Book Review: Girls & Sex

Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. Peggy Orenstein. New York: HarperCollins Books, 2016. 320 pp.

In short, Orenstein is bold.  This text is a bold and deep dive into the world in which girls, adolescent women, and young women are trying to develop a sexual identity.  Orenstein takes as her source material the young women themselves.  She carefully pulls out threads from a multitude of conversations and interviews and weaves a tapestry that demonstrates in total what young women face in America today in the sexual arena.  What is most surprising about this text is that although it has a clearly progressive point of view it does not lightly dismiss the experience of young women who are growing up in families that are to the right and sometimes far to the right of Orenstein’s own perspective.  Admittedly, Orenstein has injected herself into her work.  This is a text that is not without its biases.  In fact, those biases are on display so that the reader is clear that Orenstein does not make any claim to prefect objectivity.

In the world that Orenstein describes, girls and young women are in a place where the acts of sex are completely detached from meaningful relationships.  Sex, here, is almost seen solely as something that is done to temporarily relieve the pressure being put on them by boys and men.  Sometimes this is done willingly but more often than not there is some act of coercion that proceeds sex.  On one level, this act can be a man whining about how he can’t cope with his desires and being manipulative to get sex, than way on the far end of this is the full force of rape.  What Orenstein is very clear about is that sex for women has become something that is often avoided, is socially glamorized, is rarely about a woman’s pleasure and is ultimately, in many cases, degrading or violent.

Orenstein teases out carefully that young woman more than ever have become objectified when it comes to sex.  There is a moment in this text where she describes more than one young woman as moving from normalcy and in full control of herself to being a sexual object.  This can be in the transition from home where she is confident and dresses confidently to school where she is now on display and ranked, rated, and judged.  This can also be in the transition between the classroom where she is a competent student who is contributing to the meaningful discourse of education to the frat party where she “pre-games” by becoming intoxicated in order to lose inhibitions in order to perform in the ritual that we now call “hooking up”.  This shifting gears between person and object is both degrading and harmful to the psyche of a young woman.  This is the core issue that Orenstein is exposing in this text.  That literally part of the “effortless perfection” that is expected of young women today is the ability to manage the cravings of men that surround her by performing at the right time and in the right place.

This text exposes the many pieces of our culture that conspire to trap young women in this reality.  Each of these pieces is considered critically and in depth.  Early on in the text she takes on the digital world of these young women.  This is what has become the “selfie culture”.  These young women are forced by societal pressure to create the perfect online presence that threads the needle between “slut” and “prude”, between “leader” and “follower”, and between “desired” and “needy”.  You must post.  You must follow a few, but not too many.  Your posts have to be flawless, varied, and interesting.  Instagram has literally become a place where each and every young woman is expected to be a runway model who is developing her portfolio for others’ inspection.  Orenstein talks about how young women have developed strategies for managing “candid” photos so that they position their legs, chins, etc to ensure that their body is appearing as perfect as possible.  There is an entire set of rules for how to do this that are running through young women’s heads every time that a camera is present.  The goal of all of this is to be an object.  You can be expressive, but not honest and definitely not a person.

Orenstein tackles the definition of sex.  This is a definition that lacks clarity in anyway.  What is consistent is that different sexual acts have different gravity and that within a certain group of young people those levels of gravity are well-defined.  Intercourse and oral sex are just not in the same reality.  It is clear that, in the world our young people live, oral sex is just something you do to show a date your appreciation.  This to older ears probably sounds foreign.  Oral sex is no longer something that established couples explore with deep into their relationship.  It is now something that has taken the place of the good night kiss.  Orenstein lays this shift in sexual ethic at one single event, the Bill Clinton affair with Monica Lewinsky where the President of the United States of America literally defined oral sex as “not sexual intercourse with that woman”.  Orenstein suggest that the thinking among most of our young people oral sex is simply not sex.

Orenstein delves deeply into the implications of this.  There is an understanding that oral sex is literally part of a good date that goes well.  Men now quite frankly feel free to put their hands on the shoulder of young women and push gently downward indicating their desire.  A girl refusing will be labelled as a prude.  If a girl insists that this be part of a more intimate relationship she’s ask for too much.  There is no sense that the roles can be reversed here.  Young men and young men both seem to have in their head that the act of a man going down on a woman is either “gross” or simply too intimate for a casual “hook up”.  Actual intercourse is, generally speaking, something that happens when two people are in something more than a casual relationship.  Such relationship, however, are frowned about in the “hook up culture” because they are complicated and emotionally laden.  The irony here is that having sexual intercourse without emotional attachment is put out there as unattainable, but having oral sex without emotional attachment is billed as par for the course.

Orenstein explores the extreme response to this.  This is the group out there that are fixated on abstinence, chastity, and purity.  Orenstein’s take on this group is a surprisingly mixed review.  On one hand she is not sympathetic to their point of view.  She sees it as giving sex a negative connotation and simultaneously putting unrealistic expectations on what ones initial sexual experiences should be.  Orenstein is quick to point out that there is no evidence that teen pregnancy rates are at all reduced by such purity exercises and points to a statistic that Evangelical Christians actually have a higher divorce rate than people of other religious background.  Yet, Orenstein points out a key fact here.  The “purity parents” do something willingly and openly that most other parents don’t, namely, talk to their children about sex.  This point is not lost on Orenstein.  Ultimately, Orenstein appears to want to take the “purity parents” enthusiasm for the subject and combine it with a less puritanical message.  It is refreshing to see Orenstein’s balance in her approach to this group.

It appears that Orenstein actually finds the reality of open parents coupled with realistic visions of sex and relationships in the Netherlands.  She sees in Dutch culture a trend toward having modest morals while at the same time not shaming those who have sex or keeping the topic off the table.  Parents in the Netherlands seem to see that clearly communicating about sex and relationship is better than the American approach of “just say no”.  One of the features of Dutch adolescence that Orenstein points to is the practice of allowing boyfriends and girlfriends to sleep in the same room with one another.  This would be completely taboo in American culture.  The irony is that Dutch adolescents experience sex as a positive experience that is nurtured within the context of a loving family, while American children engage in their sexual escapades in relative secrecy.

One aspect of the “hook up culture” that Orenstein sees as significant is the tie between drinking, drinking to excess and sex.  One telling moment in the book is when she asks a group of college students if they have ever had sex sober there is not a single student in the room who says that they have.  In the college culture Orenstein repeatedly gives accounts of students “pre-gaming”, or drinking prior to a social occasion so that they walk into it inebriated.  At some point, she makes a reference to “script theory” in which she makes a pretty convincing argument that college students are actually following a pre-arranged script that moves them toward risk-taking behavior.  The argument is simple.  No college freshman has ever been to college before.  Yet, they seem to know what to expect and given those expectations how to behave.  This behavior learned from sources such as “Animal House” and other fictional accounts of college life that normalize absurd risk taking behavior.  This behavior such as drinking to excess and being sexually engaged with strangers are seen as normal and are taken on as part of the “college experience” without critique.

Within this alcohol driven reality are predators.  There is a subset of men who are morally degraded.  We have men who are actually forcing themselves on intoxicated women and raping them for their pleasure.  They are doing this with relative impunity.  Orenstein points to numerous cases where men charged with what clearly are examples of rape are either being acquitted or at the very best serving reduced punishments because those responsible for meeting out those punishments, whether they be judges, juries, or school officials are more worried about ruining the life of the perpetrator than they are about the life of their victims.  The number of women who claim to be raped in America is just staggering.  Orenstein gives a particularly maddening account of a woman who was raped and who afterwards found herself being tempted to respond to her attackers pleas to stop hurting him and his future by proceeding with her case.  The female student claimed it was everything within her power to stop herself from apologizing to her attacker.  This is a particular poignant anecdote in this text.

Orenstein handles the LGBTQ community with great tenderness in this text.  She tells stories of women who are wrestling with their gender identity, women who are unafraid to be gender non-conforming, women who are trans and women who are gender-queer, and even women who identify as asexual as normal.  She is not an LGBTQ apologist.  This text is unafraid to speak about LGBTQ people’s stories as part of the main experience of women, sex, and relationships.  There is a memorable story of a lesbian couple who found a safe relationship via the internet.  One of their mothers, a Canadian, was very open to this relationship.  The other, an American, was angry about it and worried that there daughter was engaging in a reality that was dangerous and harmful.  One mother was permissive and the other wanted to cut it off immediately.  Orenstein also tell about interviewing a young woman who appeared to find herself being awoken to her own homosexual orientation during the context of the interview with Orenstein.  It was as though someone just had to tell this girl it was okay to think and feel that way.  Orenstein is amazingly adept at working, humbly, through the complex language and difficult sensitivities that must be managed when communicating effectively about members of this community.  Orenstein is also able to describe well the physical acts of intimacy and sexual intercourse experienced by members of the LGBTQ community without trivializing matters.

This is an important book.  This book takes sex out of dark places and sheds light on it.  We live in a world where the adults are disconnected from the sexual experiences and realities of their children.  This would be a great book for a parent and their daughter, and even better, their son to read together.  The richness of this text coupled with its sense of “going there” could lead to jumping off points for awesome parent-child conversations.  This text challenges the “it girl” world that our children and young women live in.  We are in a world where the likes of Miley Cyrus are held up as “owning their sexuality” when in reality they are fitting into a carefully crafted character that feeds and fuels our “hookup culture” and ultimately leads to our “rape culture”.  Orenstein clearly connects sex and relationships.  She clearly is not adverse to marriage.  She, though, does encourage women to explore sexually.  She wants them to first know how to please themselves by masturbation and wants them to know how to communicate to a partner who then can give them pleasure.  For Orenstein sex should be a mutually satisfying experience for all involved.  She, though, recognizes that this takes communication and practice.  Orenstein is also a loud advocate for the line to be drawn at affirmative enthusiastic and consistent consent for sex.  She clearly gets that consent itself is “sexy” in and of that it involves communication between the partners.

It is tempting to think that this is a book to read later or for them to read later when they are old enough to understand it.  This is a book that should be digested by parents of late elementary to early middle school students.  This is a book to read to get yourself ahead of the curve before you are behind it.  This is a book for girls and boys to read with their parents (or at least parts of it) in fifth and sixth grade.  This may be a good text to share a few pages with in order to fuel a solid discussion on what is happening.  This is the kind of sharing that can build the trust between a parent and child that will help them be partners in developing the healthy sexual practices their child will need as they move through life.  Furthermore, this is a book for adults.  Many adults are still stuck in the “hookup culture”.  There are plenty of men and women hanging in bars waiting to find someone to go home with or to have a one night stand with.  This relationship between sex, alcohol, and risk are not only present in adolescents and college students.  This is a read for the adult as well.  We have a man in the White House who notoriously was once quoted that he would take women and “grab them by their pussies”.  He is the ultimate frat boy getting a slap on the wrist because we didn’t want the consequences of his behavior to ruin his life.  This needs to stop.  This stops with knowing, talking, and sharing.

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