Story by Remi Riordan
Illustration by Anna White
I read “Girls and Sex” by Peggy Orenstein when I was in high school. I had only kissed two boys and liked neither. Many of my friends were sexually active, and I felt like I was behind. To me, love wasn’t why I hadn’t had sex. I had never believed in “virginity” or needing your first time to be special. Although much of the book I didn’t relate to on an entirely personal level, I saw my friends in the stories she wrote. And when she talked more generally about the way girls see themselves, I saw myself so clearly depicted. Usually cautious about media exploring young people, specifically young women, this book didn’t feel condescending, it was real and true.
The second boy I kissed was the first person I had kissed sober. I told myself I had to be sober; what if I didn’t know what to do unless I was drunk? We didn’t have sex, but I was 17 and for a second I thought about lying to my friends. But I reminded myself how silly that was—there was no reason to be embarrassed about not wanting to have sex with a 21-year-old at 17.
I still told my friends about the experience. I editorialized for sure, but it felt good to laugh about an experience I felt weird about. Finally I could add to the conversation.
A year later when I got to college, I started reading and watching more sex-related content. I watched “Slutever,” Karley Sciortino’s show on Viceland, and later read her book. And as I met my new friends from all over the country, I began revisiting the ideas in both “Girls and Sex” and “Slutever.”
Both Sciortino and Orenstein were so open about sex. Obviously, their voices were very different. Sciortino wrote from a first-person point of view. Her blog, also titled “Slutever,” began as a first-person account of her experiences. And her show was about different aspects of sex, from the sex lives of people with disabilities to happy ending massages for women. Orenstein, on the other hand, interviewed young women about their own relationships to their bodies, sex, and media.
But their openness was exciting. Even coming from a progressive town, the sex ed I received was not fun. It did not tell me that sex could be pleasurable or that masturbating was a great way to learn about my body and what I liked. Sex ed was clinical; once, we watched a baby being birthed as a way to scare us.
While Orenstein told me what sex for young women was, Sciortino told me what it could and should be. As I became sexually active, this knowledge helped me not only communicate with my partners, it helped me talk to my friends. I began suggesting excerpts and episodes to my friends when they would tell me about something that happened to them.
When a close friend of mine asked me, “When does it start happening?” in reference to coming during heterosexual sex, I was reminded of how few young women are taught about their bodies, specifically regarding pleasure. Later when I told my roommate, he texted Peggy Orenstein (they knew each other personally) and from there she sent my friend and me an essay.
In the essay “A Immodest Proposal,” Heather Corinna writes:
“With any of this, he usually reaches orgasm, and while she doesn’t, what he does sometimes feels good. She hasn’t said much about that because she figures it’s just something you get to over time. Once, he asked if there was something else he could do that she liked. She said no, because it was a question she didn’t have the answer to—she didn’t know what she liked or might like just yet. He was her first partner, after all.”
She read the essay and immediately identified with the girl. The character wasn’t a real person, but she was so many young women.
A few days later, the same friend was confused when I made a reference to masturbating. “Don’t you need someone else? You can do that yourself?” I was shocked. I’m now a sophomore in college and she is a couple years younger than me, but I didn’t realize some girls have no idea that masturbating is not only something boys can do.
I’m not a sex educator. But you don’t need to be an educator to have open conversations with your friends, so we went on her computer and ordered her a vibrator. We began regularly talking about our experiences. Not necessarily analyzing them, but thinking through them. Reminding each other that leaving is always an option, mutual enjoyment is the most important, and sex doesn’t need to mean penetration.
I’ve learned that being open with my friends changes so much for both of us. Another friend told me she didn’t masturbate because she didn’t want to only be able to come by herself; Another told me that at a certain point, sex stops being fun and just hurts—yet she usually lets the guy finish. And these conversations remind me of my habits. How I’m less likely to be vocal in my wants if I like the guy, thinking that being assertive isn’t attractive.
I, just like my friends, have so much unlearning to do. But we all recognize that. We recognize that many of our sex lives aren’t necessarily unhealthy, but they need work.
In Vogue’s Breathless column, Sciortino wrote:
“At the heart of the victim narrative is a familiar and unfortunate premise: the idea that, by having sex, men are getting something, whereas women are giving something up. It’s outdated, it’s offensive, and it’s psychologically destructive for women, because it has the power to mislead girls into thinking that having one not-ideal sexual experience means that they have lost a part of themselves. Hello—pitying and victimizing women doesn’t help us; it just dismisses the importance of female sexual agency.”
Our sexuality shouldn’t be passive—we should be able to voice our wants and needs, but we should also be given the tools to do that. Sex education in schools is nonexistent in most of the country. And with conservative politicians in power, it is unlikely that will change, but sex education doesn’t only exist in the classroom. “Slutever” may not tell you when chlamydia is detectable. And “Girls and Sex” isn’t an encyclopedia. But both educate through conversation. Orenstein talks to young women about their experiences, while Sciortino talks directly to her readers.
We can learn from books, television shows, and blogs, but we can also learn from each other. Talking to our friends often and openly about sex, masturbation, and our bodies helps all of us.