From my point of view as a developmental psychologist with a particular
interest in female adolescence and adolescent sexuality, I want to consider
some contributing factors, besides the absence of parental supervision or even
parental relationships, that may have been operating in the events that took
place in Rockdale County.
I want to place these teenagers' sexual experience in some larger context.
While it might have seemed to some of the girls in this report that twelve is
the age for first sexual intercourse, twelve is not the average age for girls
nationwide; it is hard to know if it is even for the girls of Rockdale County.
The most recent statistics indicate that 38.5 percent of 15-17 year old girls
have had sexual intercourse; this proportion is unchanged from the 1988 rate.
Several studies have shown that by 9th grade, 25% of girls, on
average, have had sexual intercourse in this country. Whether they wanted to
have this experience, why, and what it meant to them, is data that has never
Is "The Sandwich" an unusual sexual activity for adolescents? We do not know
if teenagers regularly participate in group sex, because we don't ask them
these questions. Several years ago, a comprehensive, nationally representative
survey of adolescent sexual behavior designed to understand the kinds of sexual
risks teenagers take, was proposed by a highly reputable social scientist to a
federal agency and won approval for funding by scientific peers. However, this
study was denied funding by Congress, the only instance of such political
meddling with the scientific peer review process. The study is currently being
conducted with private funding. In my own research, I am garnering information
about the ways that girls and boys understand their romantic relationships and
sexual experiences as they develop through adolescence. |
If there had been an epidemic of syphilis discovered among the adolescents of
East Harlem, would there be such shock and disbelief? (Not because those
adolescents actually have more sex, but because our stereotypes about
adolescents who are poor and of color are that they are more sexual.) Even if
the epidemic had been found among only the boys of Rockdale County, would it
have been so unthinkable? The eyebrow-raiser here is that these teens, in
particular the girls, were white and well-off. And that is because we do not
think, believe or talk about white, middle-class adolescent girls being sexual
as normal or acceptable.
Only the girls in the program discuss their sexual experiences on this program.
Is that because we think it's normal for adolescent boys to engage in "wild"
sexual activity? Were the boys asked about this aspect of their experience?
When the boys do talk about sex in the program, it is to comment on the
behavior of the girls, about whom they (as well as the girls themselves) are
socialized to observe, judge, talk and treat "disrespectfully" if it is
considered deserved, i.e., by girls' flaunting of their sexuality. These boys
report male sexual fantasies coming true over and over again in those empty
houses. The girls describe the sex as "just happening"-echoing what many other
girls have reported to researchers about how they came to have sexual
intercourse. And in no single sexual episode in which a girl behaved "counter
to expectations" or in a way that defied female sexual norms was the girl
sober. Having sex "just happen" or being drunk and therefore somehow not
responsible for sexual decisions and actions are what I have called "cover
stories"-that is, sanctioned ways that girls can speak about their sexual
experiences, in which they are not blameworthy or even active participants.
By saying "it just happened" or by being drunk, they have recourse from
emotional, social and in some cases physical repercussions within a system that
denies them their sexuality.
The sex education program in Rockdale County reflects a widespread national
policy of emphasizing abstinence. In fact, current Federal funding guidelines
now mandate abstinence-only sex education. However, research has shown
repeatedly that, over the long term, comprehensive sex education does not
"cause" adolescents to have sex, and that abstinence education does not
prevent them from having sex. For those who do have sex, comprehensive sex
education is associated with an increased use of contraception and condoms,
while students who have had abstinence education who subsequently become
sexually active are much less likely to take these precautions.
What is profoundly missing from this emphasis on abstinence in sex education is
a badly needed acknowledgment and counterpoint to the prevailing beliefs and
myths about adolescent girls' and boys' sexuality: that boys are plagued by
uncontrollable raging hormones and that girls are not, that what boys want is
just sex, and that what girls want is just to have a relationship--and that
both groups are willing to "trade" one for the other.
We do not teach girls that they are entitled to their own sexual desire or
sexual pleasure, that "good" and "nice" girls have sexual feelings, too. We
teach girls to be the objects of others' sexual longings. We do not teach boys
that having a desire to be in a relationship or not wanting to have sexual
intercourse does not make them less masculine. We do not teach girls or boys to
link sexual feelings with their desires for intimacy; instead, we give
sexuality to boys and intimacy to girls. In this vacuum of information, both
boys and girls have come to commodify girls' sexuality and their own
sexual experience; it is yet another thing to get, to have. Unlike being
violent, becoming a sexual person is a normal part of growing up. We do not
talk with adolescents about physically and emotionally safe ways to explore
their developing sexuality; we just tell them not to "do it."
Deborah Tolman's research program focuses on developing comprehensive models of sexual
health for female and male adolescents and investigating the role of femininity
and masculinity ideology in their sexual decisions and experiences. She
currently is at work on a book, Dilemma of Desire: Portraits of Adolescent
Girls' Struggle for/with Sexuality, to be published by Harvard University
Tolman, D. (1999). Femininity as a barrier to positive sexual health for
girls. Submitted to Journal of the American Medical Women's Association.
Tolman, D. (1994). Doing desire: Adolescent girls' struggles for/with
sexuality. Gender and Society, 8(3), 324-342.
Tolman, D. (1999). Female adolescent sexuality in relational contexts: Beyond
sexual decision making. In N. Johnson, M. Roberts and J. Worell, (Eds.).
Beyond appearance: A new look at adolescent girls. (Publication of the
APA Presidential Task Force on Adolescent Girls). Washington, DC: APA
Tolman, D. & Higgins, T. (1996). How being a good girl can be bad for
girls. In N. Bauer Maglin and D. Perry, (Eds.). Good girls/bad girls:
Women, sex, violence and power in the 1990s. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers
Tolman, D. (1996). Adolescent girls' sexuality: Debunking the myth of The
Urban Girl. In B. Leadbetter and N. Way, (Eds.). Urban girls: Resisting
stereotypes, creating identities. New York: New York University Press
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