Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. Her writing is clear and compelling, her analysis is incisive and thorough, and her findings are downright troubling. What she found was a perplexingly ambivalent culture in which girls seem to be empowered in every sphere except the sexual one.
First and foremost, Orenstein focuses on the need for parents to crack the conversation about sex wide open with their children, and to talk frankly about mutual pleasure, emotional intimacy, reciprocity and respect, and not just about abstinence or pregnancy prevention.
I am a mother of three elementary school kids, and my overwhelming reaction to your book is apprehension about the coming sexual maturity of my children, both daughters and son.
Is that fair, and are you alarmed at the current sexual landscape for teens in America? So what I wanted to do was to go out and talk to girls, listen to what they had to say and bring their voices back so that we could really start a substantive conversation that would help both boys and girls balance the risks and dangers of sexuality with the pleasures and the joys.
Did you feel like your comfort in talking about sex with teenagers was there from the beginning? So my first interviews, actually, were really a wake-up call for me. First of all, I was shocked. I had to really learn to listen to girls and to think about what would not be judgmental in my listening, and about what they got out of their experience, even if it was experience that kind of disturbed me.
And, also, what would support them. Yes, you can read the book, have some time to reflect on what you want to say to your child, and how you think about it, and what might be different than what you thought. One thing that was really, really important to me was that American parents tend to focus on risk and danger. When you compare that to the Dutch, studies show that Dutch girls are more likely to become sexually active later, have fewer partners, enjoy their experience more, talk to their partners more, and express their needs and desires, and they feel better about their bodies and about their experience.
So American parents focused on risk and danger and the Dutch mothers talked about risk and danger, yes, but they also talked about joy and pleasure very overtly.
Those conversations can be hard to start. What can we do about porn? Porn is much more accessible, and at much younger ages. So what do we do? I think we really have to talk about it with girls and boys. I mean, we really have to talk about this with them. Talking to kids about it, and talking about what real sex ought to be, is very important.
I think those sexualized images are really harmful to boys as well, and what happens is — because boys do look at porn more than girls — they bring those values into the bedroom. And we have to really battle against that. How we can we point out hypersexualization of girls in the media and other troubling images and themes in our culture without becoming nags?
I want her to hear my values. I want to her to have my perspective. I want her to have that critical [thinking] voice. So you have to teach them to understand it and resist it. Will that be enough? I hope most of the time it will be. How do you see the analysis in these two books fitting together? And I think that what the princess culture encourages is this idea that how your body looks to other people is more important than how it feels to yourself. We are telling girls all the time that it is.
This is the other way that it connects with the princess culture. One girl told me she felt proud of her body, and she never felt more liberated than when she was wearing skimpy clothing. You have to ask, who gets to be proud of their body, under what circumstances, and which bodies?
And how liberating is that if the threat of humiliation always lurks? Because of that, I really saw that purported sexual self-confidence came off with their clothes. Do you think your findings speak more to sexual education in schools, sexual education at home, or both? I think ideally, both. We are in a very sorry state with sex ed in schools.
Only 23 states mandate sex education, and only 13 mandate that it be medically accurate. It has made no impact on abstinence, and it has only increased rates of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.
Do you think there is some common ground that could be agreed upon by adults with differing sexual values — say, debunking porn, emphasizing mutuality and respect, and being honest about both the appeal and risks of sexual behavior? I think there is some common ground [between different visions of sex ed], but we have to acknowledge — come clean — that the abstinence-only thing has been a disaster, and a failure. However, I do feel there are ways to conduct sex education that respect the personal values of all the students in the room.
That is why I went into the classroom with [sex educator] Charis Denison at the end of the book, because she talks a lot about that, and about talking to kids about making choices that end in joy and integrity, rather than in shame and regret. That is a construct that works regardless of what your personal values are. Sharon Holbrook is a writer living in Cleveland, Ohio.
You can find her at sharonholbrook. You might also be interested in: