In the dorm room of a Midwestern public university, sophomore economics major Megan Massoud prepared for a night out.
While getting dressed, she studied the size of her stomach and the attractiveness of her butt. She also talked about her gender studies class — “That damned patriarchy," she said — before heading outside into the cold wearing 4-inch heels, a skirt and no jacket and toting a bottle of vodka.
Her goal for the night? “To get really drunk and make out with someone,” she said. “Because what’s the point of a night out if you aren’t getting attention from a guy?”
Stories like this are a fraction of what’s revealed in the new book “Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape.” Author Peggy Orenstein interviewed more than 70 females ages 15 to 20 to examine the newest trends in the sex lives of young women in America.
What she found is an enlightening, sad and shocking look into the minds of teenagers and their views on casual sex, love and relationships.
Orenstein, 54, who is making an appearance in Minneapolis on Sunday, discusses the danger of children consulting porn as a sex how-to manual of sorts, why more girls than ever are “leaning in” in the public realm, but toppling over in the private one, and the value that girls place on how their body looks over how it feels.
And perhaps most important, she shares some thoughts about what parents can do about it.
Q: Nobody’s surprised that teen girls are having sex, but you write about the “new landscape.” What has changed in the world of teenage sex?
A: Girls are feeling more entitled to engage in sex, but not entitled to enjoy it. There’s this constant message from pop culture and porn culture that girls should look sexy but not understand their sexuality. They think their bodies are for other people, but not for their own understanding.
It’s resulting in a lot of behavior that’s irresponsible, unethical, disrespectful and risky. When we’re talking about this umbrella conversation about assault and the assault epidemic, we have to look also at what happens after “yes” and how what’s happening after “yes” is feeding into that problem.
Q: You say that society is giving girls a “psychological clitoridectomy.” What do you mean?
A: We completely silence female pleasure in our culture. From the time kids are little, parents tend to name all their baby boys’ parts. With girls, they tend to go from the belly button to the knees. To make something silent, to not name it, is to make it unspeakable. … It’s not very surprising, then, that they feel sexual pleasure is for boys and therefore they become in service to boys.
I just don’t think that that’s what we want for our kids and their sexual relationships.
Q: Teen pregnancy rates are down, and there are some indications teens are having less sex. Do parents have a false sense of security because of this?
A: We really need to broaden our ideas about what sex is. While kids are having intercourse at slightly lower rates than they were before … that’s not the only thing they’re doing. The fact that we keep diminishing, denying and ignoring the other things they’re doing, particularly around oral sex, allows for this culture of disrespect, lack of reciprocity and lack of ethics to flourish with young people.
Q: How do social media and “selfie culture” play into this problem?
A: The Internet and social media magnify what is happening with girls, anyway, and that’s that girls are pressured to find themselves from the outside in rather than from the inside out.
Every child and particularly every girl is like their own mini mogul, their own product they’re trying to promote, a brand they’re trying to market to their 95 BFFs. For girls, a big part of that brand is coming off as sexy, although not too sexy. They’re always trying to walk this line that will get them “likes” but not get them judged.
Q: How has the “pornification” of our culture affected girls?
A: Kids are exposed to porn so much younger than before. Kids are bringing those expectations into the bedroom. Girls would tell me that their boyfriend doesn’t know why they don’t make the kinds of noises they do in porn.
Or boys would see things in porn that they then would want to act out in person, and those things were not often activities that were going to feel good for girls. The girls would then feel coerced into doing it or would feel like they weren’t cool if they weren’t doing it or they should be doing it because that’s what they do in porn, as if porn is the standard for liberated sex.
Q: The majority of girls you interviewed were affluent, liberal and educated. Why not diversify?
A: I wanted to talk to girls who had opportunity, and to girls who had been beneficiaries of the feminist movement, because those girls are leaning in, have the voice and have the education and opportunity, yet are still toppling in their personal lives. Then you can’t deny there’s a problem; you can’t say, “Oh, it’s those other girls.”
Q: What is the biggest mistake parents make?
A: You can’t parent out of fear and ignorance. We don’t get to choose that we don’t want to parent around one particular subject because it makes us uncomfortable.
If we take an approach where all we talk about is harm and danger, we aren’t telling kids the whole truth, and they know that. And we aren’t particularly setting girls up to be able to assert their wishes and their desires and have those respected. We’re setting up a situation that continues this idea that sex is for boys, that boys are entitled to coerce girls and that girls are there to please their partners.
Q: Many parents aren’t comfortable having these sex-positive talks with their children. What can they do?
A: It’s not as hard as you think. Sex educator Al Vernacchio uses a pizza metaphor. Pizza is a shared experience where you negotiate. Maybe you go halfsies because you like pepperoni and I like mushroom. Maybe if you keep on insisting on pepperoni, I’m going to stop going out to pizza with you.
Q: What about the boys? How can we address these issues with our sons, too?
A: I ended the book in a coed sex education classroom, in part, because I wanted to show boys working out these issues as well and how important it is to talk to them about coercion, assault, consent, sexualized images of women in culture and the impact that they have on them, about reciprocity, pleasure and ethics in sexuality.
At one point they were talking about the baseball metaphor for rounding the bases in sex. One of the boys said, “I never thought about it before, but in baseball there’s winners and losers. Who’s supposed to be the loser in sex?” Bingo. That’s a profound shift in a boy’s thinking that opens the door for so much else. He’s going to bring that idea into every encounter he has.