Book Review: “Girls and Sex”

“Girls and Sex,” Peggy Orenstein. HarperCollins 2016

Reading Girls & Sex” in public, with its hot pink cover jacket and giant block letter title, was a fun time. The wide eyes and curious stares I received were amusing, and ultimately they prove how desperately we need such a candid book to confront the stigma surrounding young women’s sexuality.

Journalist Peggy Orenstein has written previously about the media’s sexualization of girls, but this time she set out to explore the active role young women take in expressing their own sexuality — as she puts it in the opening chapter, “what happens after girls say ‘yes’ to sex”. The resulting book, published in March 2016 by HarperCollins, draws from interviews with 70 high school and college-aged women to argue that today’s girls are encouraged to “perform” sexiness, but are discouraged from developing a deep understanding of their sexuality and sexual preferences. What follows is a culture that continues to place male pleasure as the primary purpose of sex, despite advances in the feminist movement and sexual revolution. This culture manifests itself in girls’ feelings of shame or regret, and worse —  in sexual assault.  

Few times have I read a book that speaks so directly to my lived reality. Reading “Girls & Sex” was like seeing my daily thoughts and questions arranged on a page as formal inquiry, supported with quotes by sexual health experts and affirmed by my peers. The chapters, with such titles as “Matilda Oh Is Not an Object — Except When She Wants to Be” and “Like a Virgin, Whatever That Is,” address the complicated terrain of defining one’s sexual values and navigating the constant push and pull between sex-positive feminism and the threat of objectification. More than one chapter also discusses the changing definition of consent and the discourse surrounding Title IX cases on university campuses. Orenstein walked with me through my coming of age in the current sexual landscape and interrogated it much in the same way that I do; I found it a relief that I didn’t have to grapple with these questions on my own.

However, the fact that the book resonates so strongly with me (a white passing, middle-class college student) is also evidence of its greatest drawback: the lack of diversity in Orenstein’s interviewees. Orenstein issues a disclaimer in the first chapter that she doesn’t “claim to reflect the experience of all young women” — most of the girls she interviewed are white, middle-class, and college students (or college-bound). While she offers the justification that she wanted to focus on women who have ostensibly benefited most from feminism in terms of economic and political equality, the result is a glaring lack of intersectional awareness in her assessment of young women’s sexual realities. Even LGBTQ issues are isolated to a single chapter, with no integration of queer women’s experiences in the rest of the book.

For example, it is remarkable how, in a book about girls and sex, Orenstein can almost completely avoid discussion of STIs and pregnancy. Condom use is referenced sporadically in interviews and Orenstein’s observations of sex ed classes, but any mention of alternative forms of birth control or abortion are completely absent. I’d venture a guess that the risk of disease or unwanted pregnancy factors significantly into the way girls who lack access to healthcare relate to sex — but Orenstein leaves me guessing.

Throughout “Girls & Sex”, Orenstein maintains a conversational tone with humor and urgency in the appropriate places. The book is ultimately written for parents, however, and one can sometimes hear the clucking of the older generation in the tone of her writing. As Oliver Wang wrote in his LA Times review, “[Orenstein] leans more center-left than radical, and there’s a subtle air of disapproval in how she discusses such topics as porn, hooking up and especially anal sex, which is always framed negatively.” Overall, though, Orenstein makes sure to provide a balance between liberal-leaning quotes from her teen interviewees and her own somewhat more sober analysis.

While “Girls & Sex” falls short of the comprehensiveness suggested by its title, the book is still a straightforward, highly accessible and easy-to-read account of young women’s sexual experiences in contemporary America. Orenstein ends on a hopeful note, illustrating the potential for open, frank conversations about sex to inspire healthy sexual behaviors in all young adults, regardless of gender. The goal, she suggests, is to give rise to a culture that encourages girls’ self-knowledge and sexual autonomy. Reading “Girls & Sex” in public might actually be a step in the right direction.  

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