C Letter Book Club: Peggy Orenstein "Girls & Sex"
Peggy Orenstein is a mother. She is also a well-educated middle-aged white woman. Her concerns, fears, priorities, and experiences are informed by her privilege, access and priorities. These are the caveats with which I approached my reading of “Girls & Sex” and its author’s trickle down theory of sexual empowerment.
“Girls & Sex” is a useful book. It invites frank and positive conversation about the sexuality of young women with an emphasis on joy instead of shame. Like its predecessor “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” it seeks to contribute to the promoting of empowered girls. It advocates for communication, compassion, sensibility and consent.
It is well written, and at times even entertaining. But intersectional, it is not.
The author performs anecdotal research which (by her own admission) does not do enough to cross the lines of race and class.
In a justification of this choice she told NPR’s Terry Gross that “all of the girls that I interviewed were educated and they were all, mostly middle class. And that was because I wanted to talk to girls who had opportunity and who were the beneficiaries of the feminist movement because if even those girls who were leaning in the public realm who had this voice and could speak politically and speak out in class if even they were toppling in their personal lives then I felt that we couldn’t deny that there was a problem.”
Some of the most sexually empowered women I have met have been economically disenfranchised and lacked formal education. I know women who are cashiers at Shoprite, shift supervisors at Chipotle and medical coding and billing assistants who refuse to self-identify as feminists and wouldn't know a syllabus if it smacked them in the face but consider the concept of “lick it before you stick it” a birthright no more questionable than the ability to walk in high heels without receiving stares and use their periods to get out of gym class. You don’t need to be able to intelligently discuss the merits of “The Feminine Mystique” to be sexually empowered and suggesting otherwise is just lazy. A more suitable title for this book might be “Girls Whose Social and Academic Circles Happen to Align With the Colleagues and Friends I Sent A Mass Email to & Sex.”
After encountering some young women who declare that they're “too busy” for relationships during her research. She questions what they're so busy doing. Her resulting assertions that co-eds don't have to shop for food or prepare their own meals was particularly offensive to me as I was doing both well before my 19th birthday. She also notes that it's not like they have to “pick up their children at school” as if household chores and childcare are the only things that can hinder taking a proactive approach to one’s love life (you try to read 300 pages a week and wake up at 7am for yoga on a Sunday and see if you feel like scrolling through SoulSwipe afterwards).
One can only hope that an equally talented writer is compelled to pick up where she left off and address how respectability politics, poverty, mass incarceration, colorism, Dr. Miami and a host of other factors have impacted the sexual experiences of the black girls who rock. Jamilah and Jasmine we’re looking at you.
My second gripe with the book is that it is kind of snarky. When noting the fact that Kim Kardashian’s romantic relationship (and ultimate marriage) to Kanye West produced a female toddler the author says “I wonder how they’ll react to her first sex tape.” This is unnecessary, unkind, and beneath such a smart woman. I realize that raising female children in the age of “raindrop, drop top” is an unenviable task but that’s no reason to attack a kid. Even if that kid is a Kardashian.
The conversation she has with the young women included in the book around affirmative consent are important ones. Though she approaches the topic with sensitivity the scenarios might be triggering for anyone who is a survivor of sexual assault and the frequent (and disturbing) post-assault victimizations that are commonplace on college campuses.
Orenstein’s impressive knack for description is what makes the book relatable despite its shortcomings. As she describes her encounters with misinformed millennials I can see the girls teetering in cheap heels and expensive eyeshadow breasts on display and brains set aside for the night. The big hair and low expectations remind me of nights spent dancing on couches at Rutgers and rounds of beer pong at Lehigh that I do not miss and was not ready for.
If “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” was about the fairy tales our society forces on female children “Girls & Sex” is about the various ways they internalize them. After all one ever spoke about Cinderella’s clitoris.
I would still reccomend “Girls & Sex” because the book is a good read once you put your blinders on.
Find it here.
Photo Credit: Harper Collins