Change Your Thinking on Teen Sex

Amid all the alarming news stories surrounding hookup culture—and worse, college rape culture—that parents are told await our children, it’s easy to oversimplify a complex landscape. While the issue is saturated in media attention, we’re failing to ask the big questions that could help kids and parents feel less in the dark, and (epic-ly) failing to create a more positive, healthy culture around sex and intimacy for everyone. When it comes to girls, in particular, far too much goes unasked and unsaid, starting with the fact that baby boys’ body parts are named while girls’ are skipped over, and extending all the way to the dramatic orgasm gap in heterosexual relationships. The results can be devastating, for both girls and boys.

In her new book, Girls & Sex, author Peggy Orenstein interviewed more than seventy young women, along with a varied set of experts from psychologists to sex educators. The result is a provocative, at times uncomfortable, fascinating, and vital conversation: Are we teaching girls to be assertive everywhere except the bedroom? Where or from whom do teens learn about pleasure? Do they see a boy’s pleasure as equal to a girl’s? How should girls navigate relationships in a culture that consistently reminds them they must project sex appeal at every turn? Below, Orenstein speaks to these questions and more, revealing the current truths about girls and intimacy, and the role we can all play in shaping better possibilities for them—and ourselves—in the future.

A Q&A with Peggy Orenstein


We know there is some hyperbole that comes with headlines on “hookup culture,” for instance, that the number of teens who are having sex is often exaggerated. What’s the accurate picture of teens and sex today? Are there trusted stats?


Teens are not actually having more sex if you define sex by intercourse. That’s total hype. There’s a line in the book quoting an “expert” in The New York Times in the 1990’s predicting that soon, sixth graders would be having intercourse. The truth is that the average age of first intercourse is 17.1 years old and that hasn’t changed in decades.

But one of my major points in the book is that we have to stop defining “sex” as just intercourse. The truth is, a whole spectrum of interactions—holding hands, kissing—are expressions of sexuality, and we need to discuss with kids the many ways to positively communicate affection, eroticism, pleasure, and intimacy. Also, when adults just focus on intercourse, it makes the other behaviors kids are actually engaging in more often—especially fellatio—into “not sex,” and when something is thought of as “not sex” it isn’t necessarily subject to the same rules around consent, reciprocity, safety, and respect.


From your research and conversations with teens girls, what would you say are the biggest issues that girls face in the realms of intimacy and sex?


The girls I talked to felt entitled to engage in sexual behavior but not necessarily to enjoy it. In my research, I came across this term—“intimate justice”—which was coined by Sarah McClelland, a psychologist at University of Michigan. Intimate justice is this idea that just like who vacuums the rugs or who cooks dinner has a political dimension as well as a personal one, so does sex, and it raises similar issues around gender inequality, mental health, economic inequality, and violence. Intimate justice asks: “Who is entitled to engage in a sexual experience? Who is entitled to enjoy it? Who is the primary beneficiary? How does each partner define ‘good enough?’”

The heterosexual girls I met (things were different for gay and bisexual girls) were absolutely living in an intimately unjust world, where their joy, their pleasure, their “good enough” was secondary—if considered at all. As a mom and a woman and a feminist, I want that to change.

“Intimate justice asks: “Who is entitled to engage in a sexual experience? Who is entitled to enjoy it? Who is the primary beneficiary? How does each partner define ‘good enough?’”’

In the book I talk a lot about how we teach girls’ shame around their own genitals: We never tell them about the clitoris (in puberty education they learn about periods and unwanted pregnancy—so grim), for instance; their rates of masturbation are low; they engage in non-reciprocal oral sex. Unsurprisingly, there’s a major orgasm gap in heterosexual encounters.

And after all that silence, we somehow expect girls to be able to advocate for themselves, to speak out in sexual encounters, to think those encounters are about them…It’s unrealistic. And all of this while being encouraged to present themselves in as sexy a way as possible, to see “sexiness” as the ultimate form of personal expression. They are encouraged to care more about how their bodies look to other people than how those bodies feel to themselves.


You make a point in your book to highlight how many of the girls you interviewed were otherwise extremely smart and assertive, yet often had a hard time being assertive when it came to intimate relationships with boys—they felt they couldn’t say “no.” Why do you think this is?


One of the girls I spoke with told me about the smart, strong women in her family—generations of them. “My grandma was a firecracker, my mom is loud, my sister and I are loud, and that’s how we express our femininity,” she told me. But when talking about her sex life, she told me about this series of hookups—mostly involving her going down on guys, not intercourse—that started in ninth grade and were not reciprocal, not especially respectful, and not particularly enjoyable to her. “I guess we girls are just socialized to be meek and deferential and not express our needs,” she said. But she had just told me that she came from this line of outspoken women! I pointed that out and she said, “Yeah, I guess no one told me that strong woman image applied to sex.”

I think there’s something to that. We don’t talk to girls about sex. We don’t educate them. We raise them to be assertive, strong, and competent in the public realm and somehow think we don’t need to address the personal one. And I know it’s not easy, but the result is not turning out well. We have to regroup on this.

“Coercion is sort of baked into the process of sex in this country—I’m not talking about assault, but garden variety pushing, badgering, manipulating.”

This girl has another important point: We haven’t taught girls adequate refusal skills. I want to be careful here because it’s not girls’ job to say no, it’s not girls’ job not to be assaulted. But the way we talk about sex—with the baseball metaphor that makes girls’ limits a challenge for boys to overcome—discourages boys from hearing no. Coercion is sort of baked into the process of sex in this country—I’m not talking about assault, but garden variety pushing, badgering, manipulating. I talked to a psychologist who was working on refusal-skill training with girls using a virtual reality avatar voiced by a male actor, and even girls who rated themselves as very assertive buckled very quickly under pressure from the avatar. They felt they had to keep being polite. They didn’t want to be “bitchy.” Girls need to know: When someone has crossed your boundaries, you don’t have to be polite.


It seems clear that a double standard still exists, in more ways than one: When it comes to dating and sex, boys are generally seen as the initiators. And if a girl is an initiator, she’s often labeled as “aggressive.” What could change this equation for the better—for boys and girls?


That’s definitely an intimate justice issue. Who is seen as the proper initiator? And that’s also part of the idea that girls are supposed to be passive in sexual encounters (except for when they are performing for male pleasure). It was really interesting for me to talk to gay and bisexual girls. They talked about going “off the script,” by which they meant the way we think of “sex” only as heterosexual intercourse. They would talk about how that freed them up to create an experience that worked for them—and interestingly, the orgasm gap disappears in same-sex encounters. They also talked about how you couldn’t sit around and wait for the other person to initiate necessarily because you were both girls. So there was more equity in the entire experience, more of a sense of, as one girl put it, “my turn, your turn,” and more of a sense that intimacy and sex could be initiated by either person, more reciprocity.

In defining “sex” beyond intercourse—gay girls weren’t having heterosexual intercourse—one of the things I’m interested in is the whole idea of “virginity” as first intercourse. Why is that the definition? I mean, obviously, it’s a big deal, of course it is. But it’s not the only big deal, nor is it the thing that’s going to be so great for girls, especially the first time.

Asking those intimate justice questions is important. I asked a gay girl about that and she said she thought she lost her virginity the first time she had an orgasm with a partner. Imagine if that was the definition! Again, I’m not saying intercourse isn’t a big deal, but that definition makes sex into this race to a goal as opposed to a form of communication and play, a pool of experiences that involves desire, arousal, touch, warmth, affection, pleasure…all of these things. Who is really more “experienced,” the person who makes out with a partner for three hours, experimenting with erotic tension and communication, or the person who gets wasted at a party and hooks up with a random guy so she can get intercourse over with before college?


You make the case that we should be addressing rape long before the college years—what’s the best way to do so?


Absolutely. We’ve been talking a lot about sexual assault on college campuses because colleges are obligated to report it, yet they weren’t and thus have been in violation of Title IX. But the truth is that dating violence and assault is just as prevalent among high school students. Plus, while all the reforms are important, if we believe that a forty-five-minute freshman week session on consent is going to solve the problem, we’re deluded. But I don’t think you start with rape. I think you start with an awareness of people’s boundaries and you start in infancy. (I mean, ideally. Obviously, it’s too late to start in infancy for someone who is twenty years old.)

Imagine it like this: You have a preschooler who is wailing on someone and thinks it’s funny and the other person says, “No!” But the child doesn’t stop. It’s your job to say, “Your friend (or that total stranger) said ‘no.’ They are not having fun. You need to stop when someone says no.” That teaches boundaries. That teaches consent.

“As a parent, don’t make your children hug or kiss some relative they don’t want to hug or kiss.”

Similarly, as a parent, don’t make your children hug or kiss some relative they don’t want to hug or kiss. Yeah, it’s embarrassing for you. Tough. A child has the right to say, “No, I don’t want to kiss Great Aunt Nancy.” That’s teaching consent and boundaries.

Then, you introduce the idea of healthy relationships (whether they last five minutes or fifty years) in middle school, and then you start talking about sexual consent, whether it’s kissing or oral sex or intercourse. And you’ve laid the groundwork.


At the end of Girls & Sex, you highlight a few less-traditional approaches to sex education—what approach do you think schools should be adopting?


There are some fantastic, comprehensive sex education curricula out there. By “comprehensive” I don’t mean just teaching kids to put on condoms and about STIs and contraception. We’ve made “comprehensive” into a harm-reduction model, as opposed to “abstinence only,” which is a “just-say-no” model. Neither is really adequate. I get why, politically, the best we could hope for has focused on harm reduction, but it’s not enough.

The Unitarian/Universalist church does an amazing job of educating people about sexuality across the lifespan, from kindergarten to senior citizenship. Their curricula are a wonderful model. So is the It’s All One curriculum by the Population Council, which you can get free online. They go beyond harm reduction to talk about healthy relationships and mutual pleasure (that includes female orgasm).

As part of my research, I sat in on the classes of a woman named Charis Denison who is based in Northern California. The thing about her classes was, while they were certainly discussing sex (I open the chapter with an image of Denison manually stimulating her vulva hand puppet), the students were really talking about honing their personal values. And Denison teaches in a way that works whether those personal values mean that you want to remain abstinent until marriage or whether they mean that you’re hooking up every weekend. What she says is that her whole job is to help her students make choices that end in integrity and joy rather than shame and regret. I think all of us could use some lessons in that!


You use the Netherlands as an example of a country where parents are much more open about sex and pleasure with their children. What kind of impact does this have?


There were studies done comparing American and Dutch college women talking about their early sexual experience—so very similar demographics. In every respect the Dutch girls came out better—whether it was less regret, less pregnancy, less disease, or more ability to communicate their wants to a partner, knowing the partner well, preparing for the experience, enjoying the experience. You name it: fewer negative consequences, more positive consequences. The difference? Parents, teachers, doctors talk openly and honestly with their children about sex. And where parents were concerned, it wasn’t that American parents were less comfortable, necessarily, talking about sex, but that when we did, we tended to stress risk and danger exclusively.

Dutch parents talk about balancing responsibility and joy. I’ll tell you, as a parent myself, that really rocked me. Because up until I read that research, I probably would have talked to my child about contraception, disease prevention, and consent (because I’m a very modern mom) and I would’ve thought, job well done. Now I know that’s only half the conversation, and I have to figure out how to have the other half of it, whether that means talking directly, finding books, or finding a friend or relative who can be the designated go-to person on sexuality.


What lessons are girls not learning about sex and intimacy that parents should be sharing? And at what age?


Well, I think just as with consent, you start at birth. We have a tendency to name all the parts of a baby boy’s body—at least “here’s your pee-pee”—but with girls we go from navel to knees, we leave this whole wide swath unnamed. So you start by naming it. Correctly. Say it with me: “vulva.” Not so hard. And anyone who has ever had a preschooler knows that they have a tendency to masturbate constantly. So you say, “Honey, touching your vulva feels really good, but it’s something we do privately not at the Thanksgiving table at Grandma’s house.” There you go.

In puberty education, you admit to the existence of the clitoris, which is for “making good feelings.” Do you know that The Care and Keeping of You 2, one of the most popular puberty books for girls in America, does not include the clitoris in its diagram of the external genitalia? It’s outrageous.

“Do you know that The Care and Keeping of You 2, one of the most popular puberty books for girls in America, does not include the clitoris in its diagram of the external genitalia? It’s outrageous.”

Obviously, it’s not just about body parts. It’s teaching media literacy around the ways women’s bodies are used in the culture. It’s teaching girls they have a right to say no and a right to say yes in many contexts. It’s understanding intimacy and relationships. All of that is not specifically about sex, it’s about being human.

There are some really terrific resources. I love the book From Diapers to Dating by Debra W. Haffner, which talks about all of this developmentally. So does Talk to Me First by Deborah Roffman, and For Goodness Sex by Al Vernacchio.

For kids themselves, I recommend getting Robie Harris’s series of books when they’re younger, and then in high school and college, the bible is Heather Corinna’s S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties.


What about for our sons?


So glad you asked! There is a lot for and about boys in Girls & Sex, but I purposely end the book in a co-educational classroom because I strongly believe that girls and boys can—and need to—work these issues out together. There’s one point where a boy raises his hand and says, “You know that baseball metaphor for sex? I never thought about it before, but in baseball there’s winners and losers, so who is supposed to be the loser during sex?” It’s a small revelation, but one that’s so important, one that I think will change the way he thinks of his future encounters—and that will keep him from seeing girls’ limits as a challenge he’s supposed to overcome. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the wheels were already spinning in my head when I wrote about that. Because, guess what I’m doing now? Starting a book on boys and sex. So come back and ask me more about that one in another couple of years, okay?

Related: Sex Ed For Kids