Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex

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Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape is an uncomplicated look at the ways in which today’s girls aged 15-20 discuss, sometimes openly, sex in the 21st century. Orenstein, as mom and a journalist, wanted to “find out the truth behind the headlines, what was real and what was hype.”

After interviewing over 70 young women, Orenstein wrote this accessible book that focuses on topics like body imagery, popular culture’s influences on sex and sexuality, oral sex, virginity, hook-up culture, rape, and sex education. Orenstein connects these topics with studies that help to illuminate the choices young women make when it comes to sex. A full overview of the book can be found here.

As mother with Millennial children and a professor for whom Millennials make up the majority of my classes, I pay close attention to polls that provide snapshots of this generation. One from last year by caught my attention. Out reported on a trending forecast made by J. Walter Innovation Group, which suggested that only 48% of 13-20 year olds identify as “exclusively heterosexual.” This marks a shift from those older Millennials (aged 21-34) who identify as straight at a much higher rate, 65%.

Although this is just a forecasting trend, other sources cite polls that show that Millennials are the “gayest generation” ever. This is why I will focus on Orenstein’s fifth chapter, “Out: Online and IRL.” (Please note that other chapters do discuss LGBTQ sex and sexuality; however, this is the only chapter where the primary focus in on nonheterosexual themes.)

Early in the chapter, Orenstein states, “The gay girls who responded to my e-mail queries were the most insistent about being heard.” As she tells the reader about Lizzy, a freshmen in college who had dated a boy but was disinterested in sex, the chapter veers into the online world where Lizzy, “an avid fan of the TV show Dr. Who, was first exposed to lesbianism by chance…” Reading fan fiction, it seems, was her first understanding of LGBTQ identity.

As the chapter continues, Orenstein discusses Amber, whose online presence, once discovered by her parents, frightened them. Amber was playing Second Life and The Sims, and whenever she created her online characters, she always chose males. This allowed her to talk to girls freely. Amber experiments with dating boys but is never physically attracted to them. Eventually, Amber comes to understand her lesbianism and begins a long lasting relationship.

While I was impressed that Orenstein dedicated a chapter to queer women, the chapter itself failed in many ways. Its frank discussion of sexual acts were those Amber experienced with a male. Orenstein also focuses on women who had no knowledge of being gay or even knowing what it was until the Internet intervened. This negates the numerous lived experiences of other girls who always knew they were gay.

Most egregiously, Orenstein discusses “the case of a male-to-female transgender first-grader whose family sued her Colorado school for forbidding her to use the girls’ bathroom.” Orenstein questions whether this first grader and their parents have enough “proof” that this child is truly transgender. Instead, she states that they had an inflexible definition of masculinity: “which would see a boy as actually female before accommodating his love for sparkly gowns…”

Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, in the end, remains a typical nonfiction book that does little to reimagine the ways in which sexuality is changing in the 21st century. It reads as a heteronormative approach to sex that does not really differ from my experiences as a Gen X-er.

As we rethink “the birds and the bees” for the Millennial generation, it would be wise to write more about the emerging fluidity of sexuality. For those raising gay children, resources are needed that help them (assuming their parents and guardians are straight) discuss sex with their kids.

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