Author Peggy Orenstein explores a new era of sexuality in Girls & Sex

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The way American youth have sex has changed. The definition of abstinence now allows for oral and anal sex, porn is being used as a how-to tool, what constitutes the loss of virginity is murky, and orgasmic reciprocity is rare. Bestselling author Peggy Orenstein examines these issues in her new book, Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, in which she fearlessly delves into the experiences of girls and college-aged women, supporting anecdotal evidence about “hookup culture” with scientific and feminist research.

Minneapolis-born, California-based Orenstein is the author of four previous books, including Cinderella Ate My Daughter. She spoke to City Pages in the midst of a nationwide book tour that brings her to Magers & Quinn on Sunday evening.

City Pages: Thank you for writing this book. I say that not just as a parent of two preteens, but as a 30-something who is also trying to navigate this landscape. Are the changes you’ve seen in the sexual landscape only generational or are they cultural as well?

Peggy Orenstein: That’s a really good question. I’ve been getting a lot of email from women in their 30s saying, “I’m trying to figure out this stuff, too.” It’s not something I explored in depth, but I think that ideas about female objectification and defining ourselves through the body rather than through some inner self has spread culture-wide, and is expected of women whether they are three years old or 75.

CP: How do we talk to girls about sex without scaring them?

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PO: I know it can feel really scary for parents, but I also think you have to look at it as an opportunity to create a closer bond with your child. When I was looking at the comparisons of the Dutch and the Americans [and their approach to sexual education], one thing that really struck me is that we make American kids grow up by creating a rift with their parents. Especially girls, at home they have to be “the good girl” and they go out into the world and they have to be something else and they’re lying all the time.

In the Dutch model, where they discuss these things openly, honestly, and frankly, they talk about how to balance responsibility and joy in sex. The kids are expected to grow up and become themselves within the family. Americans tend to talk about sexuality only in terms of risk, danger, and harm.

It’s a different way of thinking about it. It can still be kind of awkward, for sure, but it’s not frightening. If it’s not something that you feel like you can do, or that your kid doesn’t want to hear from you, maybe you have a friend or an aunt or somebody else in your community that is close to your child that can be that person for them.

CP: How far do we go in these conversations? Even in consensual sex, there are acts that some people might like and some might not: spanking, slapping, biting, restraints. Do we make our children aware of those as well?

PO: It depends on how old they are. I think it’s fair to say, “Between enthusiastically consenting people, people have a broad range of what they enjoy in a sexual experience and that’s very personal. The most important thing is to assert your wishes, your desires, and your limits, and have those respected. If you’re in a liaison with somebody, whether it’s 10 minutes or 10 years, you need to be able to do that.”

CP: Regarding orgasms, I’m sure we’d all agree that every person deserves to have an orgasm in any given encounter. But should we expect that? Should that be the goal?

PO: I don’t want to put pressure on women to feel like they’re failures. Our culture isn’t set up to prioritize female orgasm. We don’t even acknowledge the existence of the clitoris in girls. To expect everybody to be self-knowing and whipping off orgasms right and left probably isn’t realistic.

That said, one of the things I talk about in the book is this idea of “intimate justice,” coined by a researcher at the University of Michigan. In intimate justice, you have to ask these questions: Who gets to engage sexually? Who gets to enjoy the experience? Who is the primary beneficiary of the experience? And what is good enough for each partner?

In asking those questions, you start thinking: Why do we think it’s good enough for women to feel good but not have an orgasm? Maybe that’s the way it goes. Maybe you make your accommodations. But it’s worth asking those questions from a political perspective.

CP: Why did you decide not to interview any boys for the book?

PO: I believe very strongly that boys—and parents of boys in particular—need to be part of this conversation. But the really radical changes in the culture have, over the last 50 years, been in women’s and girls’ lives. That’s what has always interested me. Plus, there are people who have sons as well as daughters. They’ll be talking to their boys as well.

CP: I hope so. You talk about the two choices for girls in the culture right now, both of which have negative connotations: They can be sluts or they can be prudes. What do you envision as a middle ground or a more positive option?

PO: I would like to annihilate both of those and then we won’t have to have a middle ground. We won’t be judged by what’s going on between our legs. I just want girls, and boys, to have safe, responsible, ethical, pleasurable, and reciprocal experiences, and to think about, as a culture, how that can happen. Right now, that’s not happening. Not only is that causing a lot of trauma for girls in consensual relationships, but it’s part of what is feeding into issues of assault that we’re seeing on high school and college campuses.

CP: You’ve been getting a lot of positive press about the book. Have you had any backlash?

PO: There are some very ugly people on Twitter who are not having a constructive debate. They just really would like to kill me. It’s disgusting what people are like on Twitter. But I’m so blown away by the [positive] response to this book. A friend of mine keeps looking at my Amazon rankings—because I don’t, I think that’s a fool’s errand—and it’s number eight on the whole site. It’s gone past Hungry Caterpillar. Nothing goes past Hungry Caterpillar!

CP: Congratulations. I’m glad that you wrote this. It’s going to help a lot of people have conversations that need to be had.

PO: I hope so. One of my girlfriends said, “How does it feel to know you’re going to be responsible for more female orgasms in the world?” If that’s my legacy, I’m okay with that.

IF YOU GO:

Peggy Orenstein: Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape

Magers & Quinn

Sunday, April 3

5 p.m.

Free


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