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In her new book about girls and sex, Peggy Orenstein says it’s time to change our definition of virginity.
Cruising though the aisles of the local bookstore, you may take note of a book by Peggy Orenstein titled Girls & Sex—two topics that we certainly like to talk about, though not necessarily together. Combining mention of sex and young girls is usually a big no-no. But to glaze over the fact that teenage girls are exposed to, and sometimes even having sex, seems counterproductive (in the same society that sells high heels to babies, thongs to 7-year-olds and “virgin” bikini waxes to pre-teens).
We know that women don’t always get the best side of sex. It’s tough finding a happy balance between slut and prude, exploration and exploitation. Even trickier is teasing out the difference between one’s desires and one’s partner’s desires. These are issues women struggle with well into adulthood.
Of course, in 2016 it’s a different kind of battleground. After 70 interviews with young women ages 15 to 20, that’s something Orenstein can be sure of. We had the opportunity to speak with Orenstein about Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. The interview below has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Carrie Weisman: Why was it time to write a book about teenage girls and sexuality?
Peggy Orenstein: Why haven’t we had this conversation before? How is it that so much has changed in women’s lives—we’re more ambitious, we have more opportunities in education, more opportunities professionally—but we let girls topple in this one area?
I like to compare feminism to a circular room. You have to push the wall out in every direction to make it bigger, otherwise one side will get disproportionately smaller. So I think we always have to be pushing on different aspects of women’s lives. We spend such little time speaking about sexuality. I think that’s partly because even adult women can be pretty ignorant of what female sexuality – a liberated female sexuality – might look like. It’s very hard to get past the male-defined version of female sexuality.
There’s a disconnect between the way girls perform sexiness and our lack of a conversation about authentic sexuality.
CW:One of the things that seemed to really bother you was how oral sex plays out in the teen community; namely, how teenage girls aren’t getting it, aren’t asking for it, yet are often performing it. Why was that important to address?
PO: There’s this overarching idea that girls feel entitled to engage in sex but not necessarily to enjoy it. I did a radio interview where a bunch of people called in saying their daughters didn’t think it mattered, they weren’t in a relationship to get sexual pleasure, they didn’t mind being the pleasure provider, and all those things that just make you go, Wait a second! No! When is that going to shift?
The framework I wanted to put on the book was this idea of “intimate justice,” a phrase coined by Sarah McClelland, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. She says, as we have known and discussed for years, who does the dishes in the home or vacuums the rug and picks up the laundry, those are political acts as well as personal acts. Sex can be looked at through that lens too. We need to look at who gets to engage in the sexual experience. Who gets to enjoy it? Who is the primary beneficiary? How does each partner define what’s good enough?
Some girls say [they like performing but not receiving oral sex] in order to maintain their bodily integrity. It’s a way to go further without having to involve your body, it’s a way to please your partner, it’s a way to show that you like someone, it’s a way to get someone to like you. It’s a way to feel powerful and desirable. All those are pretty intellectual reasons. Boys say they like oral sex because it feels good…