Excerpt: 'Dirty Little Secrets: Breaking the Silence on Teenage Girls and Promiscuity' by Kerry Cohen

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Psychological discussions about why girls might engage in sexual activity, however, do not include any information about girls' sexual desire. Michelle Fine refers to this as "the missing discourse of desire" in her article of the same name.(7) She notes that we talk about victimization, violence, and morality, but we almost never examine the fact that girls, too, have desire. In fact, sexual desire is seen as an aberration for girls, which means that we almost always assume that girls act sexually only to fulfill their hopes for a relationship. This can certainly be the case, but it's potentially dangerous—as we make policy, as we aim to help girls, as we aim to help ourselves—not to account for the fact that they also experience sexual arousal.

We don't generally like to say these things about adolescent girls. We don't acknowledge that they have desire. We live in a culture that provides little space for any sort of female teenage sexual behavior, including what many would consider normal curiosity and exploration, because it makes us so uncomfortable.

How did this odd untruth about female desire arise? Ancient and medieval understandings of puberty emphasized vitality and social benefit, and they made little distinction between male and female desire. The rising influence of Christianity, though, established the beliefs that youthful sexuality was dangerous, immoral, and threatening to social order. With the Enlightenment, boys regained some freedom over their right to sexual expression, but girls' sexual desire remained deviant. Over the following centuries, while puberty for boys took on its association with manly desire, for girls it grew more and more removed from any notion of desire and instead focused entirely on preparation for reproduction and motherhood.(8) In conjunction with this, girls' experience with puberty was associated only with the need to protect their purity so they would be ready for their fate as mothers. Our notions today about girls and female desire are built on outdated patriarchal, religious notions.

Today, the cultural narrative is as follows: boys are horny, but girls are not, and so girls must do what they can to keep boys and their out-of-control hormones at bay. We like this narrative, outdated and unscientific as it is. It keeps us safe from the notion that girls might want to be sexual as much as boys do. But, you might be thinking, what is the problem with keeping girls safe? As I explore in this book, the problem is that when you deny a group of people an essential part of who they are, a part they have full right to, they often wind up using it in a self-destructive manner rather than as a natural part of their development. In other words, if teenagers getting STDs and becoming pregnant and acting out sexually is a cultural problem, then stigmatizing teenage sex only makes it worse—much worse.

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