Beyond the Rainbow

I have a middle schooler, and every now and then I have lunch with her peers’ mothers. I love catching up with these smart, driven women. They’re engaged with the world and trying to do the best for their kids. After hearing about the latest middle school dance and bitching about the homework load, the conversation turns to difficult topics, like regulating our children’s access to social media, or how to educate our children about bullying and/or their sexuality. Inevitably the story about the rainbow party gets mentioned, a story so preposterous, it’s bound to be the stuff of urban legend. Our own, south Texas version takes place in the woods behind the baseball fields.

Because I have two older daughters, I feel inoculated from these horror stories. My daughters and I–we talk.

Ha! Peggy Orenstein’s book helped me pull my head out of the sand. I didn’t understand the immensity of cultural change between my teen years and theirs, despite obvious intonations from songs like Pitbull’s Timber. I thought it was just like that down in the club.

Not according to Orenstein’s 3o0+ page book (purchased electronically, to avoid its conspicuous presence on my nightstand), which contains a multitude of enlightening facts and statistics. I devoured it in two days, riveted and horrified by the reality of the American teen. Orenstein shares some of the stories from the 70+ women who she interviewed. Ranging from between ages 15-20, they come from a wide variety of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. Orenstein sits in their dorm rooms and listens as they tell her about their sex lives; she goes to a Miley Cyrus concert and the Ark-La-Tex Purity Ball.

Thanks to Orenstein, I discovered that Oprah was the source of the rainbow legend. But I also learned the oral sex is the new third base. I learned that “the average American has first intercourse at seventeen; by nineteen, three fourths of teens have had sex.” (5) I learned that virgins are shamed as prudes. (2)

My first education about “hooking up” came early, when my kids teased me for using it the wrong way. I cannot say, “I’m going to go hook up with friends next week for dinner,” just like I cannot call my sandals “thongs.”

Aside from the constant presence of alcohol, what happens while hooking up remains vague; people may or may not have oral sex or intercourse, but the primary idea of it is that these are “casual encounters that precede emotional connection.” (3)

“Oh yeah, I’d heard that,” said my husband, after I spilled out my newfound revelations. This was not without irony, coming from him as he is the uber protective father of three daughters. I had been debating whether I should even get into the lurid details but I forget, he’s a guy, and guys see things differently.

In other words, the double standard still exists. There’s a story told by some mothers to warn their daughters: Picture your favorite sandwich. Now, would you like to take a bite out of it if it got passed around to a bunch of people you don’t know, and they had taken a bite out of it already? And then it got tossed on the floor? 

I can still hear this phrase, spoken in a southern twang, from my own youthful days: “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

Sociologically speaking, the double standard persists for moral and religious reasons. The essentialist argument would explain the double standard in terms of male/female biology. Yet even as the double standard continues, much has changed.

Yes, in the 80s, we wore miniskirts, but we didn’t pair them with stilettos and crop tops, looking like we just walked off the set of Gossip Girl. Girls now live with the demand to look “hot.”

“What has changed is this: whereas earlier generations of media-literate, feminist-identified women saw their objectification as something to protest, today’s often see it as a personal choice, something that can be taken on intentionally as an expression rather than an imposition of sexuality. And why wouldn’t they, if ‘hot’ has been portrayed as compulsory, a prerequisite to a woman’s relevance, strength, and independence,” observes Orenstein. (7)

There’s the debate about what women wear, and how suggestive clothing can send the wrong messages (“My dress is not a yes!”) Orenstein points out that when a girl ends up doing the ‘walk of shame’ back to her dorm the morning after, she obviously looks like she’s in her going-out clothes, but for guys, this never happens, because what they wear is the same, day or night.

“I recall the simple litmus test for sexism proposed by British feminist Caitlin Moran…: Are the guys doing it, too? ‘If they aren’t,’ Moran wrote, ‘chances are you’re dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as ‘some total fucking bullshit.’”(5)

Adding to this is the pressure from social media to maintain a presence and look good doing it. We all know how much our teens are online, but here’s an interesting fact about the increase in plastic surgery: “In 2011 there was a 71 percent increase in the number of high school girls obtaining chin implants specifically because they wanted to look better in prom selfies.”(15)

It’s easy to villify the internet, but Orenstein promotes a “both/and” approach–consider the good and and bad of every situation. One of the main reasons any parent attempts to protect their children from the internet is because of pornography. Yet “by college, according to a survey of more than eight hundred students titled ‘Generation XXX,’ 90 percent of men and a third of women had viewed porn during the preceding year.”(29)

It’s thanks to porn that we have become de-sensualized to violence towards women; that girls get full-on waxes (which some say infantilizes their appearances); that, if a girl consider anal sex painful, it’s considered her problem. This is because, Orenstein reports, teens use internet porn as a how-to reference.

“By the end of 9th grade, nearly one in five children has engaged in oral sex; by age eighteen, about two thirds have, with white and more affluent teens indulging more than others,”(45) reports Orenstein. But to her subjects this is no big deal because, for one thing,  it keeps them safe from pregnancy. But there are other reasons: “Oral sex, at least where fellatio was concerned, was a way to emotionally distance themselves from their partners, protect against the overinvestment they feared would come with intercourse.”(47) In a hookup culture, nobody wants to “catch feelings.”

Maybe the best way to describe how things are now is to quote from the book’s interviews:

‘You know,” Anna mused, “in some ways giving head is a bigger deal than sex. Because it doesn’t necessarily do anything for me. So it’s like doing the person a favor because you love and care about them. And if it’s someone you’re dating, there’s an expectation that he’ll reciprocate. But in hookups, guys are typically really douchey about it. And there’s pressure for the girl to do it. So it’s about how comfortable you are resisting that pressure or not. It gets awkward to keep resisting.'(52)

It’s commonplace for this to be a one-way exchange; there is often no reciprocation for the girls. This makes sense, says Orenstein, since sex-ed classes don’t discuss anything besides women’s internal sex organs. The clitoris is left undiscussed, and what goes unsaid tends to disappear (55). Girls feel ashamed and embarrassed about their own sexual needs and body parts.(58-59)

Orenstein doesn’t give any answers, but she does ask thought-provoking questions. For example:

“What if understanding one’s physical responses, truly ‘expressing your sexuality’ instead of just impersonating sexiness, could actually raise girls’ expectations of intimate encounters? What if self-knowledge encouraged them to hold a higher standard for their experiences, both within and outside relationships? What does, or should, ‘sexually active’ mean, anyway? Clearly, the classic definition is obsolete. It may be that we have to reconceptualize ‘sex’ entirely, starting with virginity.”(66-68)

Despite the change in bases, teens aren’t having more sex than they used to (98). Because people are getting married later, hookups act as a “buffer” in the space between, before things get serious. (101)

“There was no consistent attitude toward either hookups or relationships among the girls I met. They all, however, had to negotiate the culture of casual sex, whether they participated in it or not. They all had to find comfortable ground in a culture that was simultaneously fun and antagonistic, carefree yet riddled with risk. The question to me, then, became less about whether hookups were “good” or “bad” for girls than about how to ensure reciprocity, respect, and agency regardless of the context of a sexual encounter. That meant understanding the contours of girls’ new freedom as well as the constraints, both physical and psychological, that remained.”(105-106)

Orenstein also has chapters dealing with gay/transgender teens’ experiences and the “blurred lines” of the campus sexual assault issues. She describes an iniative to teach girls how to say “no” effectively; she follows a sex educator who helps teens discern their guilt and shame from their pleasure. She describes how, in Holland, teens who are dating have ‘sleepovers’ at their homes that are endorsed by their parents (216).

The most important insight I learned was this:

“To me, purity and hypersexualization are flip sides of the same coin. I’d rather girls were taught that their sexual status, regardless of what it is, is not the measure of their personhood, their morality, their worth.” (88)

In her book, Orenstein acts as an advocate for teens. I remember the first sex-ed talk I heard as a parent, taught by a woman who was flown in to explain to parents of 4th graders how important it was to talk sex with their kids. She said that kids were like sponges, and they were going to soak something up no matter what–either it could be parental advice, or what they pick up from, God forbid, the internet. Orenstein tends to agree, but takes it a step further. She advocates for parents to teach girls about the pleasurable aspects of their sexuality, too:

“They deserve our guidance rather than our fear and denial in their sexual development. They deserve our help in understanding the dangers that lurk, but also in embracing their desire with respect and responsibility, in understanding the complexities and nuances of sexuality.” (228)


Scarleteen, Go Ask Alice!, and Sex, Etc., where the advice offered may be explicit but is scrupulously medically accurate. (140)

All quotes from Orenstein, Peggy (2016-03-29). Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape (p. 229). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.


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