Why Teens’ Attitudes Matter
WMC contest winner Adora Svitak today delivers the Girls’ State of the Union Message at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Here she investigates what teens really think about sex.
Ask yourself honestly: what is your gut reaction when you think about teenage girls and sex?
I’m guessing that most of the time, our mindset is that girls need to be protected. Even in my admittedly liberal household, my parents ask more questions about my guy friends than they do about girls. My sister’s sophomore year, they euphemistically admonished her prom date, “No funny business, eh?” On the more extreme end, we see events like “purity balls” and chastity pledges. And even in our supposedly progressive times, the implied message to us often seems: be a good girl, or you’re a girl gone wild. Why?
To investigate this topic further, I conducted a survey for an AP psychology assignment with questions around sexuality and gender, like “Do you feel that your female peers' attitudes toward sexual activity are generally encouraging, disapproving, or neutral?” (with the same question for male peers) and others. While the survey was limited to 30 people (15 girls, 15 boys) from my high school, and I don’t claim a scientific level of validity to the results, I think it’s telling that students overwhelmingly saw female peers as negative toward sexual activity. You might say that this issue is one of age and not gender, but contrastingly, male peers’ attitudes were overwhelmingly described as encouraging. Additionally, respondents held young women to a different standard of promiscuity from young men.
Indeed, while we’ve made definite progress as a society around key women’s issues such as equal rights in the workplace and gender equity around sports in school, one problem—still culturally entrenched in societal norms—is negativity around women’s sexual autonomy. It’s an issue that, we’ve seen countless times, plays into controversies around reproductive choice, yet one that’s under-mentioned, especially to the high school demographic.
So why does this problem matter to a junior in high school like me? Because as I saw soberingly from the results of the survey, attitudes don’t wait to happen until we have all the facts in front of us; they’re informed by our families, religious convictions, peers, and media. If young people are already making negative associations about women and sexual activity, they will likely continue to be influenced by those beliefs. Just take as an example the slut/player double standard. I hear girls getting called sluts and see implied disapproval of girls who have “too many” boyfriends (sometimes, as few as two). I haven’t heard any of this negativity around guys my age.
Culture that is largely sex-negative around young women presents a problem, not just in setting up double standards, but also in disempowerment. When the idea of young women having sex is presented as negative and shameful, we see (in an extreme case) comments like Rush Limbaugh’s on Sandra Fluke: “What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic], who goes before a Congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? [...] She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception.” Yet Rush Limbaugh is still on the air, with a large number of listeners. Socially, are we so used to double standards that too few of us fail to see anything ironic about a thrice-divorced, morally ambiguous-at-best man trying to hold a young woman to his standards of morality? Likewise, Todd Akin made outrageous comments on “legitimate rape,” yet is still able to maintain his candidacy in the Senate race against Claire McCaskill, with apparently increasing support from members of his party.
There is a bright spot, though. Growing awareness of double standards and the harmfulness of sex negativity in culture is leading to action. My friend Heather Loschen introduced me to Laci Green’s videos—Green is a 22-year-old sex educator whose YouTube videos have received millions of views, largely from the high school and university student demographic. Around the issue of young women and double standards, Heather says: “
I grew up in a loving, sex positive family, yet still managed to be influenced into being abhorrently sex negative for years. It was everywhere BUT in the home; friends, boyfriends, the media, school faculty and curriculum, et cetera. It’s frightening how difficult it was for me to finally stumble upon open, loving, and honest facts about sex and the culture around it. I narrowly scraped by. We can’t let the backlash slow us down, and it starts young. I've noticed that a lot of girls my age (and males, for that matter) actually have the right idea, but seem to lack the necessary language and confidence to express their beliefs, especially in a society that is so deficient in properly representing this issue. Teenagers are in their prime learning stage. What they soak in during the preteen, teenage, and young adult years will directly correspond with this movement’s advancement in the coming age.
Changing attitudes has to start in a grassroots way. It might not seem obviously apparent at first, but the best answer we can provide to bigots like Rush Limbaugh or Todd Akin may be a long-term one: a society without sexual double standards. That starts with high school students like Heather, sex-positive peer educators like Laci Green, and increasing the number of young people who see nothing wrong with women making decisions about our bodies. And on this issue that often provokes awkward silences or nervous giggles, we all need to realize that there’s no shame in speaking up.
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