Peggy Orenstein Writes to Empower Girls

The best-selling Berkeley author interviews more than 70 young women, ages 15 to 20, about virginity, oral sex, hooking up, online and traditional porn, sexual assault, LGBT children and acceptance, sex education in schools, and more in her new book Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape.



Peggy Orenstein’s latest book, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, is creating buzz.

Photo by Michael Todd

The one truth more alarming than the facts and figures in New York Times best-selling author Peggy Orenstein’s new book, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, is that in many ways, we’ve heard it all before.

“Everything in the book, I learned in 1979,” said Orenstein. “So much of it is the roots of what we were talking about while I was in college. I hate to think that moment in college was the exception, instead of a moment of change.”

Women during the 1980s and ’90s, she said, attempted change; adopting the “we’re responsible for our own orgasm thing” and pushing to establish new boundaries around women’s sexuality. But gradually, societal forces curtailed or corkscrewed female teens and women’s sexual independence into the twisted, distorted formulations revealed in her in-depth, hours-long interviews with more than 70 young women ages 15 to 20 that constitute the bulk of her new book.

If there’s change, it’s that the constricting outlines around women and sex have been darkened, or overworked.

Berkeley-based Orenstein has spent more than 25 years of writing about issues impacting girls, young women, and their self-esteem, and has penned four previous nonfiction books, including the 2012 bestseller, Cinderella Ate My Daughter.

“Who is this book not for?” Orenstein asked, repeating a question. “I suppose if you believe that telling young women about their right to sexual equality is a way to tear down society … well, females in control of their sexuality is Ground Zero in the war on women. In conservative worlds, they agree with my diagnosis, but they disagree with my solutions. They say I’m naive by thinking that knowledge is progress. Instead, they say we should get sexuality where it belongs: back in marriage. That’s the pushback.”

It’s true that the discouraging stories told to Orenstein by girls—along with numerous studies she cites in chapters addressing virginity, oral sex, hooking up, online and traditional porn, sexual assault, LGBT children and acceptance, sex education in schools, and more—can inspire thoughts of burying one’s head in the sand. Girls in 2016 are still relegated to this: A girl is either a prude or a slut, Orenstein reports. She writes: “Purity and hypersexualization are flip sides of the same coin. I’d rather girls were taught that their sexual status, regardless of what it is, is not the measure of their personhood, their morality, their worth.”

Sex education in schools in America is particularly weak, she insists. Only 23 states mandate sex education and of those, only 13 require medical accuracy. The average teen has his or her first sexual encounter by age 17; nearly three-quarters of all 19-year-olds are not virgins. Despite spending nearly $2 billion on abstinence-only programs, countless studies prove that high school students’ rates of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy continue unabated in the country.

The solutions to Americans’ disconnect on female sexuality, she said, needs to come from parents and educators. “How do I talk to my daughter or my son now?” she asks. “I can’t give you a script, but I can give you a place to start. Surfing the issues without putting your kid on the spot is a good way.”

Response to the book has been largely positive; overwhelmingly so from teenage girls who send “floods of emails,” Orenstein said. “Girls felt seen, they get context for understanding and changing their experience, ideas of what they want to be when they grow up.” Messages from post-college women in their mid-20s reveal that they’re “reckoning with their lives and what their relationships have been.” The most poignant letters show them figuring out how to be happier and satisfied.

Orenstein hopes the book and resulting enlightenment will mean that girls and women object to being treated, thought of, or self-defined as objects. What’s next? Possibly a users sex guide for girls, a book about middle age women, or a book similar to Girls & Sex about boys, the likeliest. “I’m thinking about it. It seems to be what people need.”

Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein (Harper, 2016, 320 pp. $26.99)

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