Q&A with Peggy Orenstein, journalist and author of ‘Girls and Sex’

The Girls and Sex author discusses the sexual pleasure gap that young women experience and fills us in on what she couldn’t fit in her new book.

by Anna Meyer

art by Grace Molteni

Between Tinder, internet porn and a general breakdown in partners’ bedroom communication skills, sex and relationships can be confusing for all women. So how are girls in their formative years handling the experience? Peggy Orenstein, New York Times best-selling author, investigates this question while further exploring the current influences and pressures on young women with her latest book, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape.

After delving into young girls’ self esteem in Schoolgirls, girlie-girl culture in Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and women’s struggle to find the balance between their personal and professional lives with Flux, Orenstein now informs us about what it’s like for modern girls navigating hook up culture (don’t worry, Girls & Sex isn’t another one of those pearl-clutching, sound-the-alarm investigations).

On April 3rd, The Riveter will be in conversation with Orenstein at Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapoils, MN. Her unique and research-based views are sure to spark some interesting dialogue. But to get just a taste of what is to come at this event, we talked to Orenstein about her reason for writing Girls & Sex, as well as what didn’t make it into the book’s final draft.

Anna Meyer: Girls and Sex focuses on young women today and their sexual experiences during their formative years (specifically of high school and college aged girls). You touch base on a variety of topics, but when you initially set out to begin writing this book, which topic did you focus your research around first?

Peggy Orenstein: You know, I didn’t. I just knew that there was something out there. In my previous books, like all the way back to my first book published in 1994, which is called Schoolgirls, there’s a chapter in that book called “sluts.” And that deals with the sort of burgeoning ideas about sexuality that eighth grade girls were having. So, it was talking a lot about that idea of what a slut is, or what a slut isn’t, and this kind of word that doesn’t mean anything, and all of that sexuality deputized from the get go. And then I wrote about sex a little bit again in Cinderella Ate My Daughter, my last book. So it’s been something that has been running around my mind for a really long time, and I have always felt that I had a lot more to say about it, but this was the moment that I chose to decide, “Ok, now’s the time to say it.”

It ended up coinciding with a moment in the culture where the conversation happened to be huge. I was also hearing a lot from friends about their kids who were teenagers, and some of what they were going through. I just really felt strongly as a feminist and as a mom that I needed to bring this conversation forward and get adults and teenagers to be talking about it.

AM: So would you say that the catalyst for writing this book was your own personal experience as a mother, a friend and a woman?

PO: Yeah! Coming out of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, which was a book that talked about the sexualization of little girl culture, it was the natural next step. So looking at the sexualization of little girl culture, that among other things, cuts girls off from naturally developing an internal sense of their sexuality, and the way it tells them that how they look is who they are, and how their bodies look to others is more important than how they feel themselves. All of these lessons that the culture teaches them well, then how does that then relate to actual sexuality? So that, and I think the combination of coming off of that book, and being a mom of a daughter who is about to be a teenager.

AM: Did you see a part of yourself in these young women that you were interviewing during your research?

PO: That’s a very interesting question, and I relate very strongly to the girls and I always have to the girls that I research. I think I feel a deeper connection to them because I’m reading the transcripts and thinking about them for years, whereas they meet me for a couple of days. But I have stayed in touch with a lot of the girls from this book and correspond with them.

But I felt like, and this is one of those things where I struggled to get it into the book and in the end I couldn’t, but I feel like when I was a teenager, it was sort of a unique moment in America where abortion was not only legal and acceptable, but there were no parental consent laws yet. So you had reproductive control, we could get birth control as needed, and there was a new kind of expectation of people who were sexually active. I was just talking about this with one of my girlfriends the other day to see what she thought about it. We felt like this political imperative, and this was a certain class, a certain demographic of girl, but a kind of political imperative to have orgasms. Honestly.

I would say that we were odd or unique, except there was a book that I read in the 90s, that was about young women and sex, and the girls that were interviewed would’ve been my age at the time. There absolutely was a greater sense of entitlement to not just engage, but also to enjoy. I feel like that’s part of what has gone wrong more recently. That you can engage, but the entitlement to enjoy has somehow been lost.

AM: In your recent piece with The New York Times titled ‘When Did Porn Become Sex Ed?’, you mentioned that during your research for Girls and Sex, you asked a high school senior about how she would feel if guys were expecting a girl to fetch a glass of water from the kitchen whenever they were together, yet never offered to do so in return, as a comparison to how boys will sometimes expect to be pleasured by a girl with no intention to reciprocate. The high school senior had responded in laughter, but why do you believe there’s such a barrier in the minds of young women, where it’s hard for them to see pleasure as a mutual activity instead of an expected, one-sided task?

PO: Actually the funnier part is that I had initially asked her what if they expected her to get them a latte from Starbucks all the time. She said, “Well, a latte costs money.” So I said, “Ok, make it a glass of water!” But I thought, “Yeah, so you don’t think there’s a cost to nonreciprocal sex. Huh, interesting.”

But I think some of it is that we continue this complete taboo around female sexual pleasure, like we’re so afraid of telling teenage girls about the capacity for pleasure in their bodies. (As if) that’s going to somehow make them behave irresponsibly, instead of what I think, (which) is the opposite, which is that it makes them behave more responsibly and raise their standards. In the book I call it the “psychological clitorectomy.” …We do talk about (safe sex and contraception) much more than we used to, but we don’t talk about this part…So then they go to puberty educational class, and they see the inside of the body, the thing that looks like the spearhead with the ovaries and the uterus, and then it grays out between the legs. And you never hear the word clitoris, certainly. And then you learn this idea that boys get erections and ejaculations, and girls have periods and have to watch out for unwanted pregnancy. It’s just not the same thing.

And so, unsurprisingly, few girls masturbate compared to boys. Only 30 percent of 14-17 year old girls masturbate regularly, and more than 50 percent have never masturbated. So then you take all of that, and then they go into a partnered experience, why would you expect that they would think that the experience is for them, or that they deserve an equal right or equal entitlement to pleasure compared to boys?

There was a term that I heard from a psychologist named Sara McClelland at the University of Michigan, that’s “intimate justice.”…So she asks us to ask, who has the right to engage sexually? Who has the right to enjoy it? Who is the primary beneficiary of the experience? How does each partner define “good enough?” And those are really tricky issues for women. I think they’re tricky for adult women, but even more so for girls in their formative experiences. I just kept thinking, your early formative experiences as a girl should not be something that you have to get “over.”

AM: Absolutely. I think that’s something that I can attest to from personal experience and my friend’s experiences as college-aged women currently. You’re preaching to the choir right now.

PO: Yeah! I’m glad.

AM: So what kind of conversations do you hope Girls and Sex will evoke between young women and their partners?

PO: That’s a great question, because most people ask me about girls and their parents. My whole goal is for girls to be able to be entitled to have experiences that are safe, responsible, ethical, reciprocal and pleasurable. To get there, girls and boys, you know, it’s obviously not just all on girls, and (what) I hope for the girls that I know and love, is for them to be able to understand and access their own desires and pleasure. I hope that they will be able to assert their wishes, their needs, and their limits, and have all of those respected and met. I hope that they will be able to responsibly prepare in a proactive way. All of that I hope to be true whether they’re in a liaison that lasts for 15 minutes or for 15 years.


Anna Meyer is The Riveter’s Editorial Brand Assistant. She is a Minneapolis native currently pursuing journalism and creative writing at the University of Kansas. She enjoys experimenting with charcoal drawing, plastic toy cameras, and she’s most likely waking up early for yoga this weekend. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram or at her personal website.