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It’s always been hard for parents to talk to their kids about sex. But author Peggy Orenstein says, particularly with daughters, it’s more important than ever. For her new book, “Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape,” Orenstein interviewed over 70 girls and young women—on everything from the pressures of social media to the impact of online pornography—and what she found disturbed her. Orenstein says that while girls have more opportunities today than ever, when it comes to sex, they’re getting mixed messages. Diane and her guests discuss the complicated and contradictory messages young girls are getting about sex.
- Peggy Orenstein Author
- Nicole Joseph Clinical psychologist in private practice.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Girls outnumber boys in college. Girls are taught to fight for equality in the workplace. Girls, we're told, have more opportunities than ever. Why, then, asks author Peggy Orenstein, is that message of equality not getting communicated when it comes to their own sexuality and sexual encounters? Here to examine those questions, Dr. Nicole Joseph.
MS. DIANE REHMShe's a clinical psychologist in private practice. Joining us from the studios at the University of California at Berkeley, Peggy Orenstein, author of "Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape." I know you'll want to join us, questions, comments, 800-433-8850. Send your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to you both. Good to see you all.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd Peggy Orenstein, I want to start with you. Tell us about the girls you interviewed. I gather they were from high school age to college, 17 to what, 21?
MS. PEGGY ORENSTEIN15 to 21, roughly, and they were -- yeah.
REHM15 to 21. And were they all sexually active?
ORENSTEINWell, that depends on how you define sexually active, Diane. I mean, the rates of intercourse among kids have not changed, but kids are having -- engaging in other behaviors, such as oral sex, more often and at younger ages. And the girls that I talked to, they were between 15 and 20, they were either going to college, college-bound or in college. They were a broad range ethnically, but mostly middle class girls.
ORENSTEINAnd I picked those girls intentionally because -- or that demographic intentionally because I really wanted to look at girls who had opportunities and who we think of as the beneficiaries of the feminist movement because I felt if those girls who were so ambitious and so forthright and so political and, you know, leaning in all over the place were toppling in their personal lives, then we couldn't deny that there was an issue.
REHMHow were they toppling in their personal lives?
ORENSTEINWell, for instance, one of the girls I talked to who was in Ivy League school told me, I come from generations of strong women. My grandmother was a firecracker and my mother is really strong and my sister and I are loud and that's our power. And then, she narrated to me a series of kind of non-reciprocal, not very satisfying, vaguely demeaning, one-off hookups as her sum and substance of her sexual experience and said, you know, I guess we girls were socialized to be deferential and not express our wants.
ORENSTEINAnd I said, wait a second. Five minutes ago, you just told me that you were this strong woman. What happened? And she said, I guess nobody told me that that strong woman image didn't apply to sex. So where there was this disconnect where girls felt entitled to engage in sexual behavior, but they didn't feel entitled to enjoy it.
REHMDr. Nicole Joseph, you are a clinical psychologist. You hear these kinds of things from young girls, young women. Are you hearing the same things that Peggy is?
DR. NICOLE JOSEPHAbsolutely. And unfortunately, there's not much that surprised me when I read your book, Peggy. I hear a lot of this in sessions from girls. And I'll say that I work with a demographic similar to the girls who Peggy interviewed. But having -- in my earlier career, having worked with similar socioeconomic girls, I'll say that also I don't really think their behaviors were very different. What I will say I feel is different is that there seem to be less discussion about double standards for girls and less discussion about societal expectations or thoughts about sex and sexuality.
DR. NICOLE JOSEPHSo across the board, across my career, I have seen a lot of these themes over and over again. So yes, I hear this almost every day.
REHMSo from ages 15 on up, the girls you have talked to are sexually active in one way or another, as Peggy talks about.
JOSEPHWell, I wouldn't say, you know, uniformly that they're sexually active. I would say that there is a constant sort of discussion about sex and sexuality. And girls...
REHMBut constant discussion about.
REHMBut does that necessarily mean activity in?
JOSEPHNot necessarily, you know, but I have kept a sort of a tally, in the past two weeks before coming on the show, of how many times, for example -- and Peggy eludes to this in her book, this idea of hookup culture, right? This idea of hooking up. I've kept a tally of how many times I have heard this word in the past weeks. I've heard it about 32 times. So that gives you an example of how often this is coming up and what the discussion is.
REHMSo give an idea of a typical conversation you have with, say, a 17-year-old girls regarding sex.
JOSEPHGosh. I'm not sure if there is a single typical conversation to have with a 17-year-old girl about sex. I have all kinds of ranges of discussions. I'll tell you that in my office, I've discussed things from Skype sex, which is a thing and it's a thing that is more common among middle-schoolers who I've talked with.
JOSEPHSkype sex. It's the concept of sort of...
REHMYou know, I really am getting old. Honestly. When I hear a term like that, I gather that, Peggy, that does not shock you at all.
ORENSTEINNo. I mean, that's part of what's changed in the new culture is that the internet has been a real game changer in terms of the way kids engage, both in terms of that idea of sexting and Skype sex and also in terms of their access. So one of the things that I talk a lot about is this idea of "hot" that is foisted on girls now. And the idea that, you know, hot is so narrow, so superficial, so commercial in terms of its, you know, definition of sexual appeal and it's sold to girls as this idea that they're, you know, how their bodies look to other people are more important than how those bodies feel to themselves.
ORENSTEINAnd whereas, Diane, you know, baby boom parents or Gen X parents might have seen that as something to push back against, for today's girls, that's sold to them as being a source of power and confidence. And that's a really big difference. And the girls struggled with that. So one girl that I talked to showed me a picture of herself in a crop top and a little miniskirt and high heels and she said, you know, I feel proud of my body and I never feel more liberated than when I'm wearing skimpy clothing.
ORENSTEINBut then, a few minutes later, she said that a year earlier, she wouldn't have worn that outfit because she was 25 pounds heavier and as she said, I wouldn't want some jerky boy to call me the fat girl. So then, you have to ask young women, you know, who gets to be proud of which body and under what circumstances and how liberating is it really if the threat of ridicule lurks right around the corner?
JOSEPHI mean, that’s absolutely true. I think, you know, I'm hearing these themes often from women and the women who I talk to are very aware of these double standards. They talk about slut-shaming, for example, and this is a...
JOSEPHSlut shaming. Yes.
JOSEPHThis is a term that's discussed in the book.
REHMExplain slut shaming.
JOSEPHWell, the idea that, you know, and I think it relates back to this double standard that Peggy so eloquently discusses in her book, which is, you know, you can't sleep with too many men because then you're called slut. But you can't sleep with no one or you can't hook up with no one because then, you're considered a prude, right? So there are these double standards for girls and women starting at very young ages. It's very difficult.
JOSEPHAnd girls are very socially adept and aware of what their "hallway reputation" is, right? So they know what they have to do to sort of, you know, appear a certain way or what the popular girls are doing.
REHMSo Peggy, there's no pride in being a virgin?
ORENSTEINNo. You know, what girls -- that's exactly right. What girls said to me was usually the opposite of a negative is a positive. But when you're talking about girls and sex right now, the opposite of a negative is a negative. Prude and slut are two ends of the spectrum and you're trying to find this place where you can stand in between and it's, you know, something that girls talked about all the time and were constantly negotiating.
ORENSTEINAnd it's part of this idea that their sexuality has become sort of a performance rather than something -- and this disconnect between how they're supposed to be in the culture, what the culture shows them and developing something authentic from within that talks about their desire and their authenticity, rather than just, you know, being desirable.
REHMSo what you're saying is that their own internal feelings of real attraction to someone, to a potential sexual partner, don't really enter into it?
ORENSTEINI think more than that, it's their feelings about their own bodies. You know, we really disconnect girls from their bodies. So, you know, but the culture is littered with female body parts, right? I mean, sex is used to sell everything. But we never have real, honest authentic conversations with girls about sex. And one of the things I talk about in "Girls & Sex," is what I call the psychological clitoral-dectomy.
ORENSTEINAnd that's this idea that we don’t tell girls about their capacity for pleasure. We don't educate them about their body. So when baby girls and baby boys are born, we tend to name all the baby boys body parts. You know, at least we'll say there's your pee-pee, something like that. But with girls, we go right from navel to knees. And then, they go into their puberty education classes and we learned boys have erections and ejaculations. Girls have periods and unwanted pregnancy.
ORENSTEINAnd you see that kind of thing that looks like a spearhead inside their bodies and we never say clitoris. We never say vulva. And then, we expect them to go into their partnered encounters and have some kind of voice and know their mind and know what they want, articulate their needs and desires.
REHMPeggy Orenstein, she's the author of a new book. It's titled "Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape." Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Joining us from the University of California at Berkeley, Peggy Orenstein. She's the author of a brand new book. It's a bright-pink-colored book titled "Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape." She's also the author of the bestselling book "Cinderella Ate My Daughter." Here in the studio is Dr. Nicole Joseph. She's a clinical psychologist in private practice in Northern Virginia.
REHMI would imagine that there are a great many of you, perhaps like me, who are confused about all this and would like to be part of this conversation. I do encourage you to give us a call, 800-433-8850. I'm going to open the phones now because we have a very, very interesting caller on the line. Julie in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, you're on the air.
JULIEHi, hi Diane, I've never called before.
JULIEOh, I've been listening to you for years.
JULIEThank you for your show. This -- I was so glad you're discussing this. I have two daughters and a son. The two daughters -- I raised them all the same. I bought my daughters trucks, I always encouraged them to be chaste and modest, studious, focused, discouraged dating with all of them. And now they're approaching 30s, they're residents, residents, in their residencies as physicians, and they had a terrible time with private lives because I'm feeling like I should have encouraged -- there's so much pressure to hook up, so much pressure in that area, and I feel like it's there because women have this innate desire to get married.
JULIEAnd I don't know that men have that, and -- so I feel as though if they don't -- I almost regret not encouraging my girls to be less studious, less focused, more interested in dating, maybe not hooking up because there's so many diseases associated with that. I mean -- so I -- so I'm in that quandary, too. What did I do to these girls?
REHMWhat do you think, Peggy?
ORENSTEINWell, you know, first of all I think that we have to define hooking up. The whole hook-up culture is something that's being discussed a lot right now. And when kids talk about hooking up, they can mean anything. They might mean kissing. They might mean oral sex. They might mean intercourse. You don't know what -- they don't know what they're talking about a lot of the time. So they often think that their friends are engaging in more intense and more frequent behavior than is actually the truth because nobody -- whenever I interviewed girls, I would have to say wait, stop, you just said hooking up, what do you mean.
ORENSTEINBut the hook-up culture itself is something that emerged in the late '90s, roughly, and it's the idea that sex precedes rather than arises out of intimacy. And it's not that they invented casual sex, obviously, they did not do that, but the idea that casual sex is now the norm. And the girls that I met, you know, whether -- and that's drifting down into high school. Whether they opted -- whether they liked that, some of them, you know, that was fine with them, they didn't want boyfriends, this is what they wanted to be doing, or whether they didn't, they all had to define themselves, and I think this is what the caller is alluding to, in relationship to that hook-up culture and figure out their sexuality in relationship to that.
REHMI also think that Julie is talking about her daughter, who are now in their 30s, so perhaps their sexual development and interest preceded this so-called hook-up culture. Go ahead, Nicole.
JOSEPHSo what I'd like to add to this is I think there's a psychological principle at work here, which is something that I would actually perhaps teach to anxious patients. It's called labeling. When girls, and even boys, use this term hook-up, and it's purposefully ambiguous, and Peggy's right, I also always have to ask for clarification, what exactly are you talking about when you're saying hooking up, and you talk about labeling to distance something.
JOSEPHSo the way I use this for anxiety treatment is I'll encourage people to sort of label, oh, there's that feeling again, you're just anxiety, I'm going to let you kind of go away, I know what you are, sort of to demystify or scare -- decrease the scariness of the concept, right. So the idea of labeling is that it distances yourself from the concept. So in essence, I think labeling also contributes to making this idea of hooking up less of a big deal.
REHMA caller wants us to follow up and ask what Skype sex is. Would you do that, Nicole?
JOSEPHAbsolutely. So -- and Peggy maybe knows more about this than I do, but from what I've heard from girls and boys who are usually around middle-school age is that there will be an interest or a flirtation with a peer in your class, and you, you know, exchange Skype information and use Skype. And it seems fairly innocent, you think you're just going to Facetime or Skype and say hi. And what happens is if parents don't happen to be around, you know, maybe there is some discussion or some coercion to, you know, maybe show off a body part or two.
JOSEPHAnd it's perceived as less risky than physical interaction because there's no concern about disease or pregnancy, and it's also considered among the middle-schoolers, they've kind of pitched it as, oh, this is better than sexting because sexting -- the person who I sext can keep my picture, whereas with this, this is something that's safer because -- and, you know, granted you can take a screenshot, but it's perceived as safer than sexting and less controversial and less of an issue.
ORENSTEINYeah, I think that's right, and one of the things that we found about sexting or about any kind of, you know, that Skype sexting is that equal number of boys and girls do that voluntarily but that when we talk about coercion that twice as many girls are coerced into that behavior as boys and that when they are, they find it more damaging it to their mental health than when they're coerced into actual, real-life sex, which I found very interesting.
REHMHow could that be? Go a little farther with that.
ORENSTEINYou know, I have thought about it. I think that this is one of those generation gaps that that's hard for me to understand. But I think the idea that you've lost control, perhaps, of an image and that fear that it lives forever on the Internet is part of it. Yeah.
REHMI see, I see. So what you're saying generally in this book is not only that girls need to empower themselves in regard to not only the rest of their lives but also their own sexuality but also that we as a society need to broaden our understanding of what sex means to these young people.
ORENSTEINAbsolutely, and we need to be having these conversations and get beyond that idea that it's one talk, and the talk is about intercourse, you know, because for one thing we've got to -- you know, again that ignores and denies the other acts that kids are engaged in and makes them into not sex and no big deal, and then they're not subject to the same rules around consent, around coercion, around reciprocity, around respect. And particularly oral sex, which typically went one way, you know, female to male, and had become a behavior that kids considered no big deal and a way to avoid what they would call catching feelings, you know, which is like a disease or something, to catch feelings.
ORENSTEINAnd I heard so many instances of non-reciprocal oral sex, which girls engaged in for a lot of reasons, that I started to get sort of, you know, frustrated, and I would say, what if a boy kept asking you to get a glass of water from the kitchen, and he never offered to get you a glass of water, or if he did, it was, you know, kind of very begrudgingly. You wouldn't stand for it. These were really bright girls. These were girls who were feminists. These were girls who were forthright.
ORENSTEINAnd they said oh, no, you know, they would laugh and say, well, when you put it that way. And I said, well, you know, maybe you should. And in the book what I talk about is this idea that Sara McClelland from the University of Michigan came up with of intimate justice. And just as, you know, who does the dishes in your home is political as well as personal, sex has these components where we have to ask these questions of who is entitled to engage an experience, who is entitled to enjoy it, who is the primary beneficiary, how does each partner define good enough.
ORENSTEINAnd honestly, those are questions that are hard for us as adult women, but when you're talking about girls' early experience, you have to ask because, you know, I think we don't want that experience to be something that girls have to get over.
REHMI wonder, are there are any parents out there who are still saying to their young daughters, just say no?
JOSEPHAbsolutely, and I think, you know, I see parents from all walks of life and with all types of different values who are expressing their values with their children. What I would say is whether or not you agree with what's in the book or whether or not your message is as conservative as possible, which is just complete abstinence, I think the important thing is, you know, knowledge is power because whether or not you're going to expose your kids to these topics, they're going to be exposed to them in society.
JOSEPHAnd so I think knowing about things like hook-up culture and about Skype sex and things like this are extremely important for girls and for parents of boys and for boys, as well.
REHMExactly, and here's an email from John, and I know you, Peggy, write a lot about this. John says, I have a young daughter. She's told me and my spouse that a couple of her male friends have viewed pornography on a computer. When your guests speak of young women not enjoying sex but engaging in it to please and perform for males, what role do you think access to pornography plays? And do you think the state of Utah is on to something in declaring a public health hazard? Peggy?
ORENSTEINYou know, that's a great question, and I think that we are -- the rise of pornography on the Internet has been a game-changer. And there was a large scale survey of college kids that found that 60 percent consult porn in part as sex ed. And, you know, it's just not where we want our kids to be getting their information. And they do it because where -- if their parents are silent, if their school is silent, that's where they go to see how the parts fit together.
ORENSTEINAnd it is female performance for male pleasure. You know, it's about as real as pro wrestling. And I would -- again, you know, my journalistic remove would start to drop when girls would ask me over and over, you know, my boyfriend thinks -- and wants to know why I don't make the noises like the women in porn. And I would say, look, it's a movie. A movie has to have a soundtrack, or it's a silent movie. You know, that's why they have to -- and that would be like a revelation to them.
ORENSTEINAnd again, it's this, you know, lack of conversation with our girls and our boys to talk to them, whether you want them to wait until they're married or whether you expect them to be part of hook-up culture or anywhere in between, we want them to engage ethically, responsibly, respectfully and pleasurably.
REHMPeggy Orenstein, her new book is titled "Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape." And I must say, Peggy, I think boys and fathers, as well as mothers and daughters, should be reading this book. And you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. All right, and let's take another caller, James in Charlotte, North Carolina, you're on the air.
JAMESGood morning, Diane, thank you very much for taking my call.
JAMESSo with that lead-in to fathers, I have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and I'm trying to prepare 10 years in advance for these talks. And I have a seven-year-old son, so I'm running out of time with him. I think the biggest thing of importance for the son is that he's going to look at porn, but porn is not real life. For my daughter, do I teach her the same, or how do I teach my daughter to be okay with her sexuality and the importance of things like consent? Because when I was in middle school, I was sexually active, but consent wasn't a word that I had any clue the definition of.
REHMInteresting. Do you want to comment?
JOSEPHSure. And I love that James is starting to have these conversations and have these thoughts when he has a seven-year-old and a two-and-a-half-year-old.
JOSEPHAnd I have to tell you, and I think this is how we start. We start with our kids being young, maybe even pre-verbal. We start to have discussions and open conversations about sex and sexuality. Look, I'm not a person, as a psychologist, who will judge any parent's approach to how they want to teach values. What I will say, it's extremely important, is we all need to work on coping with discomfort and increasing communication around these issues. If you feel...
REHMBecause they are uncomfortable.
JOSEPHThey can be uncomfortable, and they're not going to be any more comfortable unless we talk about them and try to overcome. So I love what, Peggy, you said in your book about this. It's that if you know that you're not the person who can have these ongoing discussions with your children, you need to identify someone in your friend group or family group who your child would feel comfortable talking with, and they need to be the go-to person to talk to them about sex.
JOSEPHI think it is much more ideal for that to come from parents. And I'll say I think parents should do a lot work in terms of...
JOSEPHOf preparation, talking to their friends about this openly, coping with this is going to feel awkward, and oh my goodness, we know that children are very intuitive. So if you are feeling awkward, and you're dancing around these issues and not using proper names for things, your children are going to pick up on that. And does that mean that they're going to feel comfortable the next time asking you, hey, you know, what happens, you know, in this sexual situation, or are they going to go consult the Internet for porn.
REHMPeggy, how would you begin a conversation with, say, an eight- or nine-year-old daughter?
ORENSTEINWell, hopefully by the time a child is eight or nine, you have been naming body parts, you know -- by eight or nine they should know how babies are made. And I think a lot of these conversations are not actually really about sex in a lot of ways. It's about respect, it's about values, it's about understanding your own bodily integrity and autonomy and ability to say no and ability to say yes, not forcing kids to hug Great-Aunt Nancy when they don't want to or allowing Great-Aunt Nancy to hug them when they don't want to be hugged, teaching boundaries, teaching respect, teaching entitlement. That's something that we can do all the way along.
REHMSo I wonder, James, does that help you?
JAMESI -- yes, ma'am, it does help, specifically the reaching out to friends. I think that's a very kid if the kid is uncomfortable with me, there's no reason an aunt or an uncle or somebody they're close to can maybe relate a little bit better or just not be their parent. I know that helped me as a teenager a lot of the time.
REHMGood, all right, James, thanks for your call. And we're going to take a short break here. When we come back, we'll talk more about an issue that really takes me aback because of how much of this is going on in our world now.
REHMWelcome back. Peggy Orenstein is the author of a brand new book. It's titled, "Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape." And boy, am I learning a lot. Also, here in the studio, Dr. Nicole Joseph. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice in northern Virginia. And, Peggy Orenstein, we've had a number of people saying they'd like to ask if lesbian young women are having these same issues.
ORENSTEINThat is such a great question. I'm so glad that came up because I think that there was a great difference among lesbian and bi-sexual young women. And one of the things that they would say to me, they would use the word script, which was really interesting. And they would say that when they got off the script, the typical script for sex, they were free to make up an experience that was mutually satisfying on their own terms, that they got away from that.
ORENSTEINAnd that was something that I felt that girls who had opposite sex partners, who were heterosexual, could learn from. The other piece for lesbian girls was, you know, we talk about virginity as being heterosexual intercourse. And it's not that that's not a big deal, of course it's a big deal. But it's not the only big deal. And it also denies the experience of lesbian girls. So I asked one girl, how did you know when you lost your virginity? And she said, well, I had to Google that.
ORENSTEINAnd Google didn't have an answer as it turned out. And I -- and she hemmed and she hawed and she said, you know when I think I lost my virginity? It was when I had my first orgasm with a partner. And I thought, what if that was the definition of virginity loss, you know.
ORENSTEINAnd it was this idea that sex ought to be a pool of experiences that involve warmth, closeness, affection, respect, sensation, touch, you know, rather than a race to a goal. And talking to a young person about who's more experienced, the person who spends three hours kissing a partner and experimenting with erotic tension and communication and sensation or the person who gets wasted at a party, hooks up with somebody and has intercourse to unload their virginity before they get to college?
REHMAnd, Nicole, you were on this program previously talking about transgender individuals.
REHMSo I would think the same issues might apply.
JOSEPHAbsolutely. And I do dedicate about a fourth of my practice to GLBTQ populations. So I hear much the same thing, actually. I hear a lot of, you know, gay women saying, hey, yeah, you know, this is easier. I don't have to navigate the guy thing. It just makes everything easier for us. And interestingly, I have a sub-set of women and a few -- very few boys, who have come in -- I'd say over the last two or three years, who have started talking about a concept of asexuality.
JOSEPHThis idea that they have no interest or desire in pursuing any kind of sexual contact or sexual relationship with a romantic partner. And in saying that, I should clarify and make specific that that doesn't mean that they don't want an intimate -- emotionally intimate partner or a relationship. They don't want to have sex within that relationship. And I think that's an interesting part of the discussion. And I'm not sure if Peggy has anything, but if she wants to weigh in about that.
ORENSTEINYou know, I had one young woman come to me and talk about asexuality. And it was fascinating. And I at first was so taken aback, 'cause I thought well, this is a little bit -- I'm writing a book on girls and sex. I feel a little bit like a vegetarian came to talk to me about a book about meat, you know. But I also felt that, you know, she wanted to express something that was legitimate and real, whether that's something lifelong or whether that's something right now, that she wanted to have connection and romance with people without have to be sexually active with them.
REHMDo you recall how old she was?
ORENSTEINShe was a freshman in college.
REHMInteresting. All right. And, Nicole, you also wanted to talk about something called a foot in the door technique.
JOSEPHRight. Yes. So in reading Peggy's book I found that there were many stories about women who had gone further than they would have liked to have gone with boys and in sexual experiences. And I found that most of them seemed to have a common theme, which is something social psychologists call foot in the door. Social scientists may call it successive approximation, if you've of that before.
JOSEPHSo these are fancy terms that essentially are compliance techniques. Basically, they are associated with asking someone to agree to a small or moderate task. And if we're talking about sexuality, you know, we're talking about making out, things of that nature. And then if you get them to agree to that, sometimes self-perception can change, which can increase the chance that they will engage in something that is a larger task.
JOSEPHSo when we're talking about sexuality, you know, in terms of compliance, we're talking about, oh, hey, come on, let's just do this. Leading to, well, we've already done this, let's go a little bit further. And leading to the point where that's very upsetting for girls and having regret about that. So what's the take-home message? The take-home message is these types of concepts need to be discussed with girls. And girls need to discuss. And I talk to girls about this, and boys, too, about this frequently in sessions.
JOSEPHYou need to have a bottom line, a glass ceiling that you know that you're comfortable with before you get into a situation that is going to involve any kind of potential sexual experience. And you need to have that well in mind before you start drinking, as well.
REHMAh, exactly. Peggy, you must have encountered this.
ORENSTEINOh, yeah, absolutely. And, you know, I actually end the book in a co-educational sex Ed. classroom where kids are working these issues out together to show the potential for that. One of the things Karis Dennison, who's the teacher in that class, says is that, you know, you would never walk into an English exam without knowing what the test -- what book the text was gonna be on. You would have an idea in advance. But you go into a party, not even thinking about what you don't want to do, let alone what you do want to do.
ORENSTEINAnd to think about life a little bit more, you know, to apply those skills that kids learn so well to their social lives. And to think, you know, what do I want to happen, what do I want for me, what don't I want to happen, what might I do. And then go forward. And, you know, if it doesn't work out as you planned, revise, redraft, do it again. You know, life is a little bit like an English exam.
REHMIndeed. And from Twitter, we have a number of questions. First for you, Peggy, "Is the book intended for reading by the 17-year-old girls themselves, or more for the parents?"
ORENSTEINYes. You know, I had hoped that what I could provide with this book was a kind of neutral ground where parents and children, daughters and sons, I would say high school and beyond, not earlier, could have this discussion. Because I think it is hard sometimes. And I know, I'm a parent. You know, I have a 12 and a half year old daughter. I often want to fall through the floor when we have these discussions. But I do it anyway.
ORENSTEINBut, you know, to be able to have a neutral ground where you can talk about it and say, look, I just heard this interview, you know, on "Diane Rehm," or I just read this book and this is what I saw. I wonder what's going on in your life, I wonder what's going on in your world. It's a place where you can surface those issues, find out about those issues, and discuss them together.
REHMI just wonder how willing that 12 and a half year old is going to be willing to say more than, well, yeah.
ORENSTEINWell, you know, I'll tell you what, Diane, I used to be that girl. And my mom was somebody who was very -- more open than I was comfortable with. You know, my parents told me to wait 'til I was married. But once I was married, that sex should be fantastic. And then my mom would tell me about her wonderful sex life with my dad. And I would plug my ears and hum and say, stop it, Mom, stop it. And yet, that carried into my life, into my early experiences. I had that voice. And I really think that that made a difference to me.
REHMSo you're saying whether they want to listen and engage or not, they are learning something.
ORENSTEINThey are. I think that they hear it. And the other piece is, you know, I looked at research on Denmark -- I mean, on Holland, excuse me. And comparing the early experiences of Dutch college girls and American college girls. And they found that on every measure the Dutch girls came out ahead. Whether it was few or negative consequences, like disease and pregnancy and regret, or more positive consequences, like satisfaction, knowing their partner very well, etcetera.
ORENSTEINAnd the difference was that in Holland parents, teachers and doctors talk very forthrightly to their kids about sex. And in particular, where American parents may not be any more comfortable, we tend to talk about risk and danger exclusively. And Dutch parents talked about balancing responsibility and joy.
JOSEPHAnd I would love to add that I think this is also about modeling. I talk a lot about parents -- to parents about modeling. This idea that what you want for your children is what you need to model for them. This concept of do as I say, not as I do does not work. Right? As we've learned in psychology. So I think that there is also -- and, Peggy, this is your next book if you want to do it, if you want to take my suggestion. But there is a cultural modeling that happens.
JOSEPHAnd I think that this book is a sub-set or a trickle-down of our approach that we have with women and sexuality. If you look at the lifespan of a woman and you talk about how sexuality is supposed to be, or culturally modeled for women, there's a lot to talk about there. Even when you talk about older women being cougars if they're interested in younger men or if they have a sex drive at a certain age or women of a certain age having a sex drive, God forbid. Right?
JOSEPHOr you even talk about things about postnatal care or about how a lot of women feel that they're trading in their woman card or their woman identity when they become a mom. They become a mom instead of a woman. And these concepts are culturally modeled and do trickle down to our girls.
REHMHere's a comment from Twitter. "As Muslim parents of pre-teen girls, we face compounded challenges. Could your guests talk about the role of religion?" Peggy?
ORENSTEINYou know, I didn't talk to enough kids across the spectrum to get any particular sense of how religion affected or didn't affect girls' sexuality. But I did talk to kids who were a broad range of religion. And everybody was trying to figure it out. Everybody was struggling with it. And I think that it doesn't matter, again, your cultural background. I think we all, regardless of when we expect our children to engage, want them to engage with respect, with ethics, with values, and enjoyably and reciprocally.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Brett, in St. Louis, Mo. You're on the air.
BRETTHow are you ladies this afternoon?
BRETTThank you for having me.
REHMSure. Go right ahead, sir.
BRETTThis subject matters incredibly pertinent to me. And it's interesting that you made reference to a religious world view. I'm a Christian man, father of two sons and it's been a pleasure to listen to the show. You've made numerous comments that I find are wonderfully applicable to just humanity at large. And I think a book like yours is timely. I was particularly struck with the references to the way we teach young girls, when it comes time to begin to discuss sexuality, how the teaching kind of jumps from the navel to knees. And you skip that crucial body part.
BRETTAnd especially your reference to pleasure. And as a man, if I say the church, I don't mean, Roman Catholicism, I'm a Protestant. But I see a miserable failing there in the church educating young girls, not just about sexuality generally, but it's -- there's almost a certain taboo attached to the idea of pleasure and that more relevant to girls. And I think it's -- it produces a young lady who enters that time of her life with that -- overall the general ignorance of her body, how it works, what my expectation should be, but I think it bleeds over very easily and readily into that sense of shame where to experience pleasure isn't right for her.
REHMAll right. Brett, that's a most interesting comment. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Nicole, can you comment?
JOSEPHI think that regardless of what religion or creed that you are, I really feel that, even if you're encouraging abstinence with your children -- of course, again, that's an individual decision that I won't judge. And that's everyone's family and individual decision to make. However, I will say that, you know, be aware as a parent of what your preconceptions and your thoughts are about sex.
JOSEPHBecause even if you're saying, hey, wait for marriage, you know, wait for that time where, you know, this is sanctioned between God -- if that's what you're saying, I think it's really important to also say, and that's something that's important to experience in a pleasurable way with your partner. Right? So not just saying negative things. Wait, wait, wait, which is a fine message, but it's also, this is a pleasurable, wonderful experience you can share with your partner.
JOSEPHBecause what we don't want is we don't want to preach a message just of abstinence and that this idea that sex dirty. Because then you are in a marriage and you're -- that's a time when you're supposed to be enjoying sexuality. Right? According to different moralities and religions. So…
REHMBut you are bringing in the question of the dangers of sexuality, are you not, Peggy? That is the whole idea of sexually transmitted disease or pregnancy or everything else.
ORENSTEINSure. And, you know, I actually think we do a -- well, we need to do a better job. But I think if parents and teachers talk to kids, that's what they talk about. So it's broadening that conversation. You know, speaking of religion, one church that does a fantastic job is the Unitarian Universalist Church.
ORENSTEINThey have a marvelous curriculum called "Our Whole Lives," that goes from I think Kindergarten to age 69 and is just wonderful about discussing sexuality in all of its broad ranges.
REHMIn other words, teaching, really using language that's applicable at age specific times.
JOSEPHAbsolutely. And I think if there's -- even if there isn't a conversation in your house that's openly about sex, there needs to be a conversation, again, about going back to this concept of coping with discomfort, your discomfort and your child's discomfort and communication, how to communicate what your limits are in various situations, not just sexual situations. Because there's a quote from Peggy's book that one girl said, oh, it keeps getting -- it's awkward -- it gets awkward to keep resisting.
JOSEPHSo this idea that girls and women and I think boys, too, to some extent, don't necessarily always have the language to say, I'm not comfortable with this. This is where I stop. This is where we need to find something else to do this evening. Right?
REHMAll right. We'll have to leave it there. I think you have both done a fabulous job this morning talking about something that's not easy to talk about and helped an awful lot of people. Nicole Joseph is a clinical psychologist in private practice. Peggy Orenstein, the author of the new book, "Girls and Sex." Thank you both so much.
ORENSTEINThank you, Diane. It was a pleasure.
REHMAnd thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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