Policing young women's sexuality
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!''
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.
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.