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

Book shines light on the reasons for some teenage girls' promiscuity.

ByABC News via logo
September 21, 2011, 10:21 PM

Sept. 22, 2011 — -- Kerry Cohen is a psychotherapist, and the author of the memoir "Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity."

In her latest book, "Dirty Little Secrets: Breaking the Silence on Teenage Girls and Promiscuity," she examines the many reasons teen girls may engage in sexually promiscuous behavior.

Cohen also has written three young adult novels.

Read an excerpt from "Dirty Little Secrets" below, then check out some other books in the "GMA" library.



You see them everywhere. They walk along busy highways in low-slung jeans and tank tops, peering into every car that passes. They sit with their friends in diners and coffee shops, searching, their thoughts clearly on who is looking at them. They catch the eyes of the boys they pass. They smile and flip their hair. They post photos of themselves in bikinis on Facebook. They are just girls. They are your sister, your daughter, your friend, your niece. They are not remarkable, really, in any way. They are almost every girl you see. They believe in their hearts that they are worth nothing, that they have little to offer. They believe boys will pull them out of their ordinariness and finally, finally, transform them into someone better than who they are.

They have sex too early and for the wrong reasons. They get STDs, and they get pregnant too young. They are "friends with benefits," but with no benefit to themselves. They give out blow jobs like kisses and hope for love in return. They are ignored. They don't get called. They get dumped again and again. They lie alone in their beds and hate themselves for being so unlovable, for being so needy, for not being like every other girl, for not being able to just have fun. But they aren't sex addicts or even love addicts. What they crave is the attention, that moment when a boy looks at them and they can believe that they are worth something to someone. They can believe that they matter.

When these girls grow up, they find that in this way, they are still girls. They carry their pasts with boys into their futures. They remain needy, desperate, anxious for someone to prove their worth. The boys, though, become men.

For much of my life, I was that girl. When I became a therapist, I learned that there were many others like me. And when I wrote my memoir, Loose Girl, about my experiences, I heard from many, many more girls like me. They assumed that they were the only ones, that they alone suffered this peculiarity. How could this be? How do we get so far into our lives and into these experiences without sharing them—and our feelings—with our friends, our parents, or a caring adult? Because we feel so alone—because we carry immense shame about our behavior and, more so, our desperation. Some came from divorce, like I did. Others had lived through severe abuse. Still others had untarnished childhoods, intact families, and the feeling that they had been loved. Some had sex with only three men; others with fifty. The number of men isn't important. It is the feelings these young women experienced—that if they got a man's attention it would mean they were worth something in the world.

You might be this girl, too. Maybe in some ways you have experienced such feelings even if you never acted on them the way some of us did. You have met eyes with a man and thought, Maybe he could save me. You have done your makeup and dressed provocatively to attract men at an event. You aren't immune to the feeling that a man will make you feel something more than just love, more than just sexy—that he will make you feel valuable.

We aren't sex addicts or love addicts—at least not at first. We aren't diagnosable. We aren't yet to the point where we let these feelings utterly destroy our lives, even if, in some ways, it seems they do. They consume us. We are obsessed with getting love, with using male attention to make ourselves worthwhile in the world. Like the girls Courtney L. Martin describes in her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughter: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body, girls who don't have eating disorders per se but obsess over the idea of needing to be thinner than they are, the girls I discuss in this book are on a continuum of promiscuity.1 Sex and love addictions are simply more extreme versions of what many—maybe even most—girls face regarding sex and love.

What happened to us? How did we get to this point, where we use male attention like a drug, again and again, as unsatisfying to us as it is? Why do we keep going back, even though our behavior often becomes self-destructive? And, finally, how do we move from that behavior, those feelings, toward real intimacy?

After Loose Girl arrived on bookshelves, readers were eager to share their stories, to voice their feelings, to know that they weren't alone. Many wanted answers, a formula, to get themselves to a new place, to stop harming themselves with their promiscuity. This book is my answer to their plea. It is a study of the cult of female, teenage promiscuity, and the silence that surrounds the topic; it is a sharing of numerous stories about the harm done and the movement toward real intimacy. It is also a genuine discussion about how we can make change for ourselves, our daughters, our clients, and our culture.

The bottom line is that we don't like to talk about teenage girls and sex. Sure, we see it everywhere. Teenage girls in provocative clothing flood the media. They have sex on Gossip Girl and Degrassi and One Tree Hill. And they definitely have sex on reality shows like The Real World and 16 and Pregnant. But when we discuss adolescent girls and sex, it is only in one way: don't have sex. This is easier than anything else. We tell teenage girls to stay away from sexual behavior and to practice abstinence. Don't have sex, we say, because we don't like to imagine them having sex. If they do, then we have to think of them as sexual creatures, and that makes us squirm.

In fact, much of the promiscuity among young women, both heterosexual and homosexual, is likely to go undetected because it makes therapists uncomfortable. When I appeared on Dr. Phil to discuss two teen girls whose parents were unhappy they were having sex, the tagline next to the girls' names when they were on screen was "sexually active," as though that was a disorder or a crime of some sort.

But while we refuse to discuss teenage sex, it is happening. According to the Guttmacher Institute, although teenage sexual activity has declined 16 percent in the past fifteen years, almost half (46 percent) of all 15- to 19-year-olds have had sex at least once, and 27 percent of 13- to 16-year-olds are sexually active. The larger proportion of these teenagers are black (67.3 percent) and Hispanic (51.4 percent) rather than white (41.8 percent). Much of the sexual behavior occurs in populations traditionally thought to have less experience in sexual activity, though, such as teenagers from affluent homes and preadolescents.(2)

Ultimately, the statistics for STDs and teenage pregnancy aren't promising. We are experiencing a record high of teenage girls with sexual diseases. Of the 18.9 million new cases of STDs each year, 48 percent occur among 15- to 24-year-olds. One in four teenage girls aged 14–19 and one in every two black teenage girls has an STD. Each year, almost 750,000 teen pregnancies are reported for women aged 15–19, and 82 percent of those pregnancies are unplanned.(3)

The MTV reality series Teen Mom, a spin-off of the wildly successful 16 and Pregnant, had the channel's highest-rated premiere in more than a year—evidence, I'd say, of our fascination with teenage motherhood. What happens behind these statistics, the feelings and motivations behind promiscuous behavior, and the direct results of it, is less clear. These are the dirty little secrets that girls carry. These are the stories they have—we have—but don't tell.There is some research that casual sex among teenagers can be more harmful than we've thought. The adolescent brain's prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain responsible for judgment—develops at an explosive rate. There are in fact only two times during development that the brain is overrun with synapses (neural connections) in this way: right before birth and right before puberty. At this critical time in preadolescence, the brain manufactures far more synapses than necessary. The synapses that are used become stronger. The ones that aren't used weaken and die. As a result, certain experiences become sealed in that teen's growth, in the strong synapses. If they handle intimacy—and sex—in ways that don't get them what they really want, again and again, they are likely to wind up with a potentially harmful approach to intimacy.(4)

What's more, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until the mid-twenties, and there is some evidence that bonding through sex and then breaking up again and again damages the ability to establish meaningful connection through intimacy. In other words, when teens bond and break, bond and break, before the cortex is fully developed, as most teens do, they potentially set themselves up for trouble with real intimacy later on. (This research, however, is based on findings concerning oxytocin, and many have argued that we don't know enough about oxytocin to make such claims. See the "References and Notes" section at the end of the book for more information.)5

At the same time, though, we know that a girl's ability to express her sexual desires is a necessary step toward developing healthy sexual intimacy, and it is essential if she is to protect herself against unwanted or unsafe sexual activities. In fact, in one study, researchers found that the fewer sexual partners a girl had, the more likely she was to not assert her beliefs and feelings during sexual activity, thereby potentially setting herself up for negative sexual experiences.(6)

Not all teenage sexual behavior derives from self-harm. Ideally, in fact, none of it would. Sexual curiosity and experimentation is a perfectly natural part of growing up. Girls have just as much sexual desire and curiosity as boys. They are curious about their genitals and others' as children. They masturbate. The hormones that race through a teenage girls' body create just as much sexual feeling as boys' hormones do.

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.

The distinction between acting on natural sexual feelings and using male attention and sex to fill emptiness is an important one. In this book, I carry the underlying assumption that teenage girls have natural sexual feelings, just like boys, and that perhaps we need to find an outlet for girls to express themselves sexually, an outlet that the girls control themselves, not the cultural expectations about who they should be as sexual creatures. I also try to demarcate what it might look like when a girl has stepped beyond cultural boundaries and has begun using male attention and sex to try to feel worthwhile. And there is a difference: some girls manage to cope with our culture's lack of space for girls to have sexual feelings, but others struggle and tend to use sexual attention and behavior to harm themselves emotionally. So for the purposes of this book, I refer to self-destructive sexual behavior as promiscuity and to the girls who pursue such self-destructive attention as loose girls.

Without discussion, without creating the space for girls to talk about their sexual experiences, we are left with assumptions that are almost invariably wrong. If we are not virgins, we are called sluts. We get what we deserve and what we wanted. Or—and this emerging view is not as positive as it seems—we are empowered by our sexuality; we are waving our flags of sexual freedom. After all, in this day and age, to suggest that a girl having sex is anything other than empowered and strong is antifeminist.

Meanwhile, the media continues to propagate the double-edged sword, the messages that girls have always received. You must be sexy, but you may not have sex. You must make men want you, but you may not use that to fill your own desires. The women's studies professor Hugo Schwyzer calls this the Paris paradox, based on Paris Hilton's comment that she was "sexy but not sexual."9 He notes that young women raised with Paris Hilton in the limelight were promised sexual freedom but wound up with more obligation than abandon. In other words, girls' requirement to be sexy greatly outweighs any attention to what might be a natural, authentic sense of their sexual identity.

This is not a book telling teenage girls not to have sex. On the flip side, it's also not a book that encourages promiscuity. It's a book about how we can all work together to find a way to let teenage girls stop harming themselves with their sexual behavior. It's a book—at its core—about girls' rights and sexual freedom.

The true experience of being a teenage girl these days is so lost inside all this noise, all the assumptions and messages coming from everyone but the girl herself, that we couldn't possibly know what emotions are behind promiscuous behavior. That's why I went straight to the source—finally—and asked to hear from the girls and women themselves.

I interviewed approximately seventy-five American volunteers who had originally emailed me after reading Loose Girl.(10) I do not claim by any stretch of the imagination to present scientific findings. These are qualitative stories from real girls who believed in this project and understood that by sharing their stories they could potentially help other girls out there who struggle with similar feelings and behaviors. Some are still teenagers, but others are older and either still act out or have learned to stop. These girls come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Most are white, but about 15 percent are black, Asian American, Hispanic, and biracial. Some call their mothers their best friends. Some have never met their fathers. Some have happily married parents and eat dinner with their families at the same time each night. Some have been raped. Some got pregnant. Some have been treated for STDs. All of them have carried shame about their behavior at one time or another, and all of them have felt alone. Not one felt there were any guidelines out there to help them move out of this behavior. This book answers that need.

All of the girls and women I interviewed have been given pseudonyms to protect their privacy. In an ideal world, they would be able to claim their stories without needing confidentiality. But unfortunately, girls who talk about their sexual experiences often get bullied and ostracized. In my mind, this is more evidence of our need for these conversations, more evidence of how badly we need to normalize sexual desire and behavior among adolescent girls.

This book has two purposes. First, I want to simply open a discussion that aims to identify girls' sexual experiences in our culture, how they develop as sexual creatures inside a culture that largely holds the reins on what that means. I aim to help readers understand how girls head into adolescence as loose girls, how they often wind up using male attention and promiscuity as a way to feel worthwhile, and how that experience gets reinforced once it is under way. Second, I hope to provide some suggestions for helping girls find their way out of this negative experience with promiscuity and for protecting girls from using sex in this way in the first place.

With that intention, the book is split into two parts—identifying the loose girl experience and helping girls gain power over their sexual lives. At the beginning of each chapter, I include a quote from the girls and women who have contacted me about their own sexual experiences.

In chapter 1, I examine girlhood, from puberty on, from a sexual perspective. Here girls discuss how their identities are tied up with how teenage boys view them and how they think of themselves in relation to other people. This includes the notion that girls must measure up to a certain physical standard to be worthwhile, how they can assess that measure on the basis of male attention, and how impossible it is for a girl to ever feel that she is good enough as she is. Chapter 1 also examines the ways in which female adolescent development is perfectly poised for those sorts of belief. It briefly discusses the ways this belief has remained relatively constant throughout much of our history, and is, in this way, interwoven with the female identity, even as so many other strides have been made for women over time.

Then we'll delve into boys and discuss just what it is about them that makes them so beautiful, so free, and always so unattainable. Chapter 2 explores the fantasy that our culture builds about boys and how that gets tangled up with girls' beliefs about them. We'll look at how those fantasies get wound up with the idea that boys will free us from that particularly female belief that we aren't good enough as we are.

In chapter 3, we'll dive into that minefield that is teenage girls and sex. It is one of our long-standing taboos. And yet, teenage girls have sex. They have sexual desires and curiosity. They experiment. They have fantasies. Usually when we discuss teenage girls and sex, though, we do so in prescribed, limited ways. Girls are virgins, sluts, or empowered. In this chapter, I explore—with the help of the girls I interview and existing literature—how girls see themselves in relation to these archetypes. Together we find that they don't often fit these constrictions, and yet because of these archetypes, they feel voiceless, shamed, and alone.

Much of the research out there suggests that, for girls to have a healthy relationship to sex, they must have a healthy relationship with their mothers. Through interviews with girls and the current literature, chapter 4 examines the ways in which severed intimacy with mothers both does and doesn't contribute to promiscuous behavior. We'll also discuss the issue of mothers modeling attention-needing behavior from men, and how that influences girls' behavior as well.

Most people assume that a girl's relationship with her father determines her future with boys and men. In chapter 5, we will examine whether, and in what capacity, this has been true for girls. This examination includes fathers' behavior with women, their direct and/or indirect sexualizing of girls, and their ability to show appropriate attention to their daughters.

In chapter 6, we discuss other ways girls harm themselves in conjunction with promiscuity, such as alcohol, drugs, cutting, and eating disorders. How do these behaviors interact with promiscuity, and in what ways are they part and parcel of the same thing? We also look at the prevalence of depression and other mood disorders with promiscuous behavior.

Sex, rape, and losing virginity is chapter 7's focus. As we've discussed, teenage girls do have sexual desire and curiosity. Is it possible to build a society in which we can allow them to experiment sexually, to make their own choices regarding sex, without being tunneled into the archetypes available to them?

One of the challenges tied up with that question is rape. We tend to think of rape as a black-and-white issue—you either are or aren't the victim of rape. You either say yes or no. But the concept can become blurry when a girl acts out promiscuously because of low self-esteem or because she so often feels violated even when she consents. Rape is legally and clearly defined, of course, but the sense of violation many loose girls experience can have long-lasting emotional effects that are similar to the consequences of rape.Another challenge is the fantasy world we apply to sex, particularly for adolescent girls. To lose her virginity, a girl must be in love. It will be the most magical, eventful night of her life. Much too often girls get drunk to lose their virginity so that they will have an excuse later, so they won't have to take on the aura of a girl who chooses sex. Through interviews with girls, I examine these various issues and how, with them, we might build new avenues for girls' sexual choices.

In chapter 8, we'll look at the brave new world of dating. It was the 1980s and 1990s when I was living out the scenes that I would later share in Loose Girl. Computers were just beginning to enter our culture. No one I knew used a cellular phone. And yet I managed to get myself into trouble with boys again and again. We'll examine how things are different now and what those differences mean in terms of promiscuous behavior. We'll also explore the dangers that may come up when a girl pursues male attention, and the newer, more complex venues for this danger to play out today.

In part 2, we'll look at a few ways that girls can gain power. Too often we assume that younger girls act out sexually but learn to control their impulses and ultimately find intimacy when they mature into women. The more common truth is that girls carry these struggles into adulthood. In chapter 9, we'll hear stories from women who still feel addicted to that attention from men.

In chapter 10, we'll explore various ways girls have come to new and better places with promiscuity and with their need for male attention, and how we can help them make those changes. We'll also look at those who haven't been able to change and the dangers involved in that inability to change, and we'll consider the possibility that change is only partially possible and depends on the particular situation of the person trying to make that change.

Ultimately, if we are to make true change for girls, we also need to transform our culture away from one that positions girls as sexual objects and only allows particular archetypal figures for girls engaging in sexual activity. Chapter 11 explores how girls might take the lead on that change, including through transformation of our sex education programs.

My hope is that women young and old, parents, therapists, and school administrators, will see this book as an opening, a break in the silence surrounding teenage girls and sex.

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