Based on interviews with young women and solid research, the book Dirty Little Secrets: Breaking the Silence on Teenage Girls and Promiscuity(2011) unpacks, despite its title, not simply the subject of promiscuous girls, but in general how young women in our culture are denied the opportunity to develop a sexual identity on their own terms.
Instead girls (and many women) see their identities as tied up with how boys (or men) view them, never quite measuring up. Above all, it shows how girls, taught not to be sexual, often have sex not for the sake of their own sexual pleasure, but to be accepted, seen, and, ironically, rescued from their belief that they are not good enough as they are.
The author, Kerry Cohen, is a practicing psychotherapist and once a "loose girl" herself; many will know her as the author of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity (2008). As Cohen shows, the perpetuation of a "cultural narrative" that teaches young girls that "boys are horny, but girls are not, and so girls must do what they can to keep boys and their out-of-control hormones at bay," doesn't keep girls "safe" at all. Because "when you deny a group of people 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 a natural part of their development." Moreover, telling girls to be "sexy but not sexual" greatly outweighs any attention to what might be "a natural, authentic sense of their sexual identity."
The purpose of Dirty Little Secrets is both to open a discussion that aims to identify girls' sexual experiences in our culture and how they develop as sexual creatures inside a culture that largely holds the reins on what that means. It is also to provide some suggestions for helping girls (and women) find their way out of this negative experience with using sex for male attention, and helping girls (and women) gain control over their sexual lives.
As a result, Dirty Little Secrets brings the reader powerful narratives, supplemented by cultural insights and scientific findings. It is a must-read for anyone who cares about the sexual health and empowerment of young women and, as it turns out, grown women too. An advocate for better sex education, Cohen in the Appendix also includes extensive resources and worksheets with questions and exercises for school administrators, school counselors, therapists, parents and caretakers, and the girls themselves, separate lists of recommended books for teens and parents, and links to external resources.
Among the many topics Cohen confronts is how the abstinence train co-opts a girl's control over her own sexual choices and how the labeling of girls into "virgins," "sluts," and "empowered" (à la Ariel Levy's Female Chauvenist Pigs) deny girls true empowerment and the room to develop a healthy and positive sexual identity. And she addresses in separate chapters the significance of mothers as positive role-models, and of fathers' relationships to their daughters. She also tackles the difficult subject of rape and how complicated the issue can be when girls without ownership of their sexuality have sex and feel violated after, even when they consented to the act. And she talks about how girls get drunk to lose their virginity and have sex so that they will have an excuse later on (if they can't blame it on "Love").
Cohen also discusses sexting and cybersex in an admirably nuanced manner that forces us to see the sensationalist stories blown up by the media for what they are, and consider the real problem, which "is not necessarily that girls are victims of predatory males. It's that they are victims of very narrow definitions of sexual desirability, and in many ways, sexting is one more way girls wind up viewing sexual behavior as completely removed from their own desire." That said, Cohen also suggests we consider sexting as a safe way to explore sex, that "sexting is not only safe but also keeps kids safer than if they were having real-life sex." And that online resources and positive communities can be a good place for youth to turn for real, frank information when conversations with parents can be embarrassing.
In her final chapters, Cohen provides advice to empower grown women, and suggestions for how to talk to teens about sex, including sexual desire, "outercourse," masturbation, and emotions, all thoughtfully and accessibly written.
Quizzical mama, aka Anne G. Sabo, Ph.D., is a former academic turned public educator, author, speaker, freelance writer, and mama- and sex blogger. LOVE, SEX, AND FAMILY is a resource site she founded devoted to progressive human sexuality information. This piece was originally posted there.
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