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Talking To Girls About Sex: The Basics You Should Know

Written by Jessica Williams

Photography by Photographed by James Kicinski-McCoy

If your teen hasn’t opened up about the current state of the birds and the bees (who are we kidding?), you may want to pick up a copy of Peggy Orenstein’s latest work, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. Even if your child is years away from a driver’s license and is more interested in fighting the afternoon nap, you’ll still want to read this. But brace yourself. For parents—especially those raising daughters—some of the material is not easy to read. In fact, some of it is downright painful and upsetting.

For this meticulously researched 236-page book, renowned journalist and mom Peggy Orenstein, who also brought us Cinderella Ate My Daughter, interviewed more than seventy young women between the ages of fifteen and twenty (all names and identifying information were changed to protect privacy) as well as psychologists, sociologists, pediatricians, and other experts to discover how girls view and experience today’s so-called “hookup culture,” one complete with sexting, readily available internet porn, and vicious social media attacks.

While the book explains today’s teens’ definition of “the bases,” “catching feelings,” and “being all cute,” it is much more than a review of present-day terminology. Rather, it is a commentary on female empowerment in today’s day and age and how women’s sexual pleasure—or lack thereof— relates to it. Girls & Sex is also a call to action for parents to start normalizing discussions with their teens about intimacy, including women’s entitlement to sexual pleasure.

Thanks to daughters, mothers, and grandmothers before us, women have made many gains (of course, there’s still much more to do). That said, today’s young women are still forced to contend with misogyny and that age-old double standard (i.e., girls are sluts but boys are players), and they face a horrifying prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. As Orenstein writes, “When so much has changed for girls in the public realm, why hasn’t more—much more—changed in the private one? Can there be true equality in the classroom and boardroom if there isn’t in the bedroom?”

Not only does Orenstein speak with young women across the country but also parents, such as Dave, who accompanies his daughter to a Purity Ball, an event “designed to equip and encourage young women seventh through twelfth grade to stay pure until marriage.” She speaks with experts, such as “youth advocate” Charis Denison, who visits high schools to facilitate truly open and honest discussions with teens about sex. As Denison says, “‘It’s so clear to me that in this area the less specific and the less open we are, the more and more at risk we’re putting these kids—especially girls.’”

Orenstein’s sweeping research ultimately leads you to think, and think hard, about how you will discuss sex with your daughter—and, just as importantly, your son—when that inevitable question arises.

There’s a lot to unpack from this important book, but here are a few takeaways:
The Average Age: The average American has first intercourse at age seventeen, Orenstein reports. By age nineteen, three fourths of teens have had sex.

Sex Ed: Orenstein reports that only fourteen states (yes, you read that correctly, fourteen) require that sex ed be medically accurate. “What this means for parents is that you never know what your child’s ‘sex education’ class may entail,” she writes.

Coming Out: The average age of coming out in the United States is between fourteen and sixteen. In 1991, that age was twenty-five. “As the age of coming out has dropped, parental support has become more crucial than ever,” writes Orenstein, noting that children report awareness of sexual attraction around age ten, according to Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University.

Sex as a Precursor to Intimacy: Orenstein reports that teens are not having more sex (i.e., intercourse) than they used to. What has changed, however, is that many relationships now begin with “noncommitted sexual contact” rather than dating. The result is that sex is no longer a product of intimacy: “Rather than being a product of intimacy, then, sex has become its precursor, or sometimes its replacement,” writes Orenstein.

Coercion Into Sexting: Girls may be pressured into sexting as early as middle school, and that can have lasting effects: “While equal numbers of boys and girls may sext voluntarily, girls are twice as likely to be among those who were pressured, coerced, blackmailed, or threatened into it. …That’s particularly disturbing, since coercion into sexting appears to cause more long-term anxiety, depression, and trauma than coercion into real-life sex. Among the girls I met, the badgering to send nude photos could be incessant, beginning in middle school,” writes Orenstein.

Attempts to Coerce Oral Sex: Orenstein reports that nearly every girl she spoke with had “at least one experience with a boy who had tried, despite her clear refusal, to coerce or force her into oral sex: verbally, via repeated texts, or by physically planting his hands on her shoulders and pushing downward.”

Oral Sex as Not-Sex: If teens think of oral sex as not-sex, that can be a big problem: “Discussions of sexual assault and consistent, enthusiastic consent are, thankfully, becoming more common on college campuses, yet if teens think of fellatio as not-sex (or not ‘anything’), if it’s thought of as an entitlement or considered an appeasement, then both girls’ right to say no and boys’ obligation to respect that are compromised, and the lines between consent and coercion and assault risk becoming blurred,” writes Orenstein.

Addressing Rape in College is Too Late: “Waiting to address rape until college is years too late,” writes Orenstein. “Sexual assault is even more common among secondary students; the difference is that their schools don’t have the same duty to report it. Twenty-eight percent of female college freshmen in a 2015 survey of a large private university in upstate New York said they had been victims of either attempted or completed forcible or incapacitated rape before college—between the ages of fourteen and eighteen.”

The Dutch Approach: Orenstein reports the Dutch have a much more open approach to discussing sex, intimacy, and pleasure. As a result, Dutch girls report having more comfort with their bodies and desires. They also report becoming sexually active at an older age and are more likely to use birth control than American girls. “The Dutch girls said that teachers and doctors had talked candidly to them about sex, pleasure, and the importance of a loving relationship,” writes Orenstein. “More than that, though, there was a stark difference in how their parents approached those topics. The American moms had focused on the potential risks and dangers of sex, while their dads, if they said anything at all, stuck to lame jokes. Dutch parents, by contrast, had talked to their daughters from an early age about both the joys and responsibilities of intimacy.”

Providing Boys With Proper Models of Masculine Sexuality: Discussing sex and intimacy more openly with our sons is equally important: “Parents need to discuss the spectrum of pressure, coercion, and consent with their sons, the forces urging them to see girls’ limits as a challenge to overcome,” writes Orenstein. “Boys need to understand how they, too, are harmed by sexualized media and porn. They need to see models of masculine sexuality that are not grounded in aggression against women, in denigration or conquest.”

To learn more, pick up a copy of Girls & Sex and check out Peggy Orenstein’s recent Ted Talk, “What Young Women Believe About Their Own Sexual Pleasure.”

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