Even before journalist Peggy Orenstein’s daughter reached adolescence, Orenstein was concerned about what the experience might mean for her child. As the author of four books and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, Orenstein had written about self-esteem and the sexualization of girls and young women. She considered herself an expert at decoding what she calls “the mixed messages of girlhood.” But when it came to what was ahead—troubling stories of teenage sex seemingly dominated by hook-ups, social-media scandals, objectification, blurred lines of consent, and all-too-easy access to the internet—she wanted a better handle on what to expect, and how to help her daughter navigate healthy choices.
Orenstein’s most recent book, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, which was published last year, explores teenage girls’ attitudes, expectations, and perceptions of sex and intimacy. She interviewed more than 70 young women ages 15 to 20 from across the country—African-American, Arab-American, Asian-American, Latina, and white—about their personal experiences. Orenstein doesn’t claim to represent the experiences of all young women; those she spoke with expected to attend, or were in, college. A large majority are heterosexual; 10 percent identify as lesbian or bisexual.
The result is a more personal portrait of the current landscape, one complicated by cultural expectations of beauty, the silence surrounding girls’ own pleasure and choice, and the tricky social scene of a dating culture influenced by the media and the internet. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 40 percent of high school students have had sexual intercourse, yet only 24 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex education. Orenstein laments that many schools take an abstinence-only route, and she is a strong advocate for a more open and comprehensive conversation.
Commentary Associate Kate Stoltzfus spoke to Orenstein recently by phone about how parents and educators can help young women make healthy choices about their most personal relationships.
What’s changed over time? What about the current landscape of sex is “new”?
There is this disconnect between the new entitlement that young women feel in the public realm and their disempowerment in the private realm. At the same time, they are encouraged more than ever to present themselves as “sexy"—not about being attractive or beautiful, but a very narrow, commercialized idea of sexy. What’s particularly complicated is they’re sold that idea [of sexiness] as being a source of personal power. There is a complete disconnect between that image of sexiness and an understanding of their bodies, their own wants, needs, desires, and limits, what those might be, having those respected. There’s a way that this image of “sexiness” has not just been conflated with sexuality, but actually replaced it.
According to a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 percent of high school girls say they have been forced to have sex. Every girl you spoke to said she had faced harassment “in middle school, high school, college, or, often all three.” But sexual-assault statistics in K-12 schools are also rarely reported. Why the reluctance to report these incidents?
[Young women] are almost conditioned, starting in middle school, to have their bodies publicly commented on by young men, [and] they don’t think they have any power to really stop it. I think that’s a fair assessment, given that most schools are not stopping it, unless there is something so egregious that they have to step in. The everyday chipping-away of girls’ self-worth by reducing them to their bodies is completely ignored. When the reason for the dress code is that “girls are distracting boys,” you have basically put a rape culture in place. Boys need to be responsible for their own reactions and responses and able to live in the world without thinking that because a girl is dressed a certain way or behaves a certain way, they have license to comment, touch, or assault. And they need to learn that lesson from the get-go.
How can educators and parents improve the ways they talk to young people about healthy sexuality and relationships? What role, if any, should public schools play in these conversations?
What has happened in our school systems—which is a huge tragedy and is responsible in part for a culture in which girls and many boys are harassed and assaulted, and in which we have a hook-up culture that often dehumanizes kids in their sexual encounters—is that we’ve have had in place this abstinence-only garbage for years. And when it goes away, rather than replacing it with something better, there’s nothing. Kids are educated by the culture, and they’re often educated by pornography. And that’s not where we want our children to learn about how people interact sexually. Decades of evidence show that abstinence-only education doesn’t change significantly when children engage sexually. It results in more oral and anal sex; it results in more pregnancy; it results in more disease.
In some independent schools, where they have more leeway and less political pressure, there’s a kind of sex education in place that is about these issues of ethics and responsibility and reciprocity and mutuality. That doesn’t mean you’re saying, "…And go do it.” When I’ve been talking to kids who’ve had a really holistic education that involves consent, thinking about it from a human rights perspective, talking about the impact of pornography on kids, talking about reciprocity, they are really thoughtful, and they have a much higher bar for their sexual experiences. They are more compassionate, they humanize their partners, and it’s so impressive. And they’re not being sexual with each other at any greater rates than other kids I see, but they are a lot happier with the results.
We tend to silo conversations about sex as if it is not about the same values of compassion, kindness, respect, mutuality, and caring that we want our children to embody in every other aspect of their lives. You’re really, as a parent, wanting to build a scaffolding from the time your child is very small. Parents of infant boys tend to name all their parts, whereas parents of girls go right from navel to knee. Then girls go into partnered encounters, and we believe that somehow they’re going to have a voice, or they’re going to be able to express their needs, their wants, their limits, their desires, or even know what those might be. So we have basically set them up for inequality. We have got to change that conversation.
The age of the internet has paved a whole new way for teenagers to engage with sex and relationships. How is this changing the landscape for young people in terms of their sexuality?
Unfortunately, the first thing kids google is porn. The average age that kids today are exposed to porn, either intentionally or not, is 11. We have to ask what it means that kids are learning about sex from that realm before they’ve even had their first kiss and how that’s shaping them, their attitudes toward sexuality, and their expectations of sex. I’ve seen parents protesting because sex education “wants to talk about porn.” What people want is to teach kids to apply the same critical lens that we teach them to apply to the media—and the things that they read in school—to pornography. If we don’t teach them to not look at it uncritically, they won’t. They need some very clear discussions about why that’s not real, what the dynamics are, not only in terms of gender, but in terms of race and sexuality.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2017 edition of Education Week as Q&A With Peggy Orenstein: Let’s Talk to K-12 Girls About Sex