduction, but about these issues of sexual entitlement, and sexual pleasure, and coercion, and oral sex, and all these things that we are keeping silent on. It’s just really clear that when we do that, our kids make choices that they feel better about, and that we feel better about, than when we try to parent out of fear and silence and ignorance.

Sharon Holbrook is a writer living in Cleveland, Ohio. You can find her at sharonholbrook.com and on Twitter @Sharon_Holbrook.

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