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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth H. Canning

Get Thee to the Library Book Review: Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

I admit that, as a mom, the idea of my child becoming sexually active is only marginally less mortifying than the thought of my parents doing anything beyond the three reproductively necessary acts it took to conceive my brothers and me. But the consequences of parental silence, classroom moralizing, and media distortion are far worse. There has to be a better way.” Peggy Orenstein. Girls & Sex, 2016, HarperCollins, Page 208. (Emphasis added)

I confess that I am an easy target for Peggy Orenstein’s book Girls & Sex.

Working on interpersonal violence and Title IX matters for the past 15 years, I have heard numerous disturbing and sad stories of sexual and relationship interactions, harassment, and incidents involving children and young adults. I spend time with complainants, respondents, and witnesses to allegations of sexual harassment and interpersonal violence and, through listening to their stories, have become aware of a lack of education, conversation, and healthy attitudes. As a result, this review took me longer to write than anticipated: her interviews and the studies she cites provided me so many points of discussion that I had to work to narrow my takeaways down.

In light of my work experience, I am interested in finding ways to help parents and educators do a better job preparing their children and students for relationships and sexual intimacy. I am frustrated by the fact that parents will spend significant amounts of money and time on their children for music lessons, sports, SAT preparation, school, etc., but not take the time on a subject that can dramatically affect their children’s lives, the lives of other people, and potentially negate all the ways the parents invested in their children.

Step one is getting those responsible guardians and educators to understand why meaningful and sustained education is important. This requires that they look at the reality of how young people are managing sex and relationships today. I believe that it is hard to see that reality and not recognize that meaningful education matters.

Ms. Orenstein provides that reality through the interviews she has with many girls and women. This is not a book that offers a solution or covers in depth all variations of female sexuality and relationships, rather it illustrates sexual lives and expectations of some girls and women, specifically, those who responded to her invitation to talk.

Here is the takeaway: Our sex education in this country is severely lacking.

Here is why parents and administrators should read this book, regardless of the gender of their own children or the children they teach: Too many parents and educators are so uncomfortable with this topic that they minimize the issue (“that would never happen to my child” or “my child would never do that”) and fail to properly educate themselves and others. This book provides what they need to see in order to compel them to get engaged: relevant information on the reality for many girls and women. Ms. Orenstein does an effective job illustrating with stories, research, and statistics why meaningful sex/healthy relationship education is essential (spoiler alert: it is not just about preventing STDs and pregnancy). She cites promising approaches and programs to educate girls and women.

Here is what was missing for me: Almost all the sexual encounters described in this book, particularly with young men, are negative; it would have been helpful to see more descriptions of healthy and positive relationships as case studies of success. In addition, I realize that this book is called Girls & Sex, but I read the book keenly aware of the absence of the male experience and perspective, particularly during her discussion of heterosexual relationships. Therein lay the gap in the book: for those of us interested in understanding and addressing the issue of healthy and appropriate sex and relationships, we must hear from all perspectives and experiences. It is fair to say that I look forward to reading her companion book Boys & Sex and hope it closes the gap.

Next up: a review of Boys & Sex.

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