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I wasn’t originally planning to write about Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein and Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick in the same post, but as I was gathering my thoughts I started to see some connections between the two. Both are excellent examples of journalism and cultural criticism, and both try to convince the reader to reconsider the traditional narratives about sexuality and femininity. So, a pair of mini-reviews it is!

girls and sexGirls and Sex by Peggy Orenstein

If there’s one book I’ve read so far this year that I would consider a “must read,” it’s Girls and Sex by Peggy Orenstein. The book is a survey and exploration of sexuality and sexual behavior among young girls in high school and college, based extensively on interviews Orenstein conducted with young women in high school and college. Through those interviews, along with a wealth of other research, Orenstein put together a book that is wide-ranging, thoughtful, and sure to spark conversations about how we can teach girls (and boys) about sex better.

I loved the way Orenstein gave weight to the experiences the girls she interviewed shared and thought carefully about what messages they were and weren’t getting from their peers, their parents, and the other adults in their lives. I also thought her discussion of consent brought some necessary nuance to that issue – we’re at a moment when teaching women about healthy sexuality needs to go beyond “no means no,” even thought that conversation can be really difficult to have. In fact, her biggest argument is that by being reluctant to talk frankly about sex, both the good and the bad, we don’t prepare them to make healthy choices in the world. This book is an important read, highly recommended.

spinster by kate bolickSpinster by Kate Bolick

Spinster is one of those books that I had mixed feelings about. On the one hand, once I sat down to read it, I tore through this book in a single day because I was facing pressure to get it back to the library on time, and because I enjoyed reading it so much. In the book, Bolick writes about “pleasures and possibilities of remaining single,” using her own experiences and the experiences of women over time who bucked conventions of marriage and family during their own times. It’s a fascinating mix of memoir and cultural criticism that helped me think a lot about the choices I’ve made and why some of the boundaries I’ve set remain important as I think about balancing family and a flourishing creative life.

On the other hand, I think it’s important to note that Bolick has a very specific idea of who a spinster is – a woman who remains single and childless by choice – that doesn’t necessarily encompass the diversity of experiences single women have. The fact that Bolick jumped from relationship to relationship, deliberately choosing to remain single despite (I think) two chances to get married, puts her in a situation with a lot of privilege I’m not sure other women have. It doesn’t invalidate the book, it’s just one of those contexts that matters when talking about the book and one of the ways in which I feel cautious about a universal recommendation. I loved it, but because I could see so much of myself in these stories – I’m not sure if other readers will feel the same way.  

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links through Amazon. If you make a purchase through any of those links, I will receive a small commission.

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  • Sarah's Book Shelves May 26, 2016, 6:38 am

    I totally agree about Girls & Sex…it introduced themes I’d never considered that I think are really important to convey to young people and that I now plan to address with my children when they get older (they’re 3 and 5 now).

    • Kim May 30, 2016, 5:21 pm

      I like the way she suggested “the sex talk” should be about more than just mechanics… the issue is more complicated than that.

  • BermudaOnion (Kathy) May 26, 2016, 7:54 am

    Girls & Sex sounds like a VERY important book. My family was much more open about sex than most (maybe because my mom was a nurse?) and I was always shocked by my friends’ lack of knowledge.

    • Kim May 30, 2016, 5:18 pm

      It’s kind of amazing how bad school-based programs are, and what the gaps kids have about these issues can be.

  • Michelle May 26, 2016, 10:45 am

    You have me convinced about Girls & Sex. You have also convinced me it is time to up my openness about sex with Holly now that she is entering middle school in the fall.

    • Kim May 30, 2016, 5:18 pm

      You are probably the perfect audience for that book. It’s so informative, and also offers a lot of good suggestions about how to approach some of those difficult conversations.

  • Leah @ Books Speak Volumes May 26, 2016, 3:19 pm

    Spinster came around at just the right time for me last year, and it helped me decide to end a long-term relationship that I wasn’t ready for. A year later, I’m thinking about the book in a different context, as I’m working to find a balance between a new relationship and the solitude I often crave. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a special one to me.

    I really need to red Girls and Sex! I’m curious about how it compares to I Am Not a Slut.

    • Kim May 30, 2016, 5:16 pm

      I like that idea — not a perfect book, but special. I think that’s how I feel about it too.

  • Teresa May 26, 2016, 5:21 pm

    I’m one of those who didn’t much care for Spinster, even though you’d think I would. I’m Bolick’s age and pretty much the definition of a spinster (and perfectly happy about it most of the time). I only made it through the first few chapters. I think what bothered me is that even though I *really* appreciate the idea of taking the stigma out of spinsterdom, I felt like she was redefining the term just to mean any independent-minded woman. Several (maybe most) of her spinster role models got married, even. Rebecca Traister’s more recent book was so much better at addressing a fuller spectrum of the single experience.

    • Kim May 30, 2016, 5:16 pm

      That’s a totally valid criticism. I think her concept of spinsterhood is pretty specific and has a lot of privilege brought into it. And like you said, the fact that many of her role models got married or had families definitely puts a spin on the idea that I don’t think is universal.

  • Kristen Coates May 26, 2016, 8:20 pm

    I was already excited to get my hands on Girls and Sex, but your review has me REALLY itching for that library hold to come through!

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey June 2, 2016, 4:17 pm

    Both of these have been on my list for sometime and they haven’t made it to the top yet in part because I’m busy and in part because there are things that make me hesitate about each of them – Girls and Sex seems like it could be a bit depressing and I’m not sure I’d like how much of a memoir Spinster is. Your review makes me feel more excited about them again though and I’m sure I’ll pick them up eventually 🙂

    • Kim June 4, 2016, 1:38 pm

      I don’t think Girls and Sex was depressing. A little shocking, maybe — life for girls now is so, so different — but I liked that Orenstein offered some good suggestions for how to move forward that made it feel a little more optimistic, I guess.