Peggy Orenstein's Girls and Sex

photo: Michael Todd

Newly released in paperback, Peggy Orenstein's Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape (HarperCollins, $15.99) is, quite frankly, terrifying. As the mother of two teen girls and fan of Orenstein's intelligent and thought-provoking work (Cinderella Ate My Daughter), this study of 21st-century sexual culture--culled from interviews with more than 70 high school and college-aged girls--was an auto-buy for me. Ten pages in, I patted myself on the back for bravely going where many parents would not. Twenty pages past that point I wondered whether my courage could prevail. And 15 more found me resolute, both perplexed by my own ignorance and eager to educate myself about the current state of sex in the United States.

People, it's complicated. And Orenstein is the first to admit as much. The nature of relationships has changed. Many begin with a physical encounter of some kind (hello, hookup), then, should the stars align, progress to a date, then a second, and so on. Emotional connection ("catching feelings") is a no-no. The definition of "virginity" is open to debate; what constitutes consensual sex depends on who you're talking to; and the list goes on. Here's a hint: this is all just as confusing for your girls as it is for you.

Orenstein's genius is in her ability to coalesce this broad range of insight and information into something that urges us to think beyond the standard talking points. Yes, disease, consent and contraception are need-to-knows. But so is the idea that sexuality can "be a source of self-knowledge and creativity and communication." And girls should be emboldened to "ask for what they want in the bed, and to get it." Yes, as my youngest daughter would say, this conversation would, most likely, be "cringe-y." But oh, so worth it. --Stefanie Hargreaves, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers

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