Leslie C. Bell, Ph.D., LCSW

Leslie C. Bell Ph.D., LCSW

Hard to Get

Good Girls in the New Millenium

After years of saying no, what happens when good girls want to say yes?

Posted Mar 27, 2013

Despite its limited charms, being a “good” girl ought at least to protect women from harm of various kinds. If young women follow the rules for being good, it seems that they should emerge from college and their twenties unscathed by the emotional and physical damage that afflicts women who explore and experiment with sexuality.

Alicia was a very good girl. A twenty-eight-year-old Hispanic woman raised by her Catholic grandparents, Alicia didn’t have sex until after college, and then protected herself from unplanned pregnancies, which were common in her working-class family. When she finally did have sex, in committed relationships, being a good girl didn’t protect Alicia from STDs—she contracted gonorrhea from one partner and genital warts from another. Nor did being a good girl ensure that Alicia had satisfying and committed relationships. Alicia was frustrated that she’d ostensibly done the right thing but still ended up with two STDs, and without a lasting relationship.

How did a woman who escorted her friends to Planned Parenthood as a teenager wind up having so much trouble keeping herself safe?

Alicia became a good girl as a way out. A way out of poverty. A way out of teen pregnancy. A way out of conforming to low expectations. To be a good girl in her working-class Hispanic family was, ironically, to be a rebel. Particularly for women from impoverished and working-class backgrounds, being a good girl is often a mark of distinction from their peers, many of whom are sexually active early but don’t use birth control and so sometimes become parents as teenagers. Being a good girl gave Alicia an alternative to the well-worn path of teen pregnancy, sexual exploitation by older men, and dropping out of school that many of her peers had followed. Women such as Alicia, who are determined, as she said, “not to become a statistic,” may delay sex “because no form of birth control is 100 percent effective.”

Following the good-girl strategy buys some poor and working-class girls the time for education and development that middle-class and upper-middle-class girls claim as their birthright. And being a good girl did work for Alicia as a strategy to get an education, get out of poverty, and separate from her family of origin.

Good girls in the new millennium share some similarities with their good-girl foremothers—delaying sex, focusing more on academics than on boys while growing up, and not pursuing boys. But while their predecessors may have quickly settled into marriages in their twenties that seemed consistent with their good-girl roots, today’s highly educated women who were good girls in high school and college now face a decade or more of an in-between period of early adulthood during which to reconcile their good-girl strategy with being sexually active and unmarried.

Using the good-girl strategy to solve some problems—in Alicia’s case, avoiding teen pregnancy—can lead to other problems later in women’s lives, because good girls no longer get married right away. While being a good girl, women such as Alicia gain much experience in assertively saying “no” to sex, but little experience in voicing or even knowing what they do want. Through Alicia’s story, we can see how the good-girl strategy left her, in her later years, unprepared to be assertive in her relationships with men.

So what’s a good girl to do? The one form of assertion open to a good girl in relation to men is to say no. But what happens when she starts wanting to say yes? And what if she wants to say yes some of the time and no some of the time?

Alicia’s spunkiness seemed to go underground with men in relationships. At the same time that she spoke her mind clearly in the rest of her life, in sexual relationships she described herself as “so not what I am.” She felt unsure and insecure in sexual relationships and didn’t assert herself in matters of sex—or anything else, for that matter. Being a good girl didn’t prepare Alicia for sexual relationships, because she had avoided them until she was safely accomplished in terms of education. She carefully steered clear of situations and relationships that could “get me into trouble.”

Women such as Alicia, unlike those of earlier generations, have the sense that they should be assertive after having been such good girls. No longer do good girls only feel clear prohibitions on certain behaviors. They now feel pressure to be assertive, but receive little training in doing so. As Alicia’s experience illustrates, it’s difficult for women to learn assertion just through avoidance and saying no.

The good-girl strategy, with its focus on self-protection, recognizes what is true for many of the women with whom I spoke: that sex can result in emotional hurt. The good-girl strategy attempts to mitigate the potentially harmful effects of sex by encouraging it only within a relationship characterized by love, trust, and commitment. But at the same time, it portrays only sex outside of relationships as dangerous and vulnerable. It doesn’t acknowledge the ways that sex inside relationships might also feel dangerous and difficult.

The good-girl strategy that Alicia adopted is based in part on splitting safety from sexual desire and assertion. With this split as her guide, it’s no surprise that Alicia found it challenging to be assertive in her sexual relationships in her twenties. According to this thinking, to be sexually abstinent and passive is the only way to be safe. Alicia’s experiences with STDs reinforced her concern that with sexual activity comes danger. And with an estimated 50 to 75 percent of American women infected by an STD in their lifetimes, her fears were not unfounded. But in fact, it was Alicia’s lack of assertiveness, not her sexual activity, that put her in danger. Alicia’s confusion over this point led her to draw incorrect conclusions about the dangers inherent in sexual desire and assertiveness.

The cultural split between good girls and bad girls also makes it difficult for former good girls to assert themselves in relationships. If good girls are passive and accommodating in relationships, then bad girls are assertive and demanding—domineering bitches and shrews. And perhaps most important for Alicia, whose greatest wish was for a traditional family, being too assertive and risking being perceived as a bitch or a shrew might mean that she couldn’t have that family. Alicia worried about how a boyfriend might receive her attempts at assertion, and rather than risking a negative reception, she remained passive.

Alicia felt stuck—she’d done “the right thing” but had been hurt and was left without a relationship that might lead to a traditional family. Good-girl handbooks such as The Rules might advise her to stay the course—delay sex, don’t let on how much she cared about a relationship—and she’d be both safe and on her way to a traditional family. But the rules of old no longer apply in the world that Alicia and her peers occupy.

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