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).