Sunday, August 15, 2010

Are girls really in crisis? Part one

It's a big thing these days. Every hour on the hour there is another article about how girls are in crisis. And every hour on the half hour there is an article about how boys are in crisis.

Anyway, it's the Feast of the Assumption today and that strikes me as a good day to tackle a specifically Catholic take on the "crisis" for girls. This is from First Things and it is by Mary Rose Somarriba. You can find the whole thing here. I have copied a significant chunk of it below and have added comments.
Which is why parents, especially parents of teen and pre-teen daughters, should read Girls on the Edge, the latest book by doctor and psychologist Leonard Sax. Sax, also author of Boys Adrift (2009) and Why Gender Matters (2006), sees a lot of distractions keeping girls from healthy development today, and he lists what he finds to be the “four factors driving the new crisis for girls”: issues affecting sexual identity; the “cyberbubble,” including social-networking technologies like texting, sexting, and Facebook; teen obsessions ranging from hyper-competitiveness in school to anorexia and other self-harms; and environmental toxins that bring on premature puberty.
An important part of these arguments is the suggestion of novelty. They have to do this because we all know that life is a challenge. Being a girl or being a boy is not easy. What Somarriba needs to convince us of here is that something unprecedented is going on; that it is suddenly much harder to be a girl. So, for today's installment, let's keep this in mind as we go through these. How new are these factors?
Take his first one, sexual identity, for instance. There’s no doubt girls are dressing sexier earlier these days. Sax recounts the story of one mom whose daughter had chosen as a Halloween costume a French maid outfit complete with “fishnet pantyhose and a frilly miniskirt.” She recalls, “This was an outfit marketed to ten-year-old girls. They even had it in smaller sizes!” “What’s weird,” she continues, is that “boys’ costumes haven’t changed that much from what boys wore when I was little. . . . Boys would dress up as Darth Vader or a Jedi knight or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. And they still do. But so many of the girls today, nine- and ten- and eleven-year-old girls seem to feel as thought they have to dress up in something really skanky. How come? I’ve never heard of a boy who wanted to dress up like a Chippendale’s dancer.”
Okay, let's go back and look at one of the books mentioned above: Why Gender Matters. Girls are different from boys right? It's not terribly surprising that girls seek sexual identity in ways that are different from boys is it? And it should be surprising that they seek it earlier than boys either as we know they develop sooner than boys. I'll grant that puberty is happening sooner these days and that may be a concern but that girls seek their sexual identity in a  different way from boys and do it sooner than boys is normal. It's always been this way. There is no crisis here.
She’s onto something: This sexualization seems to be affecting girls more than boys, and sexualization is different from healthy sexuality. As Sax sees it, girls who dress sexy “prior to the onset of puberty are not expressing their sexuality. . . . Dressing sexually in the absence of sexual desire is simply conformism.” As psychology professor Stephen Hinshaw of Berkekley sees it, “If girls pretend to be sexual before they are sexual, they’re going to find it much, much harder to connect to their own sexual feelings.”

I note that if Somarriba really wants to argue that this is different from "healthy" sexuality, she should make a case for what healthy sexuality is and that argument is implied rather than made here. And that implied argument is Platonic. Meaning that the argument is that girls are getting distracted by a bunch of illusions. Just like Plato's cave, girls are growing up in a world of illusions that is leaving them ill-prepared for "real" sexuality.

That should set of alarm bells. You can make a lot of money repackaging Plato. Think of tripe like Jonathan Livingston Seagull or The Matrix and you will see what I mean. As intellectual snake oil goes, Plato is a perennial favourite. But, before we get on the Platonic bus to nowhere one more time, we might stop and ask ourselves is it really plausible. Isn't playing make believe one of the earliest tricks we teach children? It is and what's more, it's universal. Every culture teaches kids to make believe.

Incredible amounts of human ingenuity have gone into creating new illusions and we consciously use these illusions as illusions. Human beings are incredibly sophisticated about using virtual realities to help us deal with real ones. It seems to be hard wired into us as we can dream, imagine and lie quite naturally.

So, if we return to the argument above, we see that the first step in the argument that something new and unprecedented is happening to girls' sexuality is the claim that they are dressing sexually prior to the onset of puberty. No doubt but don't girls also play with dolls prior to the onset of puberty? When I was a boy my sisters started playing mother to baby dolls as early as age three or four and they kept doing it right up until puberty. Was that damaging there ability to be mothers for real?

"Dressing sexually in the absence of sexual desire is simply conformism?" This is partly right and partly trivial. To the extent that it is conformism, it is conforming to what other girls are doing. And that is true and trivial. We learn how to be women or how to be men from our peers  and we learn this by playing games together. We play house, we play with dolls, we play fight and so forth.

And we model ourselves on those who are older. My sisters used to love to dress up in my mother's clothes. They didn't dress up in the clothes she wore to clean the house or to go to the office. They dressed up in her evening wear. They loved her high heels, slinky dresses, silk scarves, hats and furs.

Finally, there is this: “If girls pretend to be sexual before they are sexual, they’re going to find it much, much harder to connect to their own sexual feelings.” Let me give you a counter example (I've used this before so long-term readers may recognize this.) Sexual response in women is a physical response. Her hair follicles tighten making her hair stand up, her cheeks flush, her pupils dilate and her stare becomes more fixed, her lips swell and get redder, her breasts swell getting as much as one quarter larger. So what does a fully sexual adult woman do when she wants to look good? She styles her hair, puts make up on her cheeks to give them colour, make up on here eyes make make them seem larger and more noticeable, lipstick to make her lips seem bigger and redder and puts on her best bra.

Pretending to be sexual even when they are not yet feeling very sexual is something that women do. It's something they have done for centuries. And little girls have aped this behaviour in older women for centuries too.

They do this for a very simple reason that any eight year old girl can figure out: presenting yourself publicly as a sexual being is part of being a woman. You can argue that maybe it shouldn't be that way but you cannot credibly argue that it is not that way nor can you argue that it has not been that way for centuries. And it isn't like that for boys. One of the big differences between boys and girls is that boys do not present themselves as sexual beings most of the time. We tend to feel sexual most of the time and girls do not and that probably explains the difference.

Does that make it harder for women to connect to their own sexual feelings? I doubt it. Let's acknowledge that learning to connect to their sexual feelings is a difficult challenge for women. It always has been and probably always will be. Recent research tells us that women feel a much more significant emotional impact from sex than men do. That is to say, it is much harder for a woman to walk away from a sexual connection than it is for a man. (Men, on the other hand, find it much harder to walk away from an emotional relationship than women do.) It is not surprising then, is it, that women would have an interest in playing make believe with sexuality. That they would want to advertise their sexuality to others but that the most simple, direct way of doing this—that is simply having lots of sex—is not in their interest.

Which gives us a good hint to the answer to the next question.
What is it, then? Self-objectification, really. Girls who dress sexy before puberty, are putting themselves on display like objects, not for themselves but for others. As Sax sees it, “our culture pushes girls to define themselves in terms of how they look instead of helping them to develop a sense of who they are,” and this sets them up for depression, anxiety, and unsatisfying relationships in the future.
Look, I hate to be so crude about it but a big part of sex, having sex, is being an object for another person. The only sexual experience we do for ourselves alone is masturbation. Connecting to other people means presenting yourself to them in ways that give them pleasure. Sexual pleasure.

Boys do not fall in love with the purity of a girl's soul. They fall in love with her face, her breasts, her legs, et cetera, especially the et cetera actually. One of the most staggering things for a boy is the discovery that when a girl is highly aroused you can do things to her that she would not permit at any other time and will do things for you that she will typically not do at other times (and the difference in emphasis here is intentional).

And not only that, she'll be deeply grateful to you for doing those things to her. And the things she will do for you that she won't typically do at other times? She'll do them with enthusiasm that make it clear that she is loving doing these things.

Girls aren't stupid, they know that boys will string along for a long time if the possibility of these things is held out to them. No actual promise need be made. Boys just have to believe that it is possible. And girls quickly figure out that boys won't be interested in them unless that possibility is suggested.

So what, if anything, really is wrong? That is for part two.

1 comment:

  1. This is interesting. What Mary Rose and Sax seem to be saying is not unlike what Mary Pipher said about adolescent girls in "Reviving Ophelia" back in the mid-90s, only they're saying its now happening at an earlier age because of cyber technology. Pipher said that high school girls fell by the wayside academically once they hit puberty and discovered boys and retreated into passivity. There was an article in the WSJ within the last six months that talked about how, as a result of Pipher's book, adolescent girls were now outshining their male counterparts academically and it was the boys who were in crisis, i.e., unmotivated, falling behind academically, not getting into college at the same rate as girls.

    Mary Rose and Sax seem to be more concerned about the sexual development of girls. I'm surprised they don't mention the "Jon Benet" type pageants that sexualize pre-pubescent girls like the one depicted in "Little Miss Sunshine," unless those pageants are passee now. The age of onset of puberty keeps getting lower every year, some believe as a result of growth hormones and antibiotics that cattle and chickens are fed, which then find their way into the milk kids drink and the food they eat. I don't know whether or not its a crisis, but I think it does speak to modern industrialized society's ambivalence about sex and when its appropriate for young people to engage in it. We keep telling them to wait longer to marry (until they finish graduate school and get their careers on track), yet their bodies are apparently telling them to do it at a progressively younger age. When the average life span was 30 y.o. it was important for young people to marry by the age of 13 or 14, but not today when the avge. life span is 75. Society and biology seem to be at odds here, and I don't know how to reconcile that.