Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein
Published by Harper on March 29, 2016
Genres: Politics + Social Science, Feminism
Pages: 320 (Hardcover)
Goodreads | Amazon
A few years ago I read Cinderella Ate My Daughter, an excellent book on the rise of “girlie-girl” culture and its effects on young girls. In Girls & Sex, Orenstein moves on to the next age bracket: adolescent, teenage, and college-age girls. Her focus is on how prevailing cultural norms, laws, and education affect the sexual health and development of burgeoning young women.
A Brief Outline
Obviously, there are many factors that go into healthy sexual development. Each chapter hones in on a specific issue.
- Chapter one is about objectification and the difference between expressing sexuality and performing sexiness (what Orenstein refers to as “the incessant drumbeat of self-objectification”).
- Chapter two is about early sexual experiences, the double standards young women face, and the complete disregard so many sexually active high school and college-age boys have for female pleasure.
- Chapter three is about abstinence pledges and the concept of virginity: What is it? Who defines it? And why are people so obsessed with it?
- Chapter four dives into the thorny topic of college hookup culture and its implications for women’s safety and sense of self-worth.
- Chapter five focuses on girls who identify as LGBTQ and the unique challenges they face.
- Chapter six is about rape culture.
- Chapter seven is about sex education–what’s wrong with it and what quality sex ed might look like.
A Balanced Look at the Issues
Orenstein’s greatest strength is her common sense and ability to move past polarized rhetoric.
Let me give you a couple examples.
In chapter one she breaks down the conservative view that girls should dress modestly to avoid distracting and/or tempting boys. This is the argument behind many a school dress code.
At best, blaming girls’ clothing for the thoughts and actions of boys is counterproductive. At worst, it’s a short step from there to “she was asking for it.”
But she also deconstructs the belief held by many progressive women that donning barely-there duds and posting nearly-nude selfies on Instagram is somehow empowering.
What has changed is this: whereas earlier generations of media-literate, feminist-identified women saw their objectification as something to protest, today’s often see it as a personal choice, something that can be taken on intentionally as an expression rather than an imposition of sexuality.
The debate, then, is not whether teenage girls should be shamed for wearing crop tops and string bikinis (absolutely not) but why these garments are being so aggressively marketed to young women in the first place.
In chapter four, Orenstein again finds herself at odds with conservative pundits and liberal mouthpieces alike in her frank analysis of the intricately connected problems of binge-drinking and rape culture on college campuses.
She notes that those who caution female students to cut back on the binge-drinking in the interest of their own safety are often excoriated as victim-blamers. But there is a difference between victim-blaming and encouraging women to exercise common sense. Abstaining from binge-drinking won’t solve the problem of rape culture, but it’s still a smart thing to do. (The number of accidents and deaths that occur as a result of binge-drinking alone should give people pause.)
Sex Ed Is in the Toilet
Most of the statistics cited in Girls & Sex are familiar to me, but there are some that truly shocked me, particularly in regards to American sex education.
By 2005 over 80 percent of federally funded abstinence-only programs were found by a congressional report to be teaching blatantly inaccurate information, including such “facts” as that the Pill is only 20 percent effective in preventing pregnancy, that latex condoms cause cancer, that HIV can be transmitted through sweat or tears, and that half of homosexual teen boys already have the virus.
Also astonishing: “Only fourteen states require that sex ed be medically accurate.” Say what?!
The fact that our government has pumped $1.7 billion into this disgraceful disinformation campaign over the last thirty-five years is evidence of just how twisted our thinking about sex in this country really is.
The Statistics Are Pretty Grim
I frequently found myself wanting to throw this book (or anything, really) across the room while reading. Girls & Sex is, at times, an infuriating and disheartening read.
America has a long way to go before we achieve true equality. Our cultural neuroses about sex in general and female sexuality in particular, are just as damaging as the blatant objectification and commodification of female flesh sold to us by the media and pornography industries.
On the one hand, Long-term studies have found that kids who are given abstinence-only sex education “neither abstain entirely from sex nor delay intercourse…They are, however, a lot more likely to become unintentionally pregnant: as much as 60 percent more likely.”Hookup Culture, Bad Sex Ed, + Self-Objectification in 'Girls & Sex' by Peggy OrensteinClick To Tweet
On the other side of that coin, college pornography users are “more likely than others to believe ‘rape myths’.” Male porn viewers are “less likely to support affirmative action for women” and more likely to view women as “play things.”
Perhaps most disturbing are the results of a 2014 study in which “nearly a third of college men agreed they would rape a woman if they could get away with it–though that percentage dropped to 13.6 percent when the word rape (as opposed to ‘force a woman to have sexual intercourse’) was actually used in the question”
The fact that so many young men either don’t know or refuse to acknowledge the difference between “forcing a woman to have sexual intercourse” and rape is testament enough to the appalling standard of sex education in this country. The importance and, apparently, the very definition of consent must be taught.
There Is Also Hope
As I said before, Girls & Sex is, at times, discouraging, but there are also some bright spots in the gloom. Toward the end of the book, Orenstein visits the classroom of a sex educator who provides a safe space for students to ask questions, engage in critical discussions, and define their personal value systems without judgment. The teacher’s approach is slightly too post-modern for my taste but it’s a vast improvement over what we have now.
Orenstein also invites readers on a brief tour of the sexual lives of Dutch teenagers. The Netherlands has the lowest rate of teen pregnancy in the world. Dutch girls begin having sex later than American girls and are less likely to be coerced. And guess what–they have comprehensive sex education. Maybe, one day, the U.S. will catch on.
Girls & Sex is a fast-paced, highly readable overview of the issues that affect the sexual health and development of young women in America. There is so much more to the book than the few points I have highlighted here. I strongly recommend it to older teenage girls, college-age women, parents, and anyone who is interested in better understanding this issue.
Have you read Girls & Sex? What did you think?