Don't leave girls' desire out of sex equation

January 18, 1998|By Susan Reimer

ONE SATURDAY morning on the sidelines of a soccer game, where mothers keep one eye on the action while sharing their triumphs and confessing their failures to other mothers, a friend told me of the time she retrieved her startled teen-aged daughters from a parent-less house where they had been harmlessly hanging out with a couple of platonic male friends.

In the car on the way home, she tried to explain her caution to her outraged girls: "Look, you don't understand what it is like for boys. They will do anything, say anything to get you into bed because they get horny as hell."

My friend was stunned into silence by her daughter's response: "Mom, you don't understand. I get horny as hell, too."

It was a revelation to this mother, but it should be a warning to us all: Our daughters feel the power surges of puberty just as our sons do.

Have we forgotten this, too? Have we no memory of the pelvic buzz we felt when we locked eyes with the cutest boy in school? Don't we remember when we ached to be touched, to be kissed? Or when we were just plain curious to know what everyone was talking about?

Those feelings did not wait until our wedding night to bubble up in us. What made us think our daughters would not wrestle with them, too?

Fear, I think, has caused us to deny that these feelings exist in our daughters. Sex is less about good girls vs. bad girls these days and more about safety: from pregnancy, STDs, date rape. We can protect them better if we persuade them not to have sex at all -- nothing beyond an innocent kiss at the doorstep.

As a result, the sex education of our daughters is woefully incomplete. We tell them how to have sex, but we don't tell them what would make them want to have sex. And we frame the entire discussion in the language of resistance: How to say no to a boy.

No wonder that when sex stops being icky and becomes something she wants, she is confused and ashamed. And a girl '' who is never given the opportunity to talk about those desires -- to learn that they are normal and healthy, to learn what to do with them -- may never take the next, most important step. She may not arm herself against pregnancy and disease because protection requires preparation, and that means she was looking to have sex.

The intoxicating feelings of desire -- so new, so unpredictable, so frightening -- are dangerous in young girls only if we do not help them to understand them and, insofar as they can, get a grip on them. If a girl does not know how to say to a boy, "Yeah, I want sex. I want it as bad as you do. I just don't want it right now, and I may never want it with you," she is handicapped, and it is our fault.

Different definitions

The sexual revolution has failed if we still believe that sex for girls is only about being in love. That's our old baggage. Sex surveys show that girls are having sex younger and they are having many more partners before marriage than we did. Surveys also show they believe that women are equally responsible for initiating sex, not only in established relationships but in new relationships. Girls today are adventurous in sex. They are more like the boys we demonize than they are like their mothers. How many times did we call a boy on the phone?

Today it is the rare young girl who will first explore her sexuality in the semi-adult world of college. The average age of the first sexual experience is 16 and dropping. And it is often true that she is having sex not because her boyfriend wants her to, but because her girlfriends pressure her.

You are nothing if you haven't gone all the way, her friends will tell her, even though most of them are boasting and posturing and lying about their own experiences. If it is difficult to resist the persuasions of a boy she fears will dump her if she does not come across, how impossible must it be to stand up to a clique of girlfriends who will shun her in a cold-hearted minute?

Add her own desires to these swirling imperatives, and it must be impossible for a young girl to say just who in the room wanted her to have sex in the first place.

How do we help her sort it all out?

"One of the problems for girls in the '90s is that sex is everywhere," says author Mary Pipher, who explained to us the pressures young girls endure in her best seller "Reviving Ophelia."

"They are constantly bombarded with sexual images. And they are constantly being told, 'Sex is great, it's sophisticated, it's fun. Go do it.' "

Because of how sex is portrayed in movies, television and advertising, young girls can easily conclude that couples go directly from a deep kiss to the nearest bed.

"Everything they see jumps to intercourse," says Pipher. "Kids don't have any sense that in this culture there are breaks and limits between kissing and having intercourse.

"This glut of sexual stuff has them so frightened that they stay away from the pleasant training period we had when we were growing up," Pipher says.

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