sex, regretted

Girl’s Antidote Against Taking Advantage of Her

Sex Regretted Healthy Living Magazine

Sex Regretted Healthy Living Magazine

Fifteen-year-old Emma walks into my office, forlorn and full of self-recrimination. She describes the weekend before she attended a high school party. Dave, a boy she has a crush on, approaches her and they begin talking. After beers, they make their way to the basement. Emma feels elated to finally attract Dave’s interest. She enjoys his attention and harmless flirting. Before she knows it, he leans in for a kiss.

Only it doesn’t stop there. He continues to pursue her physically and, although Emma suddenly realizes this is going further than she would like, she says nothing. Tearfully, Emma recounts “I told myself, ‘it’s fine, don’t worry about it, just go with the flow, give him what he wants’…” Before she knows it, intercourse has occurred. She chokes back tears as she makes her way home. The next day, she verbally beats herself up for letting such a thing happen. She calls herself a ‘slut.’ She is burning with embarrassment when she passes Dave in the hallway at school.

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A girl in this situation goes from enjoying the attention of a male peer to suddenly being caught in an eddy of self-doubt and mental paralysis once sexual contact is initiated. Girls describe a kind of passive submission that they, themselves, have difficulty understanding. When I ask “What stops you from letting him know you’re just not into it?” the answer is usually “I wanted him to like me” or “I didn’t want to ruin the moment.”

As a clinical psychologist, I find this to be a common story. I also hear adult women who reflect on their teen years with disapproval—“those were my wild child years” and confusion— “still not sure what I was trying to do back then.”

This sexual disconnection is not experienced as rape but represents one result of a brew of factors that for many girls shape their perceptions of what it means to be a sexual female.

Pervasive media images teach girls early on that it is sexy, even for adult women, to appear girl-like. It is made clear that girls can be just like guys when it comes to sexual hook ups. Girls learn to tamp down their natural desire for an emotionally intimate romantic relationship because female sensitivity, portrayed as “drama,” does not attract male desire. The ongoing reenactment of the story of the sweetgirl- gone-naughty bridges the contradictions.

So Miley Cyrus swings nude on a wrecking ball and licks a sledgehammer or more recently simulates masturbation in her Adore You video. Cyrus’ behavior correlates with the parade of needy women who vie to be desired by one attractive man on the reality show The Bachelor.

When there is insufficient counterbalancing information, these messages may lead to a kind of mind freeze when teenage girls approach their first sexual experiences. The internal dialogue goes something like this “go with it, it’s fine, don’t make a big deal.” They have come to believe that going along will maintain their desirability. Frozen out of their thinking is the prospect of developing meaningful emotional intimacy as a prerequisite to sex.

There is more going on here than the dismissive minimization that these are girls with “self-esteem issues.” Particularly in light of research recently published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology suggesting that acts of dating aggression are found to be common among the ‘emerging’ adult population (generally considered to be between the years of 18 to 25). And a comprehensive study, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published last fall in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that close to one in 10 teens and young adults report perpetuating an act of sexual violence (through coercion or physical force) against another. For high-school-age youth, ages 14 to 17, almost all perpetrators were male. The study found a link between exposure to violent, X-rated, sexual media and acts of sexual aggression toward other teens.

Whether it is the tough-girl-willing-to-do-anything facade or rotating between sweet girl and naughty girl, these are models that many young teens absorb and use to define for themselves what it means to be feminine and how to go about appearing sexual.

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As I describe in my book Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy— Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships, the psychological factors that go into fulfilling sex and reciprocal partnership are complex. The perpetuation of girls passively consenting to sexual acts even when they are not on board emotionally sets them up for one-sided relationships in adulthood and sets boys up for feeling perpetually baffled by what girls, and later women, really want.

Families and caregivers can do a lot to neutralize the bogus messages culture aims at girls. And many do an excellent job of that, but when there are few safeguards adolescent girls are conditioned to deny their own feelings about what matters most to them. They do not develop the confidence as adults to openly communicate whatever their true perspective is to the men in their lives. They do not have the ability to ask themselves: Who am I? What do I want and need from men?

The importance of teaching all girls how to know and value themselves needs wider appreciation in our society.

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And too, as one element in the wide scope of the meaning of sexual liberation, saying “no” or “not now” is as important as society’s permission to say “yes.” It is not liberation when only one side of this coin has currency.

How does Emma learn to incorporate this into her world view?

Perhaps the single most important influence is access to an open minded, non-judgmental adult. I see firsthand how responsive and interested teens are in real conversation. A broad scope in sex education that includes teaching the importance of relationship development and emotional intimacy will do more to curb sexual violence than merely focusing on sexual mechanics.

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Parents and caregivers can make a positive difference too by initiating candid conversations with their girls about staying in tune with what they feel in their bodies and becoming comfortable assertively communicating that to their romantic partners. As girls hear themselves voice their dilemmas, in an open, ongoing dialogue with a trusted adult, they often develop more confidence in their feelings and in voicing their perspectives. Just hearing them out without making direct demands is a tonic for uncertainty and an antidote against those who would contrive to take advantage of them.

Dr. Jill Weber, a licensed clinical psychologist, practices in the Washington, DC area. Dr. Weber offers expertise in psychotherapy for adults, teenagers, and couples, tailoring her treatment to individual history and problem areas. Dr. Weber writes a blog for Psychology Today and is the author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy: Why Women Settle for One- Sided Relationships. Follow her on twitter @DrJillWeber
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