Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape

Date Mon, November 20 2017

I’ve read over 100 books this year, and of those, only a handful received a 5-star rating for me. Girls & Sex is one of those books and one of the most recent books I’ve read.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This 5-star rating doesn’t mean that the book is perfect, but it is very important. I hope my high rating will help to draw attention to this book by Peggy Orenstein. But I am far from the only reader who agrees that this book is necessary and useful: 200+ Amazon reviewers have given this book a 4.5-star rating out of 5 stars.

The premise is this. Peggy Orenstein sent out a call to girls between the ages of 14 and 20 for a survey about their sex lives. She had them fill out surveys and performed interviews with some of those girls and young women (whom she refers to as girls throughout the book). Orenstein uses the results of her survey as well other sexual studies to make her points.

One point that is evident is that many girls wish to speak about their sex lives but don’t know where to find a nonjudgmental and guiding ear. Both parents and schools (as well as religious institutions) have failed these girls. Sex is discussed too little and too late, and a young woman’s pleasure is rarely the topic of conversation because it offers nothing in terms of procreation. Girls are left not knowing about their pleasure, not encouraged to explore it and certainly without the tools required to receive it in partnered interactions.

The author discusses this as one of the several main points in the book Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. She also talks about hookup culture, virginity and its modern meaning, consent and rape culture art length, which might be the reason this book has garnered some ire for being too negative, a point I’ll touch on later.

You might think that such topics make Orenstein a feminist or that this books is written for feminists. Certainly, some people will find this book to be too extreme or controversial. And some of those people will have those feelings because of their antifeminist views.

But the author doesn’t come across as a person who has a feminist agenda — to me (ironically, several reviewers railed against her feminist agenda, haha). Indeed, there are a few places where she admits to not understanding the brand of feminism that the girls and young women she interviewed have adopted in a way that doesn’t necessarily seem unfeminist. It just seems.. dated. It was enough for me to raise an eyebrow, but not enough for me to remove a star in my rating. The book is full of other information and opinions that far overshadow the sparse weaknesses.

In these pages, Peggy visits college campuses, high schools, and purity balls. If it has to do with the sexuality of girls in high school or college, she touches on nearly all of it with one exception. While Orenstein dedicates a chapter to lesbian, bisexual and asexual respondents. I was glad to see the inclusion of an oft-forgotten minority group in this book. However, I have to admit I was disappointed to see a lack of discussion about or with transgirls.

The book wraps up with Orenstein painting a picture of what sex-positive, honest, and helpful sex education might look like for girls — and boys. The last second isn’t an instruction but more a suggestion of how we can talk to young people, give them the right information, encourage them to ask questions, and set them for positive sexual experiences throughout their entire life. It’s no wonder Girls & Sex has received such positive attention.

Not all of the reviews are positive. There are a number of reviewers who felt that this book fell short on its promise to help the reader (or the girls in their life) to navigate the complicated new landscape of sex. Perhaps they wanted more guidance and less generalized information. I expected Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape to be more of an expose, however, so I wasn’t disappointed.

The other criticism is that Girls & Sex paints too bleak a picture of the currently sexual landscape, but with this, I must fully disagree. It’s alarming, certainly, but it’s not driven by panic. It’s simply a realistic look at how girls and young women are engaging in sex.

One reviewer went as far as to say that Girls & Sex is sex negative but, try as I might, I cannot see how you could make that argument. Orenstein never claims that anyone, let alone girls, should stop having sex. In fact, she makes a pretty comprehensive argument against abstinence-only sex education because she knows that they will. The author often reiterates that while girls ignore their own pleasure, they should explore it and negotiate — if not demand for it — within their sexual relationships. Peggy Orenstein never dictates what she believes these relationships should entail (although she does seem, at times, perplexed with the younger generation’s reluctance to experience emotions with sex) and instead lays out suggestions that will help girls have sex that they won’t later regret.

Most of that advice is just as good for teenaged boys who are navigating the same landscape, albeit while receiving different messages. Orenstein ends her book on that note, and I feel secure ending my review in a similar vein. Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape may very well be vital to getting the conversation — the right conversation — about sex rolling with our daughters and sons, nieces and nephews, and every person to come. Read if it you’re a parent. Give it to your daught or son if you think it will be helpful. If anything, it will encourage some much-needed discussion.

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