Author Peggy Orenstein says that when it comes to sexuality, girls today are receiving mixed messages. Girls hear that “they’re supposed to be sexy, they’re supposed to perform sexually for boys,” Orenstein tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “but that their sexual pleasure is unspoken.”
While researching her new book, Girls & Sex, Orenstein spoke with more than 70 young women between the ages of 15 and 20 about their attitudes and early experiences with the full range of physical intimacy.
She says that pop culture and pornography sexualize young women by creating undue pressure to look and act sexy. These pressures affect both the sexual expectations that girls put on themselves and the expectations boys project onto them.
Orenstein adds that girls she spoke to were often navigating between being considered “slutty” or a “prude,” and that their own desires were often lost in the shuffle. Girls, Orenstein says, are being taught to please their partners without regard to their own desires.
“When I would talk to girls, for instance, about oral sex, that was something that they were doing from a pretty young age, and it tended to go one way [and not be reciprocated],” Orenstein explains.
Orenstein recommends that parents examine the messages they send regarding girls and sexuality. “One of the things that I really took away from this research, is the absolute importance of not just talking about [girls] as victims, or not just talking about them as these new aggressors, but really surfacing these ideas of talking clearly and honestly to girls about their own desires and their own pleasures,” she says.
On the silence surrounding girls’ genitals
Parents don’t tend to name their infant baby’s genitals if they’re girls. For boys they’ll say, “Here’s your nose, here’s your shoulders, here’s your waist, here’s your pee pee, whatever.” But with girls there’s this sort of blank space – it’s right from navel to knees, and not naming something makes it quite literally unspeakable.
Then they go into puberty education class and girls have period and unwanted pregnancy, and you see only the inside anatomy, that thing that looks like a steer head, with the ovaries and everything, and then it greys out between the legs, so we never talk about the vulva, we never talk about the clitoris, very few girls explore, there’s no self-knowledge, and then they go into their sexual experiences and we expect them to be able to have some sense of entitlement, some sense of knowledge, to be able to assert themselves, to have some sense of equality, and it’s just not realistic that that’s going to happen.
On whether kids are having more sex at a younger age and the prevalence of oral sex
Kids are not having intercourse at a younger age, and they’re not having more intercourse than they used to. They are engaging in other forms of sexual behavior, younger and more often. And one of the things that I became really clear on was that we have to broaden our definition of sex, because by ignoring and denying these other forms of sexual behavior that kids are engaging in we are opening the door to a lot of risky behavior, and we are opening the door to a lot of disrespect.
[Oral sex] is considered to be less intimate than intercourse, and something that girls say repeatedly to me would be, “It’s no big deal.” There’s an argument that some of the girls have in the book about exactly what it is. Is it sex? Is it not sex? Is it no big deal? … It was something that they felt that they could do that boys expected. That they could do to not have to do something else. It was a way that they could cultivate popularity, it was a way that they felt interestingly, they would talk about feeling more in control, than if it was reciprocal. ..
Peggy Orenstein is the New York Times bestselling author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Waiting for Daisy, Flux, and Schoolgirls. A contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, she has been published in USA Today, Parenting, Salon, the New Yorker, and other publications, and has contributed commentary to NPR’s All Things Considered. She lives in Northern California with her husband and daughter.
Amazon page: http://www.amazon.com/Peggy-Orenstein/e/B000APACZI/
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