The vocabulary of desire requires more than just 'no'

April 25, 1995|By SUSAN REIMER

We want our teen-age daughters to say "no" to sex, and to that end we drape them in the sack cloth of morality, we pump up their self-esteem, we teach them karate. We sign them up for sports teams and keep them out of the malls. We scare them, we empower them, we wear them out, we lock them up.

But those same girls are watching Brad Pitt on the big screen and feeling as though the air-conditioning is off. And we never talk to them about why.

We do not teach girls what it is we want them to say "no" to. Until our daughters can identify those sexual feelings inside their changing bodies, until they can say what it feels like to have desires, no one will believe that "no." Least of all, our daughters.

"A girl's 'no' is never going to be heard until she can say 'yes,' " says Deborah L. Tolman, an adolescent psychologist at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College.

"When you only get one word to use, how do you communicate?"

Dr. Tolman's research began when she realized that all the academic literature on young girls and sex turned on a moral premise: "Why do girls have sex and how can we stop it?"

"Not one study has tried to find out if girls have sex because they want to. No one thought of it. That's because girls aren't supposed to want sex. They are supposed to want relationships.

"But girls live in bodies. Things happen in there, feelings change. I wanted to find out if girls had sexual feelings and desires. What hTC would girls say happens to them?"

She found that they could not find the words to describe it.

Her lengthy interviews with 30 girls ages 15 to 18 were filled with stutters and pauses and lots of "You know?"

"They were very creative, used a lot of metaphors and images," says Dr. Tolman. "But we have so little language to describe what they are feeling. It is either clinical or raunchy."

Opening up to a woman who looks half her 30 years, who is dressed in funky clothes and neat shoes, the girls found ways to tell Dr. Tolman about desire. There was a spot someplace inside them that had been buzzing since seventh grade -- thrilling them, scaring them -- and for the first time someone wanted to know what it felt like.

"They were quite responsive. No adult woman had talked to them about this and it was a big issue for them."

Two-thirds of the girls -- rich and poor, black and white, virgin and pregnant -- said they had sexual feelings they called desire. This shatters the myth that girls don't want sex, they just trade it for relationships.

"However," says Dr. Tolman, "none of these girls talked about desire in an unencumbered way. For all of them, it poses a dilemma. Our culture provides no space for girls to feel desire and to feel normal. How can they make choices that include their own bodies and still think of themselves as good and worthy of respect?"

Dr. Tolman, who will publish a book on her findings in the near future, says her research is not an advocacy of adolescent sex. Instead, this kind of self-knowledge can inoculate young girls against the disasters of early or unprotected sex.

When you don't think of yourself as sexual, you don't take precautions. When you can't find your will, you let the alcohol wash it away. When you don't know what you want, you are vulnerable to what some boy wants.

"If a girl knows what she wants and says it is OK for her, her chance of using contraceptives skyrockets," Dr. Tolman says. "And she is likely to choose something other than intercourse if she knows it is not the only choice."

Wouldn't we rather our daughters said to a pawing, pressuring adolescent boy, "Sex? With you? I know what I desire and, believe me, you are not it."

If the notion of your daughter's sexual appetite frightens you, add this. A mother may have no role in this. Dr. Tolman's high school subjects could hardly find words for her, an anonymous researcher who looked like a classmate. It might be best to give your daughter the phone number of a woman you both trust.

But give her someone to talk to. Because in this rancorous debate over teen-age sex, we have heard from the preachers, the politicians, the parents, the teachers. And the boys have always had their say.

It is time we listened to the girls. They might say "not yet," "not with you" or "not that way." Or just plain "No."

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