We don't like to talk about teenage girls and sex. Sure, we see it everywhere. Teenage girls in provocative clothing flood the media. They have sex on Gossip Girl and Glee. And they definitely have sex on reality shows like the The Real World and 16 and Pregnant. But when we discuss adolescent girls and sex, it is only in one way: don't have sex. This is easier than anything else. We tell teenage girls to stay away from sexual behavior and to practice abstinence. Don't have sex, we say, because we don't like to imagine them having sex. If they do, then we have to think of them as sexual creatures, and that makes us squirm.
In fact, much of the promiscuity among young women, both heterosexual and homosexual, is likely to go undetected because it makes therapists uncomfortable. When I appeared on Dr Phil to discuss two teen girls whose parents were unhappy they were having sex, the tagline next to the girls' names when they were on screen was "sexually active," as though that was a disorder or a crime of some sort.
One of the main challenges of writing about teenage girls and sex is how rarely girls' sexual behavior is defined in non-biased ways by other researchers. Again and again I come up against this elusive term "promiscuity," used to suggest a bad outcome from a situation. And again and again I wonder, how are these researchers defining promiscuity? Do they mean casual sex with more than one partner? And if so, are they assuming that always means the girl is somehow at risk to herself? Does it matter if she uses condoms? Does they know whether she feels good emotionally or not about the sex?
And it barely needs to be mentioned that "promiscuity" almost never shows up as a bad outcome in research performed on adolescent boys.
Missing from most of our conversations about teenage girls and sex is desire (for one of the few see Dr Deborah Tolman's research.) In fact, sexual desire is seen as an aberration for girls, which means we almost always assume that girls act sexually only to fulfill their hopes for a relationship. Not all teenage sexual behavior derives from self-harm. Ideally, in fact, none of it would. Sexual curiosity and experimentation is a perfectly natural part of growing up. Girls have just as much sexual desire and curiosity as boys. They are curious about their genitals and others' as children. They masturbate. The hormones that race through a teenage girls' body create just as much sexual feeling as boys' hormones do.
In Dirty Little Secrets, which comes out in September, I discuss the emotions behind girls' sexual behavior, emotion that often includes needs for attention and love, but I also suggest that girls should be supported in having sexual agency. In fact, my main argument is that we need to support girls' desire in order to help them not use sex to act out or to fill other needs.
Statistics tell us that one out of every four girls aged 14-19, and one out of every two black teenage girls has an STD. Each year, almost 750,000 teen pregnancies are reported, and 82% of those pregnancies are unplanned. Clearly, we have reason to worry. But telling girls not to have sex - our approach for so long - is a useless and, let's face it, insulting effort. When you deny an entire segment of the population an essential part of who they are, a part they have full right to, they often wind up using it in a self-destructive manner rather than as a natural part of their development. In other words, if teenagers getting STDs and becoming pregnant and acting out sexually is a cultural problem, then stigmatizing teenage sex only makes it worse - much worse.
* Much of this blog is taken directly from Dirty Little Secrets