Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality

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Overview

Be sexy but not sexual. Don't be a prude but don't be a slut. These are the cultural messages that barrage teenage girls. In movies and magazines, in music and advice columns, girls are portrayed as the object or the victim of someone else's desire--but virtually never as someone with acceptable sexual feelings of her own. What teenage girls make of these contradictory messages, and what they make of their awakening sexuality--so distant from and yet so susceptible to cultural stereotypes--emerges for the first time in frank and complex fashion in Deborah Tolman's Dilemmas of Desire.

A unique look into the world of adolescent sexuality, this book offers an intimate and often disturbing, sometimes inspiring, picture of how teenage girls experience, understand, and respond to their sexual feelings, and of how society mediates, shapes, and distorts this experience. In extensive interviews, we listen as actual adolescent girls--both urban and suburban--speak candidly of their curiosity and confusion, their pleasure and disappointment, their fears, defiance, or capitulation in the face of a seemingly imperishable double standard that smiles upon burgeoning sexuality in boys yet frowns, even panics, at its equivalent in girls.

As a vivid evocation of girls negotiating some of the most vexing issues of adolescence, and as a thoughtful, richly informed examination of the dilemmas these girls face, this readable and revealing book begins the critical work of understanding the sexuality of young women in all its personal, social, and emotional significance.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist

"Girls are the objects of boys' sexual desires and have no desires of their own." In this provocative study, Tolman...turns this notion upside down. Basing her research on extensive interviews with both suburban and urban teens, Tolman investigates how young women's first sexual experiences may be influenced by societal pressure to dissociate from their own bodies and desires...Tolman shows the chilling dangers—for individuals and society—when girls are afraid to take ownership of their sexuality...And she offers ideas for how change can happen...Parents and teachers alike will find much to contemplate and borrow from in this fascinating account.
— Gillian Engberg

Choice

Tolman bases this qualitative study of teenage sexuality on what she calls the "listening guide" method of research (a method she helped pioneer), in which she records interviews on various topics and then reads through them several times looking for different themes. She drew her sample of 31 girls from high school juniors in two different settings, one urban and one suburban...Though reluctant to be honest about their sexuality in a group setting, in part because of potential gossip, the girls discussed their feelings with Tolman in a one-on-one setting. The quandaries the girls face—whether they assert, embrace, or dismiss sexual desire—is Tolman's theme. Though the girls told her they felt sexual desire, they at first often denied it. They fear getting pregnant or being labeled as sexually promiscuous...The book is a powerful tool in the struggle for improved sexuality education, since even the most sophisticated of girls seem to lack basic kinds of information.
— V. L. Bullough

Globe and Mail
Bombarded by conflicting social messages--sexy but not sexual; open but not slutty--it's no wonder teenage girls are often confused by sexuality. Tolman, an expert on sex and gender, offers an analysis of that confusion, the dangers involved, and what sorts of changes might help arrest this trend.
Michael Kimmel
In the constant din of pseudoscientific claims about sex, arrogant punditry, and moralizing fear-mongering, the voices consistently missing are those of teenagers, and especially teenage girls. By listening carefully to these girls as they navigate their own sexual desires, balancing agency and ambivalence, Deborah Tolman dramatically enlarges and enriches the conversation we should be having about sex and sexuality.
John Delamater
Dilemmas of Desire challenges one of our most fundamental beliefs about adolescent sexual activity--that it causes problems, especially for young women, and ought to be prevented. In this nuanced and insightful book, based on extended interviews, Deborah Tolman argues that it is the failure to recognize the reality of female sexual desire that is at the heart of the "problem." Challenging both some deeply held assumptions and social policies, the book is bound to stimulate debate.
Peggy Orenstein
Girls feel sexual desire. Simply asserting that would be revolutionary. But Dilemmas of Desire goes much further, allowing girls to explain their sexuality from their own perspectives: how they deny it, assert it, are cut off from it, embrace it. Tolman's work is essential to a true understanding of female adolescence.
Judith V. Jordan
Listening to and appreciating the depth of girls' desire--complex, powerful, sometimes pleasure-seeking, sometimes afraid--is indeed revolutionary. Deborah Tolman has done it, with sensitivity and honesty, and that makes Dilemmas of Desire a gift to adolescent girls and adult women as well. By inviting girls to tell us about their experience of aliveness in their bodies and their longing for connection, Tolman invites all of us to reexamine our sexual stories, and better understand our own sexualities.
Michelle Fine
It's rare that there's a national debate in which public opinion and social science are so clearly on the same (and losing) side. Eighty percent of parents want comprehensive sexuality education in the schools; most social science points to the positive impact of full sexuality education on public health and family and community well being. And yet, in this nation, a relatively small band of ideologues prevails over the real wishes of the public. Dilemmas of Desire is a powerful tool in the struggle for sexuality education and improved sexual health for young women (and young men too), published at just the right time.
Carol Gilligan
What fascinated me in Deborah Tolman's research was her discovery of how much girls have to say about what they say they can't talk about. Taking the bold step of asking girls about their own experiences of sexual desire, Tolman asks us to consider the quandaries girls face when they feel desire, and act on it, and also when they do not. Dilemmas of Desire is a path-breaking book, opening new conversations about girls, boys, and what it means to be human.
Carole S. Vance
A thought provoking exploration of young women's relationships to sexuality. Deborah Tolman elicits rich stories of bodies, emotions, and desires, and offers an intriguing analysis of these complex and ambivalent narratives.
Booklist - Gillian Engberg
"Girls are the objects of boys' sexual desires and have no desires of their own." In this provocative study, Tolman...turns this notion upside down. Basing her research on extensive interviews with both suburban and urban teens, Tolman investigates how young women's first sexual experiences may be influenced by societal pressure to dissociate from their own bodies and desires...Tolman shows the chilling dangers--for individuals and society--when girls are afraid to take ownership of their sexuality...And she offers ideas for how change can happen...Parents and teachers alike will find much to contemplate and borrow from in this fascinating account.
Choice - V. L. Bullough
Tolman bases this qualitative study of teenage sexuality on what she calls the "listening guide" method of research (a method she helped pioneer), in which she records interviews on various topics and then reads through them several times looking for different themes. She drew her sample of 31 girls from high school juniors in two different settings, one urban and one suburban...Though reluctant to be honest about their sexuality in a group setting, in part because of potential gossip, the girls discussed their feelings with Tolman in a one-on-one setting. The quandaries the girls face--whether they assert, embrace, or dismiss sexual desire--is Tolman's theme. Though the girls told her they felt sexual desire, they at first often denied it. They fear getting pregnant or being labeled as sexually promiscuous...The book is a powerful tool in the struggle for improved sexuality education, since even the most sophisticated of girls seem to lack basic kinds of information.
Publishers Weekly
For all the panicky ink devoted to teen sex, until now there has been no academic study on what teenage girls actually want. Tolman, an associate director at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College, fills that gap by focusing on girls' desires, rather than on the social ills they're usually quizzed on-pregnancy, disease and dropping out of school. The teenage voices she has collected are articulate and refreshing, though many of the stories are depressingly familiar. Nearly all the girls surveyed worry about being branded sluts, and many grapple with the pressure to be sex objects for boys while expressing no desire of their own. Tolman also makes a convincing case for why we should listen: girls in touch with their own desires make safer, healthier choices about sex. She advocates making it easier for girls to talk about their sexual wants-whether with parents, teachers, or other girls-without fear of repercussion. This is an excellent candidate for a gender studies textbook, and will also be of interest to parents, educators, and teenage girls themselves. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
VOYA
As young women of today are bombarded with a host of contradictory messages from media, society, and peers, the old double standard rears its ugly head: Girls who sleep around are sluts, but boys who do are studs. This groundbreaking work examines the attitudes that emerge from the deluge of cultural messages adolescent girls must sift through to arrive at their sexual selves. Tolman presents an extremely professional, well-researched, readable text, complete with methodology and overview of the literature on her subject. A range of views and experiences are represented despite the small sample and exclusion of Asian Americans. Excerpts from intimate interviews conclude that teen girls equate sex with fear and danger, for acting on their natural urges risks pregnancy, disease, and tarnished reputations. Girls expert at repression find it difficult to articulate their desires. Because "just say no" curriculums appear to be teaching passivity rather than abstinence, Tolman's book is an excellent argument for revolution in sex education. The author gives a call to action to those who work with teenagers-possibly including young adult librarians who call themselves youth advocates-encouraging adult mentors to speak with teens about the realities of sexuality, beginning with the concept that "girls as well as boys have sexual desire, which should be acknowledged and respected by both partners." This book has been a long time coming and deserves a spot next to Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia (Putnam, 1994/VOYA October 1994). One hopes that its appearance is the start of a paradigm shift to eliminating an archaic double standard. Index. Biblio. Source Notes. 2002, Harvard University Press, 272p,
— Beth Gallaway
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674018563
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/24/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 711,584
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Deborah L. Tolman is Professor of Social Welfare at the City University of New York .
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

1. Getting beyond "It Just Happened"

2. Voices of Desire

3. Sounds of Silence

4. Dangers of Desire

5. Parameters of Pleasure

6. Geographies of Desire

7. Speaking of Desire

On Methodology

Notes

References

Index

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