The Complicated Truth About Girls and Sex

Perhaps you’ve come to terms with high school girls’ having sex.  But if you knew what kind of sex they’re having, says author Peggy Orenstein, you’d be sitting your teen down for a big talk (even if he’s a boy).  by Rebecca Traister, MORE Magazine, April 2016

When it comes to sex, the kids are not all right.  Or at least not as all right as they should be in 2016, 50 years after the sexual revolution and at the height of a feminist revival among women under 30.

The journalist Peggy Orenstien knows this turf.  Her last book, Cinderella Ate MY Daughter, was an eye-opening look at the way a pink sheen of sexualized passivity is sold to young girls.  Now, in Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, Orenstein reveals what’s happening to those tiara-topped tots – as well as their male counterparts – as they move past puberty.

The book is sure to be controversial, since Orenstein dives straight to the problem:  Teenage girls may be having more sex (or at least different kinds) than their mothers and grandmothers, but it seems few of them are having good sex.  In interviews with more than 70 girls ages 15-20 nationwide, she’s learned that for them sex has been neither fulfilling nor mutual and that neither they nor their partners recognize or prioritize female pleasure.  What she’s laid out is a nuanced read for anyone who remembers being a young woman and anyone who is raising the generation of girls (and boys) for whom we hope the future holds sexual satisfaction, not pain or disappointment.  Here, Orensteinm, 54, discusses the new ways we should be talking to our daughters and sons about sex – and what’s at stake if we don’t.

Some headlines say today’s kids are having less sex than earlier generations; others say more.  Which is it?

It depends on what kind of sex you’re talking about.  Girls are not having intercourse earlier; they’re having oral sex.  Or more precisely, they’re providing it.  By the end of ninth grade, nearly one in five children has engaged in oral sex.  By age 18, about two thirds have.  That [trend] is part of my push to redefine what we think of as sex and how we talked to girls and boys about it.  IF we keep focusing on intercourse as the line in the sand between experience and inexperience, we’re not acknowledging this huge area of sexual activity that kids are engaged in at earlier ages than ever before, often without reciprocity and with the risk of getting hurt.

So why has oral sex begun to dominate as the preferred sexual activity?

What we’re talking about are blow jobs, largely, because while most girls will say they have experienced giving oral sex, they don’t feel good about receiving it.  Many of them are grossed out by their own genitals and worried that guys are disgusted by the idea of going down on them.  At the end of the 20th century, there was a confluence of three key things:  abstinence-only education, which defined sex as intercourse; the Monica Lewinsky scandal, where the message was that they “didn’t have sex,” the implication being that oral sex was not really sex; and the rise of AIDS, which made it feel as if intercourse could kill you, so people turned to oral sex instead.  All together, this led kids to think that oral sex is no big deal.  During my research, girls would say blow jobs were a way of satisfying a boy without having to compromise themselves.  They’s say, “I feel like I’m in control.”  Like they were the ones doing it, as opposed to the ones being done to.

Why is the goal of satisfying boys still a central mission for girls?

I was disturbed that girls felt boys were entitled to be satisfied.  A lot of boys were not coercive about intercourse but could be coercive about oral sex.  The girls talked about the “shoulder push” – you’re kissing and the boy puts both hands on your shoulders and pushes you down.  But girls would say that when boys traveled down on them, they would take the boys’ shoulders and scoop up.

So what happened to girls’ impulse to prioritize sexual pleasure of their own?

There’s a phenomenon I call the psychological clitoridectomy – the idea that women’s sexual pleasure, anatomy and identity are not important, and if we don’t tell girls about them, they won’t find out about them.  Which is true!  But lack of entitlement to sexual pleasure doesn’t keep girls from being sexually active. [The psychological clitoridectomy] starts early:  For example, parents of young kids don’t tend to name their girls’ genitalia.  With boys they say, “Here are your toes, your pee-pee,” but they ignore the whole genital area with girls.  Then kids go into puberty-education classes, and you see all the boys’ external anatomy and hear about wet dreams.  And girls hear about periods, and you see the outline of the ovaries and the uterus, but they gray out the clitoris and labia.  So girls and boys don’t learn about those.  Then girls are supposed to go into intercourse with some sort of entitlement to sexual pleasure, but no one’s even named their sexual body parts.  So we collude in their sexual inequality.

But we’ve been doing this for a long time, right?  It’s not new that women’s sexual pleasure comes second to men’s.

People say to me all the time, Is this really any different from how it used to be?  But there are ways in which it is different.  There is the tremendous influence of Internet porn; one recent study said 60 percent of college students watch porn to figure out how sex works.  And that’s very, very, very bad.  But for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s not different from how it’s always been.  Then why isn’t it?  Why have we advanced in other areas, told girls to lean in, yet not made sex better for them?

Can you talk about the mash-up of young feminist “sex positive” empowerment and what you found about teenage girls’ real experience of sex?

Young women who identify as feminists and are highly educated are sold the idea that to be openly sexual is empowering.  And it can be.  It can be empowering in that you can get a lot of reward if you fit that image.  One girl said to me, “I never feel more liberated than when I’m wearing a bandage skirt and five-inch heels.”  But when she gained weight, she didn’t feel so liberated.  So the liberation was only if you fit the right body type, which is not liberation – it’s conformity.  If all the confidence comes off with your clothes, then what’s the point?

What is your advice?  How should parents be talking to their daughters?

This is not just about how we talk to girls.  If we want our children to grow up and have respectful, mutually satisfying sexual relationships, we need to speak to our boys, too.  And we have to start talking to boys and girls earlier.  You can start with a discussion about anatomy but also about affections and how you don’t hug somebody who doesn’t want to be hugged and how touching your clitoris is good, albeit something you do in private.  Keep the conversation going.  It can be integrated into everything else.  We have to get over our own sex education, or our own lack of education, and be aware that we live in an era saturated with pornography and that both boys and girls need to be told those images are harmful.  They need to be talked to about sexual mutuality; they need to know what an orgasm is.  These things are not going to make kids have sex earlier, but they might make them have sex better.


From an article in MORE Magazine, April 2016, by Rebecca Traister