Teen Girls, Sex, and the Media

April 25, 2012
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There is no doubt in my mind that teenage girls do not get nearly as much credit as they deserve. In the media teen girls are often portrayed as vain, ditzy, and carefree, but in reality these girls are constantly under intense pressure, whether from parents, friends, or boys. They have to worry about looking perfect and keeping up with the latest trends while also balancing schoolwork, activities, and their personal lives. They have to worry about being feminine and sexy while also appearing interesting and intelligent. Then, on top of all of those other worries, there’s sex itself. Teenage girls receive more mixed signals and misinformation about sex than just about anyone else. This plethora of conflicting information can be confusing, intimidating, and damaging to girls’ self esteem. As a sixteen year old girl, I have experienced this first hand. In the following pages I will try to wade through this sea of information through research and personal interviews with other girls my age, as well as my own reflections.

I’ll start at the very beginning. The first few years of a girl’s life are usually thought to be innocent and sex-free, but this is not necessarily the case. Many young girls explore their bodies and masturbate – female fetuses have even been observed masturbating in utero – though this is not a sexual act as we might think of it in adulthood. The same goes for other types of exploratory childhood play like “playing doctor.” Though such behavior may give parents pause it is considered completely normal and natural. This being said, young girls rarely equate this exploratory play with sex, and therefore they often arrive at adolescence with little idea how babies are actually made. While most girls are curious and will likely begin asking questions, parents usually hold off on going into detail about sex until they feel their children are mature enough, though opinions differ as to the perfect age. Very young children are fed the rather preposterous story of the stork, a bird that delivers newborn babies to excitedly awaiting parents, while older children are told that men and women make a baby but may not be told the mechanics. As they process this patchwork of odd ideas, many children develop their own unique theories of how babies are formed. For instance, my sister believed the baby passed through some sort of door in the woman’s stomach, while I thought women got pregnant spontaneously without any action on their behalf. My own parents didn’t begin educating me on sex until I was eight or nine, and even then the details came slowly and in random bursts. It took years of awkward conversations, generally unhelpful books, and sporadic internet searches to finally have all of my questions answered.

While there was certainly nothing particularly unique about my experience, it can also be said that it wasn’t average, as everyone has wildly different experiences when it comes to learning about and understanding sex. Some parents are supportive, open, and explicitly honest, while others are gruff, vague, or just plain uninformative. Most parents fall somewhere in the middle of this wide range. Many times it is a generational issue: while my parents tried to be as candid as possible, their parents never discussed sex with them at all. Often it is simply a matter of differing points of view on sex itself. This, I believe, is one of the most stressful, confusing, and altogether disorienting dilemmas adolescent girls face in this day and age: everywhere they turn there is a different and equally convincing view of sex waiting. Depending on politics, religion, and upbringing, their parents may tell them sex is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, pleasurable or sinful, while their classmates and other adults may tell them the exact opposite. They may learn that sex is something special that you do with the one and only person you love, and then turn to movies and television and see images of the sort of casual, no strings attached sex that is prevalent among young adults in this day and age. Is this good? Bad? Unhealthy? Unholy? Is it a wonderful step forward into openness and acceptance, or a giant step backward into depravity and barbarianism? In all likelihood, everyone you ask will give you a different answer. This can leave a growing girl confused, unsatisfied, and unsure. We’ll continue to discuss this idea, but for now let’s focus on the material young girls read.
Even though good old-fashioned paper-and-ink books are not as popular as they once were, they still often play a large part in the education of young girls on the topic of sex. Most girls will read at least one of these books in their adolescence, and the information contained within the pages is often radically different from one book to another. This is especially important for those teen girls whose parents choose to give their daughter one of these books in lieu of an actual discussion, which is a tempting option for many parents, considering the inherent awkwardness many adults (and kids!) feel in discussing sex. Examples of these types of books include the popular What’s Happening to My Body? series; Ruth Bell’s impressively comprehensive Changing Bodies, Changing Lives; Girlology and it’s sequel; Lies Young Women Believe and the Truth that Sets Them Free; and The Little Black Book for Girlz. These titles are among my favorites and least favorites, and I have chosen them because they do an excellent job of illustrating the wide range of differing view points about sex presented to young women as they mature.

Now, I’ll be completely honest: I am not coming from an objective perspective. I wish I was, but as a sixteen year old girl my views on sex have long been molded by my parents, peers, and exposure to various types of media, including the aforementioned books. Therefore when I discuss the content contained in the books my observations are obviously shaped by my opinions. While a book that suggests girls submit to their husbands and fathers awakens a fundamental revulsion in me, it might sound completely reasonable and morally correct to someone else. My views on what is healthy for teenage girls are based on scientific consensus, testimonials, and my own personal experience, and are so thoroughly a part of my perspective and personality that when I look at these books it is impossible for me to fully divorce myself from my own views. Therefore while I will try to state the views of others as accurately and in as unbiased a manner as possible I will not try to hide my own views on the subject.
Most of these books are fairly innocuous, with varying degrees of information on sex and sexuality in general. Some only venture into the mechanics, while others, like the Girlology series, delve deeper into questions about relationships and sexuality. Others, like Lies Young Women Believe, manage to skirt the issue of sex almost entirely, advocating abstinence and purity without actually giving any real information. Perhaps the best, and by far the most comprehensive, is Changing Bodies, Changing Lives, which includes personal interviews with numerous young men and women of varying ages covering a wide range of sex-related topics. Despite the fact that all of the books I surveyed were written by women, only one, The Little Black Book for Girlz, was written by actual young women of the same age as the book’s target audience. I appreciated the authors’ honesty and their willingness to discuss topics that others may have shied away from. In its discussion of healthy sexuality the book touches on topics such as masturbation, homosexual sex, and alternatives to traditional intercourse, and leaves its young female readers with the impression that sex is something natural and healthy to be enjoyed safely and only when you feel ready. Considering the book is actually written by teenage girls it would seem to be one of the best options for young women; after all, who knows more about the sexuality of teenage girls than teenage girls themselves?
Apparently, most adults do not agree with this idea. A few examples of review headlines for The Little Black Book for Girlz on Amazon.com: “Truly a book for very sick people!” “A sickening piece of humanist propaganda” “Beyond disgusting!!” “Lesbian Indoctrination Manual 101” and, dramatically, “Could presenting this book to children constitute sexual abuse and violation of the law?” I really have no interest in arguing why encouraging girls to enjoy their own sexuality does not “[seethe] with hatred towards God, toward the holy Bible, and toward Christians in general”; nor do I wish to address the sickening amount of homophobia and sexism contained within many of the reviews. I would, however, like to point out the fact that acknowledging that young children often masturbate does not constitute encouraging the molestation of babies, and I find it very sad that human sexuality (and female sexuality in particular) evokes this amount of fear and anger in what I can only presume are otherwise rational adults. This must be confusing for the teen readers of the book. What should they believe, the positive messages they just read, or the negative messages they are reading now?

I did a similar search on Lies Young Women Believe and was heartened to see that the top review on Amazon was a one star. I will make it no secret that I positively loathe that book. It addresses the subject of teen girls in a highly oppressive and patriarchal manner that portrays sexuality as something dirty, shameful, and potentially life-ruining. It is my opinion that this attitude is not only sexist but also incredibly harmful to young women’s self esteem. Therefore, I was excited to see that someone else shared my concern. I was surprised to see, however, that the person objected to the book on completely different ground than my own. The reviewer seemed to object to the book purely on the grounds that it mentions sex at all, chastising the author for admitting to losing her virginity before marriage and insinuating that readers of the book will “come away with more titillating images and maybe some new ideas on which to dwell.” I can’t help wondering what this reviewer would have to say if presented with something like The Little Black Book for Girlz or even the unfalteringly honest Changing Bodies, Changing Lives. It seems counterintuitive to me that we should educate young women by simply omitting all of the information we don’t think is appropriate. This seems especially ludicrous considering that many girls will discover these things on their own. Everyone experiences sexual feelings at some point, and treating girls as completely innocent and asexual is patently ridiculous.

Most of the time the differences between the books are far more subtle than the extreme examples highlighted above. For example many differ significantly in their treatment of more “controversial” topics, such as masturbation and homosexuality; in some books many pages are dedicated to these subjects, whilst in others they only receives a box or a few quick mentions. Some, like The Little Black Book for Girlz, are open and encouraging, while others, like Girlology, take a far more cautious approach, assuming a completely neutral position on homosexuality and suggesting masturbation is a personal choice. Perhaps most telling is the treatment these subjects receive in Lies Young Women Believe, in that neither of them is mentioned at all.

This introduction to sex happens long before most sex education classes begin. My first “sex ed” class took place in late sixth grade, long after I and most of the girls I knew had already started our menstrual cycles. The whole thing seemed rather pointless after that, as it certainly wasn’t telling us anything we didn’t already know from experience. In preparation for the class, letters were sent home to our parents informing them that we were going to be learning about sex and letting them know that they had the option to opt us out of the class. Considering all of these precautions it was rather disappointing, and surprising, that this so-called sexual education contained no mention of the actual act of sex. If I hadn’t already had some basic knowledge of the process there is no way I would have come out of that class with any idea how babies are made, let alone how sex itself works. I sincerely hope that no parent would attempt to keep such a cursory knowledge of puberty hidden from their children, considering most of us were already in the thick of it by then.

Of course, we were young; one does not expect much from a sixth-grade sex education class. Surely more comprehensive education is reserved for high school, when the students are mature enough to handle the content. This is true: sex education in high school is more comprehensive. However, it still fails in several fundamental ways. The United States has a strong focus on abstinence-only education, in which students are taught that abstaining from sex is the only true protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unwanted pregnancy. On some fundamental level this is true; you can’t get pregnant or contract an STI without having sex. It is also proven to be highly ineffective. This is because abstinence-only programs do not stop teens from having sex. Instead, the lack of comprehensive contraception education leads to more unprotected sex and therefore more unplanned pregnancies and STIs. In 2009 it was reported that seventy-five percent of teens eighteen to nineteen know little or nothing about birth control pills, while forty-one percent know little or nothing about condoms. Considering seventy percent of these teens will have had sex by the time they turn nineteen this is a disheartening statistic. Surely they received some sort of formal sex education; how could it have failed so badly that they are not knowledgeable about even the most basic forms of contraception? While these statistics certainly bring the problem into focus, one must only turn on the TV and flip to MTV’s Teen Mom or 16 and Pregnant to see the problem in action. It is shocking to see the percentage of girls on the show that have no knowledge of contraception whatsoever. Very few of them were using any form of birth control when they became pregnant, and their discussion of contraception methods proves that in a culture where birth control is not discussed scientifically, misconceptions and peer rumors run rampant. Two of the most cited reasons for not using birth control are (a) it’s too embarrassing to buy, and (b) the boyfriend did not like the way the condom felt. Perhaps it would be beneficial to have a system of sexual education where girls feel empowered enough to assert their own needs and desires instead of just catering to their boyfriend’s wishes.

An additional issue is that this problem appears to be unique to the United States. Though we often consider ourselves to be more advanced than other countries, our beliefs about sex remain strangely puritanical. Unlike many other cultures, American culture glamorizes abstinence; teen starlets wear purity rings and make public promises to wait until they’re married to lose their virginity. The very concept of virginity itself is embedded so deeply within our culture few even think to question it. In fact, there is no medical or scientific definition of virginity and few people agree on what the word means.

Even with all of this glamorizing, American teens still aren’t abstaining from sex. Though they may worry about losing their virginity they will likely do so before they’re married, and their lack of a comprehensive sex education will put them at a disadvantage to their European counterparts. In 2009 the British government began a campaign encouraging teens to masturbate at least once daily, stating that orgasm is a right. Can you imagine such a thing happening in America? While we continue to promote abstinence as the ultimate ideal, it is completely normal in European countries such as Sweden for teenagers to have parent-approved sleepovers with their sex partners. Of course, our teenagers are having sex. The big difference is that teens in the US are less likely to use contraception than European teens. Compared to other similarly developed countries, the United States has extremely high rates of pregnancy, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. The most likely cause of this would seem simply to be a lack of education. This is a solvable problem, but one that conservative lawmakers refuse to tackle because of religious beliefs and political convictions. After examining the statistics from a purely logical perspective it seems clear that a change is needed. Abstinence, however, is a practice rooted stubbornly in religion and tradition, and those who campaign the hardest for abstinence do not do so because of statistics or logic.

Considering that comprehensive sex education classes do not happen until high school, by which time many teens are already having sex, there must be some period of learning in between. This period, consisting of input from movies, music, television shows, other teens, the internet, and sexual exploration, is by far the most impactful part of a young woman’s sexual education. I will first focus on what is a tremendous factor in the information age: the media. Many movies, books, and television shows are aimed at teenage girls, and they all give very different pictures of what the life of a teenage girl is like. Disney Channel girls, for example, act as if sex doesn’t exist, while the stars of ABC Family’s terrible The Secret Life of the American Teenager spend their entire lives thinking about, talking about, and having sex. Some shows, like the aforementioned Secret Life, show ridiculously exaggerated consequences of sex, whereas others, like Degrassi: The Next Generation, show the variety of scenarios that can occur after sexual activity. In the following paragraphs I will explore a few of these shows and movies and their messages.

These days the most popular genre aimed at teenage girls tends to be that of supernatural romance. Shows like The Vampire Diaries and Teen Wolf (and, of course, the ever controversial Twilight series of books and movies) focus on romances occurring between vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural beings. On the surface these fantastic depictions may seem unrelated to the life of a typical teenager, but in reality will likely have a tremendous impact on how girls view love, sex, and their own sexuality. Take, for instance, the Twilight series. Written by a Mormon mother of three, the books promote traditional values in a way that is unconventional enough to go over a preteen girl’s head, at least on the first read through. The main couple, Edward and Bella (who, by the way, have a creepy and quickly dismissed ninety year age difference) abstain from sex until marriage and go through with a pregnancy even though Bella is assured that the fetus will kill her. Throughout the series Bella also remains completely subordinate to Edward’s frequently controlling desires, has no interests or friends outside the relationship, and completely falls apart when Edward breaks up with her, ostensibly “for her own good.” While people are entitled to their opinions on abortion and premarital sex, I cannot imagine that anyone advocates having absolutely no life outside of one’s relationship. Young women and girls who see these films or read these books expect relationships to be all consuming and utterly perfect, and often this just isn’t the case. Perhaps most harmful is the effect these films can have on a girl’s sense of self; when they see relationships so focused on men, they may forget that their needs are just as valid as their partner’s. How can young women be expected to carry out normal relationships when the media depicts such radically unequal partnerships as the ideal?

Not all girls base their romantic expectations on vampire novels, of course. Even among those girls whose sexual expectations are shaped heavily by the media, there are many other sources of information that do not include controlling immortal boyfriends. Examples of two more realistic shows aimed at teenagers are the previously mentioned The Secret Life of the American Teenager and Degrassi: The Next Generation. These two shows, aimed at teen girls, are huge sources of sexual information (and misinformation). The Secret Life, for example, is focused almost entirely around sex. You would likely get the impression that this is all teenagers ever think about. In truth, any teen girl knows that friends, activities, and schoolwork often take precedence. The show claims to be a realistic depiction of the consequences of sex, and at times it succeeds in its goal; two of the main heroines have experienced pregnancies, and the late-term miscarriage of one has to be one of the most unfalteringly realistic depictions of what is often a taboo subject among teens. However, the consequences of sex are often also wildly exaggerated. One Christian teenager, for instance, loses her virginity only to discover that her father has died in a car crash, presumably as some sort of divine retribution for going against his wishes. The show also has an awkward habit of having episodes “themed” around a particular sex act; topics like oral sex and masturbation are dealt with quickly over the span of an hour and rarely mentioned again. In my opinion the biggest problem with teen girls, especially younger ones, watching this show is that they can overestimate the importance of sex in the lives of teenagers. The show premiered when I was twelve, and at first I was impressed by just how edgy and presumably realistic it was. My mother was taken aback by all of the talk about sex, but I insisted that’s just what it’s like in high school. I soon discovered I was wrong; no one talks about sex like that. Girls expecting high school’s entire focus to be about sex will be sorely disappointed when they arrive and find that while it is certainly important, the likelihood that sex is going to be consuming every second of your time is very small. Statistically speaking most teenage girls aren’t even having sex yet, and this majority goes completely unrepresented on the show. While I believe sex can be a wonderful and empowering thing, no one should feel that they have to participate in it in high school just because the media makes it appear that everyone else does.

Perhaps the most realistic depiction of teen life on television is Canadian import Degrassi: The Next Generation. Currently in its eleventh season, the show has made a name for itself by presenting an unflinchingly realistic portrayal of the life of teenage boys and girls. Many of them have sex, many of them don’t; more importantly, the show also focuses on other aspects of teen life like friendships, peer pressure, and self-esteem. Its portrayal of sex is empowering to both boys and girls; some are pressured into having sex, while others are completely in control of their own sexuality. The consequences are also shown far more realistically than on the show’s American counterpart, with realistic rates of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other complications. The show also has many LGBT characters and does not shy away from their storylines in any way. I find this to be one of the best aspects of the show, as few other shows are as open to exploring characters that might be deemed controversial by some religious and political groups. The Disney Channel, for instance, claims they simply don’t discuss sexuality on the channel – which is true to some degree – but while straight characters have gone out on innocent and completely sex-free dates, no mention has ever been made of being attracted to someone of the same sex. The same bias can be seen in the Motion Picture Association of America and their rating system, especially when women are involved; the MPAA is notoriously much harder on depictions of homosexual sex than its heterosexual counterpart. When the homosexual characters involved are teenage girls, the MPAA become even stricter. For example But I’m a Cheerleader, a film about a lesbian teenager whose parents send her to a therapy camp for homosexual teens, was rated NC-17 for a scene where the main character masturbates over her underwear; the same year American Pie, a film where a male character masturbates into an apple pie in the trailer, was released with an R rating. This focus on heterosexism in films is harmful to teen girls of all sexual orientations because it enforces ideas of strict gender roles than can alienate and diminish the self-worth of young women.
As you can see a young woman’s impression of sex is highly variable, depending on what books she has read, what movies and television shows she has watched, and what her parents have told her. It is clear that the culture in which most teens are being raised today is one that focuses on the negative aspects of sex and glorifies ineffective practices like abstinence instead of providing comprehensive information about contraception. This has been empirically proven; studies have shown that rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease are far higher in the United States than in other similarly developed countries. We are creating a culture where girls feel bad about sex, bad about themselves, and bad about their relationships. I believe our biggest failing is our strangely conservative attitude about sexuality. We live in a society where conservative commentators can call a female college student a slut just for talking about contraception. This is disturbing and upsetting to young women everywhere who can’t discuss any aspect of their sexuality without fearing being deemed a slut or w***. We would all benefit from more openness, more information, and an altogether more positive attitude. As a teenage girl who has experienced this sex-negative culture first hand, I hope I will be able to raise my own daughters in a culture where sex is valued as the natural, pleasurable, positive thing that it is – where they can enjoy and explore their own sexuality without feeling ostracized by conservative attitudes. The focus needs to be taken off religion and politics and put back on the people these attitudes are really affecting: teenage girls themselves. Perhaps lawmakers should try listening to our voices instead of just dictating how our lives should be.

All of us – young and old, male and female – should try to work towards a larger goal of creating a more welcoming and empowering environment for our young women. Reform of sex education is a good place to start, but there is still a great deal of work that has to be done in changing the attitudes of every day men and women. Teenage girls need to be shown that sex isn’t all bad. After all, it’s what got us all here in the first place. Let’s trade Puritanism for progress and begin moving towards a healthier society, one where everyone feels comfortable expressing their sexuality in their own way without having to worry about pressures and societal stigmas. In my opinion, that should be the ultimate goal.

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