Peggy Orenstein: How Should We Talk To Our Kids About Sex?

Apr 6, 2018

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Turning Kids Into Grown-Ups.

About Peggy Orenstein's TED Talk

Author Peggy Orenstein warns if parents don't educate kids about sex — the media will. She says that leads to risky behavior — and keeps young women from expecting equality in sexual relationships.

About Peggy Orenstein

For the past 25 years, Peggy Orenstein has written extensively on a wide range of issues affecting girls and women. From princess culture, to the adolescent confidence gap, to sex, she reveals uncomfortable truths about the role of girls and women in our culture — and its consequences.

She is the author of Girls And Sex, Schoolgirls, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and most recently, Don't Call Me Princess. She is also a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


On the show today, ideas about Turning Kids Into Grown-ups. And just a quick note here, if you're listening with young kids, you might want to turn down the volume for this part of the show because, well, there's one topic that, frankly, a lot of parents have a really hard time with.


RAZ: Yeah (laughter).

ORENSTEIN: You don't have to freak out.

RAZ: You know, you're right. You're totally right.

ORENSTEIN: (Laughter) You really don't have to freak out.

RAZ: I'm just an uptight NPR host. I mean, I can't do much about it.

ORENSTEIN: As a collective unit, you guys, it's OK.

RAZ: This is Peggy Orenstein. She's an author and researcher probably best known for her book "Girls & Sex." And it's a pretty eye-opening look at teenage sex culture. Peggy spent three years interviewing girls aged 15 to 20 about their experiences. And on the TED stage, she described some of the things she discovered from those conversations.


ORENSTEIN: I should probably say right up top that, despite the hype, teenagers are not engaging in intercourse more often or at a younger age than they were 25 years ago. They are, however, engaging in other behavior. And when we ignore that, when we label that as not sex, that opens the door to risky behavior and disrespect. That's particularly true of oral sex, which teenagers consider to be less intimate than intercourse. Girls would tell me it's no big deal like they'd all read the same instruction manual, at least if boys were on the receiving end.

Young women had lots of reasons for participating. It made them feel desired. It was a way to boost social status. Sometimes it was a way to get out of an uncomfortable situation. I heard so many stories that I started asking, who is entitled to engage in an experience? Who is entitled to enjoy it? Who is the primary beneficiary? And how does each partner define good enough?

Take a sophomore at the Ivy League college who told me, my grandmother was a firecracker. My mom is a professional. My sister and I are loud. And that's our form of feminine power. She then proceeded to describe her sex life to me, a series of one-off hookups starting when she was 13 that were not especially responsible, not especially reciprocal and not especially enjoyable. She shrugged. I guess we girls are just socialized to be these docile creatures who don't express our wants or needs. Wait a minute, I replied. Didn't you just tell me what a smart, strong woman you are? She hemmed and hawed. I guess, she finally said, no one told me that that smart, strong image applies to sex.

RAZ: So when I was a kid, Peggy, my mom gave me this book called "What's Happening To Me?"

ORENSTEIN: (Laughter).

RAZ: Do you know that book? Remember that book?


RAZ: And it explains, like, what's happening to your body as you go through puberty and stuff. And that was it.


RAZ: I don't ever remember having any other conversations with my mom - certainly not my dad - about this. So has anything changed in the interim? Have parents changed in the way that they deal with this?

ORENSTEIN: Not a whole lot. People tend to talk to their girls more than their boys, and that's one of the reasons that I've become more interested in talking to boys now because as little as we talk to girls, we talk to boys less. And I feel like we need to develop and - and I think a lot of people have, but, you know, we - as parents, we haven't really thought about what our own ethics and expectations are in this realm and how we're going to communicate that to our children so that they do have positive encounters, that they do have healthy relationships, that they do have enjoyable times together that are reciprocal, and mutual and communicative.

RAZ: What are the consequences that you see when we don't have those conversations with kids?

ORENSTEIN: Well, we basically deny guidance because we don't engage with our kids about this, especially right now. You know, maybe in our generation or the generation before, there was less intense media, and the media was less sexualized. But if you don't educate your child, the media is going to do it for you. And the messages they are going to get are not good from both mainstream media and porn. So there's a new imperative, I think, on parents that we need to get in there really immediately - like, upon birth - and be talking about what appropriate interactions are.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, the assumption that I make is that technology has, like, put this whole issue on hyperspeed - right? - because...


RAZ: When you were younger, like, you couldn't just get pornography.


RAZ: Like, now any kid with an iPhone has access to it. I mean, it's just a different world that they're exposed to.

ORENSTEIN: Right. So what really changed - I mean, yes, Internet; yes, broadband - but what really changed was that in 2005, Pornhub came online, which is, like, the YouTube of porn. And what that meant was that all this porn, you know, anything you can imagine and a lot of things that nobody wants to imagine is now online free. That was the big shift. So a person without a credit card - that is, a child - can access it. And there's a lot of research now - there was a piece of research that I looked at of 10,000 kids that showed that 60 percent of them consulted porn in part as sex education.

RAZ: Wow.

ORENSTEIN: ...Even though 75 percent, you know, knew it was about as realistic as pro wrestling. And so if you are not in there having those conversations with your child, they're learning a script. You know, we always learn our scripts from the media. And that script, I think, it's not the one that we really want our kids picking up on.

RAZ: How does that conversation begin? And when does it begin?

ORENSTEIN: Well, which part of it?

RAZ: The beginning of Genesis, Book 1?

ORENSTEIN: (Laughter) OK, I'll get you off the hook. OK. (Laughter) So, you know, when kids are born, we have a tendency to silence for girls all sense of their own pleasure and understanding of their body. So when kids are born, we have a tendency to name all of baby boys' parts. So, you know, at least you'll say, here's your pee-pee. You know, you'll say something, right? But with girls, we have a tendency to go from navel to knees, and we leave that whole situation in between unnamed.


ORENSTEIN: ...Unnamed. There's no better way to make something unspeakable than not to name it. Then kids go into their puberty education classes, and they learn that boys have erections and ejaculations, and girls have periods and unwanted pregnancy. And they see that internal diagram of a woman's reproductive system - you know, the one that looks kind of like a steer head.


ORENSTEIN: And it always grays out between the legs. So we never say vulva. We certainly never say clitoris. And then they go into their partnered experience, and we expect that somehow, they'll think sex is about them, that they'll be able to articulate their needs, their desires, their limits. It's unrealistic.

RAZ: Peggy, I know a lot of your work is about girls, but what about boys? What does that culture look like for teenage boys? And how are parents approaching those conversations with them?

ORENSTEIN: I think, truly, culture has shifted dramatically in the last few years in terms of our expectations of boys. And still, they say to me that - particularly, their fathers don't talk to them. You know, at best, they say, don't get a girl pregnant, don't get an STI, and respect women. They say, that's kind of like saying, don't run over any little old ladies...

RAZ: Yeah.

ORENSTEIN: ...And then handing me the keys to the car and telling me to drive.

RAZ: Yeah.

ORENSTEIN: I mean, do you know what hooking up means?

RAZ: Yeah, like, when two people - like, a casual encounter?

ORENSTEIN: Right. It's ambiguous, right?

RAZ: Right. OK, yeah.

ORENSTEIN: It's not that the hookups are new. It's the idea that it's become normalized for sex to precede emotional intimacy. Hookup culture is dependent on becoming very, very, very drunk. I was talking to a boy just a couple days ago who's a sophomore in a college in the Midwest. And he said, you know, I'd like to ask somebody on a date, but it would be a really weird thing to do. And I said, so it's not weird for you, you know, to have nine shots, go up to a stranger and have intercourse with her, but it's weird to ask her on a date. And he said, yeah.


RAZ: When we come back, how early conversations with kids can affect things like consent and even assault. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - ideas about Turning Kids Into Grown-Ups. And just before the break, we were hearing from Peggy Orenstein, author of "Girls And Sex," about all those conversations parents want to avoid and how when that happens there are real consequences.

So there's definitely a growing awareness on university campuses about issues of assault and consent, right?


RAZ: And it seems like there's a direct connection between the crisis of consent and non-consent and the absence of honest conversations with young people about this stuff when they're much younger.

ORENSTEIN: Yeah. In a lot of ways, Guy, I feel like we silo sex over into this separate area as if it's scary and unique. And it's not. It's just another way of being a responsible, respectful, ethical human being and interacting with somebody in an appropriate way. So when kids are little, like you need to ask somebody before you hug them or kiss them or push them. Those are important lessons to just get into children's heads at a very young age.

I get a lot of questions from mothers worrying about their boys being falsely accused of assault. And what I tend to say to that is, have you had conversations with your son since he was small about sexuality, about his body, about women's bodies, about alcohol consent, about sexual pleasure, about all these issues? If you have not had multiple conversations with your sons over time, then, yes, he is at risk of being accused of sexual assault. And that frankly is on you as a parent.

RAZ: Yeah. You know, of course, there's a moral component, you know, for why many parents choose not to, you know, have these conversations with their kids. But I think there's also another component of this, which is a lot of parents just want their kids to be little for as long as possible.

ORENSTEIN: Yeah, yeah. I get that. I do. And I guess we have to define like why do we think that's a loss of innocence - to explain to them basic issues about how their bodies work. Like, you wouldn't think it was a loss of innocence to tell them what their elbow was.

RAZ: Yeah, that's a good point. Yeah, it's a good point.

ORENSTEIN: That's a sort of puritanical idea that we grew up with. And one of the things that was really interesting to me was comparing cultures. And the culture that I really ended up focusing on was the Dutch. And the whole thing with the Dutch kids, with talking to them more, they actually become sexually active later, and they have fewer partners than American kids. So in fact, if what you're trying to do is to allow them to be little kids longer, you've got to talk to them more.


ORENSTEIN: Consider a survey of 300 randomly chosen girls from a Dutch and an American university - two similar universities - talking about their early experience of sex. The Dutch girls embodied everything we say we want from our girls. They had fewer negative consequences - like disease, pregnancy, regret - more positive outcomes - like being able to communicate with their partner, who they said they knew very well, preparing for the experience responsibly, enjoying themselves. What was their secret? The Dutch girls said that their doctors, teachers and parents talked to them candidly from an early age about sex, pleasure and the importance of mutual trust. While American parents tend to frame those conversations entirely in terms of risk and danger, Dutch parents talk about balancing responsibility and joy. I have to tell you. As a parent myself, that hit me hard. As parents, teachers, advocates and activists, we have raised a generation of girls to have a voice, to expect egalitarian treatment in the home, in the classroom, in the workplace. Now it's time to demand that in their personal lives as well. Thank you.


RAZ: That's Peggy Orenstein. Her most recent book is "Don't Call Me Princess." You can see her entire talk at

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.