In her forthcoming book, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape (Harper, Mar. 2016), Peggy Orenstein throws caution to the wind, writing realistically and with great chutzpah about a subject she feels has been long neglected: the truth about teenage sexuality and today’s girls, and the challenge parents face in having frank discussions with their daughters about understanding their bodies.
Orenstein, whose bestselling Cinderella Ate My Daughter (Harper, 2011) looked at the culture of pink and princesses, interviewed 100 girls for the new book. “I wasn’t really prepared at first for the current culture of sexuality in teenagers, the idea that sex precedes intimacy, or the whole idea of mutual oral sex—I was kind of stunned by it,” she says from her Berkeley, Calif., home. Getting the girls to open up to her took some fine-tuning. “It’s never easy to talk to girls about sex. To ask, ‘So, have you ever masturbated?’ or say, ‘Wait a minute—you give oral sex, but you’re afraid to ask for it yourself?’ I scared some of them off. So I had to learn to be more exploratory and nonjudgmental so they would talk to me.” The results were eye opening for Orenstein and gave her a clearer understanding of how girls today perceive their own sexuality.
Parents today are more progressive than previous generations, and many of them no longer tell their daughters to wait until marriage to have sex, but Orenstein’s research told her that there is still a lack of candid discussion about girls’ genitalia and how to find pleasure during sex through the clitoris. “The lesson is that we haven’t given kids the sense of responsibility, expectation, or values around sexual education, so that they can treat each other as people, not as objects,” she says. “In school, girls learn that they have periods and give birth, and boys have erections and ejaculations, but they never know what’s happening ‘down there.’ They know that boys get pleasure out of sex. Of course there’s an inequity of ideas about what constitutes satisfaction and good sex. I call it the psychological clitoralectomy.”
Girls & Sex also addresses the rampant idolization of celebrities such as the Kardashians, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, and others who have become role models for this new generation of girls. The provocative clothes in which these household names flaunt themselves, their pornographic interpretation of sexuality, and the message that if a girl isn’t “hot” there must be something wrong with her have profoundly changed the way young women think about themselves. “I went to a college party,” Orenstein says, “and all these girls were looking at their cell phones posting photos to Instagram, asking, ‘Where are my “likes”?’ And you know you’re going to get more likes if you wear a bikini rather than a parka. There’s a lot of pressure to present in a sexualized way. I feel like it’s very Orwellian.”
During the interviews, Orenstein, 53, was stunned to find that many girls defend Kim Kardashian. “One thing that you hear about her all the time is that she seems really real and authentic. I find this bizarre. To me she is the most contrived product that has ever existed. What could be less authentic? People like her use the patriarchy’s rules to get ahead, without challenging or changing the game at all.”
When Orenstein gives lectures, it’s common for parents to ask her, “Why does my daughter dress like a prostitute, and what am I supposed to do about it?” She found that there are no easy answers here. “It’s complicated. Their ideas are different from ours,” she says. “Girls say, ‘I’m proud of my body, don’t shout at me.’ ” Orenstein and her husband have a 12-year-old daughter, Daisy, who isn’t yet interested in boys. For a long time, she didn’t tell Daisy what the book was about. “When I finally did, she said it seemed like a good idea, so I pushed on. I said, ‘Do you know that there are some girls who don’t know they’re supposed to enjoy sex, and they don’t know what the clitoris is for?’ At that point my daughter said, ‘Can we stop talking about the book now?’ ” Orenstein laughs out loud at this recollection.
Her subject is serious, but Orenstein is a witty writer. “It’s important to me to have the book be conversational and funny, because otherwise things can get very grim and depressing,” she says. “If you can’t make a joke, then what’s the point?” Many of the girls Orenstein interviewed talked about performing oral sex on boys in a nonchalant way. “The girls said it’s impersonal now, like shaking hands with your tongue. Call me old-fashioned, but having a penis in my mouth is kind of personal. And the nonreciprocal blow job is something that had been bugging me for a long time.” A friend told Orenstein that she had only recently talked with her 20-something daughter about expressing herself sexually. “This made me think that the book can be read in tandem with daughters to have these conversations.”
Girls & Sex discusses social media at length. “It’s been great for gay kids and trans kids, but at the same time there’s a constant shifting of perspective for girls,” Orenstein says. “It’s the tyranny of ‘hot’ for them, whether it’s the way they dress or not. I wonder if Janis Joplin were alive today, would she be considered hot? She wasn’t particularly attractive. Today it’s all about looking like Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj.” Orenstein points out the contradiction inherent in this, in which girls are now free to become “doctors, commentators, or astronauts, but you’d better be hot as well.” She says that her generation’s social challenges and concerns were different from those of girls today. “You were doing your adolescent experimenting within a known group of people,” she recalls. “You were seeking likes in your high school class. While that can be painful enough, it wasn’t putting yourself on a screen in front of a thousand people that you might not know. Girls’ identities today are crafted in response to their online approval or disapproval.”
But not all is bleak in Girls & Sex. Orenstein is pleased by the rising popularity of young women entertainers who are both smart and natural. “Amy Schumer is absolutely challenging the rules. Lena Dunham is another one. There are more people like that coming up, these new role models who are making room for alternative ideas and have also been very successful. There are companies now, including Disney, that are trying to offset the materialistic, narcissistic, princessy message.”
Part of Orenstein’s research took her to Shreveport, La., to attend the Ark-La-Tex Purity Ball, where fathers pledge to love and protect their daughters in individual ceremonies. The event’s online invitation said that the evening “helps young women begin to realize the truth: that they are infinitely valuable princesses who are worth waiting for.” There are many similar organizations across the country, such as the Purity Ball and True Love Waits. Orenstein takes offense to “the idea of fathers being made the guardians of girls’ ‘sexual purity,’ ” finding it patriarchal and regressive. On the other hand, she notes that the pornification in our culture really isn’t so different. In Girls & Sex she writes, “To me, purity and hypersexualization are flip sides of the same coin. I’d rather girls were taught that their sexual status, regardless of what it is, is not the measure of their personhood, their morality, their worth.”
Orenstein, who also writes for the New York Times, the New Yorker, NPR’s All Things Considered, and others, tackles issues in her book that are discomfiting and complicated, and she does so with deep concern for the sexual ethics of girls in the modern world. “I keep thinking I’m not going to write about girls anymore, that I’m done with this, but part of it is where I got stuck in my own head as a person,” she says. “And I find girls so interesting. Just as they are crafted through social media, I’ve been crafted through talking to [them]. I’m a parent with a lot of questions, and I don’t have answers. It’s a journey.” Her aim for Girls & Sex is that it not only be a conversation starter, but a conversation changer as well.
Orenstein points out that girls are under tremendous cultural pressure to make themselves desirable. “Yet they don’t understand their own desire,” she says. “They want to present as sexual, but they don’t understand their sexuality.” She sees this as a major disconnect, in which being hot is viewed as the most empowering element in a girl’s life. Her interpretation asks, “What good does it do to be proud of how your body looks if that confidence comes off with your clothes?”
Writing Girls & Sex was difficult for Orenstein. While conducting her interviews, she encouraged the girls to say whatever they wanted. “If you want to say blow job, if you want to say eat me, whatever you say, just say it so that the words are out there,” she recounts. She made them feel comfortable, and so the language in the book is explicit. Be careful of what you ask for, though. “Now I have to figure out how to talk about the book in interviews that won’t get me bleeped,” she says, grinning.
Wendy Werris is a contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, and a freelance journalist and editor in Los Angeles.