By Lauren Apfel
When my daughter was two years old and on the brink of embracing a princess culture that sent shivers down my spine, I ordered a copy of Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein. I devoured the book. Here it was, finally, between two covers, a clearly reasoned and evenly presented explanation of everything that I felt, in my bones, was wrong with Snow White and her sparkly pals. Why this minuscule-waisted, husband-hunting set of royalty were, quite simply, not the role models I wanted for my kid. It’s fair to say that that book has had a profound effect on the way I am raising my daughter, who, at five and a half, I’m happy to report, can take or leave Queen Elsa amidst a host of other interests.
So when I heard about Orenstein’s new book, Girls & Sex, I had to read it. For those of us who are taking great care to protect our young girls from insidious societal messages that instill in them standards of gender inequality and sexualize them far too early, it’s only natural that, as parents, we would want to know: but what happens next? What do we do when our tiara-wearing pre-schoolers become high-heeled, midriff-bearing teenagers?
Like Cinderella Ate My Daughter, though, Girls & Sex is not a how-to manual. It is a frank, non-judgmental and deftly executed cultural commentary that asks as many questions as it answers, all the while highlighting some of the central paradoxes informing adolescent female sexuality. How our daughters, in this unique age of online interaction and casual hookups, are constantly walking the line: between “slut” and “prude,” between empowerment and objectification, between consent and compliance, between pleasing their sexual partners and being pleased in return.
For the book, Orenstein talked extensively with over 70 girls, ages 15-20. The girls, she assures us, are intelligent, confident, self-aware young women—young women, in other words, just like our own daughters. And yet, and yet. Many of the conversations and stories she relays are cringe-worthy. Some, like the reports of rape, are downright harrowing. There is a sense throughout that girls, and heterosexual girls in particular, have depressingly low standards for sex, where markers of success include climax for their partner but an absence of pain for themselves. Their own physical satisfaction, far from crowning the list, tends to be “secondary, an afterthought.”
“In their sexual encounters,” Orenstein writes, “girls, it seemed, were growing more accustomed to coercion and discomfort than, say, orgasm.” One statistic she cites is especially chilling: girls are four times more willing than boys to engage in sexual activity they don’t like or want.
Think about that for a second. And then think about your daughter, whom, if you are anything like me, you are encouraging with every fibre of your being to consider herself on a par with boys: equally deserving, that is, of opportunities, but also of respect, dignity and reciprocity. The big takeaway from Orenstein’s book, however, is that, in the realm of sex and intimacy, there remains a disturbing gulf between the genders. No doubt in part because sex is still a taboo subject, particularly when it comes to girls’ pleasure. What females have historically learned about their bodies is technical and preventative: how to manage periods, how to not get pregnant. There is far less talk about the good stuff, where the clitoris is located, for instance, and how amazing it should feel to be physically intimate with someone you are attracted to.
Girls & Sex has made me aware of how important it is to keep the floodgates of communication open with my daughter, as she evolves into a sexual being. But it has equally inspired me to talk to my eleven-year-old son and to do so sooner rather than later. I have three sons, and it was the boys in the book, though I realize they were given no voice of their own, who troubled me the most. While heterosexual boys are, to be fair, subject to the same cultural white noise as girls, the same peer pressure, the same ideas in the ether that “this is how it is,” they can certainly be raised to do better too. Much better. The bar for them isn’t a lack of coercion or entitlement in their sexual encounters, my god that should be a given. But rather a fundamental belief that sex, whatever the terms, be it casual or part of a long-term relationship, is an act that involves two people, both of whose emotional and physical well-being matter. Every single time.
Motherwell’s original series on Girls & Sex, featuring an essay by Peggy Orenstein herself.
The book, a New York Times bestseller, is now out in paperback in the UK.