Reading these two disturbing books inspires gratitude at not being the parent of a teenage girl (or, worse yet, being an actual teenage girl).
Helping teens — of either gender — navigate their burgeoning sexuality, the scourge of bullying, self-esteem issues, and other challenges on the way to adulthood has never been easy. Even those who are child-free can remember their own teen years, when popularity, peer pressure, mind-altering drugs, and the desire to break free of parental control all loomed large.
Both Peggy Orenstein, in “Girls & Sex,” and Nancy Jo Sales, in “American Girls,” indict online porn, social media, binge drinking, and the so-called hookup culture to make the case that being a teenage girl is tougher than ever. It’s hard to disagree.
Still, as they also note, some problems — the persistent sexism of a culture that objectifies young women, as well as the biological differences between less mature, more sex-driven teenage boys and the girls who seek to please them — are neither purely generational nor subject to simple fixes.
Both books are nevertheless cris de coeur aimed at awakening parents to how desperate the situation has become. Of the two, Orenstein’s “Girls & Sex,” reporting on 15- to 20-year-olds, is the more compact, polished, and readable. Sales’s “American Girls,” organized by its interviewees’ ages (from 13 to 19), dives more deeply (and appallingly) into teen culture and its reliance on social media, but at the cost of considerable repetition and tedium.
Over and over, Sales quotes complaints about the “double standard” that brands sexually adventurous girls as “sluts” while their male partners are applauded for their conquests. Meanwhile, girls risk a different sort of censure, as “prudes,” for refusing to send nude photos to male classmates, or otherwise rebuffing their requests.
Sales, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, deserves credit for the intimacy of her reporting. She managed to record innumerable, mostly insipid, often horrifying, and occasionally perceptive conversations among groups of girls, and a handful with the boys who alternately befriend and exploit them.
The girls, whether chilling at malls or congregating in friends’ houses, are obsessed with their social-media images, including the production of heavily photoshopped selfies geared to garnering the maximum number of “likes”; addicted to endless texting, Snapchatting, Instagramming, tweeting, and Facebook stalking; and perpetually in fear of being both less than hot and less than cool.
“With girls our age, so much drama happens over social networking,” one 13-year-old tells Sales. “Probably more happens on my phone than in real life.” Even girls this young recognize how pernicious this tendency can be, but they don’t know how to stop. “I need my phone,” one insists. “I can’t survive without it. I stay up all night looking at my phone.”
As social media sites and dating apps like Tinder promote casual encounters, restraint and romance both threaten to disappear. “Nobody knows how to have a relationship anymore,” Matthew, a college student in New Albany, Ind., laments.
Exhausting as this sounds, it can be equally exhausting to read about. Where, one wonders, are the parents? No doubt, in many cases, busy checking their own phones.
“Girls & Sex” turns the focus specifically to teenage sexuality. Orenstein, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, reaches conclusions similar to Sales’s about the attitudinal divide between the girl “slut” and the male “player”; the alternative shame of being branded a “prude,” and the elusiveness of mutually satisfying sexual encounters.
Like Sales, Orenstein laments the “hypersexualization” of girls, the pressures to be at once physically perfect and powerful — and the role of social media in measuring and shaping “friendship, self-image, and self-worth.”
“Young women grow up in a porn-saturated, image-centered, commercialized culture in which ‘empowerment’ is just a feeling, consumption trumps connection, ‘hot’ is an imperative, fame is the ultimate achievement, and the quickest way for a woman to get ahead is to serve up her body before someone else does,” Orenstein writes, with justifiable passion.
Both Sales and Orenstein are eloquent critics of the alcohol-fueled hookup culture that privileges emotion-free sex and, in the worst cases, facilitates rape. While admitting that there are exceptions, they reject recent media assertions that casual sex serves the needs of ambitious, career-driven young women too busy for relationships.
Instead, both authors maintain that hookups result more from cultural attitudes — and sex ratios — favorable to boys and men. As a result, girls, Orenstein writes, are growing increasingly “accustomed to coercion and discomfort.’’ She supports “affirmative consent” laws that she hopes will propel “healthy, consensual, mutual encounters between young people.” Orenstein also urges more frank talk with teens “about sex, pleasure, and the importance of a loving relationship.” Change, she argues, must target not just girls but boys, who “need to see models of masculine sexuality that are not grounded in aggression against women, in denigration or conquest.”
Sales has similar prescriptions. “Now more than ever . . . girls need feminism,” she writes. And we all need to turn our phones off from time to time and return to what she calls — with an overly idealistic flourish — “the world of true and lasting connection.”
AMERICAN GIRLS: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers
By Nancy Jo Sales
Knopf, 404 pp., $26.95
GIRLS & SEX: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape
By Peggy Orenstein
Harper, 303 pages, $26.99
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and a contributing book critic for the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.