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Peggy Orenstein interview: 'We have to have frank discussions about sex'

As the consultation on the new sex and relationships curriculum nears its end, this US sex-ed writer tells Zofia Niemtus that schools need to do more to empower girls to take control of their sex lives

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As the consultation on the new sex and relationships curriculum nears its end, this US sex-ed writer tells Zofia Niemtus that schools need to do more to empower girls to take control of their sex lives

Peggy Orenstein has a lot of helpful analogies for discussing sex. It’s like a pizza, she says; you wouldn’t keep getting pizza with someone who insisted on toppings that you didn’t enjoy. Or it’s like a car; if you loaned your car to someone and they didn’t treat it well, you wouldn’t let them borrow it again.

She’s less keen on the classic baseball metaphor (first base, second base and so on) because it implies – as a young male student in a sex education class pointed out – that there is a winner and a loser.

The bestselling US author explored these figures of speech while researching her latest book, Girls and Sex. It’s a follow-up to her 1995 work Schoolgirls, which examined self-esteem and confidence in young women.

Orenstein decided to return to this group and look into their sex lives because “they have changed so very much” in the past two decades.

There was also a personal incentive, she admits. “I’ve got a daughter and she was headed towards high school. My impulse when I have a lot of questions about my life is to go out and ask a couple of hundred people about it to clarify my own thinking,” she says.

Her conclusion was stark: the way we talk to girls (and boys) about sex is really not effective. Which isn’t to say that these discussions aren’t happening at all – sex education in schools is increasingly addressing contraception and STDs, in addition to the basics of anatomy. But, according to Orenstein, there’s a pretty major omission: exploration of what healthy sexual engagement actually looks and feels like. And that leaves the door open for unhelpful and unhealthy ideas.

“When we don’t talk about it, we abdicate our responsibility and allow porn and media culture to educate our children on these issues,” she says. “That’s a culture that says that women are objects, that reciprocity is not a thing, that female pleasure is subordinate to male pleasure and desire. It teaches that sex is transactional and that women are commodities.”

We need to change the whole tone of the conversation, she continues, so we’re not just exploring the scary aspects of sexuality, like unplanned pregnancy, but talking about pleasure, desire and what she describes as “the difficult work of love and relationships”.

'A exciting time'

The current avalanche of revelations about sexual harassment and assault via the #MeToo movement, sparked by allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, is “super-important”, she says, but it should be the start of a broader discussion about sex, not the end of it.

“It’s an exciting time, but it means every conversation is going right back to danger and risk,” Orenstein explains. “It’s hard not to do that. We understand the concept of girls and women as victims, but it’s harder for us to embrace and support what it might mean for girls to define and engage in age-appropriate sexual behaviour on their own terms.

“‘I was not raped’ is a really low bar for a sexual experience.”

It’s time to rethink the information we give girls in sex education, the author argues. Boys are told about erections and wet dreams, while girls are given a guide to their insides (“That image that looks like a steer’s head,” Orenstein sighs) and periods, but rarely hear about the clitoris, for example.

“We seem to believe that if we don’t tell girls that sex should feel fantastic for them – that’s sex in the broader sense, not just intercourse – they won’t find out and then they won’t do it,” she says.

But, Orenstein continues, the opposite is true. “All the research says that the more girls know their bodies – the more they feel in charge and aware of their own capacity for pleasure – the better the choices they make, both inside and out of relationships, because it becomes something about them, rather than servicing a partner.”

The majority of the research cited in Girls and Sex comes from the US, the UK and Australia – and they are countries frequently found wanting in terms of effective sex education. But there are other countries doing it well. Orenstein cites a study that selected 400 girls at random from two demographically similar colleges in the US and Holland, and asked them to discuss their early sexual experiences.

The Dutch girls had lower rates of pregnancy and sexual disease, were more likely to have prepared for their encounters, enjoyed themselves more, communicated with their partners better, and had better body image. In follow-up interviews, they credited their doctors, teachers and parents for talking to them at a very young age, and often, about sex, pleasure and the importance of emotional connection.


One participant explained that the first person she wanted to tell when she had intercourse was her mum. She went home and discussed it with her mother and her mother’s friend, who asked questions like: “Did you have a good time? Did he have a good time? Did you have an orgasm?” (If that thought makes your head spin, you’re not alone; Orenstein admits her first reaction on reading that account was “No!”.)

But such open discussions – however awkward they may feel – may well be the key to overcoming troubling trends arising around sex. “One of the disconnects I saw was between an entitlement that young women felt to engage in sexual behaviour, but not necessarily to enjoy it,” Orenstein explains. “The mere act of engaging in sexual behaviour was a sign that they were free and liberated, but the enjoyment was not part of that equation.”

Statistics show that young people are not actually having more intercourse than they were 20 years ago, she says. Something that has changed, however, is the attitude towards oral sex, which is now considered “less intimate than intercourse, but only when it is female on male”.

“One girl I interviewed referred to it as ‘impersonal’,” Orenstein continues. “A penis in my mouth feels pretty personal! But for girls it can be a way to boost status, avoid emotional entanglement and avoid intercourse where their body would be involved.

“A lot of girls are engaging in it, but not often because of their own desires. I asked them: ‘What if every time you were alone with a guy he asked you to get him a glass of water from the kitchen, but he never got you one, or if he did it was really begrudging, or only got you a little sip?’ They wouldn‘t do that, but they’re willing to perform a non-reciprocal sex act.”

Changing attitudes

Combating these issues can’t be solely the work of schools, she acknowledges – there’s the problem of making space in an already-packed curriculum, as well as the issue of parental approval. But families are often eager for guidance on the best way to have these conversations at home, Orenstein says; she is frequently “swamped” by parents asking for advice when she gives talks at schools.

“It doesn’t matter where you are on the political spectrum or the social spectrum, very few of us were talked to in an open and healthy way by our parents, in a way that would show us how to talk to our children about sex,” she adds.

Schools, then, have an opportunity to shape these conversations by disseminating useful information through literature, workshops or regular training sessions.

And in class, Orenstein continues, a huge amount can be achieved in a short time. She heaps praise on the positive sex education sessions she observed while working on the book; they would only take place for a couple of hours each term, she explains, but would cover a lot of ground in an engaging, informative way.

Tasks included open-ended brainstorming around big ideas such as what constitutes sex (“Does oral sex count?” for example), and more abstract explorations of skills like communication. One activity placed pupils into pairs and challenged them to open a combination lock while one of the two was blindfolded.

“In a lot of ways, it isn’t about sex,” Orenstein says. “It’s about applying the critical thinking that we encourage students to use in other realms to the personal realm.”

She gives an example from a session led by a former English teacher. “She said you would never walk into an English exam without knowing the book that you were about to be tested on. You would read the book, and study.

“But you would go to a party on a Friday night without thinking about ‘What don’t I want to happen tonight?’. Then when you get hammered and something happens that you don’t really like, you wake up and think ‘Urgh, that stunk’, but you go and do it again anyway. You don’t sit and revise the draft and think how to write it differently next time.”

“Life is like an essay,” she continues. “Rethink, revise, redraft, readdress. We don’t ask kids to do any of that in their personal lives. We ask them to bumble along, making mistakes on the way to hopefully not being too damaged or traumatised to form a decent human relationship.

“They want to engage. And if we want our kids to engage ethically, responsibly and enjoyably, we have to have frank discussions about that.”

Zofia Niemtus is a freelance writer

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