We’ve been pretty open with our daughter about sex from the beginning, I thought. We taught Adrienne the anatomical names for all of her girl parts (and let her sing them in the grocery store). We provided answers on how babies are made as soon as she asked. When we saw she was shy about discussing these things with us (who really WANTS to talk about sex with their parents?), we bought her age appropriate books about how her body functions and about how sex works. With illustrations. We’ve talked about birth control. About STDs. About consent. About assault. About unplanned pregnancy.
We’ve tried to take any sense of shame out of sex, because that’s what causes the secrecy and the damage. We want her to know that her worth as a person and our love for her are in no way tied to her sexual decisions. And we want her to be able to come to us if there’s a problem, to understand that her sexual decisions are in her hands, not ours, and not a potential partner’s.
I actually thought, having done all this, (go ahead and laugh, veteran parents) that I was almost done. That she knows what she needs to know – and so very much more than I knew.
But we’ve never talked about pleasure. We’ve never talked about her having her own expectations for sex. And we’ve never talked about the sexual environment that she will have to come of age in. In this interview, author Peggy Orenstein talks about what it’s like for girls out there right now.
And it is fucking terrifying.
In her book, Girls & Sex, Orenstein explores the current sexual environment for adolescent girls. She discusses how culture is impacting the sexual expectations girls put on themselves, and that boys put on them: the pressure to look and act sexy at ever younger ages; oral sex as social currency; the way alcohol drives hook-up culture; and the notion of sex as the gateway to a relationship, instead of the other way around.
Did I mention this is terrifying? I really want to bury my head in the sand on this one. I want to…but I won’t. The book illuminates both the things I’ve been doing wrong, and what I think I’ve been doing right.
On the wrong end, I’ve been talking to her about relationships as though we’re still in the era I dated in. And the current environment makes that era seem quaint. The fact is, things are so different that I can’t give her much relationship guidance that will make sense. The thing I can help her develop, though, is a strong enough sense of self so she’s not doing anything – sexual or otherwise – because she’s pressured to. I can help her learn to listen to her intuition about when she’s being respected and when she’s being used. It doesn’t feel like enough; but it’s what we have.
And the stuff I’m doing right? First, being openly accepting of same-sex relationships. Orenstein notes that young same-sex couples have a different dynamic, and much to teach us about reciprocity and equality in sexual relationships. Also, encouraging Adrienne’s friend relationships, and her self-expression when it comes to her appearance. She’s friends with a group of girls who support one another, smart, kind girls who are into science and fandom and all sorts of good mischief, who have their sights set higher than our small town, and who don’t much care what the middle-school queen bees are doing. They seem to like being a little outside the norm with how they look – androgynous dress, hair in edgy colors and styles. And each time Adrienne has come to us asking about doing something new, our answer has been a carefully considered yes. I had thought this was because we want her to express herself (and because, you know, we’re awesome like that). And we do; but Orenstein’s work made me wonder if these things might have a value I hadn’t considered.
I’d thought about the down side – that any kind of non-typical appearance can be a magnet for judgment. But what if choosing to look a little ‘outside the box’ has a benefit? What if these girls, by seeing themselves as outside the mainstream, are insulating themselves against those mainstream pressures? Thin insulation, to be sure. But I hope that, layered on top of a strong sense of self, the examples of respectful relationships that are abundant among our close friends, and the knowledge that we can talk about sex like we can talk about anything else, she may avoid some of the more horrifying aspects of the alcohol-fueled hook-up culture. I dare to hope that she and her friends and the other young women in my life can develop their sexuality on their own terms, on their own timeline.
So, I am not almost done. And I won’t be, for years. Time to brush the sand out of my hair and initiate some more hard conversations.