Photos and text by Gabrielle.
A couple of months ago, while running errands, I heard Peggy Orenstein on NPR talking about her new book, Girls & Sex. The conversation was compelling, and when I got home, I ordered the book immediately. When it was delivered, I put it on the coffee table so I would see it daily and remember to make time to read it.
Olive picked it up first, and read the whole thing (she said it got some looks when she brought it to school and pulled it out for free-reading time). Then Maude started it — but had to pause to prep for her AP tests. When Maude set it down, I picked it up. I finished it on Sunday (all I wanted for Mother’s Day was reading time — and I got it!). Now Ralph and Ben Blair are in line to read it.
It’s made for some excellent discussions.
The thing that struck me the most is the observation that when we discuss reproduction with boys, we focus on erections and climax — both pleasurable things. But for girls, we focus on periods and pregnancy prevention — neither of which are pleasurable at all. Most girls grow up not even knowing the actual names of their genitalia. They either hear a nickname/slur, or the whole area gets called vagina. Females grow up learning or hearing about all the ways they can bring pleasure to males, without an understanding of how they can feel pleasure themselves, or what they’re supposed to get out of a sexual encounter.
Our culture teaches girls to act and look sexy, but they don’t actually know how to be sexual, or what that means.
Those ideas stood out to me, because from what I’ve seen and experienced it’s true. I had been thinking Ben Blair and I had done a decent job with our sex ed, but after reading the book I can see we need to do better. More conversations, more often, with both our sons and daughters, with a focus on removing stigma, and growing into a happy, healthy, loving sex life.
Some of the examples in the book were hard for me to stomach. Lots and lots of instances where girls are pressured to have sex when they’re not interested and take no pleasure from it. And there’s a whole chapter on rape and rape culture. But of course, those experiences need to be told and acknowledged and talked about before we will see improvement. So I found it well-worth reading even when I wanted to throw up.
One tip: I found the best conversations started when I simply sat in the living room and read the book aloud to Ben, while the kids walked in and out of the room, grabbing a snack, or sitting down to listen. It was easier for me to read the words in the book aloud instead of trying to come up with my own. And maybe more important, I think it was easier for the kids to hear the words (some of them no doubt shocking to hear coming from their mother’s mouth), and know I was reading them, not necessarily sharing a personal experience — no one (kids, teens, or adults) wants to think of their parents as sexual beings.
Another tip: in this Slate interview with the author, she mentions the idea of having a designated family friend that can speak frankly with your kids about sex. If you want to make sure your kids have this knowledge, but don’t feel like you can be the one to deliver it, you ask an Aunt or a Dear Friend — someone your kids are really comfortable with.
Anyway, I thought the book was excellent and I’m wondering if you’ve read it. I’d love to discuss it with you! If you don’t have time to read it, you can listen to the NPR interview with the author, or read the highlights, I mentioned the excellent interview about the book on Slate, and there’s an excerpt of the book on Time. Any of those is enough to get a conversation started.
I’m also curious: when did you learn words like labia and clitoris and vulva? And did you understand what they were? What their function was? Do you feel like your kids know? Both your daughters and your sons? I was definitely into adulthood before I had a solid understanding of female anatomy.
P.S. — Also from Time: how to talk to your kids about porn.