Loose Girl

Ruminations of a Girl Gone Wild

Boys Aren't As Interested in Romance and Other Generalizations My Step-Daughter Should Know

Do we really need to be teaching her about boys?

Recently, my eight-year-old stepdaughter and I sat in front of the Disney movie Tangled. She had already seen it with her mother, and she kept saying things like, "Watch! Something really good happens here!" and "You're not going to believe what happens next!" My two sons and stepson were there too, but after seeing about five minutes of the movie, all three of them had wandered off to do other things.
"I want you to notice this," I told her. "No boys have hung around to watch this with us. Can you guess why?"
She shook her head.
I said, "Because boys don't care about romance the way girls do."
"Okay," she said, very serious, and she went back to watching the movie.
I admit that was a huge generalization. Plenty of boys are interested in romance, and plenty of girls are not. But, our culture does influence girls to spend lots of time concerned about romance, and doesn't do the same with boys. I wanted my stepdaughter to know this. She had talked often spoken about boys, had identified that there were boys she liked in romantic ways, and boys she just liked. Once she had fallen off her bike, and the boy she claimed to like romantically was there, playing nearby on his bike. She started crying, and her father, my partner, had gone to her immediately, as daddies will.
"No!" she screamed between tears. "I don't want you! I want Oscar!" The boy she liked romantically.
The evening after we watched Tangled, I told her father what I'd said - that boys aren't as interested as girls in romance. He frowned. "I don't think I want you telling her things like that."
"Things like what?" I asked, defensive.
"Blanket statements about boys. Not all boys are the same."
"I'm aware of that," I said.
"Also," he added. "She's only eight. Do we really need to be teaching her about boys?"
"Your daughter is learning about boys whether you like it or not. Wouldn't you rather we guide her through that?"
My adolescent years were spent in my father's household. He and my mother divorced when I was eleven year old, in the throes of puberty, and a year later my mother moved away to attend medical school. They decided my sister and I should stay with my father so we wouldn't have to change schools. Girls become overly drawn to boys for all sorts of reasons - for me, the loss of my mother and how my parents handled the divorce (i.e., not very well!) was certainly a big part of what led me toward promiscuous behavior with boys. I was hungry for attention and affection, and there is no easier way for a girl to get attention than for her body, from boys. Also, though, every last image I saw about girls told me that my worth came from how desirable I was to men. If I was sexy enough, pretty enough, thin enough, I would be valuable.
For all of my adolescence and most of my twenties I held onto this false belief: if a boy loves me, I'll matter in the world; if he doesn't, I won't. Again and again, boys didn't love me. They wanted to sleep with me, sure. But each time I needed their carnal interest to turn into real interest, and each time it didn't, I took that as evidence of my lack of worth. I pursued them too hard. I couldn't let go after they rejected me. I dug myself deeper and deeper into a low-self-esteem hole.
My father witnessed some of these situations. He told me I acted irrationally. I was too needy with them. In his mind, I was acting foolish. Didn't I know boys might want me for sex but nothing more? Didn't I know that that meant nothing about me in terms of my basic desirability? I didn't.
Since writing about those days, readers have often asked me what adults could have done differently to have saved me from my behavior and false beliefs. And I've wondered: What if someone had told me something more useful? What if, for instance, someone told me that boys don't think about relationships as much as girls do? What if someone told me that while girls are socially programmed to focus on relationships, boys are generally programmed to stay out of relationships for as long as possible? That boys get different messages about sex than girls do?
I am quite sure I might have made different choices at times. I might have learned earlier that the rejection I felt wasn't really rejection, that it probably had little to do with me. And I might have not put myself into those situations nearly as much.
This is what I'm attempting with my stepdaughter. I want her to understand that the boys she likes might think differently from her. They generally don't spend lots of time thinking about romance the way she likely will.
I understand my partner's reluctance. He's uncomfortable. He doesn't like the idea that his little girl is already entering the world of boys. He doesn't like to think that she might need such information. She's only eight! It's how our culture in general behaves concerning girls. We aim to protect them, shield them, but in doing so we also patronize them, and we wind up missing valuable opportunities to help them make better choices.
Look at the Amazon page for a book titled A Smart Girl's Guide to Boys: Surviving Crushes, Staying True to Yourself, and Other Love Stuff to see comments that focus largely on the idea that this content is inappropriate for girls so young (the book is aimed for girls in grades 5-8). One commenter notes, "What kind of standards are we suggesting - that kissing and boyfriends are appropriate at this age?" Study after study has shown that sexual education - talking and reading about sex - does not lead to sex. In fact, sex education is protective against STDs, pregnancy, and the like. And talking about the emotional components of sexual activity can protect girls (and boys) from emotional repercussions - the repercussions we talk about a lot less.
These are the sorts of discussions I hope to inspire with Dirty Little Secrets: Breaking the Silence on Teenage Girls and Promiscuity. Girls are bombarded with sexual images, of course. But even more so, girls are reminded every day to be sexy, but not sexual; to make boys want them, but don't give them what they want. The messages are complex and confusing enough to baffle anyone, so no wonder they baffle girls as young as eight. If we want to help our girls into and through adolescence, if we really are concerned about girls and sexual behavior, then we need to start talking about these underlying issues, and we need to as soon as we can, in age appropriate ways. And we need to continue those conversations often. My hope is that next time my stepdaughter gets hurt, she'll think twice about turning to a boy to fill her needs.

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Kerry Cohen is the author of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity, as well as four young adult novels. She lives and works in Portland, Oregon.


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