One Saturday morning on the sidelines of a soccer game, where mothers keep one eye on the action while sharing their triumphs and confessing their failures to other mothers, a friend told me of the time she retrieved her startled teenaged daughters from a parentless house where they had been harmlessly hanging out with a couple of platonic male friends.
In the car on the way home, she tried to explain her caution to her outraged girls: “Look, you don’t understand what it is like for boys. They will do anything, say anything to get you into bed because they get horny as hell.”
My friend was stunned into silence by her daughter’s response: “Mom, you don’t understand. I get horny as hell, too.”
It was a revelation to this mother, but it should be a warning to us all: Our daughters feel the power surges of puberty just as our sons do.
Have we forgotten this, too? Have we no memory of the pelvic buzz we felt when we locked eyes with the cutest boy in school? Don’t we remember when we ached to be touched, to be kissed? Or when we were just plain curious to know what everyone was talking about?
Fear, I think, has caused us to deny that these feelings exist in our daughters. Sex is less about good girls vs. bad girls these days and more about safety: from pregnancy, STDs, date rape. We can protect them better if we persuade them not to have sex at all .
As a result, the sex education of our daughters is woefully incomplete. We tell them how to have sex, but we don’t tell them what would make them want to have sex. And we frame the entire discussion in the language of resistance: How to say no to a boy.
No wonder that when sex stops being icky and becomes something she wants, she is confused and ashamed. And a girl who is never given the opportunity to talk about those desires - to learn that they are normal and healthy, to learn what to do with them - may never take the next, most important step. She may not arm herself against pregnancy and disease because protection requires preparation, and that means she was looking to have sex.
The intoxicating feelings of desire - so new, so unpredictable, so frightening - are dangerous in young girls only if we do not help them to understand them and, insofar as they can, get a grip on them. If a girl does not know how to say to a boy, “Yeah, I want sex. I want it as bad as you do. I just don’t want it right now, and I may never want it with you,” she is handicapped, and it is our fault.
The sexual revolution has failed if we still believe that sex for girls is only about being in love. That’s our old baggage. Sex surveys show that girls are having sex younger and they are having many more partners before marriage than we did. Surveys also show they believe that women are equally responsible for initiating sex, not only in established relationships but in new relationships. Girls today are more like the boys we demonize than they are like their mothers.
Today it is the rare young girl who will first explore her sexuality in the semi-adult world of college. The average age of the first sexual experience is 16 and dropping. And it is often true that she is having sex not because her boyfriend wants her to, but because her girlfriends pressure her.
You are nothing if you haven’t gone all the way, her friends will tell her, even though most of them are boasting and posturing and lying about their own experiences. If it is difficult to resist the persuasions of a boy she fears will dump her if she does not come across, how impossible must it be to stand up to a clique of girlfriends who will shun her in a cold-hearted minute?
How do we help her sort it all out?
“One of the problems for girls in the ‘90s is that sex is everywhere,” says author Mary Pipher, who explained to us the pressures young girls endure in her best seller “Reviving Ophelia.”
“They are constantly bombarded with sexual images. And they are constantly being told, ‘Sex is great, it’s sophisticated, it’s fun. Go do it.”’
Because of how sex is portrayed in movies, television and advertising, young girls can easily conclude that couples go directly from a deep kiss to the nearest bed.
“Everything they see jumps to intercourse,” says Pipher. “Kids don’t have any sense that in this culture there are breaks and limits between kissing and having intercourse.”
Sex is so stressful for girls in the ‘90s that it is often accompanied by furious chemical use. Only when they are anesthetized by alcohol or drugs can they face the terrifying combination of desire, fear of AIDs or pregnancy, and their need for love and affection. Pipher, who, despite her success as an author and lecturer still counsels young girls as a therapist in her hometown of Lincoln, Neb., says the first step is to help these girls understand that in this sexually chaotic culture, the only limits are the ones she chooses for herself and the only ground rules are the ones she negotiates with her partner.
“That means you have to know what you want,” Pipher says. “And you have to be able to explain your expectations to someone else.”
“Kids can’t imagine a conversation like that,” says Baltimore’s Debbie Roffman, who is in the trenches with kids every day as a human sexuality educator for several private schools.
She agrees with Pipher’s ideas, but says it is asking a lot to tell kids to negotiate sexual ground rules when they have never seen it done in the pop culture that absorbs them. And when they don’t know what words to use.
“We have to stop using ‘sex’ as short-hand for ‘intercourse’ and come up with a better definition,” she says.
“Even phrases like ‘making out’ and ‘fooling around’ imply these experiences aren’t real. They are meaningless, and we aren’t accountable for them.
“And ‘How far did you go?’, ‘How far did you get?’ These are horrible metaphors. This isn’t about how far you got. It is about how close you want to be.”
Roffman presses the young people she teaches to define these sloppy terms, and through that process she helps them construct a continuum of intimacy from hand-holding to intercourse.
“Once you have defined sex as a range of behaviors, the question is not whether she should have intercourse, but what is appropriate at what ages and what stages of development and under what circumstances.
“Then,” she says, exhaling in emphasis, “you can have a conversation about sex.”
Getting there will be very hard for us.
The mechanics of sexual intercourse are easy to explain. “Don’t do it!” is easy to say. Much more excruciating will be finding words for those feelings of urgency that won’t send our daughters - and sons - squealing from the room in disgust.
If we only tell them how, we have done only half of our job, and we have left unspoken the best part: the language of desire, the language of intimacy.
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