Q&A With Peggy Orenstein: Sex Education Isn't Working for Girls
When it comes to required sex education for young people in schools, there are often two questions at stake: Who is responsible for leading the discussion and what, exactly, should be discussed?
Public schools in just 24 states and the District of Columbia are required to teach sex education to students, often through an abstinence-only lens. Peggy Orenstein, a journalist and author who has written extensively about the sexualization of young girls, wants to change the conversation to be a more open one. She is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the author of five books, including Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Schoolgirls, and, most recently, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape.
I recently spoke with Orenstein for Education Week Commentary's interview series with K-12 thought leaders to talk about what she thinks is missing when talking to young people about healthy sexuality. In our conversation, she argues that parents and schools alike have failed students—especially young women—by not having honest and comprehensive discussions about sex. This silence, she says, produces a climate ripe for sexual harassment, the disempowerment of young women, and "a hook-up culture that often dehumanizes kids in their sexual encounters."
For decades, ideas surrounding sex education in schools have been polarizing. In states like California, where the 2016 California Healthy Youth Act requires more comprehensive sex education in schools—including discussion of gender identities and sexually transmitted diseases—parents in two school districts have signed petitions this year over concerns that the current curriculum is age-inappropriate.
And in Arkansas, where public schools do not have requirements to provide sex education, a sophomore at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville who is studying to be a teacher started a petition for more comprehensive sex education statewide, including a discussion around protection. The petition, which has pulled in more than 29,000 signatures, started with a college project about the state's teen birth rate (the highest in the country), according to KNWA and Fox 24.
Even Orenstein's argument has gotten some pushback from Education Week readers, some of whom wrote in recent comments that it is not the responsibility of teachers to be "surrogate parents."
In the internet age, many teens are instead turning to the internet for their information, according to a 2017 report from the nonprofit advocacy organization Youth+Tech+Sex. In the report's national survey of 1,500 youths ages 13-24, more than 300 said online search-engines were better than health professionals for information about sexual health. Many also reported that they search online because the information they get from school is inadequate, and parents won't talk about sex.
For Girls & Sex, Orenstein spoke to 70 young women, ages 15-20, about their personal experiences with intimacy and sexuality, casting a more personal light on the issue. Orenstein draws on their testimonials, as well as outside research and data, to advocate for sex education that includes conversations about, among other things, consent; the impact of pornography and the media; desire; and responsibility.
"We tend to silo conversations about sex as if it is not about the same values of compassion, kindness, respect, mutuality, and caring that we want our children to embody in every other aspect of their lives," Orenstein says.
So, what are her recommendations for helping young women make healthy choices about their most personal relationships?
Photo: Courtesy of HarperCollins