by: Carol Platt Liebau
publisher: Center Street, 2007

A number of years ago, when a friend of mine and I were both pregnant with our first children, I asked her husband (in my quick and original style) whether they were hoping for a boy or a girl. Expecting the usual quick and original response that it didn't matter as long as the child was healthy, I was stunned to hear him reply, "A boy. Girls are something you jump on."

I have since learned that there is nothing so certain to cure a man of similar attitudes about women than to have a daughter. And women who have daughters have the double whammy of not only protecting their own daughter, but confronting their own passage out of the "jump on" stage.

The entrance of young women into the sexual marketplace has always been a disturbing time for everyone concerned, no matter how restrained or licentious the social norms of the time.

According to author Carol Platt Liebau, we are headed into a particularly difficult stretch as we not only confront an unusually sex-obsessed culture, but we also deal with issues new to our large, industrialized society in terms of women's "liberation," personal autonomy, and conflicted sexuality.

It's hard to argue with Liebau's observation that our society has become overtly and even obsessively sexual, and that this sexualization extends to younger and younger children, particularly girl children.

If you have adolescent kids, you might be familiar with expressions like "hooking up," "rainbow parties," and you might have heard of the Gossip Girls. If you've not been to MySpace (the website) before, you owe it to yourself to check it out. My first visit there was met by a naked teenaged girl in a provocative pose - and she was far from the only one. You might have heard about the jelly bracelets that advertise to classmates what sexual things the girl wearing them is willing to do. Or perhaps you've heard the term "prostitot," referring to tiny little girls dressed in clothing that not so long ago would have only been worn by a professional.

I know, I know. You can read ancient Greeks and Romans whining that the youth of "this generation" has finally "gone too far." My parents said it about me. I worried about my children. And certainly our society has made some progress in terms of young adults understanding the mechanics of sex and pregnancy, knowing how their bodies work, and not being afraid that sexual activities will grow hair on their palms or end then up in the madhouse.

Liebau argues that all the good things aside, there is ample statistical and anecdotal evidence to indicate that indeed, at least where girls are concerned, we have indeed "gone too far," and desperately need to put on the brakes.

She uses the very word "prude" to demonstrate how what once was a compliment (to call a woman a "prude-femme" in Old French was to say that she was a good and virtuous woman) has become derogatory in the extreme. She cites a 13-year old girl writing into the teen website asking "How can I become less of a prude?" The (presumably adult) respondent doesn't assure the girl that it's fine to be a little prudish at her age, but instead suggests that the best way to get over her prudishness is to just get over her fear and become sexually active.

This bothers Liebau.

And the numbers would certainly support the notion that more and more girls at 12, 11, and even younger, are jumping in and becoming not just active, but highly proficient.

A 1999 PBS broadcast Liebau mentions detailed middle school children (including some in Syracuse, New York), engaging in public displays that went far beyond affection. More than half of all girls in 12th grade have had sex, and almost 30 percent of ninth grade girls. Worse, 20 percent of 12th grade girls report four or more partners by that ripe old age. Because kids today no longer regard oral sex as more intimate than intercourse, better than 50 percent of 15-year-olds have engaged in this activity - often with the notion that it isn't really sex.

Liebau finds any number of social pressures that conspire to push girls towards sexual activity whether they're genuinely ready or not. She mentions advertising, books (such as R. A. Nelson's Teach Me, which features a sexual love affair between a high school girl and her thirty-five year old teacher), movies, and certainly, television and music. Sexually attractive, even aggressive young women are portrayed as sophisticated, admirable characters, who get what (and who) they want.

One startling, and telling, statistic indicates that the most popular television program among pre-adolescent girls is Desperate Housewives. Enough said.

All by itself, the numbers Liebau reports could be argued either way. There is a case to be made for the notion that there is something wrong with assuming young people are going to "wait for marriage," when that marriage may be 15 years down the road. Isn't it "natural" to obey the pressures of your body? And there is certainly a case to be made for not wanting to return to the bad old days of hiding our sexuality, and dangerous ignorance about sex and its consequences.

If the first half of the book presents a documented case that a) young girls are having sex, and b) most of the pressures to do so are not benign, the second half lets us know just how much damage this early and promiscuous activity is causing to the girls individually, and to the fabric and funding of society.

Women - especially young women - are particularly at risk when engaging in sexual activity. HIV aside, more than 80 percent of deaths related to sexual activity are among women. Though the 15-24 year old group represents about one-quarter of those who have ever been sexually active, they still acquire almost half of all new STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). The younger they start having sex, the more likely they are to contract an STD.

Pregnancy is, of course, a risk. Approximately one-third of girls 15-19 who have had sex have at some point been pregnant. Adolescent pregnancy is high risk, and so are pills, injectables, implants, patches and emergency contraception. Abortions carry both physical and emotional risks.

The economic toll is likewise discouraging. "Only 41 percent of teenagers who have children before age eighteen ultimately obtain a high school diploma, compared with 61 percent of teens from similar social and economic backgrounds who did not give birth until age twenty or twenty-one."

And there are emotional costs. According to sex therapist Ian Kerner, "Sex and emotions are more inextricably linked in women than in men." Thanks to the hormone oxytocin, released in women during sex, women are highly likely to bond with their partner emotionally. If the sex is "just a hook-up," the very success of the intimacy can paradoxically make it more disastrous for the female partner.

Girls who had sex too early, too often, reported: regret, shame, disappointment and betrayal, lack of trust, guilt, worry, heartache, depression and damaged self-esteem. And this coming from girls who, on the surface of it, look at sex as an entitlement and "no big deal."

For those not convinced by the pain of the girls themselves, Liebau tallies up the yearly economic cost of early sex: among other things, STDs ($6.5 billion); teen childbearing ($8-9 billion); and lost revenue ($1.7 billion).

So what's the solution?

Liebau suggests that it is possible to put on the brakes, and stop the pell-mell race toward unbridled, and valueless sex. She suggests that if we re-invest in the idea that sexual activity has a value beyond the moment, limits will automatically be imposed.

- Find others like you, she advises girls. Don't feel that you are alone in your desire to wait - and don't feel that you are weird.

- Other activities (though the examples of drunk driving and cigarette smoking perhaps leave something to be desired) have been limited by enough attention being given to the downside risks.

- "Give girls great expectations, and break the vicious cycle." If girls believe that better, more fulfilling relationships will come from waiting, they will be more likely to wait.

- Don't forget the boys. Raise boys to respect women, and to associate respectful behavior with manliness.

- Separate the notion of chastity from "religion only." Girls being prudish is good for them for many reasons, apart from any religious notions.

- Don't support outlets for books, movies, magazines, and so forth that offer highly sexual material, particularly material that exploits girls.

- Set an example for the young women in your life.

- "Equal doesn't have to mean the same." Having the same opportunities as the boys doesn't mean girls should engage in their less admirable activities, too.

- Remember than the whole world is watching, and evaluating who we (Americans) are by how we act.

An issue as large as this won't be resolved by one book. The most potent part of Liebau's book is the disturbing examples she gives of popular teen behavior (and true or not, it certainly looks bad based on clothing and demeanor). The least compelling part is her avoidance of a discussion of how to navigate the long, presumably celibate period between adolescence and marriage. Like most issues where there are strong arguments and driving forces on both sides, the right road is no doubt somewhere in the middle.

For anyone convinced that teenage girls are too promiscuous and should stop - this book will gratify. For those not so sure, it's a good introduction to a worthy debate.


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