AUGUST 27, 2016
AS A 17-YEAR-OLD GIRL, part of a generation who has grown up on social media, postings about sex are common topics on my “feed,” from memes about how girls can avoid looking like a THOT (That Ho Over There), or advice about why “giving good head” is important for women’s self-esteem, I, as a teenager, am constantly bombarded by my culture’s ideas of what young women need to know. I cannot always tell what is useful and what is gender stereotyping, what might complicate my life unnecessarily and what might possibly even be causing me damage. But recently, I was given Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, a new book that promises to help.
What struck me most was how Orenstein, a journalist and author of several books about girls, was able to report stories of young women across the nation, tales that could easily have come from me and my friends. She illuminates the styles, voices, mannerisms, and interactions in a way that seems authentic. When I met “Megan,” a sophomore getting ready for a party, I felt she was a mirror of us. Looking her over, Megan’s friend tells her, “I’m not fucking with you. You look hot, like the skinniest fucking bitch.” Although this phrasing may seem vulgar, it felt totally true to my group, where “bitch” is often used as an endearing term between best friends.
I loved that Orenstein found such a diverse group of young women to talk to, from differing socioeconomic classes, geographic locations, education levels, and ethnicities — such a wide range of interesting interviewees. Also, refreshingly, Orenstein has modern and accurate information about current hookup “slang” — she knows, for instance, that when we say someone is thirsty, we mean they are overly eager to hookup with someone. This not only gave the author credibility, but it also helped contextualize what these girls had to say about their (mostly negative) sexual encounters. She got genuine and relevant quotes, some of them chilling. “Oral sex is like money or some kind of currency,” said one girl being interviewed in a normal teen’s bedroom. “It’s how you make friends with the popular guys. And it’s how you rack up points for hooking up with someone without actually having sex, so you can say, ‘I hooked up with this person and that person.’” This phrasing is off-putting, turning an intimate act into a popularity booster, and devaluing the people involved. But it is the way some people think.
The book unflinchingly covers it all: porn and how it has shaped the sexual expectations of young men my age, many of whom have developed a taste for anal sex as a result of the billion-dollar industry. Why blow jobs are not a gift but a “must” in any sexual relationship, and how, over time, both boys and girls (usually in a heterosexual scenario) have learned that the guy must “get off” before they can go their separate ways for the evening, although rarely do either consider the girl’s sexual desires! The current college hookup culture and its inevitable dangers, are discussed, including assault and rape. These are just some of the vast number of topics talked about in the text.
Orenstein also covers the uneven state of sexual education in our nation today. In some districts, false information is routinely handed out to students. The inaccuracies and gaps of information allowed in our schools, thanks to differing community standards, are almost bizarre, and this patchwork situation leaves a vast majority of American teens literally clueless about sex as they enter adulthood. She highlights many of the blatant lies taught in American school systems that want to scare students away from sex, which include “facts” like birth control pills are only 20 percent effective in preventing pregnancy (more like 95 percent, in fact), that latex condoms cause cancer (they don’t), that “HIV can be transmitted through sweat or tears” (nope), and that “half of homosexual teen boys already have the virus” (this one seems entirely made up).
In my grammar school, sex ed included being shown diagrams of the vagina and the penis and reassured that masturbation was healthy and normal. But we were never given detailed information about healthy emotional relationships, let alone about consent or rape. I had my parents of course, but primarily I turned to the internet for guidance, seeing my first porn at 12 (the average age for boys is nine). When I was 13, I discovered a blog called IMBOYCRAZY, by Alexi Wasser, a woman in her 20s, an amazing set of posts containing advice for girls and boys looking for help with body issues, sex, or relationships. Orenstein’s book helped me evaluate my own patchwork education, and she helped me understand a great deal about why gender equality is so important, why a solid foundation of unbiased, factual information is crucial, and why it is so weirdly hard to come by.
Helping us get ready (and scared) for the world beyond college, Girls & Sex also includes well-researched and harrowing statistics on sexual harassment in the United States. It shows how mores have changed in the author’s lifetime and predicts how they will continue to change through my own. Orenstein achieves all of this in a fluid style that keeps the reader moving through what turns out to be a wonderful compendium on the vast topic that is sexuality among teenagers in 2016 United States, one that I recommend to anyone looking for a window into the plight of misinformed teens (and for those misinformed teens themselves). Girls & Sex is for men and women, young and old, and should be a book on everyone’s shelf.