The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do--Sex Play, Aggression, and Their Guilt

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From playground games of "chase and kiss" to rough-and-tumble soccer games, from slumber party stripteases to romantic fantasies behind closed doors, author Sharon Lamb coaxes out girls' true stories with uncommon sensitivity and focus. The result of more than 125 fascinating interviews with pre-teens, teenagers, and adult women, The Secret Lives of Girls reveals the ways that girls use their minds and bodies for private sexual play, mischief, and hidden aggression.

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From playground games of "chase and kiss" to rough-and-tumble soccer games, from slumber party stripteases to romantic fantasies behind closed doors, author Sharon Lamb coaxes out girls' true stories with uncommon sensitivity and focus. The result of more than 125 fascinating interviews with pre-teens, teenagers, and adult women, The Secret Lives of Girls reveals the ways that girls use their minds and bodies for private sexual play, mischief, and hidden aggression.

To truly understand what little girls are made of, Lamb suggests, we must listen not only to what they say to us but also to what they don't say, taking into account their hidden selves and the lives that we adults don't see. Yes, girls are known to be "good," but they manage to act out in decidedly ungirlish ways and, despite many parents' fears, be the better for it. What's most remarkable about Lamb's conclusions is that we needn't join the chorus of voices deploring a "girl-poisoning" culture for damaging our daughters. Instead, Lamb finds reason to celebrate girls' resilience in the face of pressures to conform—and she does it by listening to them and to the women they have become. The Secret Lives of Girls explores such in-depth key issues as:

  • Using aggression wisely—when girls need to walk away or to settle verbally, and when to fight. Girls needn't grow up afraid of their own toughness and power.
  • Building self-esteem, self-respect, and the ambition to achieve—anger and aggressive feelings can be the impetus for creative and productive work. Eighty percent of female executives of Fortune 500 companies identify as having been tomboys.
  • Participating in highly physical sports—karate or boxing, or team sports like soccer—teaches girls to feel that their bodies are competent, and that they deserve to take up space.
  • Recognizing daughters as sexual beings—their love of sexy dress-up, their yearning to understand their bodies and their sensual desires.
  • Accepting some kinds of sexual play—teaching the difference between fun and bullying; setting a positive and supportive tone from birth through the grade school years.

From tomboys like "Julia," who runs with the boys in the streets of New York to "Abby," who led a "naked parade," the girls who share their stories here describe a hidden but fascinating world made up of more than girlish innocence. The Secret Lives of Girls is a welcome and much-needed addition to the literature on girls' lives and culture. It celebrates girls' hidden strengths, play, and needs, and opens a door for parents that can teach them how to understand their daughters better and help them grow.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Sexual play and acts of aggression are common for girls, according to Lamb, a psychology professor at St. Michael's College, but they are conducted in secrecy and often burden the participants with lifelong guilt. Based on interviews with 122 women and girls from a fairly wide range of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds (29 were African-American and 22 Latina), this accessible and engaging study reveals that most girls experience sexual and aggressive feelings that fall outside cultural notions of the "good girl." Lamb examines different ways girls express their ambivalence about their sexuality and aggressiveness: keeping their play and their anger secret from adults, sexually torturing their Barbie dolls and pretending to be victims or "playing dead" so that they can experience sensual pleasure without being full participants. She draws a clear line between sexual play and coercion, but at the same time finds examples of behavior that could be considered coercive by adults but was experienced by the girls as positive and pleasurable. Advocating a broader definition of "good girl," Lamb argues that the current emphasis on caring and sensitivity strips girls of a complete self-image, one where their sexual and aggressive "impulses exist alongside their sweetness, competence, and ability to love and care for others." Allowing girls "to practice these feelings and emotions in spaces where adults acknowledge them and help shape their development" is essential to helping them realize their full human potential, says the author. Agent, Carol Mann. (Mar. 5) Forecast: Parents seeking to understand how to talk to their daughters about sexuality, power or ways to deal with anger will learn much here. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
These are both excellent sociological studies about girls, women, and sexuality. In The Secret Lives of Girls, Lamb (psychology, St. Michael's Coll.) explores the idea (the myth?) of the "good girl." Many girls and young women, she attests, lead double lives, acting sweet and well behaved in public but sexual and aggressive and guilt-ridden in private. Using more than 125 interviews with girls and women of all races in 25 states, Lamb compellingly argues that girls are neither inherently "good" nor the passive victims whom some psychologists (e.g., Mary Pipher) have made them out to be. Teens and women often conceal their sexual desire and hunger for power via diaries and other secret means. Yet as little girls, they played healthy sexual games like catch-and-kiss and naked Barbies (though that finding pertains only to white America; Lamb found that African American girls rarely play sexual games with one other). Girls feel powerful (translation: good!) when they engage in mischief, swear, and successfully dominate siblings. Aside from revealing a misconception, this intriguing and significant book includes two chapters for parents, "Raising Sexual Girls" and "Raising Aggressive Girls." Highly recommended for social science and child-rearing collections. White, a freelance writer, reports on the high school slut. Who is she? Why is she so universal? What happens to her ten or 20 years after high school? White finds that girls seen as sluts always disagree with what the crowd claims they did, that the "slut" flourishes in a suburban landscape, and that, like anorexics, sluts are usually white. White's perspective is different from Naomi Wolf's in Promiscuities; Wolf concluded that "we" are all sluts, all "bad" girls, and that it's OK. Not so, says White. A deep chasm exists between "good" girls and girls perceived as sluts; it's "us" vs. "them," with girls as girls' worst enemies. While Wolf intertwined personal narrative with cultural history, White bases her conclusions on over 100 interviews with white, black, Latino, and Asian women with solid results. An excerpt of Fast Girls appeared in the New York Times Magazine; for social science collections. Linda Beck, Indian Valley P.L., Telford, PA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Based upon interviews with more than 120 girls and women from a wide variety of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, this text for parents and educators examines the hidden sexuality and unacknowledged aggressiveness of girls. Lamb (psychology, Saint Michael's College) contends that society's expectations of sweetness and gentleness force girls to pursue their sexuality and aggression in secret, contributing to a burden of guilt and shame. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743201070
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 3/30/2002
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Table of Contents

Preface XIII
Introduction: Good Girls versus Real Girls 1
Part I The Sexual Lives of Girls 11
Chapter 1 "I'll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours" 15
Zeroing In On: Play. What is Play? What is Sexual Play? 25
Chapter 2 Just Practicing: It's in Her Kiss 27
Chapter 3 Feminine Ideals: Make-up, Midriffs, and the Pleasures of Being Objectified 39
Chapter 4 Naked Barbies 48
Zeroing In On: Childhood Innocence and the Shaming of Sexuality 54
Chapter 5 Bodies and Pleasure: If It Feels Good, Why Is It so Bad? 59
Chapter 6 Playing Dead but Feeling Tingly 66
Chapter 7 Wanting It and Not Wanting It 70
Chapter 8 Two Kinds of Guilty Pleasure 77
Chapter 9 African-American Girls and Their Secrets 85
Chapter 10 Periods, Pubic Hair, Boobies, and Bodily Torture 96
Chapter 11 Guilty Minds and Sexual Obsessions 104
Chapter 12 Too Sexual Too Soon 116
Chapter 13 Unwelcome Intrusions: Sexual Coercion in the Lives of Girls 123
Chapter 14 Raising Sexual Girls: A Few Words to Parents 134
Part II Aggression, Destruction, and Being Mean
Chapter 15 Aggression in Girls 141
Chapter 16 A Good Girl Doesn't Do That 147
Zeroing In On: Tomboys 155
Chapter 17 Dear Diary, I Hate Her! Secret Anger in Girls 159
Chapter 18 The Aggressive Acts of Good Girls 166
Zeroing In On: Pranks, Mischief, and Little Meannesses 173
Chapter 19 Feeling the Power 178
Chapter 20 Getting Physical: Girl Athletes 189
Chapter 21 Class, Clothes, and Cutting Her Down to Size 198
Zeroing in On: Language and Loudness 204
Chapter 22 "I'm No Sucker": Fighting and Fighting Back 209
Chapter 23 Raising Aggressive Girls? 221
Chapter 24 Welcoming Sex, Power, and Aggression into the Lives of Girls 227
Notes 231
Index 249
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First Chapter

Chapter 1: "I'll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours"

"If somebody saw us doing this, they would think it was very, very wrong."

-- Lynn, African American, 41

Why do children pull down their pants for one another? Curiosity is one reason. Girls want to see what's "down there" if the other child is a boy. And girls want to see other girls to compare them to themselves. They wonder, Does it look different? Has a friend started growing pubic hair yet? Another reason is that they're show-offs! Girls try to show their panties to the boys on the playground by hanging upside down on the monkey bars, while boys may surprise girls by whipping it out in the most unusual places. "I'll show you mine" games are exhibitionistic, like the girls' games of striptease played at slumber parties. "Playing doctor" is generally an excuse to examine the other person's private areas. The main reason, though, that exhibitionism gives the exposer as well as the viewer such a thrill is because private parts are supposed to be private. These acts are forbidden.

"Playing doctor" and "I'll show you mine" are only sexual games to the extent that parents and the culture give body parts an aura of sexuality. And they are only forbidden games to the extent that a culture sees sex as something naughty or bad. One woman who grew up in New York City has a memory of playing doctor on a rock in a lot behind her backyard. What she remembered, though, is her mother coming out of the house screaming at her. Another woman, an African American who grew up in the sixties, also knew that playing doctor was bad. It was "a sin":

It wasn't a game but it was really like intense curiosity and like having to see absolutely everything....It was something having to do with um, health and investigation. [laughing] Pure science and health....We were aware somehow that if somebody saw us doing this, they would think it was very, very wrong, and we thought we'd get in a lot of trouble and that it was probably a sin too....Even though it was all couched in this doctor medical thing. I don't think we fooled ourselves in the least.

These games are not all sexual in the way that some of the more exciting games of the next few chapters are. In other words, they are not games that always involve feeling sexy, feeling sexual feelings, or even exploring sexual activity, although some children do get a thrill from them. Instead, they reflect the first thing that children are taught about their private parts -- that they are "private" for a mysterious reason they don't know yet. Still, they intuit that if their privates are private, the exhibition of them must be something deliciously forbidden.

While more and more parents see these games as an outgrowth of natural childhood curiosity, both parents and professionals set limits outside of which such curiosity is verboten. In a study of over three hundred professionals, Jeffrey Haugaard, a psychologist of human development and family studies at Cornell University, asked social workers and doctoral-level psychotherapists what they thought about four-year-olds undressing together, showing each other their genitals, and "fondling" genital and nongenital areas. Despite questions raised by Haugaard's terminology (How does someone "fondle" a nongenital area?), professionals generally thought most of these acts were acceptable among four-year-olds. Touching another child's genitals, however, even at this young age, was strictly forbidden.

Researchers are being suggestive, though, when they use abuse-evocative terms such as "fondling," especially since many of the professionals whom they surveyed already have been keyed in to the dangers of child-to-child sexual abuse. There is indeed strong documentation showing that children who have been molested by an adult sometimes "act out" that abuse on other children, introducing to the new child "adult" forms of sexuality too soon. It is little surprise, then, that when Haugaard asked professionals about eight-year-olds, they answered even more conservatively. About half of the female professionals thought it was still okay for eight-year-old children to undress together, while only a third of the male professionals did. About 40 percent of the female professionals thought it was still okay for the eight-year-olds to show each other their private parts, while about 25 percent of the male professionals did. However, very few thought touching was fine (16 percent females; 6 percent males).

For the majority of Americans, not just professionals, nakedness is a sexual act, and we convey this to children. Unlike countries that have nude beaches or where families sauna together, we teach our children that nakedness is sexual. Because there are pedophiles who do view children's naked bodies for sexual pleasure, it would appear that all viewing of such is suspect (as in the controversy over Sally Mann's beautiful photographs of her naked children). Because the parts of the human body deemed sexual are clothed specially (in bathing suits) and sometimes clothed and flaunted provocatively (as in Wonderbras), they become sexually charged in a visual way.

If it were acceptable for children to see each other naked, there would be little interest in "show-me" games. In places where children's nudity is acceptable, such as some U.S. preschools where girls and boys are allowed to share a bathroom, there is no need to hide behind a bush, pull down pants, and ogle. These ogling games are mildly forbidden by adults (more strongly forbidden twenty and thirty years ago) because they indicate to adults an unnatural or dangerous interest in sex. For girls especially, such an interest is considered immodest and unfeminine.

Parents also discourage their girls from expressing too strong an interest in their genitals, confirming the feeling that boys have "something" there, girls have "nothing," a feeling Freud wrote leads to penis envy. If a girl shows an interest in such matters, the adults around her usually wonder whether she was abused or if she is growing up "wild," and whether or not this behavior indicates that she will be a promiscuous teen. Boys defined by the culture as having a greater sex drive, have greater leeway and receive greater understanding from parents in their wishes to play the show-me games.

For Aidee, a seventeen-year-old Puerto Rican girl, sparkly and tomboyish even at seventeen, her "doctor" game confirms to her that she is not "really" a girl. After she played it with a little boy, she thought about this game "a lot of times." She would picture in her head what her mother might say to her, if she only knew:

I'm a bad girl. Like, I don't deserve to be a "you're not really a good girl and you're gonna be a little hot thing!"

It is interesting to see Aidee associate sexual goodness with being a girl. She imagines her mother will not only see her as bad, but as not a girl at all. Being "hot" is not only opposed to being a good girl, but to being a girl, period.

If guilt does not weigh down the girls, when they do expose themselves they often feel a wild exuberance rather than more intimate sexual feelings. Marilyn, for example, felt pure joy when her baby-sitter came to her house and she and her sister got to play the game "Nastigators." That's what the baby-sitter dubbed the game, laughing, but making sure that the girls knew they were being "nasty":

We were little. We used to wear shortie pajamas. You know those? And we would pull the side over and dance around chanting, "See my popo. See my popo." And Lana, the baby-sitter, had a big booming voice, called it nasty. "She's nastigating."

In many women's memories, it was shocking and fun to expose oneself. In fact, the joy was more about exposing oneself rather than about being looked at, an important distinction to make when looking at the relation between girls and power. It might be too easy to call these girls' acts a form of becoming passive objects for boys' gaze, when their true experience of the event may be more akin to the rebel or sexual provocateur.

One adult woman remembered that she and her brothers invited her best friend to join them in what they called

a "naked parade." I think my friend was shocked to see it and I think to be included in it.

Another remembered taking a "naked shower" with a boy when his family was visiting.

And we had a great time. Totally hilarious. And then everybody found out we were in there. And everybody just laughed and chuckled, and you know we were getting away with it, that was the thing. Whenever there was some kind of transgression, I kind of wanted to be discovered. That was, like, part of the fun.

Girls today and in past years have played "truth or dare" games in which they or a friend would have to run around naked outside, or dash into someone's parents' bedroom in her underwear in the middle of the night. Six-year-old Madeleine, who is chatty and opinionated and adorable, described a dare where the girls all had to pull down their pants, put their underpants over their pants, and then run out of her bedroom flashing her dad their underwear. As she related her story, it changed a little, and she confessed they actually exchanged underwear! They also had to do a little dance in front of the dad of the house.

It was as if these girls were rebelling against what they have been told for years, that these are private parts. In Madeleine's story the girls recognize that the issue of privacy in America extends into the family, where brothers and fathers are to be kept separate from daughters and mothers. A father may bathe his infant or toddler daughter as well as change her diaper, but as a girl grows up there will be a gradual wall built around this physical intimacy, restricting it to hugs and kisses by the elementary school years. There may be good reasons for such separation, but it raises questions and anxieties about these boundaries and what is private about oneself and one's body?

Most exhibition games are between peers -- boys to girls, girls to boys. An eighteen-year-old African-American girl, Jennifer, laughing and embarrassed, described a game she played when she was younger with a bunch of kids after school at her baby-sitter's house. The boys and girls together would play a game where the girls would go into a room and strip and then call out, "Okay we're ready," and then the boys would come in and look at them. Then they would switch, and the boys would go into a room and take off all their clothes and the girls would come in when they were ready and look at them. "And we were like, 'Oh my gosh!" said Jennifer. The boys would make the game more exciting by pretending that the baby-sitter was going to walk in at any moment, "Watch the lady. I hear her coming," they would call out, and the girls would scramble to get dressed.

Susan, a quiet woman who grew up in upstate New York in the sixties and now works as an assistant to a college administrator, remembered

being with a bunch of girls. We would go over to the monkey bars and hang upside down so the boys could see our underwear, which is kind of odd...they'd stand around and watch.

In some ways it is surprising that these games are labeled "odd" or "weird" by the girls who play them. They're not even unusual. It is as if they think it is wholly unacceptable for a child, a girl, to want to show off her body. One little girl I interviewed showed horror at the question. When I asked her if she ever, when she was younger, might have played a game with another child like "I'll show you mine if you show me yours," she responded quickly, "Oh no! Never!!!"

The fact that such games are seen as odd or weird speaks to how rarely women have shared such stories, in spite of a public acknowledgment that children "play doctor." It also suggests that these girls assume that such behavior will mark them as sexual rather than as good girls.

In fact, when girls expose themselves to each other, the games sometimes turn into more intricate explorations, and sometimes become integrated into fantasy games. Helen, a baby boomer who grew up in the late 1950s, didn't remember this sexual incident until the day after the interview and called back to tell all:

My cousin and I, when she was about six and I was about eight,...used to take baths together at the end of the day. And I do know that we used to sit in the bathtub, and we would kind of sit crossways and look down into our bottom area, and we would pretend that the little piece of tissue that's down there that's probably where our urethra [surely she meant clitoris?] is in between the labia, that kind of sticks out there, we would pretend those were our babies, and we would show each other our babies, you know, and talk about our babies while we were in the bathtub.

Helen and her cousin take a sensitive, sexual body part and find some way to make it acceptable to play with. Mothers are never made to be "sexy" in society's view, not in movies, TV, or advertising, but these girls found a way to incorporate the sexual into a more typical game of being moms!

Freud thought that girls, when they looked down at their bodies and compared what they had to what boys had, discovered they had nothing, a great lack, an absence of a penis. One of the first feminist psychoanalysts, Karen Horney, laughingly pointed out in her essay "Womb Envy" that this is exactly the way a little boy thinks when he sees a girl. The French feminist writer Irigaray has since pointed out, in her essay "The Sex Which Is Not One," the intricacies of women's genitals, our understanding of them, and how what's "down there" affects women's psyches. Girls see stuff down there. Like Helen and her cousin, even girls in the fifties saw it, but they didn't know what to call it or all the different parts of "it," thus also explaining her mistake of calling a clitoris a urethra. In their game these girls called that part of their vaginal area their babies, allowing them perhaps to play with it and stroke it, and thus transforming codes of sexual behavior to work toward their goal of sexual pleasure.

In the less imaginative games of show, most women remember exchanges with boys. More often than not they remember the boys as initiators of these games. And while girls are curious about themselves and their sexual feelings, as we see in so many of the fantasy games that are in later chapters, they are not (as Freud would have wished) so curious about boys' penises. These "show-me" exchanges are fun and shocking but lack the intensity and strong emotion that the other games have. They're not remembered with much guilt because they mimic, in a sense, adult heterosexuality. Many of the memories are vague, quite possibly because they are usually one-time events and over very quickly.

I do remember a brief incident with a neighborhood boy behind his garage. I think I had been hanging upside down on the monkey bars and I had a skirt on and he was, "If you do that again I'll show you what I have in my pants." That's all I remember. (Linda, white, 53)

We were standing outside in the backyard, and it was, like, "I'll show you mine if you show me yours."...I don't remember being apprehensive about it. I just know that it did happen and I just looked at it...I think I probably wanted to show. I felt almost honored to be enlightening somebody in that way. "Look at me!" (Jody, white, 21)

I remember being about five and being with a friend of my mother's who had this little boy, and we went in his room and we pretended we were married and what we did was, we kissed. We pulled down our pants and we kissed, although we didn't touch each other. For some reason that's what we thought that you did if you were married, and we gave each other a peck with our pants around our ankles and we pulled our pants up and we went. (Laura, white, 33)

One day Paul said to me, "I want to show you my beetle." And I'm thinking he had a pet beetle and the next thing I know he's got his pants open with a flashlight down his pants. I didn't feel like returning the favor....I think I was just too shocked to do anything. I wasn't expecting that. (Karen, white, 39)

"Honored," shocked, interested -- these are the feelings of girls who have these exchanges with boys. Few are caught. All are "enlightened." Most know they are doing something sneaky and possibly wrong. But in retrospect, these are fun memories and delightful experiences. The guilt did not last into adulthood. None have memories that haunt them. They can explain away these experiences as a form of curiosity or just plain fun.

Playing Doctor

Playing doctor is much the same for girls. These "doctor" experiences are like "real life" and are not as sexually provocative as fantasy games. The point isn't even to play "doctor," usually; it is a useful entry to acquiring knowledge, making comparisons, getting "checked out," and doing some "checking" oneself. Perhaps these games are sexually stimulating for the boys, but for the girls the games of dress-up, fantasy, and horror that will appear later in the book capture their sexual excitement so much more completely.

Boy cousins are frequent players in girls' doctor games, sometimes as initiators. Eleanora, a Puerto Rican woman who had been a sickly child, knew how to be a good patient. Even though she described herself as a "goody-two-shoes," she also played doctor with her cousins.

It was the three of us, but it turned out that I was the guinea pig...basically all that I can recall is that I was laying down and they had lifted, I guess, my dress....He said that he was the doctor and he was going to examine me, and I was used to being examined because I was always asthmatic, and so I was like the volunteer. Sure. You know. I'm a good girl, I know how to be examined without crying....It was just a lifting up the dress and you feel cold sort of. It wasn't anything beyond that.

Another woman who played doctor with her two male cousins was caught. Her mom and aunt walked in and saw them and told them to stop: "'What are you doing?' It wasn't as if they got mad; they were mainly trying to convey 'That's not a thing to do.'"

Some boys tried to talk little girls into exposing themselves:

One time they tried to get me. They invited me into this pup tent and, I think, I don't know what was going on, but, so I went into the tent and all three of these little boys said, "Okay, we want to play doctor and nurse and we'll be the doctors and you be the nurse and we'll go first. And so they all dropped their pants. I stood there and looked at them, and they said, "Okay, now it's your turn." And I just left. I wasn't gonna drop my pants in front of those three boys. (Maura, white, 47)

Sometimes there was a little guilt. Marilyn, the "nastigator," for example, worried about corrupting her younger sister:

We took baths together and there were three in the tub. We would explore. We found holes, a little thing that looked like a penis, and it was all very fascinating. And later, much friend Callie and I, we used to play doctor with my little sister, and she was the patient and the exploree, and we did wondrous things with her. We did. I'm glad that this interview gave me an opportunity to ask my sister what her memories were of the times we played doctor upon her and how she felt about that. And she didn't remember any ill feelings or have any ill feelings about that. Because that was the one thing I was a little concerned about.

Carol also felt guilt. Carol, a Jewish woman living in New York City who grew up in the suburbs in the fifties said:

In his front yard we had built [a fort] so it wasn't, like, for everybody driving by to watch us. I remember he was the doctor and I was the patient. I guess that's true. We didn't have women doctors in those days. I remember I pulled down my [under] pants. I had on a dress....Sometime years later I heard a conversation about this playing doctor, and you know, and that children do this, and I was like, Oh my God, that's what Jack and I did that day and I didn't know that's what it was...I don't remember that I ever told anyone about it....when I heard about it afterwards, it was sort of the sense of relief about it, "Oh. That's all it was!!!" I guess somehow I just knew that it was, you know, it was something that nobody should know about.

What makes these doctor games "sexual" after all? The nudity? Because boys show girls their penises? Because girls show boys their vaginas? These are more than sexual parts. To a child these games are just as much forbidden as they are sexual. They are not always about sexual feelings or thrills. They are not really about learning about sexual responsiveness, except for the thrill of being admired.

When the girls hang upside down on the monkey bars, they're not pretending to be sexual objects for men, as they do when they dress up as stripteasers or pose as models. They are doing something forbidden -- showing their panties to boys. While they may have an awareness that adults call these acts sexual and therefore immodest, to them they don't feel sexy. They feel bold and risqué.

These games are permitted by the culture in a way that sexual feelings in children are not. If we stopped our exploration of childhood sexuality here, with games of show-and-tell and doctor, we wouldn't have found out much about the secrets girls keep. If these are secrets that girls keep they are easily disclosed and more about curiosity than sex. For some girls, especially the little ones I interviewed, these were the only kinds of secrets they could tell me about; adult women remember and tell much more.

Copyright © 2001 by Sharon Lamb

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Introduction: Good Girls versus Real Girls

As Sarah, naked and vulnerable, struggles to free herself from the imaginary bonds that tie her hands to the bed frame, Lisa bends down over Sarah's naked body and slowly but gently places a kiss on the top of her bare vagina. Because they hear footsteps in the hall, this electrifying act signals the end of the game, and both girls, seven years old, hasten to get their clothes back on before Lisa's mother knocks on the closed and locked door of her bedroom. They are now satisfied and silly but still hopeful that tomorrow or the next day they will find another time to reenact this powerful game as well as switch roles. Next time Sarah will be the man, Lisa the woman.

Lisa is a Jewish white girl and Sarah is a Christian Japanese American. Both do well in school, are their teachers' pets, and they are best friends. It is 1962, long before children were likely to be exposed to semipornographic magazines, TV shows, movies, or videos, and long before these children could read well enough to learn about the erotic traditions of romance novels. Yet at some time during their imaginative play, a game developed, secret and even unspoken between these two, that reproduced one of the most sexually thrilling scenes of female imagination for the time -- to be captured, stripped, and then, not degraded or humiliated, but adored.

This is not an unusual story of two oversexed seven-year-olds who found each other, but a story more common than not in the secret lives of girls. Like Sarah and Lisa, there are other girls who play these games and games like them with other girls as well as with boys. There is Chrissie, who loved to kiss the boys on the playground when she caught them. Abbie played mermaids and rubbed her naked top against her friend's as part of the game. So many other girls play "I'll show you mine if you show me yours," usually with boys. Some enjoy getting together with friends to play "naked Barbies."

There are also typical stories of girls whose secrets are about pleasurable aggression. Leah, for example, got a "kick" out of kicking the boys in the crotch and running away as they doubled over in pain. Chanelle beat up a girl in her school who had nice clothes, and enjoyed it.

The following pages hold many stories from girls and women I interviewed about the sexual play and games of their childhood as well as the moments of aggression and sometimes evil they committed. These interviews about the secrets they've kept have shown me a few things about what goes on behind closed doors, and what sorts of behaviors have been hidden by women and girls to preserve their outer image of goodness. Two themes stand out: sex and aggression. Girls hide their sexual acts and feelings as well as their aggressive impulses because girls are not supposed to have these. But sexual feelings and aggressive impulses are a part of human nature. They can be about power as well as self-discovery. Their narratives show that

  • many girls play sexually, not just out of curiosity. Many have sexual feelings and pursue these feelings. They teach themselves and their friends (boys and girls) about their perceptions of adult sexuality. Even at early ages, they incorporate into their sexual styles images of what they think adult female sexuality is really about.
  • many girls do aggressive things to other people, and not always to retaliate or out of frustration or because they were losing a connection to someone. Some enjoy their aggression, and especially if they have grown up in poverty or in dangerous neighborhoods, they wear their aggression as a badge of honor. Middle-class girls live with lifelong secrets of what they see as inexplicable outbursts or furtive evil done to another, badness they have never been able to explain to themselves.
  • many girls crave power and seek it in their relationships with others, not only to connect, but because power over another is sometimes pleasurable.

There are an amazingly wide variety of sexual and aggressive behaviors in childhood, but most girls and women see the incidents from their own lives as outside the range of "normal."

I interviewed girls ages six to eighteen and women from eighteen to seventy. They came from over twenty-five different states, a variety of upbringings, poor, low income, working class, middle class, and wealthy. Some grew up on farms, some in housing projects, some in high-rises, and some in suburban houses. And what I found traveling around the country

is that many girls and women have secrets, secrets of sexual play and games, and secrets of aggressive acts that surprised and sometimes scared them. It's not my intention to shock the reader with raw sex and pure aggression in the lives of girls; instead, after reading story after story and learning about the meaning of sex and aggression in girls' lives, I hope that for some this behavior will look a little more "normal" than it did at first glance.

"Normal" is something that we as a culture construct. In America today, we can look at a girl's sexual talk and games and call her prematurely slutty or, using a more clinical word, oversexualized. We can look at her plans to play sexually with another girl, the sexual feelings she has with another girl, and we might call her a lesbian. Or, we might simply say "this is what children do," "they have bodies, they have sexual feelings; the exploration and expression of both are normal" no matter whom they are with.

Some people would say that we shouldn't even use the word "normal" and they might be right. It's hurt too many people and gives special power to the word "abnormal." But the one question that girls and women asked me over and over when I was interviewing them was "Am I normal?" Usually what I told them was that I had heard many stories like theirs already, and that answer seemed to satisfy. What they really wanted to know was: Am I different? Should I be ashamed? And more often than not, Should I continue to be ashamed? Rather than encouraging the self-condemnation, secrecy, and shaming of these girls, I wanted them to see that what they did was more or less typical of girls growing up, that sex and aggression are a part of human experience, and even sometimes sources of pleasure. To see sex and aggression as part of life and even a source of pleasure doesn't mean we ought to abandon all efforts to treat these as moral acts, but that we base our moral judgments on issues of harm and caring, justice and individual rights, rather than on conventions of purity and outdated stereotypes of women and girls.

After sitting with and listening to over 120 women and girls across the country I know a little bit about what goes on in the privacy of children's bedrooms and backyard playhouses. And after reading this book, so will many others. In knowing this, maybe we all will look at girls a little differently, and maybe we will reframe our own pasts, reclaiming some lost parts of ourselves that were discovered in the basements and closets of girlhood, in the spots where teachers and parents weren't looking.

Good Girls and Guilt

This book tries to undo the image of the good girl that I think has been unnecessarily harmful to girls as they grow up. And this book tries to take a second look at all this moral language, such as "good" and "bad," when it gets applied to sex or aggression. The word "good," when used to describe girls, has little to do with real morality and lots to do with social norms. I think of social norms as rules about what's "proper" or acceptable, rather than rules about what's morally right. These rules rein in women and girls and restrict their development in important ways.

While the exaggerated guilt and shame that little girls carry around with them for their secret acts of sexual pleasure or aggression is a burden, it is the hemming in of girls through the rules of "niceness" that hurts girls most and causes the guilt and shame. The girls whose stories are told are all too aware that they act in ways not befitting a girl or young woman, and as acting like a girl gets merged in their minds with being good, they grow up with a nagging guilt that they are never good enough, nice enough.

How could so much be going on behind the scenes while still so many girls and women continue to think they have done something perverted, abnormal, or horribly cruel? There is some greater social force teaching girls and women how to interpret their acts and impulses. On the one hand society suggests these impulses to them, for where else but from our culture (parents, movies, peers, advertisements, and more) do ideas about sex and aggression come from? And then, on the other hand, societal norms aimed at girls make them feel bad about it, bad and immoral. This is a real shame. It's a shame that women and girls have to learn about themselves and their potential for both sexuality and aggression in a secret and shame-evoking manner. I want this book to free up women and girls to acknowledge all aspects of being human and to take off the shimmering costume of a femininity that equals goodness.

But the point of this book is not to find yet another area in which girls are victims of the culture. (In some cases it certainly is true, yet women, who were once girls themselves, are key shapers of girl culture.) The larger purpose is to expose all of these acts that are going on in secrecy so that girls and women can feel less guilty about their sexual desires as well as their aggressive impulses, can learn to accept these as part of themselves and still love and honor themselves for them. It is so that the goodness of women and girls can be defined in terms of a more universal morality, grounded in justice and caring, instead of in terms of their ability to sit still in a classroom or restrain themselves from the human desires for revenge or sexual pleasure.

You might think that feminism has done a lot already to change this popular image of the good girl. But, in some ways, it's probably helped it along a little bit. What popular feminism has taught us about girls over the past twenty years (after the sixties, that is, when anger and rebellion were celebrated) is that girls are more caring and more vulnerable, more likely to be victimized by the culture and more likely to nurture, more likely to suppress their anger so that they don't hurt others and more likely to try to please. While there also has been a tradition rewarding girls' spunkiness and resistance to images of purity, psychologists have for the most part told parents that these qualities in girls of caring and sensitivity are to be admired.

But they are also qualities that confirm a stereotype that works against girls feeling powerful. Readers have come to know the rebellious lost teens of Reviving Ophelia as really and truly empathic, caring girls who have lost their grounding connections with adults. Mary Pipher, who wrote Reviving Ophelia, is so like the good nurturant mother who has come to pluck out the treasured adolescent soul, preserve it, and cherish its goodness for all time. Many will also remember the voices of caring, nurturing women who were ignored by male psychologists who valued independence and rational decision-making. Women psychologists gave these women's voices a hearing. But are these pure and caring voices so different from the good girl of yesterday? Whether or not these voices box girls in or recognize a reality of girls' development, psychologists continue to re-create them on the covers of best-selling psychology books to the exclusion of other parts of girls and girls' development. The point is, we all would so much rather look like the lovely lost souls found by Mary Pipher than the bad girls we suspect we really are.

Not so long ago, girls and women were viewed as evil temptresses, seductive witches, and manipulative matriarchs, but even when these images flourished, there was always the opposite image of the pure and good girl, as in a fairy tale, set beside them for comparison. It's time to take a look at the fantasies that we all keep repressing -- those fantasies of women as insatiable, angry witches and bitches, oversexed, with monstrous appetites, women who actually want power over another person, who want to dominate, and women who find pleasure in sexual feelings and aggression against another. And when we allow them into our lives, they may not feel so exaggeratedly wrong.

Creating an "Other"

Little girls' attempts at being active, angry, and sexual are pushed away by the culture and by themselves. They hide these from us or we don't see them for what they are. And when they are aggressive or sexual, they "other" the experience -- someone else made them do it or they see it as something outside of themselves, a strange and weird occurrence. In fact, in these pages you will hear the words "weird," "strange," and "not me" used over and over to describe these experiences.

Another way of "othering" the experience is to project it onto women and girls who really are considered others in our culture, for example, African-American and Puerto Rican girls. Because when we conjure up the image of the good girl who "minds" her parents, does well in school, and doesn't dirty herself, we do not usually picture her Black or Latina. It's easier for society to see aggression and sexuality in, as well as project them onto, these girls. It fits the stereotypes and allows white girls to feel superior in comparison. While it is difficult for African-American and Latina girls to project an image of the "good girl," given the culture's unwillingness to see them that way, there still is a lot at stake for these girls if they embrace sexuality or aggression.

In this book I include stories from Puerto Rican and African-American women as girls growing up in a culture in which they are othered. The scope of the study did not allow me to collect enough stories to explore other groups who are treated as others, such as other Latina groups, Native Americans, or Asian Americans. Even as I tried to integrate the Puerto Rican and African-American girls' and women's experience into these chapters I was acutely aware of the intersection of class, race, and ethnicity and how these complexities are difficult to do justice to within one short book. On the other hand, I also was aware of how at times I may be treating "whiteness" as some monolithic term without reference to the variations in class, ethnicity, and experience within this group.

Yet while the realities of many white girls' lives do not conform to the stereotype of the white middle-class girl, as the realities of the lives of African-American or Puerto Rican girls do not conform to the culture's stereotypes of them, there is still an image of a girl, a good girl, that is internalized for all girls. This stereotypical ideal may indeed loom larger in the lives of white girls than in those girls whose lives become other to the stereotype. Girls growing up in situations that make such a stereotype seem less attainable will in some way be freed from the stereotype, but they will be hurt in other ways. This othering brings about harmful counterimages of sexual and aggressive girls that they accept or resist to their detriment.

The general kind of othering (the other girl started it) that is so much a part of how middle-class girls explain sexuality and aggression is done out of guilt and shame. But in the following pages we will take apart this guilt. Some of it is appropriate, and we would wish that all people might feel the sense of guilt and remorse that many girls feel when they've hurt another by acting out aggressively. Even so, because these acts are forbidden, they carry with them an unrealistic burden of guilt for girls. And they try to hide the fact that these are human impulses we all share -- the taste for revenge, the sexual urges of the body, the desire to dominate another.

Girl Power

Finally, someone reading this book is bound to ask, What about "girl power"? Aren't girls today more powerful than ever thanks to those early feminists who fought for the empowerment of women and girls? Don't girls today have better self-esteem? Can't they do everything boys do? In sports, for example? And even sexually, aren't they worlds apart from the white-gloved Mommy's helper of the fifties? Many have commented on how high school girls today seem unashamedly raunchy in their discussions of sex and bodies.

Teenage girls today engage in sex earlier and speak more freely about their sexual exploits. These acts frequently do not derive from a love of their bodies or an urge to express and understand themselves sexually, but from a desire to garner male attention and define themselves as desirable, even if "wild," in the eyes of boys. They don't divorce themselves from the image of the "good girl" but evaluate their behavior against the backdrop of this image, which makes them feel somewhat ashamed. If recent reports on teen sexuality are accurate, sexually active teens frequently regret their early sex, wishing they could do their teen years over again. The raucous, in-your-face teen sexuality of today is not a sexuality that leaves them feeling powerful.

But what about "girl power," the media slogan that focuses on the preteen as well as the teen? Even the new movement about girl power plays into this image of goodness and sets up unrealistic images. For white middle-class girls, the image of "supergirl" is evoked by shouts of "Girls rule!" This is the girl who can achieve well in school and pursue a career when she grows up. Girls knew, even before these slogans appeared, that they did better than boys in school and were well loved by teachers for their achievements. But Valerie Walkerdine, a British sociologist and feminist, points out that the image of the supergirl that "Girls rule" and "girl power" suggest sets up an opposing image of the girl of color or from a low-income family who is the other and not given the opportunities to achieve superwoman status. And it ignores the privilege that helps only certain girls become supergirls and makes them suffer when they come close to achieving this status, working as hard as they do for some perfection or recognition that is often unattainable.

Girls love these slogans, though: Girls rule! Girl power! And why? Because so many girls seem to love power and love to win. And girls have been deprived of that exuberance for a long time. Boys in our culture have greater freedom to engage in transgressive activities and call them their own. They are free to explore, rage, experiment -- free to be ravenous, sexual, and outrageous. Their secrets are of a different kind and deserve their own treatment elsewhere.

When boys act "bad," a different kind of distancing from their acts occurs, perpetuated by the boys themselves, their parents, educators, and the media. Rather than othering (projecting their badness onto others), boys are excused quite publicly for the sexual and aggressive acts they commit. Unless the boys take guns to their high schools or rape another student, adults in the United States will tend to see their aggressive or sexual acts as typical, and in some cases, biological -- a part of who they "really" are. When we hear of a sexual game or an aggressive act of a boy we say that all boys are like this; we say "boys will be boys."

Who Are the "Real Girls"?

It would be tempting to tell you that the stories ahead show what "real girls" do, just as William Pollack asserts about "real boys" in his book of the same name. Any such truism would mislead just as much as the prevailing stereotypes of girl and boy behavior do. Biological urges get shaped by the social expectations of specific cultures and specific times. The "sexual girl" is no more real than the pure and innocent girl, for both potentials are in us and our children. Still, recognizing the potential for sexuality and aggression in our girls affords them a little more privilege in this world, helps them to lead more fulfilling lives in our current culture, protects them from self-destructive acts, and encourages them to be "good" in truly moral (seeking peace, justice, and care) rather than in merely conventional ways.

If parents want their daughters to be full and moral people, aware of all aspects of their humanity, good and bad, they need to accept certain impulses in girls that up until now they may not have wanted to see. Girls, like boys, are deeply sexual, deeply aggressive creatures. And these impulses exist alongside their sweetness, competence, and ability to love and care for others. Real girls are morally complex, interesting, and interested creatures, and while the culture may do its best to simplify and codify their "girlness," box them in so to speak, they do their best to resist, rebel, redefine, and explore this girlness through the secret games they play and the secrets they keep.

Copyright © 2001 by Sharon Lamb

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2007

    the secret lives of girls, sharon lamb

    for so many years I've been one of these girls because I was influence by another girl and I was always ashamed and till this day cannot tell my mother what I do out of shame and being scared and rejected I am one of those girls and I feel very blessed to have sharon lamb write this book to bring me comfort its not easy being an sexually abused child or keeping what I've been through secretive but it is even harder to have someone relate to what you go through thank you so much sharon lamb love ya girl*

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2002

    Very, very interesting book!

    I really recommend this book to anyone who played a childhood game that was sexual and who has wondered over the years, 'was that normal?' This psychologist interviewed a number of women who talked about such play (and secret aggressive things they did) and that they felt guilty about all their life. I'm a mother of a little girl too and I think this book will help me to raise her to be more positive about herself and whatever sexual feelings she might have in childhood. This was really a great read. The stories from the women (and the girls) were so interesting...and the author is very wise.

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