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Talking to Teens about Sex & Sexting Ethical Boundaries

Section 14
Object Lessons: Romance, Violation,
and Female Adolescent Sexual Desire

Question 14 | Test | Table of Contents | Adolescence/School
Social Worker CEU, Psychologist CE, Counselor CEU, MFT CEU

The familiar story that organizes "normal" female adolescent sexuality is a romance narrative in which a (good) girl, who is on a quest for love, does not feel sexual desire--strong, embodied, passionate feelings of sexual wanting. In this story, sexual desire is male; it is intractable, uncontrollable, and victimizing. There continues to be no readily available image or story of a normal girl who has and responds to her own sexual desire. Following a social constructivist perspective, the ways in which we do and do not "story" sexuality into being are definitive in how we make meaning out of our bodies and our relationships, and so the ways in which we do and do not speak about sexuality are crucial. This perspective also suggests that providing critiques and alternatives to sanctioned stories can be a crucial intervention. This point is illustrated by following the stories that are available to one girl for understanding her sexuality, and by portraying the tensions, revelations, and challenges that the interplay between these stories and her lived experiences produce. The use of a method for analyzing narratives to develop an understanding of adolescent girls' sexuality in terms of their own desire is described. The article presents an analysis of a case from the author's current exploration of how girls' knowledge and experiences of their bodies and of their desire is shaped, enabled, and undermined by stories available in the culture about female intimate relationships and sexuality.

This paper examines the stories that are available to one girl for understanding her sexuality and portraying the tensions, revelations, and challenges in the interplay between these stories and her experiences. Central to this endeavor is the use of a method of narrative analysis called The Listening Guide (Brown, Tappan, Gilligan, Miller, & Argyris, 1989) that I have utilized to develop an understanding of adolescent girls' sexuality in terms of their own desire. I present a case from my current exploration of how girls' knowledge and experiences of their bodies and of their desire is shaped, enabled, and undermined by stories available in the culture about female intimate relationships and sexuality. In this case, I listened to a White, middle-class, 17-year-old girl Isabel who described this part of her life in a 2-hour clinical interview with me. The fact that she is White and middle-class matters, because the ways that we talk about girls' sexuality are largely determined by their race and their class. White, middle-class girls tend to be rendered asexual whereas poor girls and girls of color are often sexualized (Tolman, 1996).

Listening Under Cultural Stories of Female Adolescent Sexuality
I developed a way of listening for desire in girls' sexuality narratives based on The Listening Guide, a feminist approach to narrative analysis that makes explicit and central the relationship between the researcher listening and the research participant speaking (Brown et al., 1989; Gilligan, Brown, & Rogers, 1990). This feminist method is particularly appropriate for understanding girls' narratives about their sexual desire, because it enables the reader to "bring to the surface the 'undercurrent' of female voices and visions as it filters through an androcentric culture," (Brown & Gilligan, 1992, p. 4). It is this method of listening that has been key in my ability to learn something new about female adolescent sexuality. It is distinctly different from traditional methods of coding in that one listens to, rather than categorizes or quantifies, the text of the interview.

This method of analysis enabled me to take in the voices of girls trying to speak about an unspeakable topic, their own desire, by reviewing transcripts of interviews for two voices specific to my expectation that girls' sexual desire is normative. In addition to listening to the narrative for the story and for the narrator's representation of her self (see Brown, in press; Way, in press), I listen to each narrative she tells within the interview for what I call an "erotic voice" (Lorde 1984)-that is, a girl's inclusion of her own sexual feelings in her stories--as well as a voice of the body, that is, a girl's indication and description of her own bodily feelings and responses (Tolman, 1994a, 1994b). This method is particularly oriented towards identifying such "contrapuntal" voices of human experience (Gilligan, 1982); in this case, voices at odds with the accepted cultural voices that speak to and about female adolescent sexuality. Going through the text four separate times, I underlined each time the parts of the transcript in which one of the voices I have specified appeared, yielding a kind of map of her experience of sexuality from the perspectives about which I am inquiring. This map is used to develop interpretations of these narratives in response to particular research questions. In this case, the questions were: What does this girl's erotic voice sound like? What does she say about her body? In what relation to her self do these voices appear to be?

This method has allowed me to reenter the relationships I have formed with adolescent girls through interviewing them. Comparable to the therapist, a listener brings herself knowingly into the process of listening, learning from her own thoughts and feelings in response to what a girl is saying in her story, using clinical methods of empathy and associative logic to follow or make sense of what a girl is saying. This attention to self by the listener also increases her ability to remain clear about what her own ideas and feelings are and how they do and do not line up with a girl's words. Thus, bringing oneself into the analytic relationship increases the listener's ability to avoid bias, or voicing over a girl's story with her own. Lyn Brown and Carol Gilligan have described the relationship of the listener to the speaker in the text of the narrative as both responsive and resistant (Brown & Gilligan, 1992).

This method is explicitly feminist in that it is designed to enable listening for an aspect of experience which has been rendered invisible or nonexistent by the oppressive ideology of patriarchy, and requires an interpretive process that weaves together both the speaker's words and other clues that the process of clinical listening can yield, with an emphasis on a feminist perspective. That is, the method acknowledges and draws on the fact that a woman is listening to a girl or woman speak, and that we share at least some aspects of women's standpoint as positioned within patriarchy (Nielsen, 1990). As a listener, I can utilize my experience and knowledge as a woman who lives in and who experienced adolescence in this society to hear aspects of a participant's experiences that might not be audible without it. Obviously, there are differences in women's experiences associated with race, class, and personal histories; strategies for approaching differences associated with social structures in the interpretive process, such as creating diverse interpretive communities, have been developed (i.e., Taylor, Gilligan & Sullivan, 1995). In the current case, the participant and I share both race and class positions.

Object Lessons of the Romance Narrative
After my interview with Isabel I was sitting in a small, wood-paneled room, arranged with the bright orange furniture that was popular in the '70s when community organizations like the one in which I find myself were funded. I felt like I needed to come up for air; the interview was not what I had expected. Statuesque and pretty, Isabel literally regaled me with an unexpected barrage of cultural convention. As a White, middle-class girl I know Isabel has had to deal with an image of herself as not having or acting on any of her own sexual feelings if she is to be considered good. As a smart girl (like I was), it is likely that Isabel is thought of as a "brain"--that is, without a body and thus without the ability or interest to be sexual. I know Isabel to be a self-declared feminist. I heard these contradictory constructions of herself in her interview, as she voiced what amounts to a struggle and wish to feel desire and to be sexual in her body--something she thinks about and writes about in her journal a lot, but something that she spoke about for the first time in this interview and has in fact experienced very little.

When I look at Isabel's interview, I notice two things. The erotic voice surfaced very rarely during this 2-hour inquiry about her experiences of sexual pleasure, sexual desire, feeling sexy, sexual fantasy-her subjective experiences of her sexuality. In contrast, the voice of the body is prevalent. This pattern makes me wonder about what Isabel is saying about her body, if it is not in sync with an erotic voice (a more common pattern in other interviews). What can I learn about girls' experience of sexuality by the absence of an erotic voice in how Isabel spoke about her body, her experiences, her knowledge, and her fantasies?

The first clue is that Isabel interrupted my opening questions to tell me about an association she was having to my general questions about girls' sexuality. It is one of the few times in this interview that an erotic voice appeared.

Every time you say sexuality I think of um, I think it was The Color Purple ... it just, she had to discover her, like she was totally sealed off from her whole body and um, because people kept telling her you know, not to look down there, yeah, I guess it was The Color Purple, um, like not to look down there and um, and just (clears throat) concentrate instead on like getting your work done. And then she was raped by her father or something and then, and she just gave her life and her body and everything over to this man who she had to marry. And then all of a sudden one day she sort of like broke the bonds just by, I mean broke um, this whole uh fear that she had of herself, just by looking, she had like a mirror and she was looking at her vagina, and just broke everything. And, and she was all, all of a sudden like a new person, with a really deep and um, and understanding of herself, and it seemed not only she became so much more connected and at one with herself, but also so much more of a sexual person, just because she knew who she was, and then she knew that there was this other guy there. And then there, you know, she knew that they could come together because she was so sure of herself.

As a set piece for our interview, Isabel introduced a story about the transformation that brings together an erotic voice and a voice of the body for a woman who had been "totally sealed off from her whole body," who had learned not to know her own body and who had experienced sexual violation. From the many experiences that the main character, an African-American woman named Celie, has in learning about her own sexuality in this powerful novel (Walker, 1982), Isabel chose to recount here how Celie is able to "come together" with a man she loves. Isabel links Celie's overcoming being "raped" and "giving her body ..\. over to a man who she had to marry" and her ability to enter an authentic sexual relationship to her having become "more connected and at one with herself" through knowing her own body. I hear Isabel telling me that she knows the possibility of an erotic connection, to self, through one's own body, and to others--knowledge and experience that makes a woman "so sure of herself." (Au. Note: The selection Isabel made from The Color Purple refers to Celie's initial experience with masturbation. Later in the interview, I asked Isabel about her own experiences with masturbation. She reported that she has "tried it before and it really doesn't give me any pleasure at all ... and I've stopped doing it. I've maybe done it like 5 times?" Her lack of response to these attempts keeps afloat the questions of her being "extremely asexual," since she has "heard" that "it gives you so much pleasure that you just shouldn't do it at all. And anyway, it didn't give me any pleasure." Yet it is important to point out that Isabel's reports about not finding masturbation pleasurable resonate with virtually all of the 50 adolescent girls whom I've interviewed. Only a handful of girls report even trying masturbation, with most of them responding by looking at me quizzically, noting that it did not make any sense to them, because "no one else is there.")

I understand Isabel's early interruption of my protocol as a way of tipping me off in several ways to help me hear her, to know about and, I think, join her in shaping and pursuing her own query about herself, her body, and her thoughts, hopes, and fantasies about relationships. In fact, Isabel has had very little direct experience in exploring her sexuality with others. She prepared me to hear that she, too, feels "sealed off from her whole body" in relationships. I also heard her telling me that she knows about how women's oppression is accomplished in part through suppression, or maybe possession, of women's sexuality, as well as the empowering effect of a woman gaining "a really deep ... understanding of herself" through knowing and owning her own body. Celie's sense of self seems to Isabel to stand in contrast to how she and (she says) adolescent girls feel about themselves: "It's so hard to be at one with yourself when you don't know who you are ... you have these biological hormones going and so it's, it, it doesn't always get together, like the sexuality part."

Framing this interview with her knowledge of an erotic voice, this voice then quickly disappeared as Isabel told me about her sexuality; she voiced it as a wish rather than an experience as she divulged to me the contours of her fantasies and experiences. What sets Isabel apart from most other girls is that the question of her own desire matters to her. Isabel notices, talks about, questions, and worries about the absence of sexual feelings in her life. I attribute this insight to her feminist perspective. However, when Isabel spoke explicitly about sexual desire, contradictions abounded. One the one hand, she tells me she is worried that she is "asexual" because she has not felt a "sexual urge."

In attending to how Isabel spoke about her body, I realize that while speaking about her body often, she referred to her body as if she was looking at it rather than feeling it--even in response to my direct questions about what her body feels like. In such descriptions, there is no evidence of an erotic voice: her body is an object that she examines, evaluates, and judges; breaks into parts; and about which she fantasizes in other shapes and sizes as well. Evidence of having been socialized into objectifying her own body (Bartky, 1990; Bordo, 1993) abounds. A striking example is when I asked her to talk about what her body feels like in a fantasy that is ephemeral and spiritual but distinctly disembodied. This question was meant to be interruptive on my part, to invite her to speak the unspeakable, that is, voice her body, as well as to encourage her to explore the question of a sealed-off body that she herself has raised. "What does your body feel like?" I asked her.

Like, in, in the fantasy? Oh, just I feel wonder--I mean, it's like the same kind of feeling that I was telling you, oh gosh I really wish I were like really, really eloquent, because then I could make this so good, cause I have really good pictures in my mind, but it's the same picture that um, like when I walking down like, and Sam's brother was um, staring at me and I was like, 'Wow, I'm so gorgeous,' and when I looked back at that later I was like crazy, cause I knew I wasn't, but it's that same kind of feeling, where all over you, you know like your leg is just absolutely perfect, and your feet are not too big, and and your shoulders are just like, you're actually standing up straight for once, um, and you're just gorgeous, and your bones, like are sticking out at the right places (laughs), you know cause you're, like you're, you're so, like you're um, your throat bones, are just like pushing out a little bit because ... your cheekbones are like all high up and, and your hair is like radiating.

Isabel's descriptions of experiencing her own body as an object were explicitly associated with situations that she calls "romantic" or potentially sexual. The romance narrative posits a man who woos a woman, and then conquers her--sometimes construed as her giving herself to him, being the object of his sexual desire, being a woman who is a body yet who has no embodied feelings of her own (Moore & Rosenthal, 1992). In the romance narrative, the normative path of development demands girls' dissociation from their own agency and embodied feelings, that they become good (hetero)sexual objects for the sexual gaze and conquest of men (Ramazanoglu & Holland, 1993). Feminist analyses of the romance narrative delineate how it disempowers women by positing them as objects rather than subjects in their relationships and in their own lives, keeping them out of touch with the knowledge they gain through their own embodied experience (i.e., Tolman & Debold, 1993). The romance narrative codifies the objectification of women into bodies rather than embodied persons; it does not acknowledge female sexual desire as something that figures in the experience of the girl who ultimately is swept off her feet by a handsome beau (Christian-Smith, 1990).

It is not inconsequential, then, that the primary theme in Isabel's descriptions of her sexual fantasies is romance. The simplicity and clarity in her discussion of Celie's coming into an authentic heterosexual relationship through her ability to be connected with her body disappeared when Isabel talked about her wishes for relationship. Isabel invoked the romance narrative over and over again in describing girls' sexuality. The organization of her thoughts and few experiences according to the romance narrative is a possible explanation for how rarely an erotic voice appeared in her stories, as well as the extent to which the voice of her body is relentlessly objectified.

When speaking within the confines of the romance narrative, Isabel seemed to lose access to speaking about, maybe even knowing, what she has told me she knows by relaying Celie's experience --that her body can and should have an erotic voice. Yet perhaps because Isabel has access to an alternative story about herself, her body, and her sexuality, because she knows to have questions and wishes about her own sexual desire, I heard her interrupting the construction of herself as an object through contradictions. When Isabel told me these stories in which I noticed an absence of an erotic voice and her objectification of her own body, I interrupted to ask her about her bodily feelings. It is in these interruptions that I gleaned the way in which she has learned to relate to her body as an object of another's desire rather than as a subject of her own feelings, yielding no erotic voice. In that sense, the romance narrative effects a particularly insidious form of violation.

Her Body Speaks
In addition to constituting a form of violation, the objectification that is produced through the romance narrative leads inevitably to violations. Isabel has had her share of experiences of violation. Rather than label and then discard or disregard Isabel's stories as the not-surprising outcome of an experience of abuse, Isabel's stories of violation are common and expected, a kind of everyday or normalized violation that most women have encountered. The interplay between the romance narrative and these violations, which construct and cement Isabel's status as a sexual object for others to acquire or use rather than a person whose body is her own to experience, is of critical importance in understanding girls' experiences with their own sexual desire.

So what is keeping Isabel out of relationship with her body in sexual situations? What is keeping her out of sexual situations? It is surely over determined. She has little lived experience with sexual relationships, perhaps in part because she avoids them due to her experiences of violation and vulnerability. It is also in these situations, as opposed to her description of listening to someone, that she is conscious of her body as an object. She experiences her body explicitly as an object in situations that are socially labeled sexual. Indeed, her body has been treated as an object, out of her control and certainly as if she did not have her own desire.

What sets Isabel apart from many other adolescent girls who have learned to know their bodies as objects rather than as sexual subjects is that she also knows that desire, empowerment, and self-actualization are accessible to her through her own body. In her access to an alternative narrative through the experiences of Celie, I hear Isabel wondering about her own desire, initiating a process of resisting her internalized objectification, and coming into her body by asking questions about who she is, about her sexuality, that have the potential to interrupt the silencing of her sexuality produced by the romance narrative and her experiences of violation. A key piece of information that resonates with what other girls have told me is that Isabel has not had an opportunity to speak to other girls or to adult women about her experiences, her fantasies, or her questions. This silence, which shrouds active, passionate female adolescent sexuality, is both cause for concern and opportunity for change (Thompson, 1992; Tolman & Szalacha, 1999).

When educating girls about sexual health, not only are we obliged to teach them about the physical and emotional risks of sexuality, but also of the ways in which our sexuality can make us more resilient and more alive and about our entitlement to an erotic voice. By cultivating an erotic voice, we are not going to turn girls into sex fiends. However, we will challenge a system that depends on the erotic silence of many girls -- the lynchpin of our current construction of adolescent sexuality. If girls can know and incorporate their own erotic voices into their relationships and sexual choices, they are no longer "dependable" for bearing the responsibility to control boys' "raging hormones."

When we acknowledge girls' desire, boys' accountability will become more acute and harder to deny, and everyday violations will become harder to overlook or normalize. By speaking to girls and boys about girls' entitlement to their sexual desire, we demand a rewrite of the romance narrative in which girls will be sexual subjects rather than sexual objects.

- Tolman, Deborah; Object lessons: romance, violation, and female adolescent sexual desire; Journal of Sex Education & Therapy; 2000; Vol. 25; Issue 1.

Personal Reflection Exercise #7
The preceding section contained information regarding object lessons in romance, violation and female adolescent sexual desire.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Why does Tolman think that cultivating an erotic voice in adolescent girls is so important to sexual education? Record the letter of the correct answer the Test

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