Policing young women's sexuality

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In 2009, sex therapist Dr Laura Berman caused a stir when she appeared on an episode of Oprah and told women that one of the most important things they could do in regards to sex educating their teenage daughters was to buy them a vibrator.

The response was overwhelming. While some women wrote to the show to thank Berman for advice they'd never considered before, others were outraged. Didn't Berman know that discussing sex and masturabation with their daughters would only encourage promiscuity? Their daughters needed to be shielded from sex, not thrust into it like trainee whores.

Such is the way we view the sexuality of teenage girls.

When I discovered masturbation (quite by accident) at the age of 12 and the intoxicating end result of it, the hypochondriac in me naturally thought I was experiencing the first signs of a stroke. Leaping up from the bath from whence I'd been rubbing myself, I glared at the porcelain accusingly. ''YOU HAVE KILLED ME!'' I thought. ''I HAVE BEEN DOING THE DEVIL'S WORK, AND NOW GOD HAS FORSAKEN ME!''

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I was a religiously troubled child. It took years to overcome the sense I was doing something wrong, but I'm proud to say now that I'm a firm advocate of being the master of your own domain. I only wish I'd had someone tell me that when I was young, embarrassed and filled with uncertain shame about what it was I was doing.

It saddens me to think that this might still be the case for girls today. We seem to be reluctant to discuss sex in relation to girls at all, terrified that we'll be perceived to be sexualising them. Typically, 'expert' commentators on sexualisation (particularly those regularly sought after in Australia, most of whom seem eager to institute a nationwide distribution of chastity belts and clutchable pearls rather than any kind of sound advice) bristle at the mere mention of sex and teenage girls in the same sentence. Sex for girls is viewed as predatory, emotionally destructive, overwhelming and dangerous — a responsible, moral society seeks to protect its most vulnerable citizens from it, lest they be ruined forever, their fragile psyches crushed amidst discarded condom packets and whatever tawdry metaphor is supposed to represent their sullied virginity.

Unfortunately, girls are still the casual victims of a society that views sex as a rigid binary — something that boys are empowered to do, but that they must have done to them. Jokes about 13-year-old boys spending too much time in the bathroom are de rigeur, because we have no discomfort with the idea of boys touching themselves. It's natural, they're boys - everyone knows that they're biologically predisposed to want sex ALL THE TIME. Don't you know they think about it every seven seconds?

And so forth.

But teenage girls... they're a different story. Our hesitation to discuss the real fact of young female desire and sexual awakening is spawned from our hysteria over sexualisation. Because sex is something that 'happens' to girls, discussing it taps into that fear that others will think we're preoccupied with it. That in the discussion of it, we are ourselves exhibiting unnatural and predatory desires.

It's impossible for some people to believe that girls can actually engage with their sexuality, can seek out sexual experiences willingly and responsibly and without risk of permanent psychological damage. Instead, we have self-appointed moral guardians — like the kinds we saw wringing their hands over teenage fangirl behaviour during a recent visit by One Direction — determining the state of play for them, with the girls themselves starkly absent from the conversation. At every turn girls are told that their sexuality comes from without rather than within, and they must choose wisely which brave knight gets to scale their ivory towers lest the opening of their Pandora's boxes wreak havoc upon the world.

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And it's a fool's errand. Because empowering girls to explore their sexuality — beginning with encouraging and normalising young female masturbation — in the way that we allow boys to leads to more informed decisions. Sometimes, these decisions will involve them having sex. But it does not immediately follow that this experience will be destructive, damaging, ruinous or undermining. The solution to building self-esteem in girls isn't to link it intrinsically with how vigilant they are about maintaining 'purity'. Girls won't be destroyed by bad sexual experiences unless we continuously remind them that there's no coming back from them.

I trust girls to be able to make their own decisions (and mistakes) and emerge on the other side wiser and stronger for them. It is a paternalistic society indeed that believes the exploration of sexuality in a woman leads to an emotional fall from grace from which she cannot recover. We do our girls no favours by refusing to acknowledge the raw complexities of their own sexual desires, instead reminding them constantly that their role in sex is restricted to picking and choosing who gets to receive their 'gift'. We don't own their bodies — they do.

78 comments

  • But Tony Abbot told us that a girls 'greatest gift' was her virginity. That sentence alone should rule him out of public office for evermore. I am pretty sure I have met at least one or two women that have had something more to offer, but I could be wrong.

    Commenter
    G
    Location
    Brisbane
    Date and time
    October 05, 2012, 8:30AM
    • Abbot did NOT say that a girl's greatest gift was her virginity. He, as a father, chose to tell his own daughters that their virginity was a gift and that they shouldn't feel pressured into losing it before they were ready. Perfectly reasonable thing for a father of three daughters. He probably would have said the same thing to his son if he had one.

      Commenter
      Maree
      Date and time
      October 05, 2012, 10:37AM
    • @G, Tony really put his foot in his mouth with that one. What he meant (when you can see through the religious mumbo jumbo) is that a woman's greatest gift is her mind and she doesn't need to sleep around to gain approval. Tony was advocating for some self respect (although phrased it very, very badly).

      Commenter
      Mark
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      October 05, 2012, 11:16AM
    • Maree, Tony Abbott said that virginity is;

      ''the greatest gift you can give someone, the ultimate gift of giving''

      (Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/memo-abbott-virginity-debate-is-no-mans-land-20100127-mz0y.html#ixzz28O83HBls)

      You may disagree with what he meant, but don't argue with the facts of what he said. He explictly stated that the single greatest, ultimate gift that his daughters could ever give, was the one-off allowance to a man of first dibs on their vagina. Hard to get a more sexist, reductionist, ridiculous argument than that.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      October 05, 2012, 12:42PM
    • Didn't take someone long to put an 'Its Abbotts Fault' comment did it?! Hilarious!

      Commenter
      DJCJ
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      October 05, 2012, 12:56PM
    • Hey (shock horror) im a young guy at uni and im a virgin! I am sexually abstinent and won't part with my 'gift' wily nilly till I meet someone right. Its my own view and I dont enforce that on anyone, after all it is a very personal choice (so is masturbation). So it can be a 'gift' from a guy as well, something not often talked about! Although for both men and women their viriginity or lack of it should not define who they are as a person.

      Many, many other aspects beside what is in someones pants contriubte to what a person is worth. Sadly, society is too sexually orientated and makes sex the be all to end all of what it is to be a human.

      Commenter
      CC
      Location
      Syd
      Date and time
      October 05, 2012, 1:23PM
    • Abbott phrased it badly, but aren't decisions about your virginity - who you lose it with, and when, and why - vitally important? And not just for girls?

      Commenter
      HAL 9000
      Date and time
      October 05, 2012, 3:56PM
  • Attention mothers and fathers! Talk to your children, talk about everything. Make them confident people that are in control of their own bodies and choices. Gen y are exposed to and have more access to sexualised imagery than past generations. It's confusing for them, what they would like to do and what they feel they might have to do. Sex education needs to go beyond 'put A into B' it should incorporate health, as well as sex for pleasure and exploring teenagers thoughts and feelings towards it. To all the prudes, your silence causes half the trouble. Get over it!

    Commenter
    Carlamari
    Location
    Anywhere but here
    Date and time
    October 05, 2012, 8:34AM
    • True, true. Take this good advice!

      Commenter
      lola
      Date and time
      October 05, 2012, 3:56PM
  • I discovered self-pleasure very very young - I even had a special word for it. When mum asked what I was doing, I gaily told her and when she clearly didn't know what I was talking about I said "Come on! I'll show you!" and proceeded to demonstrate on the household broom. Her reply was "ok, well, don't break the broom." My methods were only thwarted some years later at around 7, when a woman gave me a disapproving look as I clambered down from the top of a swing set at a local park, clearly flushed with pleasure. It was only then I realised that was probably something best kept in private.
    Let kids be kids and explore as they will. I'm so very glad my mother did just that.

    Commenter
    Liv
    Date and time
    October 05, 2012, 8:35AM

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