Did you know that 92% of chart songs talk about sex? I didn’t until I read Girls & Sex by journalist Peggy Orenstein (out in October). If you look at today’s panicked headlines, it might sound like we have an epidemic on our hands: ‘casual hook-up culture invades universities’ and ‘primary school boys watching porn’. It’s little wonder we all think everyone else is at it! Refusing to buy into all the scare-mongering, Peggy decided to reach out to girls at high school and university and ask them the questions very few parents dare to ask. The results are both fascinating and frightening.
What she discovered was a large gap between perception and reality. Young people overestimate the amount of bed-hopping that actually goes on among their peers. They are not, in fact, having more sex now than in previous generations. What has changed, though, is that relationships are more likely to begin with physical intimacy than with a date. What, so no blushing over a coffee, or touching hands as you both simultaneously dive into the same bag of cinema popcorn, or grabbing a bite to eat that may or may not end with an awkward kiss goodnight? But that’s the best bit!
I’m not the only one who thinks that: Peggy cites one university survey in which 70% believed their fellow students only wanted casual hook-ups. But in reality, nearly 75% of boys and 80% of girls said they’d prefer a date to a hook-up. And nearly 80% of students said they would like to be in a loving relationship. These findings are borne out in Dana Reinhardt’s brilliant Tell Us Something True, when 17-year-old River falls apart after his girlfriend Penny decides to dump him. Until, that is, he finds someone else to be the object of his affection, the damaged but loveable Daphne, even lying about having an addiction just so he can see her at group therapy sessions. Aaah.
Peggy’s findings warmed my heart. Love isn’t dead! Most young people today crave it just as much as they always have. So where has this outwardly casual attitude towards sex come from? One answer suggested in Girls & Sex is porn. It’s an industry that has had serious consequences in terms of the way young people interact – and view themselves. Especially girls. So many of them share stories about how hard it is to get male attention and affection, while also avoiding conflict or being labelled. As one girl said: “every girl’s goal is to be just slutty enough, where you’re not a prude, but you’re not a whore”. What a complicated balancing act; I bet hardly anyone succeeds. What success in relationships might actually look like is another issue raised in the book – the popular baseball metaphor of reaching first base, second base, third and fourth makes physical intimacy sound like a game – one with opposing teams, winners and losers.
So who are the losers here? The young women in Girls & Sex are mostly strong and confident, but when it comes to relationships, it often goes out of the window. They feel such pressure to act in a certain way; a way that puts a man’s needs and desires before their own.
The struggle is real in Kathleen Glasgow’s Girl in Pieces (out in October), the heart-breaking story of Charlie, a teenage girl battling with her identity after suffering sexual abuse in the past. But as she pieces herself back together, her story offers hope to anyone who feels lost amidst all the expectations and pressures, and provides the building blocks to become strong and empowered women. Just like Kady, the gutsy, fearless and crazily smart heroine in Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman’s trilogy The Iluminae Files (the second book, Gemina, is out in October). Don’t we all wish that for ourselves and for our daughters?
Decades of progress in gender equality have been made in the workplace and in politics. Now it needs to be recognised behind closed doors and underneath the bed covers too. This is what Peggy hopes to do with her book; by starting a conversation between parents and their sons and daughters, and among young people themselves, she hopes the world will wake up and take notice, and not let the internet and chart hits decide our relationships for us. Because, as Peggy warns, ‘as long as adults still avoid open discussion of sexuality, teens will inevitably seek information on today’s electronic street corner’.
Fortunately, books can be a great source of inspiration to encourage us not to follow the digital herd.