Girls and Sex: An Overview of how Peggy Orenstein Navigates a Complicated Landscape

Some of us grew up in semi-liberal or liberal households. Some of us grew up in conservative households. At one point or another, our parents would openly discuss the harms of drug and substance abuse, the negative consequences of consuming alcohol before 19 (or 18, in some cases), and why it is important to always follow the rules. As I continued to get older, I became more aware of the generation gap between my parents and I. This gap between mothers and daughters, and mothers and fathers has become even more evident as I see my parents’ friends struggling to make their way through the adolescent years of their teenage daughters. Even in the age of the “helicopter parent” there is a continued stigma and discomfort around the notion that their daughters have the potential to have a sex life. The same notion is not met with the same level of discomfort when their son’s sex lives are the topic of discussion.

At this point, it is safe to say that blaming girls’ clothing for boys’ sexual drive is counterproductive. However, we must first look inward at the ways in which girls’ clothing is marketed in comparison to boys. Orenstein writes about the methods that are used to market girls’ clothing. It is evident that boys’ clothing isn’t centered on the idea that they should bare their bellies and wear short-shorts when they dress, so why is this marketing tactic targeting girls from a young age? If we dig deeper by using Orenstein’s study as a framework, we may be able to see a correlation of self-objectification. Orenstein offers a strong definition of self-objectification: the pressure on young women to reduce their worth to their bodies and to see those bodies as a collection of parts that exist for others’ pleasure; to continuously monitor their appearance; to perform rather than to feel sensually. Could the marketing tactics of young girls’ clothing be subconsciously objectifying them? Could it be leading them towards a road of lower self-esteem and doubt? Perhaps it is the lack of conversation surrounding female sexuality on behalf of the parents, who often perpetuate the stigma from a young age that it is okay to follow media and gender norms by going along with fashion trends that sexualize the female body, but having conversations about how to engage in sexual activity safely is out of the question.

However, the stigma around young women’s dress is more likely to have damaging effects. It begins with the media normalizing how young girls are supposed to dress, what toys they are supposed to play with, and what shows they are supposed to be watching. By submitting to these cultural norms, their experience is shaped to fit a particular model. Parent’s discomfort with the teenage sex drive is actually more harmful for young girls’ self esteem, further creating a more difficult landscape for these girls to navigate.

Orenstein conducted an interview with 71 young women. In this series of interviews, she asked questions about the girls views on sexual conduct, what they hoped to get out of their sexual encounters, and how the level of discomfort they felt when talking about these experiences with family or their peers. The results were alarming. The general consensus was that their friends became an audience to be sought after and maintained, that their engagement in the sexual experience was not for their own pleasure, but more so for the purpose of fulfilling their partner’s “needs” before their own, and so that they would have stories to share with their friends to not come off as “prudish.” Not only is this behavior harmful to girls’ self-worth, but it can also be related to mental health issues. Orenstein describes this phenomenon as “using your experience to create an image of yourself.” Essentially, the more experience you gain sexually (even if it is not for your own enjoyment), your social status will be higher.

Let’s shift into a discussion about the negative consequences of social media. It is a game, and one that you need to play correctly in order to be “accepted” by your peers. Orenstein uses Sarah* as an example. She talks about a girl in her high school who continuously posted selfies. It was the general consensus that she either had no friends or was completely self-absorbed. It was never thought that, perhaps, this girl just enjoyed posting pictures of herself. The impacts of social media use have severe impacts on girls (and boys) well-being. Are selfies empowering or oppressive? Are they used to control girls and constrict them within a particular social norm, or are they a useful tool for expression and exclusion? When we are faced with these discussions there is rarely a strait and narrow path to follow, it perpetuates the ideology that there is a difficult landscape to navigate when it comes to teenage girls and sex.

Why is it called a blow “job”? The expectations for women’s bodies just continue to perpetuate a pre-existing notion of the misogynistic roles they are expected to fill in society: subordinate. Just before the Bill Clinton scandal in the White House, a 1994 survey in America revealed that just over 50% of women had never performed fellatio on a partner. In 2014, these numbers have alarmingly increased. A story in the New York Times declared that sixth-graders were now more inclined to treat fellatio “like a handshake with the mouth.” Has this practice been normalized because of the ever-growing presence of social media? Or is this stemming from the need to form an image of oneself, one that favors the female’s role in sex because it is increasingly being viewed as “normal.”

Sexually active teenage girls are often referred to as “sluts.” Sexually active teenage males are often referred to as “players.” It is extremely evident that this is a problem. Normalizing and gendering sexual behavior in teenagers is not only dangerous for their physical well-being, but also their mental well-being. Stigmatizing a normal practice (don’t turn your noses up, we are all human and puberty is a confusing, hormone-ridden, emotional roller coaster) to favor one gender over the other is not only wrong, but goes deeper to perpetuate gender roles in society as a whole. It targets women to be submissive, to be ashamed of their bodies and their desires, and calls them to question their characters for having a sex drive as a teenager. The media has sensationalized the idea of casual sex, yet targets and shames women who engage in this practice. The sexualized nature of the media not only encourages young women to call their self-worth to question, but it also perpetuates particular ideals about virginity, their role in the sexual landscape, and how they should go about the complex terrain of the “hookup culture.”

I am not a mother. I have no experience with parenting and I do not know how to care for someone who is entirely dependent on me. I write this article as an opinion piece, based off of my own experiences and the study conducted by Peggy Orenstein. If I may suggest one thing, it is that we call to question preexisting norms about teenage girls. I suggest that we become more open to discussion with these young women, who will someday be the future. I call all parents to step outside of their comfort zones and talk openly about sex with their children, which is a conversation I never had with my own parents (comfortably). This is a difficult landscape to navigate, with a variety of different factors influencing behaviors, interactions, and personal decisions. Opening up the floor to a more inclusive, non-gendered conversation about sex is what we may need in order to help maintain teenage girls self-esteem, let them know their worth, and ensure that any decision they make regarding their bodies is just that, their own.

For reference, please pick up a copy of Peggy Orenstein’s work.

Peggy Orenstein, “Girls and Sex: Navigating a Complicated Landscape”, (New York: Harper-Collins, 2016): 1-236.