'Girls & Sex' And The Importance Of Talking To Young Women About Pleasure
'Girls & Sex' And The Importance Of Talking To Young Women About Pleasure
Author Peggy Orenstein says that when it comes to adolescent sexuality, the subject of girls' pleasure is often left unspoken. Originally broadcast March 29, 2016.
Hear the Original Interview
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli editor of the website TV Worth Watching sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's guest, Peggy Orenstein has been chronicling the lives of girls for over 25 years. Her book "Cinderella Ate My Daughter," published in 2011 was about the impact of what she described as the princess industrial complex that markets the princess image to young girls. Her latest book "Girls And Sex" has just come out in paperback. It looks at how pop culture and pornography affect the sexual expectations that girls put on themselves and that boys project on them. "Girls And Sex" opens with the author's confession that a few years ago, when she realized her daughter was heading towards adolescence, it put her in a bit of a panic because she'd heard so much about how girls were treated in the so called hook-up culture.
So Peggy Orenstein began interviewing girls about their attitudes, expectations and early experiences with a full range of physical intimacy. She spoke with more than 70 young woman between the ages of 15 and 20. Terry Gross spoke with Peggy Orenstein last year when Orenstein's daughter was 14. Before we start, I want to let parents know that this conversation is about the pressures and expectations girls confront as they begin having sexual relationships and contains mentions of sexual behavior. Nothing explicit, but you might not find the conversation appropriate for children.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Peggy Orenstein, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
PEGGY ORENSTEIN: Thank you for having me back.
GROSS: So if the princess was the pop-culture symbol that you were concerned about when your daughter was very young, what would you say is the pop-culture symbol now that concerns you now that your daughter is reaching her teens? And are there any particular pop stars or celebrities that you're concerned are offering an image that girls are trying to emulate and maybe it's not a great idea?
ORENSTEIN: You know, there are great pop stars and there are pop stars that I have concerns about. And one of the kind of fun things about doing the reporting with this book was arguing back and forth with the girls about whether the kind of image of hot that was being sold to them was transgressive or whether it was liberating. And I guess, you know, right now I'd say the person who embodies that and who drives the older generation that I guess I'm part of - crazy - is Kim Kardashian. And it was really interesting to me to watch the recent release she did on International Women's Day of her nude selfies. I don't know if you paid attention to that. But what was interesting to me was that there was this argument over whether Kim was a feminist or Kim was a slut. And I kept watching that and thinking, you know, why are those the only two options? And she would talk about - in her defense she would say, I'm proud of my body and I'm expressing my sexuality. And those two lines were lines that I heard from girls a lot. And I was really taken by them because I kept thinking - you know, when a girl would show me a picture of herself dressed in the crop top and the - I started calling it the sorority girl uniform, the crop top and the little skirt and the high heels - and she would say, I'm proud of my body. And then a few minutes later she would say but if she gained a few pounds she would no longer want to dress like that because she'd be afraid that if she went to a party that some boys would called her what she said was, you know, the fat girl. And I started thinking, well, proud of your body but who gets to be proud of which body under what circumstances? And how liberating is it if humiliation lurks right around the corner? And that idea of hot, that idea that we our bodies and that how our bodies look to other people is more important than how they feel to ourselves is something that an earlier generation might have protested against. But today's generation is sold that as a form of personal empowerment and confidence. But because it's so disconnected from actual feeling within their body, I found that often for girls the confidence came off with their clothes.
GROSS: Oh, that's interesting, especially since they're in a situation where they're having probably a lot more sex at a younger age than previous generations of girls.
ORENSTEIN: Well, yes and no. If you're talking about intercourse, kids are not having intercourse at a younger age. And they're not having more intercourse than they used to. They are engaging in other forms of sexual behavior younger and more often. And one of the things that I became really clear on was that we have to broaden our definition of sex because by ignoring and denying these other forms of sexual behavior that kids are engaging in, we are opening the door to a lot of risky behavior and we're opening the door to a lot of disrespect. So when I would talk to girls for instance about oral sex, that was something that they were doing from a pretty young age, and it tended to go one way. And I got so sort of frustrated by hearing about that - and they did it for a lot of reasons. But I started saying, look, what if every time you were with a guy he told you to go get him a glass of water from the kitchen?
And he never offered to get you a glass of water. Or if he did he would say, (sighing) you want me to get you a glass of water? I mean, you would never stand for it. And girls, they would bust out laughing when I said it, and they'd say, oh, I never thought about it that way. And, you know, I thought, well, maybe you should if you think that being asked repeatedly to give somebody a glass of water without reciprocation is less insulting than being asked to perform a sexual act over and over.
GROSS: So is that form of sex? Is oral sex not considered to be sex?
ORENSTEIN: No, it's considered to be less intimate than intercourse. And something that girls say repeatedly to me - they would say it's no big deal. And there's an argument that some of the girls have in the book about exactly what it is - you know, is it sex? Is it not sex? Is it no big deal? Well, it's not not a big deal. But it's more of a big deal than kissing. But it was something that they felt that boys expected, that they could do to not have to do something else. It was a way that they felt - interestingly, they would talk about feeling more in control than if it was reciprocal because it was partly that boys weren't interested in reciprocity and it was partly that girls didn't want them to reciprocate.
GROSS: Well, and probably also, though, girls kind of have the confidence they're not going to get pregnant.
ORENSTEIN: Yes, and it was - yes, it was a way to not get pregnant. But that was pretty far down on their list honestly. And the other thing that they would say - although this, too, was pretty far down on the list - was that they felt it was safer sex, which is true and not true because the rates of STDs have actually shot up among teenagers even though the rates of intercourse have not because they think that oral sex is safer sex, and things like gonorrhea are spreading much more quickly.
GROSS: So you write about, you know, hooking up and what that means today. So just that everybody's on the same page, what do you mean when you use that expression?
ORENSTEIN: (Laughter) That's one of the things I had to constantly say to girls. They'd say, I hooked up with somebody. I'd say, which means? Which means? Because it can mean anything really. It can mean kissing. It can mean intercourse. It can mean any other form of, you know, sexual interplay. It really is a non-phrase. But what the hook-up culture means - I mean, kids did not invent casual sex - right? But what has changed is the idea that casual sex is the pathway to a relationship, that sex is a precursor rather than a function of intimacy and affection.
GROSS: You write that on the college campuses you visited hooking up was the ticket to a social life.
ORENSTEIN: Yeah, pretty much if you didn't want to stay home with microwave popcorn calling your parents, especially for freshmen and sophomores, that was kind of what they did. They went out. They got drunk. They hooked up.
GROSS: I feel the need to say - before we go any further - you interviewed a lot of girls for this book. What kind of demographic do they fit into? Like, who are we talking about when we talk about the girls who you spoke with?
ORENSTEIN: Well, the main stories I tell in the book span a pretty broad rage. There are girls that are African-American. They're Asian-American. They're Latinos. They're white. They're Arab-American. They're gay. They're straight. All of the girls that I interviewed were educated. And they were all mostly middle-class. And that was because I really wanted to talk to girls who had opportunity, who were the real beneficiaries of the feminist movement because if even those girls who were, you know, leaning in in the public realm who had this voice and could speak politically and could speak out in class and had ambitions - if even they were toppling in their personal lives then I felt that we couldn't deny that there was a problem.
GROSS: Since we're talking about how there are forms of sex other than intercourse that a lot of teenage girls, including young teenage girls, are having now and they're, you know, relatively nonchalant about it, what is the symbolic significance of losing one's virginity now, according to the girls who you interviewed for the book?
ORENSTEIN: You know, it was still a big deal. And it kind of surprised me in a way that it was such a milestone because I thought, geez, you know, you've been sexually active for years. And it's not that I don't think intercourse is a big deal but it's not the only big deal. And as the line between innocence and experience for young women, it's a problem. You know, it's not going to be the thing that feels the best to them certainly. And I think that so much of what I was looking at, whether we were talking about, you know, prioritizing intercourse or nonreciprocal sexual acts - all of it kept coming back to this idea that we are completely silent around girls' sexual entitlement and girls' pleasure. And one of the things that I really took away from this research is the absolute importance of not just talking about them as victims or not just talking about them as these new aggressors but really surfacing these ideas of talking clearly and honestly to girls about their own desires and their own pleasures. And we still just really don't do that. So, you know, when my own daughter was little I remember reading that parents don't tend to name their infant baby's genitals if their girls. You know, for boys they'll say, here's your nose, here's your shoulders, here's your waist, you know, here's your peepee - whatever. But with girls there's like this sort of blank space that's right from navel to knees. And that - you know, not naming something makes it quite literally unspeakable. And then they go into puberty education class. And girls have periods and unwanted pregnancy. And you see only the inside anatomy, that - you know, that thing that looks like a steer kind of, a steer head, with the ovaries and everything. And then it grays out between the legs. So we never talk about the vulva. We never talk about the clitoris. Very few girls explore. There is no self-knowledge. And then they go into sexual experiencesm and we expect them to be able to have some sense of entitlement, some sense of knowledge, to be able to assert themselves, to have some sense of equality. And it's just not realistic that that's going to happen.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peggy Orenstein. Her new book is called "Girls And Sex." She's been writing about girls for a couple of decades. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Peggy Orenstein. She's been writing about girls for about two decades. She's the author of the book "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" about the princess in pop culture and how that shapes the desires of young girls.
Her new book is called "Girls And Sex: Navigating The Complicated New Landscape." And it's a book that's written in part for girls and written also for their parents. And speaking of parents - parents, if you're listening now, this interview is about teenage sexuality, so you might not think it's appropriate for young children to be listening to.
I want to get back to the question of losing virginity. The impression I got from your book is that a lot of girls told you that they wanted to get it over with, and they wanted to get it over with before college so that they wouldn't feel - what, disadvantaged? - when they got to college, they wouldn't feel like...
ORENSTEIN: ...Prudes. They wouldn't feel like prudes.
GROSS: What were their concerns about that? Why was there almost self-imposed pressure to make sure you'd gotten that done before college?
ORENSTEIN: Well, it just, you know, would - you would be kind of - it would seem like you were unappealing if you - I mean, what's interesting - one girl said to me, you know, usually the opposite of a negative is a positive. But when you're talking about girls and sex, the opposite of slut is prude, both of which are negative. So what are you supposed to do?
So they're always trying to walk this line where they're not considered slutty, but they're not considered too prude. And, you know, it's an ever-shifting kind of dynamic. So part of that was getting rid of virginity, which often was something that they did drunk and not necessarily with somebody they cared that much about.
And, you know, you really have to ask, like, is that really experience, you know? I mean, is the person who rushes towards intercourse wasted getting more experience than the person who spends three hours making out with a partner sober and exploring ideas about sexual tension and pleasure and what feels good, you know?
I mean, we have this weird idea - and I think that our emphasis on virginity right now is not doing girls any favors. And of course, it also completely disregards gay girls. And one of the things that was really great was, in talking to a gay girl, I asked her if - you know, when did you think that you had lost your virginity? And she said well, you know, I really have thought a lot about that, and I'm not really sure.
And she gave a few different answers, and then she said, you know what I think? I think a girl loses her virginity when she has her first orgasm with a partner. And it completely knocked me out. You know, I thought wow. I know we're not going to dismantle (laughter) the idea of virginity or - but what if we could broaden it to think that there's multiple virginities? And what if that was one of them? That would totally shift our ideas of how we thought about girls and boys and sex.
GROSS: Some of the girls you spoke to were lesbians. And some of them figured that out while they were in high school, some of them knew before that. So if you take gender inequality out of the equation as you do when you have a same-sex couple, what were some of the shifts in, say, you know, pleasure and reciprocity in a sexual relationship?
ORENSTEIN: There was a big shift. So one of the things research shows about college-age women and college-age men is that women are more likely to use their partner's pleasure as a yardstick of their own satisfaction. So they'll say he was satisfied, so I'm satisfied, whereas men are more likely - not all men, but men are more likely to use their own satisfaction as a measure of their satisfaction.
That does not change when girls go into relationships with other girls. They're still very concerned (laughter) about their partner's pleasure, so no surprise - girls are much more likely to have orgasms when they're in same-sex relationships or same-sex encounters.
And what they would say to me were things like - that they felt they could go off the script. And once they got to go off that script of what everybody was telling them - what the culture was telling them about what sex was supposed to be like, they were freer to create their own experience that felt good to them.
And I think that that's something - you know, whether a person has a same-sex encounter or never has a same-sex encounter, it's something that that can teach the rest of us.
GROSS: Let's talk about how - alcohol and how alcohol is complicating sexual relationships for teenagers. There's so much drinking now in high school and in college. And what's some of the relationships you found between drinking and sex for teenagers and how that loss of inhibition when you drink affects the frequency of sex or the quality of sex?
ORENSTEIN: Right. Well, hook-up culture particularly is not - you know, it's not just lubricated by alcohol anymore. It is completely dependent on it. And one sociologist told me that alcohol was what created this compulsory carelessness, so that it was a way to signal that the sex that they were having was meaningless.
And it was even - I mean, alcohol - it was almost like it had replaced mutual attraction as kind of a reason in and of itself to have sex. So it was a way to not care. It was a way to say we're just doing this for one night. And what was tricky was that both the thing that is held up for college students in particular, but high school students, too, as fun - which is getting drunk and hooking up - also facilitated assault because alcohol is really the number one date drug.
And although we talk a lot about girls drinking and reducing girls drinking - and I think it's very important to talk to girls about the particular effects of alcohol on their bodies because drink for drink, we get drunker faster than boys do - we can't forget to talk about the impact of alcohol on boys because we know that alcohol, you know, at best loosens inhibitions.
It reduces a person's ability to read social cues. It gives young men who might not otherwise have it - courage is probably the wrong word, but the courage, I guess, to commit an assault or to ignore no and tend to be more aggressive when they do. And alcohol also makes boys less likely to step in as bystanders when they see something occurring than they would be if they were sober. So we really have to address both sides of this equation if we want to reduce assault.
GROSS: Well, you know, you raise the question - is it blaming the victim, is it sexist to tell girls not to drink because they're more likely to be taken advantage of if they're drunk?
ORENSTEIN: Yeah, and what girls say is don't tell us not to drink, tell rapists not to rape. And I totally get that. And I would also, as the mother of a daughter, which I am, be really clear with my daughter about, you know, that every drink you take reduces your power, reduces your judgment. And sometimes you want that, and sometimes you don't. And that's true with boys, too.
So I think it's really important not to just - I mean, you could take away alcohol, you know, not allow girls to ever drink again. You could wrap them in burlap. You could stick them in their homes and not let them go outside, and there would still be assault. And, you know - plus, we would live in Afghanistan.
BIANCULLI: Peggy Orenstein speaking to Terry Gross last year when her latest book "Girls And Sex" was first published. It's now out in paperback. After a break, we'll hear about how she approached the subject with her own daughter and the messages about sex that Peggy Orenstein received from her own mother when she was growing up. And film critic Justin Chang reviews the new movie "A Quiet Passion." I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR, I'm David Bianculli in fro Terry Gross back with more of Terry's interview with journalist Peggy Orenstein. She's the author of the best-selling book "Girls And Sex," which is now out in paperback. Terry spoke with her last year when the book was first published. It's based in part by her interviews with over 70 young women between the ages of 15 and 20, intimate conversations about their attitudes, expectations and early experiences with the full range of physical intimacy. Orenstein's earlier books include "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" about what she described as the princess industrial complex and how it markets the princess image to young girls. She's been writing about the lives of girls for about 25 years. Let's return to her 2016 interview with Terry. And please note, parents, since they're talking about sexuality during the teenage years, you might not find their conversation suitable for children.
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GROSS: Your book opens after the introduction with clothing and school. And there's a scene where the dean of a high school is telling the girl students not to dress in short shorts and tank tops or cropped tops and that they had to dress with more self-respect and wear clothes that their grandmothers would be comfortable with...
GROSS: ...When it comes to dressing for school. And you were talking to a girl - a girl's telling you this story. You weren't there when it happened. She's telling you the story. And she's telling you about how she stood up in the auditorium and objected to what the dean said. What were her grounds for objection?
ORENSTEIN: Yeah, so that's Camilla (ph), and she stood up and she - because she had learned in this very school system - this was a very liberal school system - to be an upstander. So she went up in front of the whole auditorium and said, I'm a 12th-grader, and I think what you just said is not OK and it's extremely sexist and it's promoting rape culture and if I want to wear a tank top and shorts because it's hot, I should be able to do that. And that has, you know, no correlation with how much respect I hold for myself, and you're just blaming the victim. Everybody cheered in the auditorium, and then she, you know, dropped the mic, and she headed back to her seat. And he said, thank you, Camilla, I totally agree, but there's a time and a place for that kind of clothing. And she was so furious because she said, look, it doesn't matter what I wear to school. I'm going to get cat-called no matter what. It doesn't matter what I wear. When I get up to sharpen a pencil, I'm going to get a comment on my butt. And, you know, I cannot help my body type. This is who I am, and you don't see boys having to deal with this. Boys aren't walking down the hall with girls going, hey, boy, nice calves, you know? This is something - she said it's distracting to me to be cat-called. That really affected me, and I thought, you know, we have to teach boys that it is not their right to say things about girls' bodies, to say things about girls' clothing, it is not their right to touch girls. And if we don't start teaching them at that level, how can we expect them not to feel entitlement, you know, down the road at something more extreme?
GROSS: So I don't mean to sound prudish here, but at the same time, there's a certain type of clothing that is designed to be provocative. Like, that's the point of it.
GROSS: Like, if you want to stay cool in hot weather, you could just wear a sleeveless shirt. It doesn't have to show a lot of cleavage, it doesn't have to show your naval with a piercing on it.
ORENSTEIN: Right, I agree. And that's why you have to ask, you know, what is it that girls are being sold and why are they being sold this? So it's a kind of - it's complicated and it's both sides. So she, for instance, went to school one day, she told me just right before we spoke, wearing a bustier. And she was thinking, oh, I look hot today. I'm going to have a great day. Which right there I thought, you know, well, why is that your measure of a great day? And then she goes into school and she realizes, uh-oh, everybody's looking at me and everybody's cat-calling - although she changed it. She was talking about herself in the first person and suddenly she shifted and said everybody's looking at you, everybody's making comments. And I thought, isn't that interesting that when she gets to that objectified point, she starts seeing herself from the outside too. I actually started thinking about dress codes because my daughter at the time, who was a sixth-grader, went to school wearing spaghetti straps and she didn't get busted because she was a sixth-grader and she was very slim and had not yet gone through puberty. But other girls were getting busted. And I thought, you know, so who is sexualizing these girls? And we had this conversation about it. In her school, they decided that what the dress code would be for girls was - or for everybody, not just for girls. But the dress code would be you have to be able to move comfortably in your clothing. You have to be able to raise your arms, you have to be able to bend over without having to adjust what you're wearing. You have to be able to run, you have to be able to play. So that, actually, is a pretty good and non-sexualized idea of how kids should be dressed for school.
GROSS: I want to get back to, like, pop-culture symbols and what they're teaching girls. You know, in so much pop music today, the girl stars or young women stars or women stars are wearing, you know, basically S and M fetish garb. You know, like...
ORENSTEIN: I know.
GROSS: Yeah, like, you know, bustiers or, you know, really tight leather revealing things with, like, high boots. I mean, they might as well have a whip, you know what I mean?
GROSS: It's just like the dominatrix look. And shouldn't you be able to, like, be a good musician and not dress like you're a dominatrix? Give me some guidance of how to talk about that without sounding like you're a total prude who is not aware of what pop culture means because I just think there has to be a way of talking about this without...
ORENSTEIN: I know.
ORENSTEIN: It's really hard, right? It's really complicated, and it's designed that way. It's designed to make you sound old and out of touch and prude and your daughter feel like she's expressing some kind of liberation and confidence. And when you say, like, can't you just be a musician? Even when you look back 20, 30 years at musicians in the '80s - like, if you look at Joan Jett or you look at - they're pretty clothed. I mean, it's pretty interesting that they're still, you know, you think of them as having been very sexy stars but - you know, Annie Lennox, whatever - they had a broader range. And we do still have, you know, now Lorde or Adele or there - you know, there's a few stars like that. But I think what's hard about it is that this idea of hot - and that's what they're selling - is so narrow and so commercialized and so linked with porn, frankly. And it says over and over that first and foremost, you are your body. And first and foremost, you are presenting that body in a way that is sexually appealing to others. And I think one of the big disconnects, and I was exploring this in Cinderella too - "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" - that when girls are constantly acting out sexy from a really young age, they don't connect that to their actual sexual development from the inside. And the risk is that that disconnect becomes permanent. And we do know over and over that, you know, self-objectification, self-sexualization is really unhealthy for girls. You know, there's research stretching back for decades that shows that affects them cognitively. It affects their mental health. And we know, too, that even in the sexual realm, that girls who are self-objectifyng, girls who are constantly conscious of their bodies, actually report less pleasure, less (unintelligible), less ability to talk to their partners than girls that are not. So they're really being sold a bill of goods to a great degree. And I don't think that that's prude to say because, you know, if you're interested in their sexual pleasure and you're interested in their expressing power, they're not going to get there that way.
GROSS: I think we should take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Peggy Orenstein. Her new book is called "Girls And Sex." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Peggy Orenstein. She's been writing about issues facing girls for two decades. She's the author of the book "Cinderella Ate My Daughter," about how the image of the princess in pop-culture was affecting the lives and expectations and the clothing of young girls. Her new book is more about young teenage girls and teenage girls. It's called "Girls And Sex." And it's based on interviews with a lot of girls and about her own research as well. And it's addressed in part to girls and as well as to the parents of girls. And, parents, this is a discussion about teenage sexuality, so it might not be appropriate to listen to with very young children. So let's talk a little bit about sex education. You went to some abstinence-only classes. You went to a purity ball, in which the girls - is it girls and boys at the purity ball?
ORENSTEIN: No (laughter).
GROSS: It's just girls?
ORENSTEIN: It's just girls. It was kind of like going to - I mean, I guess you could also say it was kind of like a cotillion - but it was sort of like a little wedding where the girls are dressed in white and the dads - or the male mentors, 'cause some of them didn't have dads - are dressed in tuxedos. And the girls take vows to remain pure until they enter into a biblical marriage. And the fathers or mentors take vows to cover them until that time. I have to say, it would be really easy for somebody like me to go to an event like that and just slam it because, you know, it's kind of creepy. But when I do that kind of reporting, I always like to think what can I learn from this? What can I get out of it? And what really struck me at the purity ball was that, yes, I completely disagreed with the content of their conversation. I completely disagreed with what they were saying. I know from research that what they were doing does not work at all in terms of promoting abstinence or more responsible ethical sexual behavior.
But this was the only place where I saw fathers talking to their daughters. It was the only place where fathers were communicating with their daughters about their values and their ethics around sexuality. And when I was in more liberal communities, the alternative to that was pretty much silence. Mothers might talk about birth control, about consent, about disease protection. Fathers said basically nothing. So I was really struck and I was really moved that the fathers were trying - and again, I didn't like what they were saying about it - but I was really moved by the fact that the fathers were stepping up to support their daughters at this really critical time in their lives.
GROSS: How old is your daughter now?
ORENSTEIN: She is going to be 13 in July.
GROSS: OK, so she's at a turning point. She's becoming a teenager.
GROSS: So since you've been writing about girls for two decades, is that going to make it any easier - now that you've written this book "Girls And Sex" - is that going to make it any easier to talk about sex with your daughter? Or has it made it easier in the past to talk about it with her?
ORENSTEIN: Yeah, you know, it absolutely has affected me as a parent. It's made me think a lot more about what I want for her. It's made me think a lot more about how I talk to her. You know, one of the things that I looked at was the Dutch model of sex education. And when you look at research on that, Dutch girls report both fewer negative consequences, like disease and pregnancy and more positive consequences like enjoying sex, knowing their partner really well, having intercourse later, having fewer partners, being able to assert their needs and desires and limits, feeling that they can communicate with their partners really well. All the things that we want for girls, the Dutch girls report.
American girls in the same studies report just the opposite. And one of the biggest differences between the Dutch and the American girls was that while both said their mothers - because the American fathers don't talk about it - but their mothers were equally comfortable or uncomfortable talking about sex, the American mothers only took a harm-reduction approach. They talked about contraception, they talked about disease, they talked about danger, they talked about risk. The Dutch mothers talked about how to balance risk and responsibility and pleasure. And they talked very frankly about girls' entitlement to sexual pleasure and that made a huge difference in the outcomes.
GROSS: So when you think about the sexual climate that you lived in when you became a teenager and you compare that to the climate your daughter is entering as she's about to turn 13, how do they compare? Do you think the issues are any different? Do you think the pressures are any different?
ORENSTEIN: It's so interesting. I mean, on one hand I want to say if they're not, why aren't they? When so much has changed for girls in the public realm, where so much has changed for them educationally, where so much has changed in their professional aspirations, why hasn't much more changed in the private realm? At the same time, there's a weird way where I feel I came of age in this kind of post-our-bodies-ourselves time. There was, among a certain population that I was part of, a sort of sense political duty that we deserved equality in the bedroom and a sense among the boys that we were with that they were in it with us. I feel that that - for that same kind of demographic has really not, you know, completely transformed -obviously, that's still there - but has changed a lot. And I think a lot of it is because we've had a much more aggressive and much more relentless popular culture and porn culture that tells girls that they're supposed to be sexy, that they're supposed to perform sexuality for boys, but that their sexual pleasure is unspoken of. And I think it's because my generation of women, my generation of feminist mothers - I don't know, Terry, I feel like we somehow have dropped the ball. And...
GROSS: How so?
ORENSTEIN: Well, because we haven't talked to our daughters about these things. It's as if we replaced it with these messages about, you know, being safe and being responsible. But we didn't really replace it by talking about these bigger issues of autonomy, of understanding your desires, understanding your pleasures, being able to communicate and assert your needs and your limits.
GROSS: One of the obstacles to having the kind of conversation you're describing is that it's really sometimes awkward for the teenager to talk about sex...
GROSS: ...With their parents.
GROSS: Yeah, a lot of teens don't want to do it.
GROSS: So, like, you can make as many speeches as you want to about pleasure in the bedroom and everything. But, you know, you have to - the teenager has to be comfortable hearing that.
GROSS: They have to want to participate in that conversation. And that's not...
ORENSTEIN: I'll say something...
GROSS: ...Something that you can control.
ORENSTEIN: Yeah - yeah, yeah, yeah, and part of it is normalizing the conversation, you know, early on. But I'll tell you something - I'll tell you something from my own experience, OK? My mom - my parents told me, you know, that I should wait until I get married to have sex and why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free? You know, they were of that philosophy. They changed, but that was their philosophy. At the same time, my mom wanted me to know and to make it really clear that once you have that ring on your finger that sex should be fantastic. And so she would tell me all the time that her sex life with my dad was great and that sex should be really pleasurable for me. And I was, Terry, entirely grossed out. I would plug my ears and hum and yell stop it, stop it, stop it, stop it, stop it. And that said, when I look back now I think, I am so glad I had that voice in my head because...
GROSS: Your mother's voice?
ORENSTEIN: My mother's voice. Because even though, you know - and really the only thing grosser than thinking about your parents having sex is thinking about about your kids having sex - but really that voice made a huge difference to me when I went in to my own sexual experience. And I'll tell you something else, my mom died earlier this year, but...
GROSS: I'm sorry.
ORENSTEIN: Thank you. But about 15 years ago, she came up to me and said, you know, it doesn't stop after 70. And again, I was like stop it mom, stop it, stop it, stop it. But I'm really glad I have that voice in my head. That voice is in my head. I know that's there, and I think that's terrific. So even if your children are plugging their ears and humming, I think it's worth it. And maybe it isn't always parents who can give that talk or parents who can have those conversations. Maybe you have to have another designated person in your life.
And I have been that designated person in the lives of some of my friends' kids. And I have gone out to lunch - you know, I remember going out to lunch with a 16-year-old whose mother was - she had a serious boyfriend and her mother thought that she was going to start having intercourse. And we were having lunch, and I - honestly, I would've happily had the floor open up and, you know, dropped me through it because I really did not want to have to say these words out loud. But I forced myself. I took myself in hand and I said, look, you know, I hear that you are thinking about this. And I just want to ask you some questions about, you know, again - like, have you ever masturbated? Have you had an orgasm on your own? Have you had an orgasm with this partner? Can you talk to him about things? And if you can't, why are you - what is it that you want to get out of intercourse? What is the experience that you're looking for here?
And she just kind of sat there with her eyes really big and, you know, I think that conversation made a difference to her at the time. But I also know it made a huge difference to our relationship over time. And that girl is now 24, and we talk all the time about everything - about her sex life, about her work relationships, about everything because she knew that I was there and I was open and I could talk to her. And I think, you know, we want to be our children's advisers. We want to be on their team. We want them to be able talk to us.
And one of the things that really struck me about the difference between the Dutch and the American model was that American teenagers grow up by creating a rift with their parents, and particularly for girls around sex. They have to be one person at home, where they're either lying or sort of lying by omission and pretending to be a good girl and another person out in the world. And that is not what we want for our kids. And with Dutch kids, they expect them to grow up and mature within the family, including talking about sexual issues, and it keeps the relationship closer. It keeps them comfortable, and it keeps them connected. And I know that's what I want with my daughter.
GROSS: Peggy Orenstein, thank you so much for talking with us.
ORENSTEIN: Thank you for having me on, Terry.
BIANCULLI: Peggy Orenstein speaking to Terry Gross last year. Her latest book "Girls And Sex" is now out in paperback. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "A Quiet Passion" about the life of poet Emily Dickinson. This is FRESH AIR.
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