In Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality, developmental psychologist Deborah Tolman examines the cultural messages around female sexuality through one-on-one interviews with adolescent girls. Tolman is co-founder of SPARK, an intergenerational, girl-fueled movement-building organization dedicated to challenging the sexualization of girls in the media.
In this work, Tolman is concerned with the juxtaposition of media representations of girls as highly sexualized objects, yet wholly without sexual agency. “While sexualized images of adolescent girls are omnipresent, their sexual feelings are rarely if ever portrayed” (8). Her introductory question essentially boils down to: How can girls make informed decisions about sexual activity if they are encouraged not to recognize and connect with their emerging sexuality. Because our current cultural feeling on adolescent sexuality is, “Boys will be boys ergo sexuality is dangerous for girls,” writes Tolman, “our impulse to keep girls safe by keeping them under control seems so necessary that the cost of denying them the right to live fully in their own bodies appears unavoidable” (15).
Tolman uses material from 31 interviews with adolescent American girls about their experience of their own desire. In talking to these girls, Tolman found that most of them were in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory discussing their sexuality, emphasizing how their narratives expose “how confusing it is to develop a sexual identity that leaves their sexuality out” (45). The excerpted interviews Tolman includes in the book are fascinating, as are her analyses and interpretations of the desire narratives. Dilemmas is extremely well-written and Tolman’s arguments are articulate and insightful.
Tolman concludes with the imperative of talking to girls about sexuality, both the dangers and the pleasures. She uses the consciousness-raising groups of the 1960s and 70s as a model for how discussion and storytelling can challenge socially constructed “reality.” Tolman refers to the way adults speak to adolescents about sexuality as “impoverished” (202) and skewers abstinence-only “education” (she puts education in quotation marks!), instead urging us as a society to educate girls about “the intricacies and complexities and nuances of their feelings, choices, and behaviors” (203).
This passage in particular struck me:
The complexities for women in speaking to girls about their sexual desire should not be overlooked. By the time we are adults, most women have made compromises in relation to our own bodies and desires (Haag, 1999). Carol Gilligan writes that when listening to girls, “women may encounter their own reluctance to know what they know and come to realize that such knowledge is contained in their body” (1990, p. 531). (200)
The idea of women being “reluctant to know what they know” is arresting, especially if something so abstract and fluid can have such destructive social consequences. Although Tolman writes from the perspective of a developmental psychologist discussing her subjects, her writing is compassionate and readable. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in how adolescent sexuality is informed by social constructions of gender.