I’ve often quoted Courtney Martin’s now-famous line from her Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters:
We are the daughters of feminists who said, â€œYou can be anythingâ€ and we heard â€œYou have to be everything.â€
I call it the Martha Complex, others call it the Supergirl syndrome; whatever name you give it, most of us who work with young people agree that it’s absolutely rampant among contemporary girls and young women (even those whose mothers weren’t feminists!) The complex has many sources, but one factor that particularly exacerbates the problem is sexualization.
Ariel Levy, in her powerful and controversial Female Chauvinist Pigs, quoted Paris Hilton’s remarkably perceptive remark about herself that she was “sexy, but not sexual.” Hilton isn’t alone. My students today, who are mostly in their late teens (though I have many older ones as well) were deeply influenced by Hilton, who was at the peak of her notoriety four or five years ago, when these now-college freshman were just entering high school. And sadly, not unlike many of their older sisters, they find themselves stuck in what we might call the “Paris Paradox”.
Young women with the Paris Paradox were raised in a culture that promised sexual freedom, but what they ended up with looked a lot more like obligation than opportunity. It’s not hard to understand why the pressure to be sexy so often trumps the freedom to discover one’s authentic sexuality. As Levy and Martin and others have been pointing out for the past decade, we’ve begun to sexualize girls at ever earlier ages, as anyone who noticed the Halloween costumes marketed to tween girls will be aware. The explicitness — the raunchiness, to use Levy’s word — of this sexualization is relatively new. But when that sexualization (or pornification, to use another popular term) meets the far-older pressure on young women to be people-pleasers, we have a recipe for misery.
For all its successes, feminism has not succeeded in eradicating the factors that lead so many young girls to be obsessed with praise and validation. We still thrust dolls into the hands of toddler girls, which isn’t a problem — and then we encourage these small children to take responsibility for the emotional well-being of these inanimate objects. (As child psychologists will confirm, people respond differently to a child smashing a doll/action figure. Boys tend to be told “Don’t break your toys”; girls are much more likely to hear “Don’t let your dolly hit her head on the ground. It hurts her.”) While both boys and girls may grow up hearing the old adage that it is “better to give than to receive”, girls are much more likely to be given regular instruction in how to give — and much more likely to be rebuked for “selfishness” if they show too much desire to receive. (Ask around. “Selfish” ranks right up there with “slut” and “fat” as an epithet with tremendous power to wound women. It only rarely does the same damage when applied to men.)
Girls grow up with an often grandiose sense of their own capacity to love and to heal (a sense encouraged by “princess” culture), something I wrote about in a post called “I Have So Much Love to Give: Young Women and Self-flattery.” That ain’t new. What’s new is the degree to which young girls, often barely into puberty, find themselves on the receiving end of the aggressive cultural sexualization that has become so commonplace in recent years. You combine the pressure to please with the requirement to be sexy, add in the wild overestimation of one’s own capacity to change and influence others for good, and top it off with the common and tragic overestimation of one’s capacity to suffer, and you’ve got a young woman keenly aware of how she appears to others and what others want from her — and far less capacity to articulate her own desires.
Not every young girl experiences herself as an object of desire. But virtually every young girl is aware that young women are “supposed” to be desired. Unprecedented opportunities to compete on an equal playing field educationally, socially and financially with men have done damn all to release young women from the pressure to be sexually alluring. And given how blunt and brazen so many of their male peers (and, sadly, so many much older men) are about what they want sexually, it’s little wonder that developing one’s own sexuality is often a much-later development than developing one’s sexiness.
One of the canniest strategies of social conservatives in recent years has been to paint the sexual revolution as a failure for women. As the religious right has sought to market itself to a broader audience, it’s made the case that the Sixties and its aftermath liberated men to be irresponsible while only liberating women to be exploited. To put it another way, the right argues that men have gained the freedom to have far more uncommitted sex than ever, while women have lost the freedom from the tremendous pressure to be sexually available. “Women were lied to”, the right declares, and at least some women wonder if perhaps the conservatives aren’t on to something. Many girls, overwhelmed by the pressure to be sexy — while still suffering the stigma of the “slut” if they choose to be sexual — may wonder the same thing.
But while the conservatives are partly right in their suggestion that the sexual revolution has not fully delivered on its promise, they are utterly wrong about the remedy. Their solution — a wholesale return to an earlier era characterized by the Holy Trinity of pre-marital chastity, early marriage, and post-marital fecundity — would be an unmitigated disaster for women. What we need instead is to push back against sexualization with far better and more inclusive sex education. Too often, the exploitation of young women has been dressed up in the language of empowerment, which leads both feminists and social conservatives alike to point out that a lot of this talk about young women’s agency is, as Joan Brumberg remarked, “oversold if not illusory.” But that’s because we’ve only offered the rhetoric of “empowerment” (think the Nike injunction to “Just Do It!”) without providing young people with practical and effective tools for taking in and living out that empowerment.
It boils down to this: the freedom to learn how to be sexual requires the freedom from sexualization. As I wrote long ago in a post about adults, desire and duty are enemies. This means, of course, that we do need to push back against the media forces that foist “raunch culture” on the very young. But we don’t push back through censorship. We push back by giving young people the tools to navigate their way through the bewildering blitzkrieg of messages which they receive about sexuality.
One of the most important tools we can give young people — boys and girls alike — is the reminder that their sexuality belongs to them. Pleasure is a deep and profound good, and for all of what we imagine to be their self-indulgence, young people today don’t have nearly as much healthy pleasure as they need. This is about more than teaching young people to masturbate without shame (though that’s never a bad idea.) It’s about giving them the time and space and privacy to reflect on their sexuality as something that belongs to them. With young women, it’s about teaching the difference between the desire to be desired and desire itself. (I’ll deal with young men in another post.) It only takes a girl a few seconds to realize what someone else may want from her sexually. It often takes her much longer to figure out what she really wants, to discern the pleasure she gets from bringing pleasure to another from the pleasure she wants for herself. And once she’s figured that out, it’s vital to work to create a culture where she can articulate that want without shame. That’s part and parcel of what it means to stand up for sexuality — and stand against sexualization.