Over the past several months, I have found myself increasingly depressed and enraged by what seems to be endless stories about sexual and physical violence directed toward girls. There is something that tends to haunt our culture's thinking about girls: suspicion.
In Steubenville, Torrington, Hallifax and other cases, victims of sexual violence have been accused of promiscuousness, of being part of a young, dangerous generation that seeks out sex in ways never seen before.
These ideas are nothing new. For centuries, we have viewed each new generation of girls as supremely susceptible to corrupt influences, whether it's fearing the impact of the novel, comic books, hip hop, thongs, or reality TV. This vulnerability, we think, inevitably leads to catastrophic results: compulsive masturbation, freak dancing, indiscriminate sex, the inability to love, you name it.
We feel protective of girls, but we also find them confounding, salacious and always on the verge of something duplicitous. Our thinking about girls and sexuality has often been a reflection of adult anxiety, not an accurate gauge on the real lives of girls.
The problem is that these perceptions are wrong.
Actual data on the attitudes and behavior of young girls reveals a much more complicated picture. In reality, kids these days are having less sex than their predecessors and practicing safer sex more often than any other age group.
The 2010 National Survey for Sexual Heath Behavior revealed that the most common form of sex teens engage in is the safest: masturbation. The answers show that 62 percent of 14-15 year old boys and 40 percent of girls are engaging in this form of solitary autoeroticism.
Meanwhile, only 12 percent of boys and 10 percent of girls claimed to have received oral sex from an opposite sex partner. Although the rates are not the same for boys and girls, clearly both sexes are giving and receiving. The response rate for vaginal and anal intercourse was equally low.
In reality, kids these days are having sex with fewer partners than in previous decades. In 2009, the Center for Disease Control's National Youth Risk Behavior Survey found a marked decrease of in the number of high schoolers who said they had slept with four or more people over their lifetime (from 18.7 percent in 1991 to 13.8 percent in 2009). Alcohol and drug consumption prior to intercourse has also declined between 2001 and 2009.
Rather than labeling teens as promiscuous, it seems that older folks could look to them for good examples of safe sex.
Researchers in the National Survey for Sexual Heath Behavior found that young people between the ages of 14 and 17 have the most responsible rates of condom use of any age group when they do have sex. During the last 10 times they had sex, 79 percent of males and 58 percent of females say they used a condom. That's way better than other age groups.
Data also tells us that girls have a very complex relationship to media. Girls these days often view women who are sexual in films and on TV in a variety of ways from suspicious to curious to interesting. Rather than just sponging up media, young girls tell us they can view things like music videos as cautionary tales instead of how-to manuals. In other words—girls are deeply complex beings, just like the rest of us.
This dynamic matters because unless we resolve our cultural ambivalence about girls and sexuality, our culture will be perpetuating rape culture and slut bashing in schools.
Instead of spinning our wheels vilifying the sexuality of girls, it is time to refocus our concern toward sexist, racist and homophobic representations in the media and working toward the eradication of sexual violence. Instead of demanding innocence, why not embrace the idea that all young people deserve the right to be free from exploitation and violence and should be granted the right to good sex education and a community that supports their sexuality?
Such a perspective would encourage a discussion of rights, ethics and a future free of violence in the schools instead of casting girls as either good or bad.
R. Danielle Egan is Professor and Chair of Gender and Sexuality Studies at St. Lawrence University and is the author of the new book Becoming Sexual: A Critical Appraisal of the Sexualization of Girls (Polity Press).
Recommended reading from Professor Egan: Young People, Sex and the Media: The Facts of Life? (Palgrave Macmillan 2004); New Femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity. (Palgrave, 2011); Schizoid subjectivities: Re-theorizing teen girls' sexual cultures in an era of 'sexualisation' (Journal of Sociology, 2011); Hip-hop honey or video ho: African American preadolescents' understanding of female sexual scripts in hip-hop culture. (Sexuality and Culture, 2007)