Repression Shutting Down Teen Girl’s Sexuality
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.
Posted on September 26, 2016, in psychology, sex and sexuality, women and tagged Deborah Tolman, Dilemmas of Desire, girls, psychology, repression, sex, sexuality, women. Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.