Peggy Orenstein has written some of the most insightful books and articles on girls this decade. Author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy’s most recent work, Girls & Sex, draws from in-depth interviews with girls, experts, and academics. She explores girls’ misconceptions about fe
men and young men. Here’s what she had to say in our Q&A.
Planet Daughter: Girls are learning a great deal about sexuality from the media and broader American culture. What are the messages parents should send to counteract the damaging lessons girls are learning?
It’s how we talk about coercion. The expectation that’s baked into our sexual dynamics right now is that boys are taught they are supposed to coerce girls. Girls are taught that boys are the primary beneficiaries of a sexual experience. I put it in the book in terms of “intimate justice.” That’s a phrase I got from Sara I. McClelland, Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. She talks about how you have to ask, Who is entitled to engage in sex? Who is entitled to enjoy it? Who is the primary ben
eficiary? How does each partner define “good enough”? Those questions are difficult for us as adult women. But for girls, especially during those early formative sexual experiences, we have to start asking these questions so that those early experiences are not something that girls have to get over.
If you can do one thing with your kids, challenge the baseball metaphor. Instead, have them watch Al Vernacchio on TED talking about how sex is a pizza. And you can take that pizza metaphor and stretch it infinitely. Pizza is a shared experience. Everyone is interested in everyone’s enjo
yment. You can say: “Maybe I don’t feel like pizza.” “Maybe I do feel like pizza.” “Maybe let’s go get pizza.” “You like mushrooms, I like pepperoni.” “Maybe we’ll go halfsies.” “If you keep insisting on pepperoni and I keep kosher, I’m not going to have pizza with you anymore.” It works, it really really works. It’s this total shift from seeing sex as something somebody does to someone or something, or as a way that someone scores, or triumphs over an adversary, into something that’s a shared pool of experience. You can’t just go to pizza and not discuss what is going to be on the pizza.
There was a study that compared Dutch college women to American college women talking about their early sexual experiences. On every measure, the Dutch came out ahead, whether it
was fewer consequences like pregnancy, disease, and regret, or more positive consequences like being in control of the experience, having pleasure, knowing their partner, and being able to communicate. Everything we wanted, the Dutch had. Americans did not. And the biggest difference was that the doctors, the teachers, and the parents all talk about sex very frankly, including sexual pleasure. American parents weren’t less comfortable talking about sex necessarily, but they couched it in terms of risk and danger exclusively. Dutch parents talk about balancing responsibility and joy.
Q: Your work is focused on girls, but what should parents know about how young men are framed in these discussions? What should parents actually be concerned
about? And where are those places where young men are getting a bad rap?
A: I very intentionally ended the book in a coeducational classroom, and I very intentionally ended it with a boy. That’s the final image in the book, and the callout to parents of boys. All of these issues are important to boys as well as girls. Girls are only half of the equation. I was interested in girls because their lives have changed so radically over the past 50 years. Obviously, we need to be having these conversations with boys about the way the culture sexualizes women, and what they see, and how that affects their expectations. We need to talk to them about the whole spectrum from consent, to coercion, to assault. We need to tell boys that girls’ limits are not their challenge to overcome, and what we expect of them in terms of sexual responsibility, reciprocity, and mutual pleasure in relationships, whether these relationships last for ten minutes or ten years.
Q: There is fear for parents surrounding the conversations about and with teenage girls. There’s fear in culture, there’s fear in the rhetoric around teenage girls. What would you say to parents about the anxiety surrounding parenting teen girls?
A: The fear is about sex, but sex isn’t really about sex. It’s about interpersonal relationships whether they are ten minutes long or for the rest of our lives, and if we think about it more like that, I think that helps. And I think that fear is a fear that if we tell girls that they could enjoy a sexual encounter, they might have one. Instead, by not telling them, we haven’t stopped them from having sexual encounters—they just have really unfortunate ones. And what all the research shows—and this is what the Dutch research confirms, over and over, and other European countries as wel
l—is that the more girls know, the more they feel in control of their own sexuality, the more they understand about their own entitlement to pleasure and their own capacity for pleasure. The more they understand about sexual ethics, reciprocity, responsibility, caring, the more likely they are to actually raise the bar for their sexual experiences and demand and expect something better, more fulfilling, more reciprocal, safer. It’s actually when they have more information that that happens, and not when we deny them information. That’s probably the biggest lesson.
Q: How can parents talk about these themes with their daughters? How can you open up the conversation?A: If it’s integrated into your conversation the way anything else would be, the way discussion of any other situation that requires ethics and humanity in kind of the deepest way, it won’t be that hard. You don’t have to tell them about your sex life. You could even just say, “I read this article today,” or “I listened to this show today, and they were talking about oral sex and how girls are ashamed of their genitals and how they tend to go one way. I was wondering what’s going on in your world about that, what are you seeing with your friends?” That’s not that threatening. It’s signaling over and over that your child can talk to you. And it’s not enough to say, “If you have any questions”—because they are not going to ask. And if you can’t do it, maybe because of the way you grew up, then you do need to find the person who can do it to be on your team. Parents don’t get to pick and choose when they parent. We don’t get to say, “well I’m afraid of this realm, so I am not going to parent here.” That’s kind of dropping the ball. This is your responsibility. You have to find a way in.