Why I will go easy on the ‘save yourself’ rhetoric with my daughter

Reading Clementine Ford’s piece in Daily Life on teenage sexuality something struck me about the young girls she was describing.

The arrival of One Direction certainly took Australia by storm – mostly because nobody outside of the 12-17 year old teen girl bracket and a handful of their mothers had ever heard of them. But more interesting than the so-called ‘hysteria’ was the rampant hormonal explosion that occurred simultaneously. The sexual energy that heralded One Direction’s arrival was not only palpable, it was on full display in the homemade signs held aloft by teenage fans outside the Sunrise studios last Thursday morning. Banners bearing slogans such as, ‘Point your erection in my direction’ and ‘Send your one thing Down Under’ were spotted outside the Martin Place broadcast, and captured on TV for a scandalised nation to see.

Channel Seven was forced to apologise for allowing such rampantly offensive behaviour to roam wild in the Serengeti that is the breakfast broadcast. Meanwhile, Julie Gale, founder of the irritatingly text-moderne named Kids Free 2B Kids, declared the signs ‘highly inappropriate and reflective of the sexualised world kids are part of’.

These girls were being assertively playful. It caused outrage, of course, because ‘assertive’ and ‘playful’ are not terms we tend to allow young girls in expressing their sexuality, but personally, I find these girls refreshing. Because, relax everyone, they don’t necessarily have the slightest intention of acting on their flirtations. They’re just trying it out. Who doesn’t like to make a boisterous joke about what they’d like to do with a celebrity crush? And it was nice to read that article and think that some girls feel sufficiently in control over their emerging sexuality to have already developed a sense of humour about it. In all honesty, I admit I would likely be a little embarrassed if it were my daughter holding up the sign because she’s my kid and I can’t really imagine her as a teenager. And really, I don’t need to know that much about anyone’s sexual fantasies if I am related to them. But otherwise, I don’t think it is outrageous to see that girls have desire.

It made me think about how I felt about my own sexuality at that age. Frankly, I pretty much felt threatened. Shortly before I became a teenager I suddenly started receiving unwanted attention from older males (sometimes much older males), which I found alarming and uncomfortable and it didn’t give me a hell of a lot of room for being assertive and playful. It was a relief when I got far enough into adolescence that boys my own age were showing interest in me instead of just older males.

Somehow I would like this all to be very different for my own children.

One thing I am going to do differently as a parent is go easy on the ‘save sex for someone special’ rhetoric with my kids – both with my daughter and my son. I noticed some unintended consequences happened among my friends and I when we were growing up with this. The ‘save yourself for when you really love someone’ thing comes from a good place – being nice to yourself and only choosing people who are also nice to you – but it pairs up too easily with the general culture of slut-shaming that’s out there. The ‘precious vagina’ can easily become the ‘shameful vagina’.

‘Saving yourself’ can obviously also lend itself to an exploitative situation where male sexual pleasure is centred in sexual activity. Here’s how that works. You’re a girl and you’re having sexual encounters with boys (is it different for girls only hooking up with other girls?), and they’re very nice and you’re very attracted to them but they are not ‘the special one’ so for as long as possible you choose sexual activities that don’t involve your precious, precious virginity. The safest activities for this are those aimed solely at his sexual pleasure.

The whole need to always be in control for girls is problematic because being able to orgasm seems to involve being able to ‘let go’. If you don’t feel safe ‘letting go’ with someone – for all sorts of reasons, but your virginity being at stake is certainly part of it and then there’s the ‘shameful vagina’ thing – then there is not much point aiming for your own orgasm and if you’re not aiming for your own orgasm then how much focus do you put on your sexual pleasure in the encounter? With some friends I think this established a pattern that took them years to overcome in their sex lives.

Also, adolescence is this time in life where many girls suddenly get this tiny taste of power in the form of desirability. When girls spend so much time feeling powerless this seems like a breath of fresh air. But it’s a power used against you just as quickly as you can wield it. And unlike the kinds of power that boys get to experience more readily – like physical strength and ferocity and fearlessness and leadership – sexual desirability is a power entirely dependent upon someone giving it to you.

Being desired is such a difficult power for girls to have mastery over, too. They have to balance on this knife-edge where they are available enough to be keeping someone’s attention but unavailable enough to continue to be pursued. When sex is tangled up with all this it becomes very complicated for young women – too complicated for them to be loosening the grip on control. So, what activities do you choose? You choose the ones that enhance your desirability, again, you choose what he likes. Assertive and playful suddenly sounds like a real achievement.

So, how would you like sexuality to be different for your daughter, or girls generally, in growing up? How would you like your son to learn about girl sexuality differently?

(Cross-posted at blue milk).

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism, media, parenting, relationships

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12 replies

  1. And unlike the kinds of power that boys get to experience more readily – like physical strength and ferocity and fearlessness and leadership– sexual desirability is a power entirely dependent upon someone giving it to you.

    Three of these things belong together, three of these things are kind of the same, but one of these things just doesn’t belong here, and should go back where it came from now it’s time to play our game.
    There’s going to be some discussin’ with the little one, probably along the lines of “Here’s what I have forgiven accepted myself for not knowing when I was your age, even though you won’t grok it until you’ve already had to.”

  2. (I’m going to post this comment at Blue Milk’s own blog post too.)
    Hrm. My experiences of teen girl sexuality were almost entirely negative and largely for reasons different from “save yourself for the [sufficiently] special one” rhetoric. I do remember that rhetoric from teen girl magazines especially and I found it grating at the time. An kind of irritating step-down: they know they can’t say “save yourself for marriage” with a straight face, so you save yourself for love instead.
    Anyway, my negative experiences came partly from my total undesirability to men (being heterosexual, this was relevant). I don’t have very direct evidence of this — one can’t, usually, ask one’s attractive peers why they aren’t attracted to you — but it is probably a combination of my really really unusual height (I am 193cm/6’4″) and that kind of academic success it’s possible for a gifted kid to have in some mainstream high schools where every single prize at the prize night has your name on it. (Actually I do know some people who had that experience of university too, but it’s rarer, and in any event, those people definitely weren’t me.) Certainly, all the attention I received from unknown men was highly negative until I was about twenty. (“Fuck off square.*” “Fuck off, you fucking lanky bit
    So, this is hard. Because while I would prefer that my (hypothetical) daughter not experience early sexuality as “the fact of your body and mind is universally repulsive” it’s not the kind of thing that I as a parent can do anything about, whereas at least one could feel that one had some power over the “save yourself” discussion by advocating different models of relationship. If my daughter has no relationship possibilities, there’s no model to advocate without sounding smug and/or desperate. (My mother went for “I promise promise promise university is totally different socially, I promise.” Which is probably the best that there was to say, although it must suck for people who turn out to not be a social/sexual fit for their young adult life either.)
    I guess in terms of my (non-hypothetical, at least as assigned gender goes) son, this means I would emphasise “no you don’t have to be attracted to people necessarily BUT you should let their body exist free in the world without your lack of attraction aimed at it maliciously”, I guess.
    * My parents, although mostly very sympathetic, found it hilarious that my peers used the, to them, very dated slang “square” for academically successful kids in the middle of the 1990s with no sense of irony. I had no idea what they were talking about at the time.

  3. Just as a note to commenters, there is a banned phrase in my comment: tQeQeQn gQiQrQl sQeQx with the Qs removed. If you get a 404 error submitting your comment, you unfortunately probably want to hit “Back”, go through the comment and try and reword things to avoid phrases that, in isolation, sound like yucky search terms.

  4. Mary, my god, obviously I am disgusted at the treatment you experienced.. what the hell is wrong with people, that they do this to a girl? So incredibly destructive that people feel such a sense of entitlement to evaluate and persecute body shapes. It is also a good reminder for me of what to look out for as my daughter is very tall.

  5. Blue Milk: I read what Mary said and thought “yeah, sounds familiar”. I was the opposite physically (I’m 5’2″ and bulky, so I got the “fatso” comments) but I was also highly intelligent and not exactly the most socially ept person out there. So yeah, my teen years were mainly composed of being absolutely convinced that I was the most repulsive thing known to humankind, and that there was clearly something wrong with me. I got absolutely no evidence of anyone finding me desirable in any way, shape or form – and until I was in my late twenties, I was convinced I was going to be dying a rather cranky virgin spinster. How convinced? Well, I had plans that if I hadn’t managed to try out this sex thing by the time I was thirty, I was going to take a trip to either Sydney or Melbourne (I grew up in Perth) and hire a male prostitute in order to just at least get the experience.
    In my mid twenties (I was 26) I finally met someone who reciprocated my advances, and who found me to be desirable. I’m still with him even now.
    I don’t think it’s so much the whole “body shape” thing, so much as the “body shape plus intellectual ability” thing which is the killer. One thing that the women’s mags and the lad’s mags agree on is that no guy wants a girl who can out-argue him, correct his factual errors, or out-think him, and most people don’t start actually questioning the social conditioning those magazines reinforce until they’re at least into their early twenties – university age, in fact.

  6. that kind of academic success it’s possible for a gifted kid to have in some mainstream high schools

    So yeah, my teen years were mainly composed of being absolutely convinced that I was the most repulsive thing known to humankind

    “body shape plus intellectual ability” thing which is the killer

    Wow, this is feeling like some kind of support group for my teenage self. I was in the short/skinny/flatchested category, and the designated expression of ultimate disdain in my class (ie. the “you’re so desperate you’d have A”, “I’d rather go with A than do that” person). My mother took the “there’s plenty of time for that sort of thing later” line, which, for your reference, sucks. Hormones with nowhere to go: have you noticed we only hear about that in relation to geek boys? As if girls can’t have frustrated desires.

  7. Back on topic, I have thought about what I would want to tell my children about sex, should they not run screaming from the room when I try, and it boils down to this:
    1. Condoms.
    2. Do the best you can to only do stuff with someone who is in the same zone as you. That is, if you are madly in love it’s only a good idea if you’re both madly in love; if you’re just looking for giggles or an experiment, find someone else who is experimenting. It’s the imbalances that break hearts.
    3. Don’t expect to get anything out of sex except sex. Sex is not a means to get love or status or intimacy or notoriety, it should be an end in itself.
    4. Don’t discuss the sex life of anyone who isn’t in the room. This goes for partners, friends and enemies alike. You have a right to your own experience, nobody else’s.

  8. I think the problem of what to say to someone (a teenager, in this conversation) who isn’t desirable, never has been, and wants to be, is really really hard. It usually boils down to “maybe later” or “this is teaching you what it is like to be on the receiving end of unethical/abusive behaviour, which you can someday apply to avoid being unethical/abusive”. Both are true, neither is cheering.
    I suppose one possibility is communicating that there is a hugely diverse range of sexual communities and practices out there, some of which are more friendly to non-mainstream bodies and minds than the ones that you typicall first try to (or are forced to) negotiate, and it is possible to seek them out if and when you want to, at least for theoretical knowledge.
    But the way that most parent-child conversations about sex are framed in Anglo-Australian culture makes much of that conversation out of bounds or unwanted. And again, it’s easy for it to turn into “maybe later”.
    I am still struggling with the general ethics of what to do with a child who is unsuited to their school or locale, given the sometimes expensive or completely impractical alternatives to a miserable schooling experience. It might be worth a separate Hoyden discussion.

  9. Part of the issue with this in schools is how rigidly students police each other’s behaviour, so that the kid who fancies the ‘fat’ kid or the ‘lanky’ kid or the ‘geeky’ kid is quickly disciplined by peers through teasing or bullying before they can ever act. And, the risk of ostracism (real or imagined) that comes from acting on such feelings overwhelms any desire. I imagine that for some kids, they don’t even allow themselves to imagine these possibilities for similar reasons (and for some that may well continue into adulthood). So, I guess the lesson I would give my children is to appreciate different types of people for who they are, to see the beauty in difference, and the courage not to participate in such policing.
    But what to do with the undesireable teen? I guess the solution I had myself, as a brainy kid, was to go outside my school and meet people in an environment where I wasn’t known. So, I went to a youth group in a different area, and got involved in clubs and activities beyond school, and found a boyfriend that way. I did not see myself as undesirable because of that, but I know that I wasn’t in the popular crowd that had boyfriends in school and in school I hung around with a group of girls who either did not date, or met people outside of school. I would say though that attractiveness only played a small part in these group dynamics- being fashionable and conforming to certain norms was more important. I remember in particular this girl who when she started high school had a bit of ‘puppy fat’, which she quickly lost and by sixth year was STUNNING- looking, and she wasn’t top of the class or anything that would make her odd. Yet, years later, people would still describe her as ‘fat’, as if they hadn’t looked at her for the last five year, so she was undateable. Similarly, my sister had a really bad squint, which was corrected in the year before she went to highschool, but she continued to be the undesirable ‘squinty’ girl for years into high school, and remembers high school as a time of being ostracised and unfancied. Like me, she found boyfriends outside of school.
    I agree that part of this will depend on the availability of alternative places for teenagers to meet, as well as affordability.

  10. I agree wholeheartedly with Feminist Avatar that finding alternative communities to be part of could make all the difference to a teen who is low status in the school peer group. Just hearing “It will be different at uni/when you’re grown up etc” is not enough for many: experiencing how a different group can have entirely different dynamics is the way to get the message across that social status is fluid.
    My feeling is that this should be prioritised over, say, music lessons or any expensive extra-curricula activities that involve the school peer group. Getting that message across before the teen internalises her or his lowly status is important. It can become like a caste identity, carried into new, unrelated environments that may have generated a totally different social scenario.
    A very interesting book about the crucial influence of the peer group is “No Two Alike”, by Judith Rich Harris.

  11. I agree with Feminist Avatar and Hedgepig that finding a different community to interact with is probably a good start for teenagers and young adults who have been judged to be “unattractive”. For me, that came about when I first discovered the internet, and realised for the first time in my life that there were other people out there who were like me, and who liked the same things that I liked. That was a real confidence booster, and it was particularly a confidence boost to discover that there were guys out there who thought my intelligence was sexy.
    What I’m not certain of these days is whether it would be possible for someone who got online now to get that same experience. I feel there’s so much more focus (through things like Facebook and Twitter) on using online resources to facilitate contact with people you already know, and with peer groups you’re already part of. There’s a loss of anonymity involved as well – when I got online, I was able to choose the identity I wanted to be (and that identity has pretty much evolved into my current online ‘nym) rather than having to go online as my “official” self. I know if I’d been required to be the offline me when I went online, I probably wouldn’t have let myself be who I’ve become – I would have been too scared of running into someone else online who knew offline-me, and who could share all those wonderful moments that still have occasional runs on the stage of The Grand Old Embarrassing Recollection in my head.
    Being exposed to new communities of people can mean a chance to redefine your identity. But it comes with the risk of having the identity that the high school peer group has fastened on you effectively “doubled down” and reinforced.
    (It’s even worse in a city like Perth, which despite being about the fourth largest city in Australia, still has more than its fair share of “small town” moments. I had one of these just this year – I discovered that one of the people I was sharing a psychology tutorial group with was the girlfriend of my brother’s best friend. This is a big part of why all my dreams of escaping my peer group and their low expectations of me tended to involve cities like Sydney or Melbourne.)
    Anyway, in a bit of ObTopic, one of the things I’d want to try to convey to young girls these days is that masturbation isn’t something to be ashamed of. Neither is reading about sex, or getting off by reading about sexual scenes. The biggest erogenous zone in the human body is actually carefully insulated from any possible contact with the outside world inside the skull – learn what you like, learn what you don’t like, and use that knowledge. You’re the one person who is in an ideal position to become the world expert in “what turns you on” – so why not exploit the opportunity?

  12. Orlando:
    What you said!!

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