with Peggy Orenstein
On the occasion of Peggy Orenstein publishing her latest landmark book, Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, based on hundreds of interviews with teenage girls, we have a few questions of our own for the author.
1. Tell us, if you will, something about a favorite interviewee you met during the writing of the book. What did she teach you?
Oh, I don’t think I could pick just one. I honestly love talking to girls. That’s why I’ve written so much about them. I find young women to be so thoroughly thoughtful and openhearted and intellectually engaged and funny and willing to go deep. I felt that way in the ’90s when I wrote Schoolgirls, and I feel that way now. I am still in touch with some of the girls I interviewed for my first book—they’re now in their late thirties!—and there are a number of young women I interviewed for Girls and Sex that I continue to talk to and correspond with regularly.
But I suppose in some ways my favorite interviews were the first couple I did because they didn’t go well. I was too shockable, too unaware of what was going on in the sex lives of teen girls. And because of that I scared those girls away. They were the only ones who stopped responding to any email or text I sent them. That was a moment of truth. I despaired and thought I wouldn’t be able to do the book. There’s always that moment. But in retrospect, those girls taught me a lot about how to approach the topic, about addressing my own biases about how things “should” be and setting aside judgment. I became a much more compassionate interviewer because of them.
Interestingly, too, when I talked to a friend of one of the girls about it she said she thought I’d scared her because I kept asking her about pleasure, about how things felt to her and she didn’t like to think about that.
2. Your favorite line (that you or someone else wrote) that continues to inspire you?
“Other people are always ruining things for you.” Catcher in the Rye. That’s not very inspiring, is it? Yet it often seems so appropriate, maybe because I write about teenagers and it’s the ultimate teenage observation.
3. The story, book, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time?
I know I just told my daughter that I envied her for getting to read something for the first time but, dang, I can’t remember what it was. Maybe The Outsiders. Not sure on this one.
4. Best part of the day?
Two best parts:
One, on the days I can make myself get up early, I love having coffee and reading the news before anyone else wakes up.
Two, evenings with my husband and daughter watching Food Network.
5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?
I sing “It’s a Small World After All.”
Just kidding. I wish I could say that I go for a nice hike in the woods with my loving husband or hang out with my kid or play my guitar or even that I eat ice cream, but more likely when I’m depressed or blocked I play a lot of computer Boggle and overshare on social media. It’s not ideal.
6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?
There are always words in a book I realize, just at the end, that I’ve used over and over and over, each time thinking I was having an original thought. Thank goodness for the search function so I can do a search and destroy.
Off the page, I am probably most known for saying Uff da, which is Norwegian for oy vey. Although I’m a Jew, I grew up in Minnesota, so that was the expletive I learned and that still pops out spontaneously. That and “for corn sakes.” Yeah.
7. What’s your current obsession?
Rum-raisin pound cake. For sure.
8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?
Definitely from my husband, who is a documentary filmmaker. I struggled so hard when writing my first book—or I should say I always struggle, but never having written a book before, I struggled with the very idea of a book. I have no formal writing training. No one ever told me how you write a book. I just had to do it. So I wrote the first chapter fifteen times and was getting nowhere. I showed him the result. He suggested that I think of my eye as a camera and think of the beginning of the book as a scene, thinking about long shots, close-ups, tracking shots. I don’t know why that helped, but it broke through for me. You can totally see that process if you read the first chapter of the first book.
He also gave me some great advice when I was trying to write Waiting for Daisy, my memoir. I thought that book would be so easy, but the challenge there was that with other books I wrote, where I interviewed people, I had the transcript and the events and that was that. With this book, I had my memory, which was infinite. He suggested I go to my old therapist and record a couple of sessions, because they are trained to extract a narrative of meaning, not unlike journalists. It worked. I don’t know if I ever even listened to the recordings, but just talking to her unblocked me, helped me prioritize my memories and ideas.
The kicker is, Steven has no memory of giving me either of those pieces of advice.
9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
I wish I knew that it was okay to let my hair go curly, because at age twelve I would spend HOURS AND HOURS AND HOURS ironing my hair or wrapping it in orange juice cans and sitting under a dryer or all manner of things. I guess the more serious issue, then, is I wish I could’ve told myself that hating your body and hating your looks is a fool’s errand. It will dog you for the rest of your life, and where will it get you? It will never make you happy. It will never bring you joy. It will never make your life richer. It will never bring you love. It will never make sex juicier. It will never let you feel peace. I probably wouldn’t have believed me, but God, it would’ve saved me decades of pain.
10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.
I’m with the McGarrigles: “My love crossed the double line.”
From Girls and Sex:
Are selfies empowering or oppressive? Is sexting harmful or harmless? Is that skirt an assertion of sexuality or an exploitation of it? Try this: looking up at the ceiling, raise your hand over your head and trace a clockwise circle with your index finger. Continue to trace the circle while slowly lowering your arm so that your finger is at eye level. Now, still tracing, lower your arm further until it’s at your waist. Look down at the circle. Which direction is it spinning? Although it would seem impossible, the circle moves clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time. Management consultants use that “both/and” concept to break down rigid “either/or” thinking. Deborah Tolman has suggested that it’s equally useful when considering young women’s complicated relationships to their bodies, their sexuality, and sexualization. That’s the challenge to both parents and girls themselves: whether you’re discussing dress codes, social media, or the influence of pop culture, there is rarely a clear-cut truth.