Sex & Relationships

On Teenage Girls, Sex and Pleasure: The Scary Terrain No One Wants to Touch

In her new book about girls and sex, Peggy Orenstein says it's time to change our definition of virginity.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Cruising though the aisles of the local bookstore, you may take note of a book by Peggy Orenstein titled Girls & Sextwo topics that we certainly like to talk about, though not necessarily together.

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. But the tendency to glaze over the fact that teenage girls are exposed to, and sometimes even having sex, seems counterproductive. And given that it stems from the same society that sells high heels to babies, thongs to 7-year-olds and “virgin” bikini waxes to pre-teen, it seems pretty irresponsible, too. 

In 2016, it remains a tricky 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.

CW: We know that American sex education is important, but imperfect. How can we improve in this area?

PO: In the book I talk about something called the “psychological clitoridectomy” that we perform on girls. With little boys, we tend to name all their body parts; we’ll call the penis their “peepee” or something like that. But with girls, we’re silent and there’s nothing between the navel and the knees. And then they go into class and learn that boys have erections and ejaculate, which is directly linked to pleasure, whereas girls have periods and unwanted pregnancies. Not so much linked to pleasure.

We never see vulva. We never see clitoris. We’ll bring up the possibility of sexually transmitted diseases and assault, but we don’t go toward helping girls develop a healthy, joyous sense of their sexual selves. No surprise, fewer than half of teenage girls have ever masturbated. And then they go into partnered sex and we’re surprised when they don’t feel they have a sense of voice, a sense of agency or entitlement or an ability to say what they need or want. They think that sex is for boys; that pleasure is for boys.

Dennis Fortenberry, a pediatrician who works on teen sexuality at Indiana University, says that sex is a pool of experiences, rather than a race to a goal. Kids need to learn that it’s about intimacy and mutuality, communication, orgasm, touch—all of these things. A question I like to ask is who’s more sexually experienced, the person who spent three hours making out with a partner and experimenting with all that erotic tension, or the person who gets wasted so they can pick up someone to have intercourse with so they can dump their virginity before they get to college. 

I make a pretty big statement saying our definition of virginity is not doing girls any favors. That’s not to say that intercourse isn’t a big deal, because it is, but it’s not the only big deal. And it marginalizes a lot of other behavior. It makes it so things like oral sex or anal sex are ‘not sex,’ and if they’re ‘not sex,’ they’re not subject to the same rules about consent, coercion and reciprocity.

Fixating on intercourse as the line between innocence and experience also completely ignores the experience of gay and bisexual girls. So I asked one girl who had never had heterosexual intercourse how she knew she wasn’t a virgin anymore, and she told me, ‘I think I lost my virginity the first time I had an orgasm with a partner.’ What would happen if we shifted our idea of virginity to that? It would change the idea of what sex means to young women.

CW: Do the typically sex-phobic conversations Americans have about sex impact the sexual journey?

PO: There was a study that was done involving both Dutch and American college-aged women about early sexual experiences. On every measure, whether they were talking about reduced negative consequences like pregnancy, disease regret, or enhanced positive consequences like knowing your partner really well, being able to articulate your needs, wants and limits, enjoying the experience, positive body image, the Dutch come out way ahead. They have all the outcomes that we say we want for our girls. The difference is that in Holland, parents, doctors and teachers talk to kids very early, and very explicitly, about sexuality.

As liberal parents, we tend to talk to our kids about sex, contraception, and if we’re really good liberal parents we talk to them about consent. And then we leave the conversation by saying, ‘If you have any questions, you can always come to me.’ We’re putting the entire onus on them. For any other subject, we would sit down and say, ‘these are the questions that tend to come up.’ We anticipate the question and try to talk about it with them. But not in this realm.

American parents who are comfortable talking about sex tend to focus on the danger while Dutch parents talk about balancing responsibility and joy. And that really drives a difference in outcome so that girls have higher expectations. Consent alone is a very low bar for a sexual experience.

At one point in the book, I mention a boy who brings up the baseball metaphor often applied to sex. He said, ‘Wait a second, in baseball there are winners and losers. So who’s supposed to be the loser in a sexual encounter?’ In that metaphor, girls aren’t even on the opposing team. They’re the field. 

Carrie Weisman is a writer focusing on sex, relationships and culture. 

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