‘Prudes’ vs. ‘Sluts’ – And The Girls Caught In Between

Photo by Sarah Davis/In Her Shoes Foundation

A young couple in Berlin, Germany, embrace in a public area. Teen sexuality is normalized and widely covered in schools in Germany and other European nations where young people are taught to set boundaries and make responsible decisions rather than relying strictly on abstinence for protection from STDs and unwanted pregnancy. (Photo by Sarah Davis/In Her Shoes Foundation)

Author Peggy Orenstein recently joined Fresh Air’s Terry Gross to talk about her new book, Girls & Sex - a simplistic title making no (pointless) attempt at explaining the complexities that come when the titular forces meet.

The interview gives a taste of the book’s revelations, which have been called “thought-provoking” and even “shocking.” Both apt observations when you consider the anecdotes that came out of Orenstein’s research, like when a gay girl challenged the traditional concept of virginity with this: “I think a girl loses her virginity when she has her first orgasm with a partner.”

One age-old dilemma reared its ugly head just as it has with every other generation - the battle between “sluts” and “prudes.” The adversarial labels come with their own set of ostracizing characteristics, and no matter what side girls fall on, society is never satisfied. Peers still find a reason to criticize, pushing young girls deeper into the rabbit hole that is the search for popularity and acceptance.

And with so much attention on labels and the drive to satisfy those around them, young girls - and grown women - are too often left in the dark about their own pleasure.

Last month, IHSF hosted its first International Women’s Day conference, and during one of the discussion sessions, attendees were asked why they thought young people would have sex. In the boys’ column, they included “it feels good,” “status” and “bragging rights” as reasons, but “it feels good” and other positive factors were noticeably absent from the girls’ column - and these were grown, empowered women talking. Instead, they listed “peer pressure,” “acceptance” and “relationships” as the driving factors, painting girls as sexually passive and submissive.

Is it really so surprising, then, that girls are performing oral sex without any reciprocation? Or that they feel uncomfortable asserting their own sexual needs and pleasure?

It’s no secret that girls and women are burdened with messages telling them to be “sexy” and perform sexually for men, and in the same breath, they are chastised for being sexual. Those messages might as well just say, “Hey, wear this sexy lingerie for your boyfriend, but don’t you dare enjoy it!” Basically, don’t be a prude by denying your man sex, but don’t be a slut by enjoying it too much or, god forbid, initiating it yourself. Not to mention, as Orenstein pointed out, our basic concept of losing virginity excludes gay women.

This battle to not fall into one of the sexual extremes has pit girls against each other. By neglecting education about their bodies and roots of sexual pleasure, we as a society deprive them of key information as their relationships mature. And by perpetuating the combative prude-vs-slut complex, we ignore the young women who are just trying to stay in between where they are comfortable.

So, how do we reverse this pattern?

1. Teach Girls About Pleasure

Explain what a clitoris is and why it’s important. Emphasize that sex is a two-way street and that one person should not be the sole benefactor. Talk about the mutual respect that comes with good sex. And never let girls believe their pleasure and comfort doesn’t matter.

2. Remind Boys That Girls Are Sexual Too

Boys are affected by the negativity surrounding sexuality in girls, too. When boys are taught to feel entitled to sex or to not reciprocate sexual acts, their relationships with women will suffer. And seriously, when was the last time sex with someone who wasn’t into it actually good?

3. Don’t Demonize Sexual Behavior When It Happens

Sexual behavior is a matter of when, not if, especially in adolescents. The girls in your life are going to be sexually active, and if parents and other adults react angrily or by punishing them, the stigmas will only grow stronger. Rather than grounding a teen girl who had sex with her boyfriend, try talking to her about why she did it and how she felt about it - you’ll get more insight into her feelings and be better able to help her navigate any unwanted behavior.

4. Talk Openly About Sex

Don’t avoid questions about sex or the anatomy involved. Young girls who want answers will get them, and those answers should come from trusted people in their lives rather than online sources where mixed messages run rampant and teens can fall victim to predators of all sorts.

5. Encourage Girls To Be Supportive Of Each Other

Make a point to think and talk about other women positively rather than pointing out their perceived flaws. Let the girls in your life know it’s okay to explore their sexuality as long as they’re safe and happy, and help them encourage the same self-awareness in their girlfriends. The more supportive we are of each other, the less we feel the need to act out to gain attention and acceptance.

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