As parents we have been alerted to the dangers of bullying and sexual predators on social media. Now two newly published books discuss the issue from a different perspective and give us something more to think about. Peggy Orenstein”s, “Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape,” is primarily focused on college age girls. Journalist Nancy Jo Sales in “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers,” writes more specifically about young teen agers and the impact of social media.
Both authors base their conclusions on interviews with many girls and include quotations from the girls themselves to illustrate the points made. Although each of the books has a somewhat different focus, the interesting observation that emerges from both is that despite all the changes that have been made with respect to opportunities for women and significant achievement in the struggle for equality, relationships between men and women seem to be moving backward toward traditional cultural values.
Sales in particular points to the way social media have intensified the old pressure on girls to be desirable but “good.” She believes we have failed to address the ways in which the sexual behavior of teenagers is being changed and shaped by new technology including the influence of online porn, which sets a model of what sex is supposed to be like. One example is the use of revealing or even nude photos to gain attention in the form of “likes,” and girls feeling almost blackmailed into sending such pictures of themselves which are then circulated widely.
The current political campaign’s use of twitter and photos in which one candidate shows that his wife is “hot” while the other proclaims his wife’s filial and motherly devotion, is a reflection of the way social media reinforces the long held cultural attitude toward women. In the old movie, “Saturday Night Fever,” a girl has sex with a guy as a way of provoking the interest of the boy she really wants. Instead, he tells her she was a “good girl” and now she is just a whore. Social media appears to reinforce this stereotype.
Both books referred to point to the way the behavior of girls is more than ever directed toward gaining the attention of, and responding to the expectations and wishes of boys without regard to their own wishes. Orenstein, who is focused on older girls, shows the contradiction between their convictions about their own equality and the rights of women and their sexual behavior in which they seem guided by the expectations of men rather than by their own sexuality.
Although neither book discusses male attitudes other than by implication, one thing that emerges clearly from all this is the need for parental input during the emerging sexual development of both girls and boys. Orenstein makes the point that once parent’s stopped saying “don’t”, they haven’t been sure what to say. In an earlier time, the fear of unwanted pregnancy made for clear lines of communication by parents. Now parents are forced to think through their own attitudes about premarital sex, teen age sex, and sexual behavior generally.
When my son was a little boy he was heard saying to his grandmother, “Nana, my pants are not too tight, I don’t have to pee, I am touching my pee-pee because I like the way it feels.” His traditional grandmother had obviously been trying to interrupt his masturbatory behavior. This is a good reminder of how sexuality emerges from early months on and how our own attitudes about sex influence the messages we give our children.
This is not a matter of knowing the “correct” message but rather of the transmission of values. How would we like our children to feel and think about their own sexuality and about the opposite sex? This involves not only a concept of appropriate behavior but is also part of a more general question of self-esteem and the need to show regard not only for our own needs and wishes but also those of others.
It is hard work to confront our deepest attitudes and biases in order to think through for ourselves the beliefs we would like to convey to our children.