“We vastly underestimate teen girls’ sexual agency”: Kerry Cohen on SlutWalk

Kerry Cohen and I met when she wrote me last fall to ask to quote a snippet from The Paris Paradox: How Sexualization Replaces Opportunity with Obligation for a forthcoming book. We’ve been corresponding ever since.

Kerry’s most famous book is Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity, a moving and painful account of her own sexual journey. Writing as Kerry Cohen Hoffmann, she’s also penned a great book for young adults on the same subject, Easy. She’s got several other titles for teens and adults.

Kerry, who has both an MFA in writing and an MA in counseling psychology, is the author of two forthcoming books, Seeing Ezra: A Mother’s Story of Autism, Unconditional Love, and the Meaning of Normal and Dirty Little Secrets: Breaking the Silence on Teenage Girls and Promiscuity. (I’ve read an advance copy of the latter, and it’s superb. I’ll be reviewing it later in the summer as its official release date approaches.)

Because Kerry has written so often and so widely about teens, shame, promiscuity and sexualization, I wanted to know how she felt about the SlutWalk campaign that has suddenly gone worldwide this spring. I sent her some questions, she gave some great answers, and they’re below the fold.

HS: What was your first reaction when you heard about “SlutWalk”?

KC: I thought it was a great idea, especially because of what it was in protest to.

HS: There’s been a lot of debate over whether the word “slut” can be “redeemed”. You’ve written about the power of the word in teen girls’ lives. Do you think it can be reclaimed or redeemed? What would you say to the young woman who calls herself a “slut” publicly?

KC: In general, I think the word “slut” can be redeemed. I do worry though about the ways that girls/women will often do something that’s really more about what others want from them – usually men – and suggest they’re reclaiming something.

HS: One tricky issue you touch on in your books is desire. Promiscuity in teen girls, you’ve written, is rarely (though not necessarily never) about sexual desire, and more about validation — the “desire to be desired.” What are some of our myths about teen girls and desire? Do you think we overestimate or underestimate teen girls’ sexual agency?

KC: Well, the biggest myth of course is that teen girls don’t have sexual desire and/or that they desire less than teen boys. We vastly underestimate teen girls’ sexual agency. But, also, it’s terribly difficult to find a way for teen girls to express their desire without being stigmatized as “sluts”. We have no teenage role models for girls for this. Girls’ sexuality, if shown at all in our culture, is usually defined by the male desire of who he wants her to be for him.

HS: What would you like to see come out of SlutWalk — and the controversy?

KC: Mainly I’d love to see the original intention of the walk come to be: that girls and women can dress however they want, act however they want, and no matter what they will never be made responsible for their own rapes. From the controversy over the word — I guess I’d love to see a more thoughtful examination of the whole concept of the slut. In other words, I’d like to see us move beyond the slut = stigma and slut = empowered girl to the start of a discussion about what girls’ sexual agency would really look like if they were able to own it.

HS: Will you be participating in a SlutWalk?

If there is one here, you bet I will!

Kerry Cohen, thanks so much! And you’re in luck as well: SlutWalk Portland happens on June 11.

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3 thoughts on ““We vastly underestimate teen girls’ sexual agency”: Kerry Cohen on SlutWalk

  1. Pingback: “Loose Girl” Author Kerry Cohen on Recent Slut Walks « The Slasher Chick

  2. To quote:
    KC: In general, I think the word “slut” can be redeemed. I do worry though about the ways that girls/women will often do something that’s really more about what others want from them – usually men – and suggest they’re reclaiming something.

    Cohen touches on a point brilliantly made by Ariel Levy in “Female Chauvinist Pigs” … There is an important difference between women (especially young women) owning, enjoying and freely expressing their sexuality – and women, under the guise of sexual liberation, using their sexuality to please others or to fulfill emotional voids.

    I’m immensely jealous that you met this woman! :) She has inspired so much of my column …

  3. Anna,
    Kirsten Powers writes this article on the Daily Beast: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2011-05-19/slut-walks-are-organized-by-liberal-feminists-but-dont-help-women/

    It’s another article in a long line of articles I have seen that proclaim the word ‘slut’ unredeemable. I do not agree with the arguments Powers expresses in this article, but I wanted to address it. Particularly the line: “Feminists are supposed to be countercultural, yet by marching in fishnets and bras with the word “slut” scrawled on their bodies, they are simply imitating a culture that objectifies and hypersexualizes women and girls on a scale never before seen in history. Thanks to mass media, we now are inundated with movies, music videos, magazines, porn sites, and billboards that all send the same message: Women are there for your ogling and consumption. The average age a boy starts looking at online porn—which often sexualizes abuse and humiliation of women—is 11.”

    This goes directly to your comment about ‘women under the guise of sexual liberation’. It’s interesting to me how that gets used in two ways. One, in a direct way, where women are really playing into the wants of men and calling it liberation, and two, in a twisted way, where women trying to reclaim their sexuality are belittled as ‘imitating’.

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