Repression Shutting Down Teen Girl’s Sexuality

Dilemmas of Desire by Deborah Tolman

Dilemmas of Desire by Deborah Tolman

Young women’s experience of sexuality was ignored by social scientists for years.

But about ten years ago San Francisco State professor Deborah Tolman interviewed high school girls who would be in their late 20s today.

Prof. Tolman had expected to unveil young women’s strong yearnings, but instead she found that most were hazy about their desire. It was dulled. Or even nonexistent.

And few connected sexual interest to the vagina. Instead, “Most talked about feeling desire in their stomachs, shoulders, necks and legs, or all over their bodies,” she said.

Sexual appetite felt dangerous

Sexual appetite felt dangerous so it was driven underground, whether consciously or not. The girls worried about STIs and pregnancy — and financial ruin, if pregnancy blocked their schooling.

But the contraception that could prevent pregnancy created its own terror. Girls who were “prepared” could gain a reputation, which was feared most of all. For that meant contempt, humiliation, threats, ostracism and assorted punishments from peers, family and God.

So the girls worked hard to suppress their yearnings. As Prof. Tolman relates,

Inez’s body says, “Yes yes yes!” But her mind says, “No no no! You stop kissing him!”

After a while that habit of suppression becomes everyday reality, leaving girls out of touch with desire. As one young woman put it,

I don’t have sexual feelings… I don’t know anything about sexuality… I’m not curious. This is the problem, I’m not curious.

Those who didn’t give up their sexuality gave up other things, like friends. Or they grew emotionally numbed to shaming. Or they got drunk so that they would have an excuse — “It wasn’t me, it was the beer.” Because apparently a drunk girl is better than a sexually desiring girl.

Some respond more strongly to shaming than others

Of course, we are all a mix of the personalities we are born with, the culture we live in, and our personal experiences. So not everyone responds to cultural shame and guilt in exactly the same way. Some seem to escape relatively unscathed, like this young woman who was one of my students:

My attitude towards sex has changed over the course of my life. Sexually active girls in my high school were slut shamed as well as gossiped about constantly. I wanted to avoid being the topic of any gossip so I remained a virgin throughout high school to maintain a good reputation. In this case, society dictated my actions. After high school I was free of that tight knit community called “high school” and felt non-confined. Sex became more of a normal thing in my life and not a guilty pleasure. I’m not ashamed ever of wanting to initiate sex with someone I love. For some, intimacy is their “love language.”

But many don’t bounce back so quickly. Like another student of mine:

As I was growing up and came across something arousing I simply would ignore it and slowly it became a pattern because I felt extremely guilty and “dirty” about the feeling. I’ve learned to repress the sensation to the point where, even though I’m still very young, my sexual libido isn’t much there. I’m relieved to know it’s not just me, it’s socially constructed and something I’ve learned.

Nearly half of American women say they have low or no sexual interest. And even those who do, and who can orgasm, often need a vibrator. The need for mechanical help is another sign of repression.

Our culture really must move away from the sex negativity that so hazardously targets our girls.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on September 26, 2016, in psychology, sex and sexuality, women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. Very Sad. I hop that’s not true.

  2. I’ve probably said this before several times but i’ll say it again. Wouldn’t this topic somehow affect both genders not just girls? the last comment from a student that you published as a male I’ve spoken of this myself. However, I guess sometimes we just become aroused without any warning or reason whatsoever as I’ve said I tend to hide such things simply because if we make a big deal about sexual arousal it makes it worse and it’s drawing attention to ourselves. Growing up and in my mid teens if I got aroused either I was told to stay put until it subsided or I would try and rack my brains to think about something as disgusting as maggots etc a councillor suggested the lattor but try as I might nothing worked

    • Because our society is sexually repressive both men and women are affected, but women are affected much more for these reasons:

      Women are much more punished than men. There is still a sexual double standard that celebrates men having sex but punishes women for doing the same thing. All of my students have witnessed girls being slut-shamed, but none of them have witnessed men being slut-shamed.

      Plus women’s sexuality is also more responsive to oppression, which I will write about later.

  3. Yes, very interesting. I assume the research was done with American girls? There seems to be a puritanical aspect to repression of sexuality that we don’t have here as much. Being a teenage girl with an evolving sexuality is difficult in any patriarchal society – it’s no wonder so many of us have sexual hang ups.

  4. fair warning there’s going to be a bit of language here but I’ve never known men to be called sluts think the opposite to slut is casinova whether they are 2 totally different things but that’s my view. apologies for using the term when I’m interacting with a woman here I just hate disrespect of any kind.

  5. I don’t think that is entirely correct. Girls get to experiment their sexuality with other girls and still get to identify as heterosexual and noone is going to judge them. But if guys were even thought of experimenting with their sexuality then it’s over for them, they get rediculed and they could even get physical punishment. Society is giving more space to female sexuality than to male sexuality.

    • Well the woman who researched this was surprised by the findings. She thought she would reveal young women’s desire in a way that hadn’t been brought out before. Instead, she found the teens to be very much out of touch with their desire. And when I read about her research I immediately recognized it in my own experience. When I was 10 years old I didn’t know what sexual intercourse was, but sexy things got me excited. And I was much more sexually interested at age 10 than at age 20, after being taught at home, church and school that sex was bad, and so reeling in all of my sexual thoughts. Over time I became pretty much asexual.

      And studies consistently find nearly half of American women with sexual dysfunction, most commonly low or no interest.

      And the thing is, most young women don’t experiment in the way you describe — hardly any do. And even though some do there is still homophobia that also has a repressive effect, despite what pornography might make you think.

      Plus, women’s sexuality seems to be more affected by sexually repressive forces for both social and biological reasons. I’ll be writing more on that later.

  6. This was a very intriguing read for me. Growing up as a women myself, I can definitely say this is very true, however I had never realized it. When you’re in high school, you’re just learning about sigmas and stereo types. For the first time in you’re life, socitiy wants you to become a free thinker, testing your judgments and ability to walk and talk the way they do. High school becomes a mix pool of different perspectives and these new “free thinkers” all competing to be the best new member of society.

    Girls have two objectives at this age. 1-To keep a clean respectable appearance and 2- To be the most lovely and desirable. This idea comes from what men think women should be. There is a fine line between these two goals and I personaly think that this is why women have repressed sexualities. There is so much that goes into the making of the choice to be sexually active that it becomes more stressfull then enjoyable. I believe that that is also why sex is more of an emotional experence for women instead of a desirable one.

  7. As a male individual, it’s difficult to sympathize with solicitude. I know that girls have more troubles to confront sexual experiences than males, but the world is changing. Girls are more independent than before, and women’s social status has been raised these days.
    Although culture plays a vital role in terms of a girl’s suppression of her sexuality, I think religion plays a bigger role. It is a custom handed down to us from ancient times. It is, therefore, difficult to arrive at a solution. However, I am hopeful that we may find a way to overcome that problem in the future.

  8. It looks like the research was done 10 years ago. Wouldn’t girls in their early 20s feel different nowadays? With much exposure from media, wouldn’t they be less intimidated and free of repressed sexuality?

  9. Wouldn’t be good if school programs included courses on teaching young men how to approach and talk to women? They would get to learn the how’s and don’ts and be more respectful to women.
    People are taking lessons for almost everything, learning how to drive, how to dance, a foreign language, why courting women should be any different?
    Young men are supposed to be born knowing how to treat women or they should learn by the media and whatever older guys are doing?

  10. Teen girls could always be confusing about their emotion,mental activity like the feeling of a boy, and physiological changes. They need proper education to learn sex and how to deal with their sexual appetite to protect themselves. But not shut down their sexuality or humiliation, ostracism and assorted punishments from the society. It won’t help and also unfair,sometimes even make things worse. Education is the best way of protection. After learning, teen girls would know how to deal with their problem about sex. And if bad things happen, they know how to defend themselves by using the law. How can a girl respect herself if the society don’t? So I think the encouragement and education can help teen girls grow up healthier and finally be a real normal female.

  11. Wow. This is the first time I am reading about how our culture dictates and molds female sexuality at this stage of life. It is infuriating and devastating and eye-opening. The contradictions between the heterosexual male experience and the heterosexual female experience are so blatant. How can they be ignored or denied? The males are generally encouraged to be in control of their sexuality. The shame of actually having sexual experiences seems to be completely skipped over. The common attitude for males goes right to “be responsible”. While many ladies are too afraid to even ask for contraception for fear of being “caught” or the shame that will come from the acknowledgement of their interest in sex. This makes me curious about what women’s sexuality would be like if we could skip this stage of shame in the most important years of our sexual development. In the same breathe I can imagine that the effect it would have on men’s sexual development would also be profound. Not only would their partners have a more balanced interest in sex (this alone would have extremely different outcomes I would think), but they would be able to avoid the shame that comes from their being more respectful and serious with their sexuality (compared to the machismo culture that seems to fill that stage of life).

    • There actually are some sex positive societies that Westerners have come into contact with, like the Kung in Africa or the peoples of the Americas and Oceana at first contact with whites. I’ll be writing more about them later. For now I’ll just say that they enjoy(ed) sex a lot more than us.

  12. This topic of young women being repressed for experiencing their sexual desires through high school is very common. Young teenage girls are always taught psychologically to that desiring sex is a filthy dirty thing, that to be accepted as good ladies of society they must remain virgins. I do see why women,as they get older they tend to lose that sexual urge, that’s where the notion that women don’t enjoy sex as much as men about because they seem to always be praised for having a lot of sexual activity. Women are always slut-shamed as the article says, if they give in to those urges she suddenly becomes dirty and disgusting to the other young boys and girls in their community. I believe this needs to change because women do lose that sense of feeling sexy or even enjoying sex because of society mentally messing their sexuality all their life, sex is very important in an adult relationship,therefore slut-shaming shouldn’t be very taboo. The focus of society should be that by having sex means taking precautions to avoid pregnancy or diseases.

  13. I read a blog written by a webcam girl and she stated how free she felt and beautiful she felt when she “performed” for the camera men. All of her insecurities were nulled and when she would go to her regular job sex was always on her mind, she actually desired the real thing but most guys dont want a girlfriend thats a adulr performer, sad at the end of the day she is lonely but sexually free and open. I also read she was uninterested in sex before camming but aftee doing it she thinks about it more.

    • Interesting since Debra Tolman found that girls who had not repressed their sexuality were often lonely.

      And since we are a mix of culture + biology/natural personality + personal experiences all of this mixes a bit differently with each person. So repression affects some girls more than others. And the culture is becoming less repressive, although all of my students have witnessed slut-shaming in high school, so women still face punishment for being sexual.

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