The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girlsby Lynn E. Ponton
Author and psychiatrist Lynn Ponton shows parents and their children how to cope with adolescent sexuality, in a book that goes behind the closed doors of a therapist's office to hear what teenagers have to say about their sexual lives. In a safe forum, without fear of judgment or censorship, teens feel free to speak frankly about their feelings, desires, fantasies,… See more details below
Author and psychiatrist Lynn Ponton shows parents and their children how to cope with adolescent sexuality, in a book that goes behind the closed doors of a therapist's office to hear what teenagers have to say about their sexual lives. In a safe forum, without fear of judgment or censorship, teens feel free to speak frankly about their feelings, desires, fantasies, and expectations -- and parents give voice to the struggle of coming to terms with their children's emerging sexual identities. Dr. Ponton opens a dialogue that explores adolescents' sometimes risky behavior and addresses controversial topics such as pregnancy, abortion, masturbation, sexual orientation, Internet dating, and gender roles. Sensitive subjects such as AIDS and drugs are also explored.
- Penguin Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.31(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)
Read an Excerpt
Studs and Sluts
The Dating Game
She feels angry, but also bad. She starts to
think she is a pigor a slut. Melissa
Guys are supposed to know how to handle this
kind of stuff. Jacob
Parental concern about adolescent dating or courtship begins very early, in many cultures at the time a child is born. For parents in the United States, their worry often coincides with their child's actual involvement or interest in the process. I never understood this as well as I did on the day I attended a roundtable conference called by the head of my daughter's middle school to discuss growing concerns about "social issues" in the sixth-grade class. I was curious about the topic, both as a mother and as a psychiatrist, and I rearranged my morning patient schedule so I could attend. The night before, my eleven-year-old daughter decided that she had to prepare me. She was glad that I was planning to go, but she also wanted to set me straight. I had noticed all week that she and her friends were buzzing about the upcoming meeting. Clearly, this was an area of great interest.
"Mom, listen. The class is getting along really well. There are kids that are `going together,' but it just means that they're good friends. Debbie [the administrator who had called the meeting] doesn't understand that. She thinks we're actually dating. She told us that we were too young to even be thinking about it. You have to go, Mom, and give her our perspective." I had to smile attheway she had framed "our perspective." She didn't know I had already begun the task.
Several days earlier, when Debbie had called about the parents' meeting, I had asked her: exactly what were the "social issues" in the sixth grade that were generating so much concern? Debbie told me that she had been contacted by several parentsall mothers of boys, she saidupset because their sons were being bothered at home after school by phone calls from the girls in their classes. The girls apparently were quite persistent ("... wouldn't take no for an answer ... kept calling back ..."). The mothers said that not only they, but their sons, too, were upset by the girls' phone calls, which took time away from the boys' studies and basketball, the things they really wanted to do. Several of these mothers had suggested a moratorium, or at least a curfew for phone calls.
Debbie and I had chatted briefly about both the expected social behaviors of sixth graders, and the behavior of this class in particular. She noted that these boys and girls had socialized together from an early age. I mentioned that despite parental concerns, their greater sociability could also be considered a strength. After all, this class had social skills that other classes did not, and they genuinely enjoyed spending time together. Debbie laughed when I said this, but she agreed, and she thought that sharing this perspective might shed a different light on the "troublesome" behavior. I hung up wondering what was so troubling about telephone conversations between boys and girls.
I arrived early the day of the meeting, but in a few minutes the room was filled. Extra chairs had to be providedthree times. Both mothers and fathers had come. Debbie was surprised. The attendance was better than it had been at any of the other roundtables. The discussion began slowly, since many of the parents were still clutching coffeecups and blinking back sleep. Debby tried to stimulate dialogue, first mentioning important general aspects of adolescent development and then shifting the focus to this particular class of sixth graders. As she had with me, she noted that in earlier years, both the boys and the girls had been more social than the typical class, so in many ways their current interest in social activities was a logical next step. I could see that Debbie had decided I shouldn't really have to go out on a limb with this perspective after all.
After she spoke, the conversation warmed up in a hurry. Several mothers of boys reported their concerns about girls telephoning their sons, emphasizing that their sons were upset by the number of calls that they were receiving. They again mentioned that the calls were keeping their sons away from more important activities, their studies and sports among them. The biggest problem, they said, was that their sons didn't know how to get the girls off the telephone. Several made the suggestion of adopting a class-wide curfew for phone calls, and some said they had set private curfews for their sons already. I heard my daughter's voice in my head: "Mom, you have to stand up for us."
Until this point, no mothers of girls had spoken out. I scanned the room searching for their faces, wondering what their response to all this was. I was one of them, and I had to admit that I found myself feeling pretty defensive about the way that the girls' behavior was being discussed, even if the psychiatrist part of me was not surprised. These mothers wanted to protect their sons. The girls' phone calls were threatening in many ways, not only to homework and basketball. Many of the sixth-grade girls were more than a head taller than the boys, were physically developed, and could talk rings around the boys socially. Yet I believed more was going on than that. The expressions used to describe the girls and their behavior were interesting: "out of control," "relentless," "calling back repeatedly," "did not listen to me," even "devious" (because a girl had failed to identify herself when she called). These women were beginning to regard the girls as predatory as they tested out their blossoming social skills on the telephone.
So there I was, feeling both defensive and interested, when the mother of a girl finally spoke. "What I'm worried about is my daughter's eating. She and her friends have stopped eating lunch. Have you noticed this, Debbie?"
The school administrator was clearly as surprised by this question as I was. "Well, uh, that's important, but I am not sure that it is what we've been talking about"
She was interrupted by a second mother, then a third, both echoing the first one's comments. They were concerned about the food in the school cafeteria. Did it offer choices that their daughters could eat? They mentioned that several of their daughters were experimenting with vegetarianism because they were worried about getting too fat.
At this point Debbie turned to me, gently guiding me by mentioning how fortunate it was for the group to have a parent who happened to be a child and adolescent psychiatrist with some expertise in disordered eating. I followed her lead and told the parents that many girls at eleven or twelve begin to have problems with eating, believing that they are too fat and struggling to fit the image offered by advertisements that portray adolescent girls, but I was still puzzled by the major shift in the conversation. As I spoke, I struggled to put it together. How did the boys' mothers' concerns about frequent phone calls relate to the girls' disturbed body images? The boys' mothers' comments were clearly threatening to the girls' mothers. I had felt it, too. But what had the response been? Poor girls, preoccupied with their physical appearances, suffering at the hands of the media and social expectations ... clearly, in this light, they were no threat to anyone.
I needed to say something more than a doctor's spiel. I shifted from the girls' eating back to the social concerns, reminding the group of Debbie's description of this class as more socially advanced than others, both the boys and the girls. They had always hung out together, having many girl-boy parties before they got to the sixth grade. I asked the other parents if we could think about how we could nurture this unique gift of our children's and help them to continue to develop their already advanced social skills in safe, healthy ways that were fun.
Silence. Then the boys' moms again started talking about the girls' phone calls, and the girls' moms returned to their daughters' eating. No consensus was reached about either of these problems by the time the meeting ended.
The roundtable gave me a lot to think about. Obviously the interests of these mothers were focused in very different places, depending, it seemed, on whether they had a son or a daughter. Although this meeting involved only thirty parents at most, I believed that their concerns are vital to many parents who have children in the sixth or seventh grade. One of the most interesting points was how opinionated the boys' mothers were. Along with the language they used to describe the girls"out of control," "relentless," "devious"their attitudes suggested a theme that is consistent with a larger cultural perspective on girls' developing sexuality: that it is frightening and needs to be curtailed, brought back in line. To add to this problem for girls, society's expectations are changing, becoming increasingly confusing, though no less negative. Girls who reveal or act on developing sexual feelings in an outright manner are frequently sanctioned, not only by parents but by other children. Is it such a mystery, then, that some will try to "diet" enough to limit or stop their bodies from developing?
Prior to the 1960s, girls were expected to "hold the line," avoiding sex until they were married, policing boys' sexual feelings as well as their own. With the development and widespread distribution of birth control pills, the 1960s and 1970s promoted an attitude of sexual experimentation for adolescents of both sexes. In the 1990s, three-quarters of all adolescents are sexually active by the age of nineteen, but the "double standard" is flourishing.
Sexually active girls and boys continue to be treated very differently. The girls that I see both in my clinical psychiatric practice and the pediatric clinics are very concerned about what others will think if their sexual activity or even interest is discovered. Their fear of discovery is not limited to their parents and other adults, but encompasses their girlfriends, classmates, and just about everybody else in their lives. They describe feelings of genuine desire as well as social pressure to have sex, sometimes applied by boyfriends, sometimes by other girls, but at the same time they are frightened that they will be condemned. Most boys have a decidedly different attitude. They, too, can be extremely fearful, especially when they are young, but as they become older, these fears often give way to a sense of accomplishment and pride about their sexual activities, and for many there is a shift in focus to the mechanics of sex.
During the next few weeks I continued to wonder about the roundtable discussion. How were the girls' telephone calls to the boys really being perceived? I remembered growing up in the fifties and early sixties, when teenage girls were openly told not to call boys. Few did. Today, girls are calling, but how different are the attitudes from the fifties?
This wasn't entirely an academic question. I had already been struggling with it in my work with some girls, most recently Melissa, a sixth grader who was embroiled in a struggle with her classmates to avoid being labeled a "slut." I had worked with her several years earlier for a few sessions after a treasured grandparent had died. Her mother recently brought her back for school problems.
A green-eyed twelve-year-old, Melissa was noisily talking with her mother, Linda, and my assistant when I entered my waiting room to call her in. All three of them were kneeling on the floor, looking at a collection of drawings that Melissa had spread out. Curious, I knelt down on the floor to look at them. Melissa was a fine artist. I had seen other drawings of hers and had always admired them, but I was particularly struck by these. They were all animals, and not the Walt Disney variety, but gross, ugly animals. In one, a pig with a swollen head and a protruding nose with spiky hairs visible in the nostrils had its eyes narrowed, sharp with anger that seemed to leap off the page. She was standing on her hind legs, wearing un-piglike attire, including platform shoes that closely resembled Melissa's own. At the top of the drawing, Melissa had scrawled, "PignoseA Slut." The other two drawings included a dog and a cow, also wearing platform shoes and given nicknames"Bitchy" and "Big Tits" respectivelyand the word "slut." The dog's genitalia and the cow's mammary glands were drawn in sharp detail.
Melissa was waiting for a response, but the room was very quiet as her mother, my assistant, and I stared at the drawings. Linda seemed shocked, her face now a deep shade of pink. Unsure what to say myself, I suggested to Melissa that we bring the drawings into her session. Her mother seemed relieved. She may have thought that I was going to handle it somehow, but honestly I was still unsure how to proceed after Melissa and I had spread out the drawings on the floor of my office. She broke the silence by sarcastically saying, "They don't exactly fit in with your other art."
"Not exactly," I said. My walls are covered with prints of Monet's water lilies. "But that artist used his imagination a lot, like you. He was nearly blind when he painted them, so he had to rely on his imagination."
"Wish I was blind at my school. It would help. Blind and deaf."
"How would that help?"
"I wouldn't have to hear it if they call me `Pignose.'" Then, hardening her jaw, she said, "I actually like `slut' better."
"They call you `slut'?" I asked.
She looked at me like I was from the Dark Ages and said, "When was the last time you were in high school? They call all the girls sluts, that is, if they're ... interested."
"Interested in what?"
At this point Melissa looked at me like I was impossibly stupid.
"What do you think? Interested in boys, in sex. If you show any interest, and even if you don't, you're labeled. Not the boys, though, they're the `studs' ... the studs, Dr. Ponton."
At this point Melissa's face was filled with anger, and she began to crumple her drawings. She also began to cry.
"Melissa, let's look at the drawings together before you destroy them," I said.
I picked up the pig and placed it closer to her so that we could examine it together. I didn't like looking at the picture. The enlarged head and nose were both ugly and frightening, but as I examined it, I could see how skillfully she had combined human and animal featuresthe pig's hooves clearly usable in the plastic platform shoes. Staring at the drawing, I was reminded of art that depicted Minotaurs, those mysterious creatures with a combination of human and animal features. Minotaurs often represented some of the complexity of human sexuality, linking animal instincts and human fantasies.
Still unsure about how to talk to Melissa about this, I mentioned the unique combination of shoes and hooves, indicating that I could see how carefully she had drawn them.
She smiled. "I like them, too, but I don't know exactly why. The ugly head, the nose, even the pigpignosethat's something the kids at school have put on me. I guess that's the slut part. I hate it like I hate them. But I like the feet. The feet are differentpart pig, part girl." She laughed. "I guess the high-heeled platforms are the girl part. Something that a girl might wear, on a date, if she felt sexy and wanted to attract a boy. She would be feeling good about herself in them, but then"her face darkened"the others would see her in the shoes, wearing those flashy high-heeled platforms, and they would have to put her down. They would call her `Pignose' then."
"Pretty sad. Does the girl forget about how good she feels about her platforms, then?"
"Yeah, she forgets. But even more, she's so upset that the whole picture is ruined. She wonders if she should wear the shoes. She feels angry, but also bad. She starts to think she is a pigor a slut."
"Sounds like it's hard enough to wear the shoes to begin with."
"Yeah, it's not easy."
After talking about her feelings a few minutes longer, Melissa and I picked up her drawings and placed them in a folder. She agreed to save them for further discussion. I could see that she was feeling better. We hadn't solved her problem, but we had worked together to help her identify it.
Like many twelve-year-olds, Melissa was starting to have sexual feelings. They were showing up in several waysin her drawings, high-heeled platforms, and in phone calls to boys.
Melissa had her own private prohibitions about showing her sexualitywere the shoes too flashy?but it was hard for her to feel them when she was being called a slut by the boys at school. Instead of paying attention to her own complex feelings, she focused on her anger at the boys, in many ways a safer experience. She wasn't calling herself a slut; they were.
Melissa's mother met with me after my session with her daughter. Linda was practical and wanted some immediate answers to her questions about what was going on with her daughter, but her voice was shaking with emotion and tight lines formed on her face. She was an experienced mother, having raised two sons now in their twenties, but Melissa was her first and only daughter, and she was frightened by what she saw happening to her, and by her own reactions to it.
"Dr. Ponton, I was so upset when the principal called. It was awful. You have no idea what it's like when they call and tell you that your daughter is being called a slut at school. First, I was angry with the boys. You know, how dare they ... But then I started to get these sneaking doubts about Melissa. After all, she does call boys on the telephone. She wears tight T-shirts and those high-heeled platforms. I wondered if she might be contributing to it. Is she leading them on? It's such a horrible question to have to ask about your own daughter. It's so different from what happened with my sons."
"How?" I asked, hoping Linda's answer would help me, but at this point in our discussion I also hoped that it would help Linda reflect on the period when she had parented her sons so successfully, and acquire the courage to face her current situation.
"For starters, no one ever called me to tell me that one of my sons was being called a slut. You know, there isn't even a word for a male slut. It makes me feel so vulnerable, the mother of a slut. How would you feel?"
I had thought about Linda's question before she asked it. Only four days had passed since the roundtable. It wasn't so far from "devious" phone calls to slut.
Developmentally appropriate behaviors on the part of the girls are often perceived as sexual. Smiles can be seen as seductive, a certain walk as provocative, a phone call as manipulative. Even the biologically determined appearance of breast buds can be viewed as willfully sexy. An all too common reaction to the developing bodies of adolescent girls is for their peers, both male and female, to call them "sluts." Many girls discuss their fears of being labeled. Some consciously shut off their sexuality; others, like Melissa, show anger; and still others decide to flaunt it. If they are sluts, so be it, they'll act like sluts; in fact, they'll become the slut to end all sluts.
After my sessions with Melissa and Linda, I climbed the two flights of stairs from my office to my home to discover one of my daughters and four other teenage girls sitting around the kitchen table, eating after-school snacks and reviewing their day. I sat down and poured myself a glass of orange juice. They kept talking. In only a few minutes the word slut came up in conversation here, too. It seemed as if the term itself and its implications were as common as water.
"This girl, she calls me a slut, can you believe it? Me? Just for wearing a red tank top? You should have seen what she was wearing!"
Unable to resist joining in this conversation, I asked what "slut" meant for them. I got a couple of responses.
"Not always critical, but mostly so."
"It's a put-down, sexier than bitch, but more negative, too."
"It's okay when your friends use it, but even then you remember it."
"Yeah, it's how they say it."
"You can even know when they're thinking it about you, like, it's in the air, even if they don't tell you."
"How do you feel after someone says it?" I asked.
The girl in the red tank top laughed. "I just tell them to fuck themselves. Then I go right on doing what I'm doingdo it more, in fact." Here she gave a big grin and her friends laughed. Yet the others at the table didn't look as sure of themselves.
One of them said, "You think about it, even if you don't want to. You can't forget it."
Another said, "It changes how you feel about the person who said it. She's right. I don't forget it."
"Can guys be sluts?" I asked.
"They should be. They act like it, but they don't get called it."
"What are they called instead?" I asked. The noisy table suddenly became quiet.
"It isn't the same with guys. A guy who pushes you over the top is called a fucker or a bastard, but it isn't the same as when they call a girl a slut."
"A guy who's like super sexualfull of himselfhe's a hottie, maybe a player if he hooks up with everyone, but probably a stud."
Another said, "A stud, yeah, he's a stud all right," and the rest of the table agreed.
"Seems unfair, he's a stud and she's a slut," said the girl who couldn't forget what it was like to be called a slut.
"Who ever said it was fair?" said another.
I left the table carrying more than my glass of orange juice with me, their last words ringing in my ears. "Who ever said it was fair?"
First the parents' meeting, then my hour with Melissa, followed by the conversation with my daughter's friendsstuds and sluts. If that was it, where were the studs? They weren't sitting here in my office. The sluts were, though. Girls who are sexually stereotyped often end up in a therapist's office, and my practice was no exception. I have written elsewhere about ten-year-old Mary, who had been called "Busty" and "Cow" by her entire elementary school, including her four older brothers. She had been brought to see me because she was writing essays about death. I worked with her parents, the teachers, and even her brothers to try and stop the name-calling, but Mary and I both knew that it was going to take more than that for her to heal. Painful words like "busty," "slut," and "cow" stay in your memory a long time. "You don't forget," said Mary.
Yet boys are not immune to confusion about their emerging sexuality.
Urged on by concerned parents, Jacob had come to see me after his house had been destroyed by the Loma Prieta earthquake. His computer and most of his childhood toys had crashed, along with part of his life. Fourteen-year-old Jacob was carrying Benji, Cat, and Joehis surviving toysin his backpack the first day he came to see me. This six-foot-three teenager with a shadow of a beard and the physique of a twenty-five-year-old man fooled me the first time I saw him in my waiting room. Where was the sobbing child that his mother had described over the telephone? I discovered that child only moments later when he dumped Benji, a worn purple Care Bear; Cat, a tiger with one ear; and a GI Joe with one remaining leg, on my carpet. Jacob then proceeded to cry harder than almost any child I've ever had in my office. "They're the only survivorsthe only ones left."
"You're here, too, Jacob."
"The wreckage crew said all my toys were lost, and I wasn't even there. I should have been with them." He then picked up his Care Bear and held it to his chest. "Benji had five brothers and sistersall gone."
"Jacob, what would you have done if you had been there?"
"Saved 'em, but I guess that's pretty stupid. My dad said I would have gone down with them. He says I was lucky we weren't in the house when the quake hit."
"He's right, but it doesn't stop you from wanting to be there."
"No. I was supposed to be there."
Thirty minutes and four tissues later, this muscular fourteen-year-old gently returned Benji, Cat, and Joe to his backpacktheir traveling home, as he called itdried his tears, and loped out of my office.
Jacob came to see me several more times, and we talked about what he and his family had lost in the earthquake. During these weeks I began to hear comments about Jacob from girls who saw him in my waiting room, either before or after their sessions. He was referred to as "Young David" by a nineteen-year-old college student, and two girls planned to arrive early for their sessions, hoping that they would run into him. One of them nicknamed him "Studman" and left a note for him in my waiting room, which I found and threw away.
Jacob seemed oblivious to this attention. He continued to work steadily in his sessions, now talking about the memorial that he was building to remember his lost toys. One afternoon he brought in a poem he wrote, "Taken Away." He was reading it to me when he suddenly changed the subject. "Dr. Ponton, this substitute teacher at my school, Sylvia, she, uh, asked me out."
I was surprised, and may even have looked it as I met Jacob's trusting brown eyes searching my face. "She did?"
"Yeah, she said I was gorgeous, and she asked me if I want to go out for coffee Friday night."
"What did you say?"
"I didn't say anything. I think she thinks I'm gonna go with her." After he said this, he started grinding his hiking boots into my carpet.
My mind raced suddenly. How do we talk about this? Fourteen years old, but he looks twenty-five. Maybe the teacher didn't know that he was a freshman, maybe she did.
"What do you think about it, Jacob?"
"Confusing," and he stared at the floor. Then, looking at his backpack, he started ginning. "She wouldn't ask me out if she knew I carried a GI Joe in my backpack."
"Sounds like you're worried that she's expecting something different from what she might be getting."
"I worry that she's expecting anything."
"Do you think she knows you're fourteen?"
He turned red and looked down again. "Probably not. I didn't tell her, if that's what you're asking. There are lots of student teachers at the school. Maybe she thinks I'm one of them. God, if she found out I was a freshman"
"What if she did?"
"It would be weird."
"But you are one."
"Yeah, but what if she already knows?" Here he swallowed hard, and his eyes met mine straight on. "Dr. Ponton, this isn't the first time this has happened to me. About a year ago, when I was helping out at Rec Camp, this woman started sending me letters where she described sexual things I could do to herlike sexual stuff. She was the stepmom of one of the kids."
"How'd you handle it?"
"I threw 'em away."
"Did you tell your mom or dad?"
"No. Do you think I should have told 'em? Should I tell them about this teacher?"
"What do you think?"
"I don't want to. Guys are supposed to know how to handle this kind of stuff."
"Do you feel like you can?"
"That's right. You're fourteen. It's okay to ask for help."
We decided that Jacob should write a letter to give to the substitute teacher, making it very clear how old he was. He and I also agreed that he would talk with his school counselor the next day and obtain his advice. Jacob left the session thanking me, expressing relief that he had figured out how to handle the situation.
Jacob and I had further conversations about women coming on to him. I listened carefully and learned a great deal. Perhaps not surprisingly, a part of Jacob was pleased with the attention.
"It makes me feel great, Dr. Ponton, until I think about what they want to do to me, or worse, what they expect me to do to them."
Much of our conversation was focused on the doing part. Jacob didn't want to look like he was as sexually naive as he actually was. Slowly, another theme emerged in our talksthese women didn't even know him, hadn't ever talked to him, and they wanted sex. Well, maybe not intercourse, but something explicitly sexual with Jacob. Why? He wanted to understand.
Why Studs and Sluts?
Both Melissa and Jacob were what might be called "early developers," each physically changing earlier than their classmates. Melissa had started puberty at age eight, already almost four years before I saw her this second time around. Jacob was about two years ahead of most of the boys in his class, having started to change physically at age ten. Although both Melissa and Jacob told me that they were proud that they had developed before their friends, they were also confused by it. Frequently, they were mistaken for being older. Most of the time they liked this, but it also had its complications. Others assumed not only that they were sexually experiencedafter all, their bodies looked like older kids' bodies, and the older kids were sexually activebut that they had sexual expertise. One of the things that the boys screamed at twelve-year-old Melissa was, "You know how to do it!" The stepmother who wrote Jacob the letter when he was thirteen assumed a wealth of knowledge on his part. This was both flattering and scary for him.
At the same time, though, there was an important difference in how Melissa and Jacob were treated. Melissa's early sexual development was seen hostilely"slut," "pignose"whereas Jacob's was welcomed. He did not have a group of boys and girls shouting names at him. Overtures directed toward him were private. This, too, was problematic, of course, because he had a hard time bringing it out into the open. If he had not been seeing a psychiatrist for an entirely different reason, I wonder if he would have talked about the issue with anyone. Still, he was not struggling with the public humiliation that Melissa was.
"Slut" is defined by Webster's Dictionary as "a woman of low character," with a second definition, that of a female dog. "Stud" is defined as "a male animal, especially horses, kept for breeding." So although each word is defined at least in part in animal terms, reminding us that the dramatic and explicit changes seen in early sexual development evoke animal images, there is one important difference. Sluts are perceived as inherently worthy of condemnation. Melissa's emerging breasts and hips, and the fact that she liked her body and was developing an interest in boys, brought on a painful censorshipyou are low-class.
Interestingly, adult perceptions of pubescent "sexiness" often reveal more about the adult than the child. That is, there is always a lot of projection of the adults' own desires and fantasies onto adolescents. In many ways, the slut label is the twentieth-century counterpart for the scarlet letter. It punishes girls for being sexual, for being powerful, or just for being different. Leora Tanenbaum, a feminist who has interviewed many women who were called sluts in their early adolescence, believes the label is one of the major tools used to enforce the double standarddifferent rules for the sexuality of boys and girls. Girls' sexuality should be hidden. Girls themselves should be passive, and even the appearance of breasts can be seen as too aggressive, requiring public sanction. Another side of the double standard is seen in Jacob's struggle. The letters that Jacob received described sexual things that he, then a thirteen-year-old, could "do" to an adult woman.
Just because Melissa's and Jacob's developing bodies evoked strong feelings in others, they were not necessarily doing anything "devious" to provoke such responses. In fact, both of these young people were in some ways violated by others, though Jacob suffered a much more subtle form.
Both biology and culture are conspiring to speed up the sexual development of childrenboys and girls. It has long been recognized that girls are developing almost two years earlier than they did thirty years ago, due to improved nutrition and a decrease in infectious diseases. Girls with the earliest sexual maturation are hit hard and struggle with more dissatisfaction with their appearance and lowered self-esteem. They also suffer from higher rates of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Why? It is hard for these girls to accept their changing bodies in a culture that values thin, prepubertal bodies for girls.
Boys, too, are developing two years earlier. Generally assumed to be an advantage in a world where their sexuality is encouraged, early development in boys is beginning to be recognized as a mixed blessing. Boys who mature earlier than their classmates have better self-esteem and are more popular than other boys, but they are also more likely to get involved in dangerous risk-taking activities, including substance and alcohol abuse. Part of the explanation for this may lie in the fact that because they look older, they may be more likely to develop friendships with older peers who initiate them into risky behaviors.
The earlier onset of puberty for all children is putting pressure on teens to act like adults before they are emotionally or cognitively ready. Pressure to take on a strongly defined gender role early is strong in the American culture of the 1990s. This means that boys are pressured to act in typically masculine ways, and girls in typically feminine ways. This closes off choices for boys and girls. For example, girls may lose the opportunity to develop more typically masculine traits such as logic, independence, and healthy aggression, and boys are less able to develop feminine traits such as relatedness, sociability, and empathy.
This trend can be harmful. Studies show that girls who adopt a strong feminine role (with traits of sociability, empathy, and greater passivity) do not feel as good about themselves as girls who are more androgynous and show a combination of male traits (independence, aggression, and assertiveness) and female traits. This process is different for boys. Boys who adopt a strong masculine role are reported to feel better about themselves than boys who are more androgynous. Even at a young age, boys are pressured to relinquish "female" traits. This process only continues in adolescence, but it is not without its price. Boys who are more "masculine," like the early developers, are more likely to be involved in dangerous risk-taking.
My work with Melissa and Jacob and others like them has given me perspective on the roundtable discussion at my daughter's school. In each setting, the same questions and concerns are revealed, questions that help us understand some of the sexual pressures on boys and girls today. At my daughter's school, the boys' mothers were worried about the behavior of the girls"too many phone calls"pushing the boys before both the boys and their mothers were ready for relationships. Things were happening too fast. The girls' mothers were concerned about gender issues, too. Their girls weren't eating enough, responding to social pressures to be thin at the time of greatest physical development. It is striking that the pressure to conceptualize different "tracks" for boys and girls was already present at the sixth-grade level. The boys were seen as acting one way, the girls another. The double standard is also present. The girls' advanced sociability and emerging sexual interest were seen as problems. Instead of conversing with their sons about how to handle girls' phone calls, the boys' mothers suggested a school-wide curfew. I left that meeting on the defensive as one of the girls' mothers, but realized only later that I was struggling with how quickly these eleven- and twelve-year-olds were being pushed into gender-based roles. In fifth grade, the boys and girls had called each other frequently and even hung out together, but now the lines were being drawn, the roles narrowed. All of this occurred at a middle school in Northern California that prides itself on being attuned to the development of children.
When Melissa saw me, she was aware that she was feeling good about her body and starting to have sexual feelings, many very positive, revealed in her liking for her high-heeled platforms. She was also already aware that it was not okay to feel or to look the way she did. She also knew that boys and girls were being treated differently. She was a slut. They were studs.
Jacob faced a different issue. He, too, was proud of his body, but when the letters and the pressures started early, too early for him, he struggled. At age thirteen, what did these women want him to do to them?
Each of these young people was being pushed into strong sexual roles before they were ready, both confusing them and closing off opportunities, and in Melissa's situation, causing her much immediate pain and suffering. The questions remain: Why are gender stereotypes being strongly enforced for young people? Why at earlier ages?
The pressure from the media is, I believe, only a part of the story. The double standard so evident in the 1950s has resurfaced in the 1990s. Expecting and enforcing strong gender roles for children and young teens offers a sense of security to adults. If the gender model is there, then parents don't have to talk about it, and they can continue to maintain the strong taboo around discussing sexual matters. Teens follow their parents' lead. Exploring options becomes nearly impossible in such a rigid environment. If adolescents question, they do so in private, hiding their activities and protecting themselves.
Both Jacob and Melissa felt tagged with sexual identities that weren't genuinely their own. Both were early developers, of course, but again, this is not the only factor that makes othersadults and children alikepush sexuality onto teens before they themselves are ready. Early adolescence is rightfully a time of exploration. We do young people a grave disservice when we presume the results of that exploration when it has barely begun.
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