Excerpted from "9 Ways We're Screwing Up Our Girls and How We Can Stop" by Anea Bogue, published by Dunham Books. '9 Ways' is a revolutionary guide for parents, and anyone who cares about the well-being of girls. At a time when research suggests that the average girl's self-esteem peaks at the age of nine and then plummets, '9 Ways' uncovers the root causes of the self-esteem crisis, the ways we are unknowingly contributing to it, and what we can do to ensure that every girl (and future woman) is empowered to reach her full potential.
The most panicked calls and emails that I receive from parents are the ones that go something like this: "We just found K-Y Jelly in my daughter's room! We are furious and terrified. How soon can we see you?!"
We could replace the K-Y Jelly with any number of signs of sexual "awakening" or activity, and they would all be equally unsettling for many parents of girls. The uncomfortable and scary feelings that come up often lead us to imagine locking her in her room until she's thirty (or at least twenty-one), just so that we don't have to deal with it. Fear leads some parents to take extreme, restrictive actions that can be more damaging than they are protective, because they tell her it is wrong for her to have sexual desires. We perpetuate the absurd notion that female sexuality is either nonexistent or shameful, and ultimately, we prompt her to disconnect from her body--the same one we that want her to love and protect.
Given that the healthy sexual development of our girls is an absolutely fundamental part of their healthy development overall, failing as her guides in this realm means screwing her up on multiple levels--so we need to get it together. This is a really tough one for many parents, because our thoughts and feelings around the subject of sex are loaded with programming.
The way in which we, as women and men, see ourselves as sexual beings has been determined largely by this programming, and it quickly makes its way to the surface and affects the way in which we perceive our daughters as they begin to discover and explore their sexuality. The average mom is terrified that her daughter's sexual activity will deem her a "slut," and the average dad knows that she could be objectified by boys and men, just as he was programmed to do. Both are terrified--whether they can define it or not--that this objectification of their daughter will make her a target for ridicule, abuse, rape, or worse. In some cases, there is even concern about her behavior bringing shame to her family! We begin to ooze this fear from the moment we even think about our daughter's entry into this realm.
And how does all this fear impact a girl's perception of herself? There are six really big and very connected problems with all this fear swirling around a girl's budding sexuality:
1. Human beings rarely make wise choices from a place of fear. Rather, we make rash, unreasonable, extreme choices that often yield the opposite results of what we were hoping for. In this case, our fears can lead us to make poor parenting choices that fail to protect our daughters. Simply saying "no" or implementing extreme restrictions first and foremost makes her associate the feeling of shame with her sexuality. Second, it will lead her to stop asking questions and seeking accurate information about sex. This puts her at much higher risk for sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Third, it can prompt her to explore in more secretive, less supervised, and less safe settings, like the back seat of someone's car.
2. Because she will undoubtedly feel our fear, she will naturally make associations between her sexual desires and fear. Imagine if in the weeks and months leading up to her first day of kindergarten, you were exuding fear. She would naturally view going to kindergarten as something scary, and this would hinder her ability to be fully present and capable of getting the most out of the experience. In the case of her sexual development and desires, she makes the same association, and she, too, becomes more apt to make choices from a place of fear rather than ones rooted in strength and clarity. (Think: "I was afraid he wouldn't like me if I said 'no.'")
3. With this strong message from her parents and myriad similar messages out in the world in tow, by the time she reaches middle school, she begins to face a very common dilemma. She realizes there are only two paths to choose from when it comes to her sexuality, and both are dangerous. She will be shamed for being a "prude" or a "tease" if she isn't sexually active, and she will be shamed for being a "slut" or a "whore" if she is. No matter what, she's still expected to be sexy. In either case, someone other than herself is dictating what is acceptable or unacceptable sexual behavior. This frequently leads a girl to feel a lack of power over her own sexuality, and she will begin to disconnect from her sexual desire and, inevitably, from her body. (Deborah Tolman speaks to this dilemma at length in Dilemmas of Desire.)
4. When a girl disconnects from her sexuality and her body, several things happen that put her in danger. She stops being the gatekeeper of her body. She stops being actively responsible for listening to what feels good and what doesn't, determining who touches her and how, and fiercely protecting herself. Instead, she explains away her sexual behavior as having "just happened" (easily explained away if she gets "drunk" first). She defers to what someone else determines feels good or doesn't, and she is much less likely to insist that protection is used if it does "just happen."
5. This also sets our boys up to receive mixed messages they are under-prepared to interpret. When a girl doesn't feel like she can own her sexuality and be in charge of her sexual desires without shame, she will expect the boy to take the lead. This can prompt a boy to think that he has permission to go way further than he actually does. Couple that with the societal ("Man Box") message that he is supposed to be dominant and that he's a "faggot" if he's not, and you've got a recipe for sexual aggression. Current studies show that as many as one in three high school girls has been sexually assaulted by a dating partner. None of us wants this for our daughters, nor do we want our sons to learn about this sexual dilemma through a rape charge.
6. Lastly, all this fear, feeding on itself and growing, leads us to over-manage and under-value female sexuality. We perpetuate the shaming and subject our girls and our boys to the same programming that has been passed from generation to generation--and once again, the cycle continues.
The impact that these fears have on a girl's development--sexual, psychological, physical, and emotional--is extremely detrimental and there is a strong likelihood that she will carry this disconnection from a core part of her being well into adulthood. We simply cannot underestimate how important it is that we ensure that she has every opportunity to become a well-informed, shame-free, sexual being.
Action steps and resources on how we can stop shaming girls' sexuality can be found in '9 Ways We're Screwing Up Our Girls and How We Can Stop: A Guide to Helping Girls Reach Their Highest Potential'