On the one hand girls are socialized to be good girls when it comes to sex and are taught that they need to be sexual gatekeepers. This typically begins as girls enter adolescents and parental communications around their burgeoning sexuality suddenly take on a moralistic tone—"should," “should not,” “wrong,” “good,” “bad.” Parents may find themselves gently chastising “Your top is too short” or “Your pants are too tight.” Although coming from an understandable sense of parental anxiety, the message to daughters is that they should act a certain way or are inviting problems.
These messages implicitly convey to girls that they need to be hyper-vigilant to the signals they are putting out to men by way of their behavior and appearance. This message communicates that men are feral and that it is the daughter’s responsibility to tame them through being an ever vigilant sexual gatekeeper. If something bad occurs—presumably pregnancy, rape, sexual assault, or a sexually transmitted disease, then it is the girl's fault.
While all of this is occurring girls are also socialized to believe that being liked by everybody is their top priority. Research suggests that certain brain differences (greater left brain/right brain communication) allow girls to learn language more quickly than boys and also to have an ability to label, understand and control emotion at an earlier age. The downside of this biological reality is girls learn early the costs and rewards of social approval and social disapproval. Girls are more apt to listen to the opinions of others and struggle with differentiating what they know to be true vs. what others expect them to accept as true. And, families often contribute through encouraging daughters to get along, to be nice at all costs and to please their public.
A third confusing and paradoxical message about female sexuality comes from the culture at large. Girls are perpetually bombarded by media images that encourage them to put a high value on their appearance so that they may always appear desirable to boys and men.
Managing these three messages is an ongoing job for adolescent girls. They must be ever vigilant and self-conscious that one of their physical flaws will be revealed and they will not appear desirable enough for male attention. They are exposed to Internet and magazine articles that teach them, literally, how to be sexy enough and say the right things for boys to like you. In modern adolescent culture, women are objectified as being up for anything and appear all the hotter if they are more sexually adventuresome. Alcohol is often combined with these images to promote the notion that girls who drink and are sexually intriguing are somehow more liberated. And, at the same time, girls know that they must also act the part of the cautious sexual gatekeeper so that they are not branded “bad girl.” All the while they are maturing physically and becoming sexual beings with urges and desires all of their own.
Alcohol offers adolescent girls a way out of reconciling the irreconcilable. As Jennifer Livingston found in her research on “Adolescent Girls’ Perspectives on Alcohol and Sexuality,” alcohol becomes a way for girls to diffuse responsibility “I hooked up with him, but I was drunk,” and a way to buoy confidence so as to be temporarily free of the sexual rules that constrict sexual desire. As Livingston discovered in her research girls believe that alcohol has a sort of transformative power that reduces all of the fears and anxieties related to participating in sexual activity and is a way to walk the line between being labeled a prude or a slut. It is used to release this burden of responsibility and free teen girls from confusing sexual norms that constrict how they act on their sexual desire. Of course, the risks associated with drinking alcohol and sexual behaviors are high (and far higher for teen girls than teen boys—including sexual assault and rape).
For many, drinking is a way to manage competing and contradictory expectations. Teen girls can experience some of their own desire while also feeling they have a way out or an excuse should things spin out of control. Nonetheless, if they are drinking when bad things happen, women and girls are often blamed for the negative consequences—even when it comes to unwanted sexual contact. And too, research shows that men often perceive women who drink as more interested and available for sex than those who do not.
As Jane Fonda said on the Today Show this week, relationship skills can and should be taught to teens. The idea that parents know all of this intuitively sets up an unrealistic expectation that often contributes to parents feeling like they failed their kids. Integrating instruction in school curriculum around how to develop real emotional intimacy with romantic partners and friends through direct communication, self-confidence, emotional self-knowledge, and empathy, will go far. And too, an open dialogue that challenges gender roles and expectations is needed, as well as instruction about concrete ways to have fulfilling, but also safe and sober connections with others.
I am a clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships. Keep the discussion going, click here to follow me on Facebook or here to follow me on Twitter @DrJillWeber.
Livingston, J.A., Bay-Cheng, L.Y. et. al (2013). Mixed Drinks and Mixed Messages: Adolescent Girls’ Perspectives on Alcohol and Sexuality. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 37.
Tolman, D.L. (2002). Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk About Sexuality. Harvard University Press.