In her new book “Girls & Sex,” Peggy Orenstein suggests that we re-think sexual intimacy, in both education and our everyday lives. While she acknowledges the importance of the national debate on campus sexual assault, Orenstein also urges us to broaden our definition of "sex" and talk candidly about what happens after consent -- arguing that if we don't guide our teenagers, pop culture will.
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Finally, for one of our “NewsHour” essays.
As students across the country prepare to return to school, Peggy Orenstein, the author of the recent book “Girls & Sex,” shares ideas on how young men and women should rethink intimacy in their relationships.
PEGGY ORENSTEIN, Author, “Girls & Sex”:
For several years now, we have been engaged in a national debate about sexual assault on campus.
No question, it’s crucial that young people understand the ground rules for consent. But that’s where the conversation is ending, and when it does, the media and the Internet, that new digital street corner, will educate our kids for us.
If we truly want young people to engage safely, ethically and, yes, pleasurably, it’s time to have frank, honest discussions about what happens after yes.
One thing that’s clear is that we have to broaden our definition of sex beyond intercourse, because, despite the hype, kids are not having intercourse at a younger age, but they are engaging in other behavior. And by ignoring that, by allowing kids to label other acts as not sex, they are not subject to the same rules.
That opens the door to both risky behavior and disrespect. That’s particularly true of oral sex, which teenagers considers less intimate than intercourse, at least if boys are on the receiving end.
The young women I met had a lot of reasons for participating. It made them feel desired. It boosted social status. It could also get them out of an uncomfortable situation.
I heard so many stories of one-sided encounters that I began asking:
What if every time you were with a boy, he expected you to get him a glass of water from the kitchen, but he never got you a glass of water?
The girls would laugh and say:
I never thought about it that way.
Sex is political, as well as personal, just like the question of who does the dishes in your home or who vacuums the rug. It raises similar issues of personal power, mental health and economic disparity.
Al Vernacchio, a Pennsylvania educator, has suggested that one way to level the playing field is to get rid of it entirely, replacing that infamous baseball metaphor with something else:
Think about it. You decide with your companion whether you feel like a pie. If you do, you negotiate the toppings. Maybe you like mushrooms and I like pepperoni, so we go halfsies. But if I keep insisting on pepperoni and you keep kosher, you will stop going out to pizza with me.
It’s all about a shared encounter in which everyone is equally invested in their fellow diner’s pleasure. It works regardless of sexual orientation.
Discussing contraception, disease protection and consent with our teenagers is important, but it’s not enough. We need to call out the forces that urge boys to see girls’ limits as a challenge to overcome, that tells girls male pleasure is more important than their own.
Boys need to see models of masculinity that are not grounded in aggression and conquest. Girls need to be taught to articulate their needs, desires and limits and expect those to be respected.
Both sexes need to learn how to balance responsibility with joy, to transform from baseball players to pizza eaters.
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