Peggy Orenstein claims in the acknowledgements of her new book that she is “difficult to be around.” I don’t believe her. Her tone throughout Girls & Sex is charming. She covers topics that could make a reader squirm, but she so consistently sounds like your witty & understanding best friend that the whole book flows easily.
Maybe she was denigrating herself in the acknowledgements because she puts her best self into her writing (she did qualify that “difficult to be around” with “while I am engrossed in book writing”), but I suspect she’s just being humble. She couldn’t have drawn such honest & trusting material from her interviewees if it was true.
And I’ll have to read Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter next. Just the other day my own daughter picked out a dress to wear and announced she was a princess — it took a five-minute conversation to convince her that it might be more fun to roar around as a DINOSAUR PRINCESS! than to waif it up as the regular humanoid kind.
Throughout Girls & Sex, Orenstein discusses problems with the way young people, especially females, learn about & engage in sexuality. She had many conversations with young women about what they were doing, and why. What she was most surprised by is how badly these women wanted to talk with an adult.
Instead of adult conversation, these young women usually relied upon the internet.
Orenstein is not against the idea of pornography. Explicit depictions of human sexuality could be a positive influence on people’s lives. But the young people she spoke with have found adult conversations about sexuality to be very inaccessible, and pop pornography, with its narrow focus on female performance over pleasure, to be all too readily available.
Pornographic actors don’t behave the way they do because it’s most fun. Their goal is to create a product that holds visual appeal for consumers. Pornographic actor and animal activist Zara Whites described this in an interview: “With women — who I really love to make love with — in the movies I don’t enjoy it as much because when you’re giving head you have to keep your head at an angle so the camera can see what you’re doing” (quotation from the bio at zarawhites dot com, unlinked because of unpleasant & decidedly NSFW images at the top of the page — somewhat exemplary of the problems with pop pornography). The actors purposefully put themselves into uncomfortable positions for the benefit of the camera.
This leads to physical contortion. Sex that proceeds wordlessly. Acts that matter more than people. Mechanical pistoning of parts between semi-anonymous bodies shaven & stylized to evoke children (super-upsetting, this last aspect. In a world rife with child abuse, entertainment designed to normalize the sexualization of children is not okay).
If the only venue for young people to “educate” themselves about sex is pop pornography, they’ll wind up with a very distorted outlook.
Unfortunately, most teens in the United States don’t have other opportunities to learn. My school taught “sex ed” yearly, starting when I was in fifth grade. I was taught that “the underwear zone” is dangerous unless you’re married. In eighth grade sex ed, our gym teacher (later fired for making lewd remarks to & leering at his female students) had us watch & write an essay about Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” music video. I think my essay said sex was dangerous because you might have to marry someone you don’t like.
Not until my junior year of college was I given advice that wasn’t garbage. A friend lent me Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, and, oddly enough, this book taught me most of what I’d need to know.
The protagonist describes an incident from his college days when a woman he met on the train invited him to share her hotel room:
I was nervous the first time we made love, which made things awkward. I apologized to her.
“Aren’t we polite!” she said. “No need to apologize for every little thing.”
After her shower she throw on a bathrobe, grabbed two cold beers from the fridge, and handed one to me.
“Are you a good driver?” she asked.
“I just got my license, so I wouldn’t say so. Just average.”
She smiled. “Same with me. I think I’m pretty good, but my friends don’t agree. Which makes me average, too, I suppose. You must know a few people who think they’re great drivers, right?”
“Yeah, I guess I do.”
“And there must be some who aren’t very good.”
I nodded. She took a quiet sip of beer and gave it some thought.
. . .
“OK, consider this. Say you’re going to go on a long trip with someone by car. And the two of you will take turns driving. Which type of person would you choose? One who’s a good driver but inattentive, or an attentive person who’s not such a good driver?”
“Probably the second one,” I said.
“Me too,” she replied. “What we have here is very similar. Good or bad, nimble or clumsy — those aren’t important. What’s important is being attentive. Staying calm, being alert to things around you.”
“Alert?” I asked.
She just smiled and didn’t say anything.
A while later we made love a second time, and this time it was a smooth, congenial ride. Being alert — I think I was starting to get it. For the first time I saw how a woman reacts in the throes of passion.
. . .
I was still young, certain that this kind of thrilling event happened all the time. Later in life I realized how wrong I was.
As it happens, Orenstein sat in on a sexual education class in northern California where the students were given this same advice. The instructor, Charis Denison, told them,
“There’s this useful thing around consent: Any good lover is a good listener. And a bad listener is at best a bad lover and at worst a rapist.”
Blunt. But true. In Orenstein’s words,
There was no denying it: [Denison] was explaining how to have sex. It was the worst nightmare of conservative policy makers realized. Yet this is exactly the kind of discussion that, if Holland is any indication, is needed to combat pop porn culture, reduce regret, and improve teens’ satisfaction when they do choose to have sex (whenever that may be).
Giving young people access to real sexual education is an important step towards a better world. But institutional policies won’t change everything. As a parent, I thought that Orenstein’s analysis of the statistical differences between first sexual experience in the United States and Holland was the most valuable section of the book (seriously — if you’re a parent, pick up a copy and read her seventh chapter right away, “What If We Told Them the Truth”).
The most important thing I learned from Girls & Sex is: talk to your kids. About everything. Discuss what you want, explain why your household has the rules it does, and be willing to change your mind. In Orenstein’s words:
It’s not just about sex, though — according to [sociologist Amy] Schalet, there’s a fundamental difference in [the U.S. versus Holland’s] conceptions of how teenagers become adults. American parents consider adolescents to be innately rebellious, in thrall to their “raging hormones”. We respond by cracking down on them, setting stringent limits, forbidding or restricting any behavior that might lead to sex or substance use. We end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy: teens assert independence by breaking rules, rupturing their relationships with parents, separating from the family. Sex, which typically involves sneaking around or straight-up lying, becomes a vehicle through which to do that.
Dutch teens, on the other hand, remain closely connected to parents, growing up in an atmosphere of gezelligheid, a word most Americans can’t even pronounce, but which Schalet translates loosely as “cozy togetherness.” Parents and teens are expected to discuss the children’s psychological and emotional development, including their burgeoning sexual drives.
As individuals, we can’t fix everything. Assault on campus? It won’t vanish. There are calculating serial offenders. But even their actions are enabled by the inebriated hookup culture we’ve fueled with sex ed classes that teach people to be ashamed of desire.
We can make things better, though. Especially as parents. The way forward is clear.
We have to talk. More importantly, we have to listen.