Writer, author and all-around cultural critic, Peggy Orenstein, has pretty much focused her career on the complex worlds of girls and women. She wrote about adopting her daughter Daisy in her memoir Waiting for Daisy. She wrote about the girls and their sense of self-confidence in Schoolgirls and the current state of women’s lives in Flux. And her last book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein took a hard look at the marketing of “Princess Culture” and how it affects little girls.
Now we are at the next phase, and it is a doozy, Girls and Sex. Our little girls are now in high school and college and they are dressing provocatively, waxing their nether regions, hooking up, having sex and doing all kinds of titillating things. But are they actually experiencing any joy, any pleasure? Are they having orgasms? In Girls and Sex, Orenstein does her homework, and what she finds out is at turns shocking, depressing, intriguing, heartbreaking, but in the end proves there is hope.
Girls and Sex is divided into several well-researched and well-written chapters. In the first chapter, Orenstein examines how girls willingly choose to be sex objects, often via their outfits, instead of being fully-actualized sexual individuals. In chapter two Orenstein asks if girls are enjoying sex as much as they should. Sadly, the answer is no, not exactly. But they make sure the boys are enjoying themselves. Chapter three wonders “what exactly is a virgin these days?” The answers the girls give you will surprise you…or maybe not. Chapter four examines the world of hook ups and hang ups. Chapter five takes a look at sex and all of its complexities especially when it comes to girls and boys, both online and in real life. Chapter six tackles the thorny topics of drugs, alcohol and rape, especially on school campuses. And finally, in chapter seven, things get real when girls and boys are finally given the straight dope on sex and can fully embrace who they are as sexual beings.
Orenstein interviewed over 70 girls and women about their hopes and dreams, and about their sex lives, both literally and figuratively. A majority of these young women are bright, educated, have promising futures and often consider themselves to be strong feminists (or at least, feminist-minded). Some are virgins, some are not, and some are everything but “that kind of virgin” (I think you get the gist). Most of them are straight, but a few identify as lesbians or question their sexual preferences.
A majority of these young women want to look sexually alluring, which includes provocative outfits, plastic surgery and waxing one’s private parts. Yes, today, young women feel the pressure to look like porn stars. Unlike ages ago, porn easily invades our lives via the Internet. And though there is some women-positive porn out there, most of porn found on-line is very exploitive of women (Orenstein describes certain acts that nearly made me sick to my stomach, and I am no prude). And it is the latter porn that shapes both young women and men and how they should be sexually.
At the same time, the abstinence-only educational curriculum, which includes purity balls and shaming seminars, gives our young people mostly false information when it comes to sex. This false information does nothing to deter sexual activity. And it often leads people to make bad sexual choices, which leads to unintended pregnancies and STDs.
In other words, thanks to both porn culture and abstinence, girls are either seen as “sluts” or “prudes,” and neither words are very apt descriptions to describe the intricate landscape of female desire.
What’s that, female desire? Sadly, so many of our young women feel it is necessary to be sexually desirable but feel no sexual desire. Many women admitted to never masturbating or being strangers with their clits, a fact I find hugely depressing. Ladies, you have this wonderful bundle of nerves between your legs that is made solely for pleasure. Embrace it!!!
But I digress…
Orenstein also goes into length about everything from casual (and often unsatisfying) sexual hook ups. She examines the culture of rape on our college campuses and on how alcohol abuse often leaves both boys and girls at horrific sexual risk. She is also quick to point out, how far too many girls think if they are raped or sexually assaulted they asked for it and how young men often find these sexual violations entertaining, using social media to further exploit the violation of these women. It is these passages that truly made my blood boil.
However, not is all lost for our nation’s young women, and this is explored in the final chapter. Fortunately, there are educators who want to tell our young people the truth when it comes to sex, and their lessons are done with wisdom, compassion, the facts and a dose of good humor. In this chapter, girls realize it is okay, in fact, it is wonderful to both feel and fulfill one’s sexual desire. And many boys realize it is okay not to treat girls as sexual objects and it is also okay to want to find meaning in sex, not be the mindless horndogs they are often encouraged to be. I believe this chapter will be of comfort to girls, boys, parents, and educators. I know I found it comforting, and though I’m not a mom, I’m glad this book was written.