Yes, it's another long one. Feel free to skip.
The only thing I think is missing (but would be better addressed in a separate post) is more of the girls’ point of view and a validation of girls’ sexuality–letting girls know it’s okay for them to have (and enjoy and not feel guilty for) those feelings, as well as how they too are responsible for them. Which, I suppose, could lead to a discussion of whether men and their dress are responsible for women’s sexual desires, or–since there are double dress and sexual standards for women and men in our society–the repression or secondary-ness of women’s sexual desires.
For what it's worth, here are two earlier posts some of you might have missed on women, dress, and responsibility: Propriety, Marie's boobs, and the myth of male weakness and Sisterhood is Easier in Winter. I've also dealt with the issue of men and dress, and specifically how I dress for the classroom, here: The Male Teacher's Body and Propriety. Here's what I wrote at the end of the last of these posts: What I really care about is not using my body to make others uncomfortable. I don't want my clothes and my flesh to arouse others, I don't want them to scare others, I don't want them to inspire economic envy, and I don't want them to distract others.
So that deals a bit with the second part of the Artemis query. But what of the first part? What about the healthy, pro-feminist validation of young women's sexuality? Let me take a lunchtime stab at the subject...
When dealing with young women and sexuality, I find it is always dangerous to confuse two issues: the joy of being an object of desire, and the joy of being a subject of desire. The former and the latter are two fundamentally different experiences. The former is the traditionally validated expression of female sexuality, and it's the one with which young women are much more comfortable. From a very early age, most girls in this country are taught to dress themselves with a keen attention to their role as objects of scrutiny. Parents and grandparents praise cuteness long before boys and older men leer. Much more so than boys, girls are programmed to be alert to the various signals their dress and their bodies send. And indeed, for many girls -- not all -- the attention and the validation they get as young girls for being "cute and pretty" feels good.
And then comes adolescence. Is there anything as contradictory as the various messages that bombard young girls about their bodies? Parents and teachers and op-ed writers urge them to "Cover up!" Pop culture figures urge them to "flaunt it" (whether they have "it" or not). And as always, young girls notice that their peers who do dress in certain ways get more attention and validation than others.
Because of this, those of us who do youth work have to be aware that it's never enough to ask teenage girls "What do you want?" We first have to ask them another question, one I regularly ask my girls: "How does it feel to be wanted?" In both youth group and in college groups, I've had my female students share their feelings about being objects of desire. The answers, of course, vary. As always, it depends on what form the "wanting" (or at least the "noticing") takes. If it's what I call the "appreciative glance", especially if it comes from an attractive boy, then most of my girls say it makes them feel really, really good. Even more common than "good" is the word "powerful". Over and over again, girls report saying it feels exciting and empowering to be noticed and desired.
But if the "wanting" takes the form of a penetrating stare, particularly from an older man, then that doesn't feel good at all. "I feel creeped out", "Gross", "Icky", "Like I want to wear a raincoat or disappear" -- these are some of the typical responses to questions about reactions that are either flagrantly sexual or that come from considerably older men. (And of course, as I've written in "Sisterhood", there's the whole other question of how other girls and women respond!)
So we've got to be honest here about the fact that many young women enjoy "being seen"! They enjoy being wanted, and they are keenly aware that what they wear can impact how they are viewed. As youth workers or parents, we shouldn't shame this perfectly normal desire to be wanted. We can validate the fact that it feels good sometimes to be the object of another's desire, even as we ask our girls to begin to take responsibility for how their clothing decisions make everyone else around them feel. Dress that makes other people feel inadequate, or poor, or envious, is not appropriate. And while we cannot always predict how our clothing choices will affect others, we can ask our girls to consider the well-being of the wider community, and balance that well-being against their own perfectly valid longing to be wanted.
But adolescent girls are not just objects. They are also subjects of desire. And here, of course, we tread on less familiar ground. While traditional cultures are accustomed to teaching young women to gain at least some validation from being wanted, they aren't nearly as comfortable with telling our girls that it's okay to want! Too much of what is written about teenage girls still insists that adolescent females don't really have strong libidos; any apparent sexual agency that these girls display is really just a longing for attention. According to this tired discourse, a sexually aggressive teen girl never really wants sex for its own sake, she merely wants attention and validation from a man (perhaps due to her neglectful father) and is "using" sex as a tool. While there is some considerable truth to that stereotype, it's also true that whether we like it or not, our daughters do have libidos of their own.
We live in a culture where even now, young women are very reluctant to talk about themselves as subjects of desire. A girl who confesses to looking and lusting still risks being labeled as a slut by her peers. From what I've seen, a conservatively dressed young woman who admits to lusting is far more likely to be ostracized than a scantily-clad gal who publicly denies her own sexual desires. If what I hear anecdotally in many college and high school groups is true, girls are infinitely more frank about what they do to please boys sexually (like blowjobs) than what they do to please themselves (like masturbate). Pleasing boys and men, no matter what it involves, still is part and parcel of a very traditional understanding of female sexuality.
I don't write this to titillate or scandalize, but to make a larger point about our cultural messages about sexual desire. We all acknowledge the reality of the adolescent male libido, and indeed, we are likely to over-emphasize its power. Too many folks either shame boys for their sex drives, or see those same drives as so irrepressible that they are beyond the capacity of boys to control. This narrative of the unconquerable male libido is used to make girls and women responsible for male behavior, a point that I have rejected many times (explicitly in yesterday's post).
But we need to face the truth that our little sisters and our daughters are sexual creatures. However powerful their socially sanctioned desire to be seen, they also have a very real desire to see. Again, as with boys, we must do everything we can not to shame our girls for these desires. Even more so than with boys, we've got to do a good job of communicating to them that it is okay to want and to look and to fantasize. Girls will, in general, be more reluctant to admit to their own libidinousness. While I've never heard of a boy put down another boy for being horny, I have heard girls say incredibly cruel things about a peer who admitted to having strong sexual desires of her own. This difference in peer acceptability is a key aspect of the discussion about boys, girls, and desire -- and parents and youth workers and teachers need to be cognizant of that.
And of course, we live in a world where young women are sent the blunt message that their sexuality can get them hurt. According to the dominant narrative of the culture, sexually aggressive women not only risk assault and rape, they deserve whatever they get if they are victimized. Those are powerful warnings, and they serve to silence public discussion of the reality of teen girls and their own sexuality. As adults and pro-feminists, we have to redouble our efforts to transform the culture and help create a world where young women don't see their sexuality as a weapon that will be used against them!
In the end, those of us who have teens or work with teens have to be willing to acknowledge the full and complete humanness of both our boys and girls. We have to admit that both our sons and daughters are sexual creatures. And as with boys, we must be clear that our daughters have every right to be both objects and subjects of desire, but they also have responsibility for their actions -- particularly as subjects.