My husband is going to hate that I’ve written this. My father won’t make it past sentence four. And that’s because, friends, I’m about to write to you about my daughters’ future sex lives and my own past sex life.
Bye, Dad! Talk soon!
Now, in terms of practice, I’m obviously jumping the gun in worrying about my children and sex. The girls are only 3 ½ and 7 months old; clearly it’s not time for “the talk” yet. But, given the bombardment of sexual imagery and gendered double-consciousness the girls are subject to every day in our culture, there are some aspects of preparing them to enjoy pleasurable, safe, and affirming sex lives that must begin soon. After all, although American girls, on average, self-report first having sex at 17.4 years of age, they begin forming their understanding of themselves as sexual beings at much younger ages. And, at this point, it is my daughters’ growing awareness of themselves within their bodies that concerns me most. (As Kenny Rogers famously never sang, “There’ll be time enough for teaching contraception when the day is done.”)
I do not worry that my girls are going to have sex while in their teens – I just assume that, like most American girls, they will. And I do not worry (much) that my girls won’t be responsible about preventing disease and pregnancy – I just assume that, what with our liberal discussion of how to keep viruses and unwanted babies at bay, along with our generous proffering of birth control upon (and maybe before) request, they will. But I do worry about their ability to have conscious, fulfilling, and pleasurable sex lives as young women. After all, if my daughters are going to struggle through the challenging work of growing up and becoming women, I at least want the good parts of that difficult process to be really good.
I was very lucky in my own adolescence to have come of age in a relatively understanding and liberal environment in the early to mid-90’s. Far enough from the Women’s Movement of the 70’s to take my own sexual agency for granted, and too young to have noticed any backlash during the 80’s, I had the great good luck to find myself a teenager in the years of Riot Grrrls and Sassymagazine. It’d be a vast overstatement to say that examples of strong, interesting, enthusiastically self-determined young women were everywhere, but they weren’t impossible to find if one was motivated to look a little. This was also the time of grunge, when one didn’t even have to be (indeed, at times wasn’t expected to be) conventionally pretty and still feel and be considered attractive. I’m so grateful I got to hang 10 on the third wave as a teenager and to join the ranks of wanton hussies in this (thankfully not literally) fertile time.
I also lucked out in the mom I got and the way she raised me to be responsible in my sexual behavior. She worked in a clinic that provided abortion services for a number of years in her 20’s and was bound and determined that I would not be one of the girls in one of those waiting rooms. So, she taught me young and she taught me well how bodies work and how to prevent pregnancy. When I first began dating, to my complete horror she showed me a stash of condoms in a kitchen cupboard that were for any use, no questions asked (Why the kitchen, Mom? Why the kitchen?). When I had my first steady boyfriend, Mom saw to it that I also had my first Pill prescription. There were no questions I couldn’t ask her about sex, and those I was too embarrassed to ask I could find answers to in my babysitting employers’ stacks of 70’s sex classics. After the kids were in bed and my homework was finished, I’d stealthily browse The Joy of Sex, My Secret Garden, and Our Bodies, Ourselves. That, plus a later discovery of the book Pleasures (featuring an excellent smutty story by Grace Zabriskie – you know, Lois from Big Love) misshelved in the classics section at Walden Books and the works of Anais Nin, and, well, I was an informed and literate hussy armed with the self-knowledge and tools to enjoy a healthy and happy adolescent sex life.
She disapproves of your reading bad erotica and directs you to her own writing. Photo credit.
And this is what I want for my girls. But where is their Sassy, and who will be their Liz Phair? Our culture is highly sexualized now in a way that, for girls, is glossily and passively performative. Caitlin Moran, in our next book club selection How To Be a Woman, accurately names ours a homogenous porn culture of:
“Brazilians. Hollywoods. Round, high plastic tits. Acrylic nails that make it impossible to do up a shoe buckle, or type. MTV full of crotches and tits. Anal sex being an assumed part of every woman’s repertoire. Posters for makeup, or TV shows that show women glassy-eyed, open-mouthed, and ready for a faceful of come. Knickers being replaced by thongs. High, high heels that aren’t really made for walking – just lying back and being fucked in… If 12 percent of the Internet is pornography – that’s 4.2 million websites, 28,000 people looking at porn per second – then that means that 12 percent of the images of women on the Internet are of them either on all fours, rammed into some highly unhygienic PVC, or being forced around outsized male genitalia, as if their sundry openings were some manner of tube bandage” (32).
And those images and expectations are the ones my daughters will grow up surrounded by – those in which it is assumed that women’s sexual experience is about sexual performance, passivity and objectification, that they are receptacles for pornographic fantasy rather than creators and agents of their own sexual pleasure. Can a mere modern Sassy or Liz Phair counter that kind of industrialized (Porn is an estimated $30 billion per year industry, to say nothing of the other industries [advertising, fashion, beauty, etc.] influenced by it), normalized imagery and give our girls some way to access their sexuality in a way that is about their own pleasure?
Maybe not. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein cites Deborah Tolman’s studies on girls and desire that find that sexually active girls have taken such images to heart. In their sexual experiences, teenage girls “are not connecting more deeply to their own feelings, needs, or desires. Instead, sexual entitlement itself has become objectified; like identity, like femininity, it, too, has become a performance, something to ‘do’ rather than to ‘experience’” (171). Terrifyingly, and this is what prompted this post in the first place, Tolman says that “By the time they are teenagers, the girls I talk to respond to questions about how their bodies feel – questions about sexuality or desire – by talking about how their bodies look. They will say something like ‘I felt like I looked good’” (172).
Let me repeat that: Girls, when asked about what their own desire feels like, could only articulate what their bodies looked like. They are so divorced from any notion of their own bodies beyond that of ornamentation or being the imagistic vehicle for another’s sexual pleasure that they can’t even tell you what their own sexual “experience” feels like. So much for The Joy of Sex. Now there's just the joy of looking sexy? Not for my kids.
Given that they are so young, my first job is to encourage them to feel a satisfaction and joy in inhabiting their bodies that is unrelated to how their bodies look. Thus, we're turning to sports. It is our intention that our girls will each choose at least one sport to play or athletic activity to practice. The research is clear on the relationship between girls' athletic participation and a reduced high-risk sexual behavior, and it's hard to imagine that a girl who can delight in running until her thighs burn to block an attempted goal, churn her body through stinging pool water as quickly as her muscles and lungs will allow her, or slide headfirst into home to bust through the bold improbability of a suicide squeeze will allow herself to abandon all of that bodily energy and self-knowledge on the sexual playing field. Put the proof is in the proof pudding (It's a scienceterm; look it up), as the Wellesley Centers for Women report "Sports as Protective of Girls' High-Risk Sexual Behavior" states:
"Many researchers have pointed out that, especially in early adolescence, there is an increased interest in upholding or playing out stereotypical gender roles, which has been called gender intensification. For most adolescents, gender intensification dissipates as they reach young adulthood. We suspect that, as girls negotiate adolescence, being physically active can enhance their ability to resist cultural messages regarding femininity (e.g., “be sexy”, “be compliant”, “be naïve”) that contribute to sexual risk. However, our research shows that there is a secondary, more direct link between sports and lower sexual risk; even among girls with similar self-rated femininity, those who were physically active reported lower sexual risk during adolescence."
Boom. Presumed increased sexual pleasure and demonstrated decreased sexual risk? I'll take it, and I'll wish it on all young girls who are beginning to figure themselves out sexually, including my future adolescent daughters. If soccer lessons at 5 means owning their sexual agency at 17, then I'm happy to sit on the sidelines, cheer my girls on, and even occasionally provide team snacks.
Part two of my dastardly plan to ensure my children's happy entrance into womanhood, and this is where Pat Robertson spins in his grave (Wait? What? He's still alive? Damn.) is to quietly seed the house with positive, female-centered sex writing when the girls have reached their teens. I can't count on them to babysit for feminist hippies the way I did, and so we'll have to have our own copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves appear on the bookshelf one day. Like some kind of empowered Playboy Easter bunny, I plan on conveniently having copies of books like those that helped form my youthful sexual identity lurking in the house for the girls to stealthily sneak their own peeks at. Perhaps a subscription to Bust or its future equivalent (with the understanding that the One-handed Read column might be of particular interest) will magically appear, or maybe we'll kick it old-school and Nancy Friday will join the ranks of our esteemed book stacks. Obviously we'll have frank, open, and awkward discussions of sex and its mechanics with the girls, but more than just that I want them to have their own secret gardens to tend where they grow images vastly more women-positive than those that surround them.
After all, as Caitlin Moran writes:
"One early sex researcher, Wilhelm Stekel, described masturbation fantasies as a kind of trance or altered state of consciousness, 'a sort of intoxication or ecstasy, during which the current moment disappears, and the forbidden fantasy alone reigns supreme.'
You want to make sure that whatever you're thinking of in that state, it has an element of... joy to it" (35).
We all want our children to be happy - to be joyful. So let's give them the tools, no matter how uncomfortable or awkward it feels to us, to help them find happiness and joy in themselves and with one another.