We need to talk to our daughters more about sex

BEST-SELLING American author Peggy Orenstein spent years talking to teenage girls and young women about their sexual experiences, and heard the same stories about the lack of reciprocity from partners over and over again.

Apparently, they were OK with it.

So she started asking them if they would put up with a boyfriend who would never return a simple favour like fetching a glass of water.

And of course they wouldn't.

Why, then, is there such a disconnect between girls' expectation of equality in other aspects of life, but not sex? Why do they feel entitled to engage in sexual acts, but not to enjoy them, where the bar for their own satisfaction is so low that they often cite "lack of pain" as a key factor?

Best-selling US author Peggy Orenstein is the keynote speaker at the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia Fearless Girls Strong Women conference. Picture: AAP / Russell Millard
Best-selling US author Peggy Orenstein is the keynote speaker at the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia Fearless Girls Strong Women conference. Picture: AAP / Russell Millard

How has oral sex come to be thought of among the young as "not sex", which "opens the door to risky behaviour and disrespect"?

How have we allowed these attitudes to form, putting girls and young women at risk of the very harm - emotional and physical - parents are so keen to protect them from?

Orenstein has been in Adelaide this week, firstly as the keynote speaker at the Alliance of Girls' Schools Australasia Fearless Girls Strong Women conference, and talking to girls and parents from private schools at Wilderness School.

Her answer to those questions is: We need to talk about sex - earlier, differently, and even if it makes us feel uncomfortable.

The author of New York Times bestseller Girls and Sex, whose TED Talk on the subject has been viewed millions of times, Orenstein says parents have abrogated their responsibilities for teaching children about sex to the media, and "the results are not pretty".

"We have reached a point in this culture where kids are saturated with sexualised images … yet we really don't have open, honest discussions about what a healthy sexual relationship looks like," she says.

Talk to your daughters about sex, says Peggy Orenstein, even if it’s awkward, or she’ll get it from the media.
Talk to your daughters about sex, says Peggy Orenstein, even if it’s awkward, or she’ll get it from the media.

"The message kids get is that sex is a transaction, it's really for the benefit of the male."

Orenstein makes clear that teenagers are not having more sex than 25 years ago and she's not saying when they should start, but she worries about the disconnect between sexual acts - particularly oral sex - from relationships.

"The expectation is that casual sex, drunk, precedes any kind of emotional (attachment) or substitutes for any kind of emotional engagement."

She cites a study of hundreds of female Dutch and American university students who were asked about their early sexual experiences.

The young Dutch women reported much more positive experiences. They prepared responsibly, knew their partners well, communicated with them better, were sober, and enjoyed themselves more. They also had fewer negative outcomes of regret, pregnancy or disease.

Orenstein says the difference was that the Dutch women's parents, teachers and doctors had talked with them about "sex, love and trust" from an early age.

It wasn't that American parents were less willing to talk about sex, but that their focus was on "risk and danger", as opposed to the Dutch focus on balancing responsibility and pleasure.

"When girls feel empowered in their bodies they tend to put off being sexually active, they have fewer partners and know their partners better," Orenstein says. "(And) the less likely (girls are) to respond to pressure from a sexual partner."

She says the earlier parents begin age-appropriate conversations with children about their bodies the better, starting with naming and talking about girls' genitalia from when they are little so they don't develop a sense of shame about them.

Starting earlier will make it easier later to broach the subjects of sex and relationships with teenagers, she says.

Peggy's tips for parents

NAME and talk about all body parts from the youngest age.

TEACH the need for consent early, for example about hugging other children in the playground.

TALK to teens about balancing responsibility and pleasure, not just about the risks and dangers associated with sex.

HAVE the tricky conversations with kids and teens in the car "because they can't escape".

FEELING awkward about those conversations is no excuse not to have them.

KNOW that parents discussing sex and healthy relationships with daughters makes them more likely to delay becoming sexually active and have better experiences when they do have sex.

NOT being open about sex unfairly forces young people to lie to parents and be a different person at home to who they are out in the world.



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