Let's talk about girls and sex

Selfie culture. Purity movement. Hookup culture. How do young women navigate mainstream sex culture?

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In the latest offering from Peggy Orenstein, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, the author continues to focus on the ideas of feminism and "girlhood," this time grappling with sex --young women coming of age sexually, the messages they get culturally from media, school and peers, and what they are actually doing.

This isn't a salacious account of "girls gone wild" but rather a thoughtful look at the real life implications of what have become cultural touchstones of mainstream sex culture.

How do real young women navigate consent, rape culture, porn, abstinence-only sex education (with its odious focus on virginity and "purity"), hookups and the cultural silence around women's sexual pleasure?

After writing two volumes concerning "girlhood" -- Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, 2012; and Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem, and the Confidence Gap, 1995 -- Orenstein observes that as her own daughter grows up, her research interests have changed in accordance.

In Girls & Sex, the titular "girls" are young women, 70 odd in number, whom Orenstein interviewed about sex.

Is my bias against the word "girls" in this context showing yet? I struggled with Orenstein's characterization of the young women she spoke to as "girls," although in fairness she does call their male counterparts "boys."

The women she talks to are young, but generally over 18. And "girls" does effectively remind the reader of their youth, and Orenstein's body of work certainly indicates she holds "girls" in high regard. However, I was curious why she didn't unpack the use of it in this book. 

Nevertheless, Orenstein makes other limitations of her sample clear: all the women are either collegiate or "college bound," they all live in the United States, and their participation was voluntary in response to Orenstein's informal call for participants willing to talk to her about sex.

She describes the racial and sexual diversity of her sample while acknowledging its lack of representation especially with respect to class and access to post-secondary education. She tells us that 10 per cent of her sample is lesbian and bisexual, and includes a story about one couple who are making a long distance relationship work despite familial disapproval. Transgender issues aren't addressed by this volume.

Orenstein also points out that she wanted to interview girls with "choices" -- as defined mainly through advantages or privileges that might make a young woman "college bound" -- or as she states, "I specifically wanted to talk to those who felt they had all options open to them, the ones who had most benefited from women's economic and political progress."

Is this a limitation of the work? Probably, but it doesn't detract from the words and thoughts of the young women she did interview.

As she interviews young proponents of the purity movement and also vocal participants of "hookup culture," she documents the fruits of the labour of "choice feminism," which has expanded women's options in so many spheres including sexual ones.

Orenstein skilfully and compassionately documents everything from school dress codes to the implications of image-based social media that put new and evolving pressures on young women's appearance.

She makes connections between the way girls and woman are socialized, the way they are expected to look, changing sexual mores that have permitted women more sexual freedom, juxtaposed against a culture that holds women responsible for men's choices, in a way that permits the reader to draw her own conclusions.

Of course, Orenstein's light touch and humour help to make the book not only readable but also less dispiriting than it might have been in another writer's hands.

This book is deeply satisfying, and in the end, reassuring. Orenstein takes the reader through some very difficult territory including sexual violence, the epidemic of rape on college campuses, and the complexities and vagaries of creating a culture of consent in a cultural climate that seems determined to sexualize girls and women at every turn.

For readers needing some more reassurance, there are the girls themselves: thoughtful, vulnerable and candid in their assessments of how they navigate an increasingly complex sexual coming of age. There is a sense of the bravado of the young in many of the women, but also anger that comes with the understanding that with the loss of consent comes the loss of pleasure.

She grapples with ideas along with the reader, for example the commonly heard claim by girls of being "proud of their bodies" -- which Orenstein unpacks from the objectifingly problematic to the laudatory expression of subjective self-worth. Is it both? Neither? Each in turn?

Orenstein talks to high school educators whose work is shaping young people's beliefs about sex. The staunch abstinence perspective is portrayed as spreading alarming misinformation about HPV and abortions, contrasting sharply to the sex educator who promotes ethics and social justice in her advocacy work.

In this juxtaposition, the potential for transforming the way we teach kids about sex emerges.

Orenstein provides statistics that promote the more liberal approach from practical standpoints: turns out that consent-based education, harm reduction through safer sex and talking to kids about options results in fewer unplanned pregnancies, lower teenage abortion rates, fewer sexually transmitted infections, and less incidence of sexual assault.

In her words, "To me, purity and hypersexualization are flip sides of the same coin."

I enjoyed this book a great deal. Any readers who grapple with ambivalence around selfies, the ubiquity of social media, distress about rape statistics and concern for young women's sexual freedom would likely enjoy Orenstein's thoughtful and pragmatic treatment of her subject.

For those readers interested in a more in depth evaluation of campus sexual assault issues in particular, I would recommend last year's Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town 
by Jon Krakauer.

 

Sarah Innis is a graduate student in Gender Feminist and Women's Studies, a nurse and a podcaster at dresscodecracker.com. 

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