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How young women are navigating the new sexual culture

“Girl & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape” by Peggy Orenstein (Harper, 2016)
“Girl & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape” by Peggy Orenstein (Harper, 2016)
Harper Collins, 2015

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More than ever, girls are told they can accomplish anything as long as they set their minds to it.

But as journalist and author Peggy Orenstein finds, that kind of empowerment has yet to touch one important area of their lives: their sexuality.

For her new book, Orenstein talks to some 70 girls between the ages of 15 to 20 to understand how pornography has changed their lives, what their attitudes are toward sex and virginity, and how they navigate the bumpy terrain of hookup culture.

Here are some highlights from the interview:

A large part of “Girls and Sex” is about the lack of communication between girls and their parents about sexuality. Orenstein explained the importance of in-depth conversations and their effect on how young women feel they should be treated when engaging in a sexual relationship.

Orenstein: One of the big findings is that when, we as parents, talk to girls about sex, if we talk to them about sex; for one thing, we define sex very narrowly. We tend to talk about sex as being intercourse, and that denies and ignores so much of what kids are doing and it makes other things, particularly oral sex, into “not-sex.” And then the rules don’t apply for kids. The rules around reciprocity, rules around responsibility, rules around respect, all those things don’t have the same meaning in that realm when we don’t have a broader definition.

Orenstein also spoke about female pleasure, and how society has stifled young women through a lack of education about the subject.

Orenstein: We as a society completely silence issues of female pleasure. Whether you’re talking about in the culture, or whether you’re talking about the way we teach girls about their bodies. So from the get-go, parents of baby boys name all the parts [including the penis] . . . parents of baby girls go straight from the navel to the knees. And if you don’t speak of something, it becomes unspeakable . . . and then they go into puberty education classes and they learn that boys have erections and ejaculations and girls have periods and unwanted pregnancy. . . and then [young women] go into a partnered sexual experience and we expect them to be able to have a voice, to be able to advocate, to be able to have experiences that are pleasurable and mutual and responsible . . . it’s not very realistic.

Another subject that Orenstein touched on, was the stakes in pleasing a partner and how relationships between genders differ.

Orenstein: One thing that was very interesting to me was that investment in the partner remains true in same-sex relationships for girls. When girls are in same-sex relationships, the rate of orgasm goes way up to 83 percent as opposed to 29 percent in opposite-sex relationships.

Aria in Silverlake called in to talk about masturbation and how the topic was off-limits with her mother. She said she was fortunate because her cousin who was open to offering advice about personal pleasure and it’s empowered her in her sexual relationships.

Aria: I think my ability to take ownership about masturbation and not feel gross about it . . . or like I was doing something wrong really empowered me later on and allowed me to engage in sexual relationships in which I was more than ready to say, “this isn’t working for me” and “this is working for me.”

Nancy in Inglewood is a health care professional and mother to two daughters in their twenties. She said her own unfulfilling sexual experiences in early adulthood gave her an incentive to speak openly to her daughters about their sexuality.

Nancy: I was very clear that my daughters were gonna know about pleasure and kindness and respect towards themselves so we had very early frank conversations about sexuality, masturbation. I gave them both vibrators at a very young age. . . And they have had very healthy relationships and are really respectful to themselves. . . . but that dialogue continues to be very open and people thought I was nuts.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity


Peggy Orenstein, journalist and author of many books, including her latest, “Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape” (Harper, 2016)