It's 2016. Let's Talk To Teen Girls About Sex.
It’s 2016 and talking about girls' sexuality is still taboo. Despite the tremendous strides the feminist movement has made, the idea that sex is an important part of a teenage girl’s life and development is still considered radical, and female sexuality remains rooted in outdated gender roles. This contributes to a detrimental cultural reality in which young girls are unfamiliar with the many ways they can express their sexual agency, consent and displeasure and in which teenage girls who do exert their sexual agency or take control of their own sexual desires are stigmatized.
Refusing to embrace teenage girls’ sexuality is likely part of society's larger tendency to strictly delineate and control teenage girls' identities. Young women are still expected to acquiesce their sexual desires in order to fit into our society's feminine ideal: a perfect, angelic girl. This "good girl" caricature is reiterated through constructs like slut-shaming, the valorization of virginity, and (though seemingly contradictory) mocking girls for being "prude" and denying men pleasure (because women's sexuality is still considered in a heterosexist framework).
Widespread, abstinence-only sex education programs only contribute to and support these attitudes. Most abstinence-only curricula fail to mention that girls have any sexual desire or are capable of experiencing pleasure during sex. They are based on assumptions about gender roles that equate women's value with remaining "holy" or "pure" until marriage, and therefore suppress girls' attempts to navigate their sexuality or experiment with sexual experiences.
But just because the mainstream media and most sexual education programs fail to encourage girls to explore their own sexuality does not mean they are not finding other ways to do so. The fear of slut-shaming, parent reactions or being ostracized by others in their communities hardly eliminates girls' natural sexual inclinations and needs. Some teen girls use social media to explore their sexuality and learn more about their bodies while others privately explore their sexuality with their partners.
These secretive methods of self-discovery pale in comparison to openly discussing sex, though. While some parents may feel that talking about sex and contraception gives their daughters “permission” to have sex, studies show that girls who are spoken to about sex and topics relating to sex make better decisions in the future when it comes to practicing safe sex and report enjoying sex more. Additionally, having conversations about desire and pleasure provide the necessary foundation for sexual agency: Teenage girls who are aware of their desire and right to experience sex in pleasurable ways are better able to effectively advocate for themselves sexually.
President Obama’s decision to cut all funding for abstinence-only sexual education programs could therefore be a step in the right direction towards remedying the stigma associated with teenage girls’ sexuality. While other factors contribute to this stigma, targeting abstinence-only programs opens the door for a better solution: namely, comprehensive sexual education that encourages open, honest dialogue and education about sex. Rather than encourage or perpetuate traditional gender roles, comprehensive sex education provides the basis for a more inclusive view of sex, especially as it relates to teenage girls.
But some believe even comprehensive education may not be enough. Dr. Laina Y. Bay-Cheng, Associate Professor at the University at Buffalo’s School of Social Work, for example, believes we need more than comprehensive sex education to remedy the stigmatization of girls’ sexuality. In an email interview, Dr. Bay-Cheng called for “radically inclusive sex ed that invites, explores and validates the many forms that sexual expression can take.” According to Dr. Bay-Cheng, “Traditional forms of sex education and media never were about girls’ own lived experiences. They’re about delivering a message of what sex ought to be or what you should fear it could be.”
And there are young women who are successfully looking beyond the traditional routes to create their own identities — sexual and otherwise. In her article Jammer Girls and the World Wide Web: Making an About-Face, Debra Merskin, an Associate Professor in the School of Journalism & Communication at the University of Oregon, explores the limited and misconstrued notion of young women’s identities. Some young women can be characterized as what she refers to as a “Jammer Girl” — or girls who break through the divide between the “good” girl and the “bad” girl by going through “the process of becoming a healthy, activist girl by way of the Internet.”
Especially in a society in which the prevalent understanding of sexuality is based on gender roles, we must foster environments in which young women feel comfortable expressing their own sexual experiences — environments in which "Jammer Girls" can thrive. It’s time we discard the discomfort that still surrounds the idea of teenage girls asserting their sexual desires and agency and embrace the idea that girls can embody infinite identities in endless ways. Teen girls need a way to express their sexuality on their own terms without the limitations of repressive sexual education programs or the media's attempts to control them. Doing so is ultimately about the well-being of teen girls — the only ones who should have a definitive say in conversations about teen female sexuality.
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