Why don’t we tell little girls the correct names for body parts?

On The Women’s Podcast, journalist and author Peggy Orenstein discusses why we need to change how we talk to girls about sex

Author and journalist Peggy Orenstein. She talked about her new book Girls & Sex on The Women’s Podcast

Author and journalist Peggy Orenstein. She talked about her new book Girls & Sex on The Women’s Podcast

 

By not naming female body parts correctly, parents perform a “psychological clitorectomy” on girls, the New York Times best selling author of Girls & Sex Peggy Orenstein told Kathy Sheridan on The Women’s Podcast.

The book, which draws on in-depth interviews with over seventy young women and a range of psychologists, academics and experts, explores hidden truths about girls’ sex lives.

“We really perform what I think is a psychological cliteroctomy on girls,” Orenstein, the mother of a 13-year-old girl, told Sheridan. “We tend to name our baby boy parts and we go right from ‘navel’ to ‘knees’ with little girls ... we never say vulva, we never say clitoris ... then they go into their partner encounters and magically we expect that somehow they will be able to express their wants, their needs, their desires, their limits”.

Being unclear with girls about sex and sexuality from an early age, she said, “creates a lower bar for them in their sexual experiences and expectations, whereas when they have a higher bar, when they understand their rights better in a sexual relationship, they demand more and make better decisions”.

Orenstein said the most transformative part of her research was research comparing the sex education and early sexual experiences of 300 randomly chosen Dutch and American university students of similar demographics.

The Dutch girls, she said, “embodied everything we say we want for our daughters. They had lower rates of pregnancy, lower rates of disease, they were less likely to be drunk when they had sex, they enjoyed it more”. When the young women were interviewed further, they said their parents, teachers and doctors had talked to them very openly about sex from an early age.

“The American parents weren’t necessarily less comfortable than the Dutch in talking about sex, but they framed the conversation exclusively in terms of risk and danger while the Dutch parents talked about balancing responsibility and joy and for me as a parent that was a profound revelation. Thinking I was progressive, I would have talked to my daughter about disease protection and about consent ... now I know that’s not enough by a long shot”.

Orenstein also discussed how from her conversations with young women it was clear that for many oral sex had become “no big deal” but only if it was going female to male.

“They had a lot of reasons for that, it was to improve a relationship ... or get out of a tricky situation without having to have intercourse”.

She heard so many stories about “this non-reciprocal experience” she came up with a glass of water analogy. “I started saying to them what would you do if every time you were with a guy he told you to get him a glass of water from the kitchen but he never offered to get you a glass of water?’ The girls she spoke to “ would laugh and say ’well when you put it like that’.

“Why would you not put it that way? Why would you feel less insulted by being asked to perform a sex act than by being asked to get a glass of water from the kitchen?”

According to Orenstein, the challenges around how we talk to young women and girls about sex are greater now because of “a commercialised, sex saturated popular culture that makes sex and women into a commodity to be bought and sold.”

“”We have internet pornography, that’s been a total game changer and side by side with that we have complete and utter silence around having honest, open discussions about sexuality with kids that include discussions of ethics, or reciprocity, of respect and of enjoyment”.

To hear the full podcast go to irishtimes.com/thewomenspodcast

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