The Good Girl Revolution: Young Rebels with Self-Esteem and High Standards

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9780812975369: The Good Girl Revolution: Young Rebels with Self-Esteem and High Standards

Across the country, there’s a youth-led rebellion challenging the status quo. In Seattle and Pittsburgh, teenage girls protest against companies that sell sleazy clothing. Online, a nineteen-year-old describes her struggles with her mother, who she feels is pressuring her to lose her virginity. In a small town outside Philadelphia, an eleventh-grade girl, upset over a “dirty book” read aloud in English class, takes her case to the school board. These are not your mother’s rebels.

Drawing on numerous studies and interviews, the brilliant Wendy Shalit makes the case that today’s virulent “bad girl” mindset truly oppresses young women. She reveals how the media, one’s peers, and even parents can undermine girls’ quests for their authentic selves, and explains what it means to break from the herd mentality and choose integrity over popularity. Written with sincerity and upbeat humor, The Good Girl Revolution rescues the good girl from the realm of mythology and old manners guides to show that today’ s version is the real rebel. Society may perceive the good girl as “mild,” but Shalit demonstrates that she is in fact the opposite. The new female role models are not “people pleasing” or repressed; they are outspoken and reclaiming their individuality. These empowering stories are sure to be an inspiration to teenagers and parents alike. Join the conversation at www.thegoodgirlrevolution.com

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About the Author:

Wendy Shalit was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and received her Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Williams College in 1997. Her essays have appeared in Commentary, Slate, the Wall Street Journal and other publications. Her first book, A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, was published by the Free Press in 1999. The Good Girl Revolution is her second book.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter ONE

“Hi, Slut!”

There is a metal go-go cage in which a group of Duke girls clad in tiny denim skirts and halters perform a modified pole dance, but no one seems to be watching. . . . Much to the disappointment of many students, female and male, there’s no real dating scene at Duke—true for a lot of colleges. “I’ve never been asked out on a date in my entire life—not once,” says one stunning brunette. Nor has a guy ever bought her a drink. “I think that if anybody ever did that, I would ask him if he were on drugs,” she says. Rather, there’s the casual one-night stand, usually bolstered by heavy drinking and followed the next morning by—well, nothing, usually. “You’ll hook up with a guy, and you know that nothing will come out of it,” says Anna. The best thing you can hope for, she says, “is that you’ll get to hook up with him again.”
—Janet Reitman, Rolling Stone, June 1, 2006

When Rolling Stone magazine starts to read like the National Review, then clearly something has gone very wrong. Not since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 has there been such bipartisan agreement that we have a problem. It is certainly puzzling. On the one hand, girls are more educated and women more successful in business than ever before. At the same time, girls report that in their private lives, they are feeling enormous pressure to be sexually active and don’t know how to say no. Numerous studies from left, right, and center have shown that when women get to college, they are extremely dissatisfied with the lack of a “dating scene.” They long to be taken out but instead are made to feel they are weird if they don’t “go with the flow” of the hookup scene instead. “The guy means nothing to you” is the socially correct view to adopt. Even an article in a women’s magazine encouraging the sisterhood to be happy as singles—“Down with the Husband Hunt!” was the charming title—the author had to admit that she “succumbs . . . from time to time” to the theory “that we are living in a lopsided dating universe in which the cards are all stacked in favor of the guys.” Kerry Ball, twenty-nine, of Miami, told her, “Men are just looking for girls to mess around with rather than have a relationship with or even simply date. There are so many single girls looking for relationships that these guys have no trouble finding someone to sleep with them.” The number of unmarried women between ages thirty and thirty-four has more than tripled during the past thirty years, and the percentage of childless women in their early forties has doubled. You might say that the “glass ceiling” has shifted from work to women’s personal lives.

At this writing, something called PSD is all over the news, and perhaps it may be helpful. I first read about PSD in Wired, and since Wired is a technology magazine, I assumed it was referring to Photoshop files (which have PSD file extensions) or that the writer had misspelled Canada’s PST, provincial sales tax. Neither assumption was right. But this new breakthrough is revolutionizing people’s intimate lives.

PSD stands for “pre-sex discussion.” As Regina Lynn glowingly reports, the sex therapist Roger Libby has recently discovered that if you get to know the person you’re about to have sex with, even a little bit, the sex itself is improved. “Sex is so much more than intercourse and [in his new book] he encourages readers to have an extensive pre-sex discussion, or PSD, before becoming sexually involved with a partner.”

Is sex more than just intercourse. This idea is not old-fashioned, like modesty or courtship, you understand. This is a modern thing. Libby is an adjunct professor at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, and his advanced studies of humans have led him to conclude that young people, especially, should conduct PSDs. (His book is billed as A Guide to Intelligent Sexual Choices for Teenagers and Twentysomethings.) Then we come to the actual elucidation: “A PSD is an intimate and entertaining conversation that informs prospective lovers about each other’s feelings, desires, expectations, fantasies and her/his sexual knowledge and sophistication. It’s an introduction to the possibility of a sexual relationship or encounter.” Indeed, “a properly conducted PSD . . . includes the meaning of sex.”

Whenever I hear experts marketing older notions as newfangled radical concepts that have just occurred to them, like PSDs, it makes me wonder HDDTTPA?—How dumb do they think people are? It takes a college- educated expert to be infected with the opposite notion in the first place; hence the surprise at the “revelation” of PSD, known to the rest of us as common sense.

But I can certainly appreciate the need for a verbal paint job. After all, look at what happened to me. Around ten years ago I began to notice that many young women were becoming disenchanted with casual sex, but it was equally clear that waiting for “the one” was seen as a bit pathological—only for those with hang-ups. Single at the time, and not yet living in our moment of heightened PSD awareness, I decided to pen a defense of sexual modesty. I knew that my arguments—that preserving the erotic depends on a sense of mystery, for example—might be challenged; but nothing prepared me for the tongue-lashings I would receive from my elders for questioning the ancien régime of the 1960s. The alarm was sounded, and all the professional smirkers were dispatched to the front lines. Katha Pollitt called me a “twit” who should be in charge of designing “new spandex chadors for female olympians.” Camille Paglia simply declared, “Oh, she makes me sick!” In a sense, it was touching to see sworn ideological enemies join hands and come together—at long last—for the purpose of descending on me: feminists, antifeminists, libertarians, pornographers. At least I was a uniter, not a divider. Playboy featured my book under the heading “A Man’s Worst Nightmare.” The Nation solemnly foretold that I would “certainly be embarrassed” and regret my stance “in a few years.” I should be ashamed of myself. To some baby boomers, it seemed, modesty is much worse than adultery.

I trudged on, under the heavy burden of the Scarlet M, baffled but fascinated by the eruption I had instigated. After the New York Observer printed a front-page caricature of me as an SS officer, it dawned on me that my opponents were illustrating their intolerance far more colorfully than I could have done on my own. Although we live in a supposedly liberated age, our hysterical witch-hunting of those who question our ideal of recreational sex suggests something else: that our liberation does not extend quite as far as we imagine.

But I wasn’t discouraged, not even when I received death threats, because I was too busy reading fascinating letters from young women. Precisely because being a romantic is nowadays an unpardonable sin, these young women, thousands of them, had been sure that something was very wrong with them. Seven years later, I still receive the same kind of letter, and it never fails to touch me. Here are excerpts from various letters; you’ll notice a common thread. First, from Rachel:

You basically laid out almost exactly how I felt as a woman. I am twenty years old and have been asking myself questions like, “What’s wrong with me? Why haven’t I had sex yet?” . . . Anyway, reading your book, my faith was restored. I am a romantic. . . . I couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t just slept with this guy or that one like my friends do. And I’ll say I was so close to doing that just because I thought it would help me grow up. Be more my own age. Even my mother wanted me to do it. And that’s why I thank God I read your book when I did. I began crying toward the end when I realized that nothing was wrong with me and that I was lucky to still have what I have. My desire to be with one person isn’t childish or immature. . . . I’m not scared; I just don’t have an interest in [sex] as a sport.

From Carrie:

Your book honestly helped me make sense of a lot of what I had experienced. I went through a bad stage in college where I remember thinking that my instincts (that what I was doing was bad) were irrational and struggled to adopt an “it’s no big deal” attitude. Your book was the first time I really sorted through things enough to recognize that our instincts are there for a reason and that the “it’s no big deal” attitude is such a horribly depressing view to accept.

About 70 percent of these e-mails and letters indicated that the writer felt that wanting marriage and children was an aspiration she needed to “hide.” (From J: “Have I ruined something wonderful by giving in and hiding what I really wanted—marriage and children?”) This did not surprise me, but I was shocked that according to nearly half of the letters, a girl’s own parent thought something was wrong with her for not being sufficiently casual about sex. Here is one example, from an e-mail sent in October 2004:

Somehow with it being perfectly normal for twelve- to fourteen-year-olds to have field/bush parties, getting drunk and having sex and doing whatever the locally available substances were, I managed to be one of the few that “escaped with my dignity intact,” I guess. I did end up getting ditched after eight months by a guy because I wouldn’t have sex with him. . . . I just didn’t like him that much. But I certainly did feel ashamed and embarrassed about remaining a virgin so long. . . . I am twenty-three now. My mother freaks out if I want to borrow the car to drive a friend back to [a nearby town] and return in the dark, but when I’d just turned twenty, and she and I went to Michigan to visit a guy I wasn’t technically seeing at the time, and to see the tall ships in Bay City, and I ended up in his hotel room, which was next door to ours. He was better at conversation and had something more interesting on TV, and Mom was staying up reading and watching QVC, so I wouldn’t be able to get much sleep there, either. After she found out that we hadn’t had sex, she asked me whether I was frigid or gay. He was nearly forty! Perfectly fine for your twenty-year-old daughter to screw a guy twice her age, just as long as she doesn’t return *your* car after dark when she’s going somewhere that’s all of forty-five minutes away. My mom thinks I’m a freak.

Usually these stories were depressing, but I did hear one that was priceless. A friend of a friend, in her late twenties, returned from a romantic weekend and was sharply interrogated by her mother—but not in the way you might expect. When she found out that her daughter hadn’t slept with the new boyfriend after a whole weekend away, the mother warned her ominously, “You’re gonna lose him!” (She didn’t; they eventually got married.)

Parents want to know how to speak to their children about sex, and kids certainly want to hear from parents. (“Teenagers Want More Advice from Parents on Sex, Study Says” is a typical news headline.) And the experts tell us that parents are the biggest influence on whether a teenager decides to have sex. Yet there is one big stumbling block: Often parents don’t realize that their sexual revolution has become the entrenched status quo. Today many young women feel oppressed by the expectation that they will engage in casual sex, just as their mothers once felt oppressed by the expectation that they would be virgins until marriage. Parents in the grip of a notion that they need to be “cool” want to show they understand that the kids are going to “do it anyway.” Ironically, this adds to the pressure. For boys too, You’re liberated, so get going! doesn’t always translate into an “I care” message. William Nobel, MD, of the Pediatric Association of the University of Texas, shares a story about his practice:

Recently Todd, an anxious fifteen-year-old male patient, presented to clinic with vague reproductive tract complaints. He was accompanied by his mother, who returned to the waiting room after the initial interview. His history gradually revealed a series of sexual encounters with a woman several years his senior. The sexual liaisons included other risks as well, including alcohol and substance use. The teen’s anxiety resulted from an awareness that his behavior placed him at risk for HIV. He requested HIV testing. While discussing the testing and evaluation for other sexually transmitted infections, the boy began to cry.

“I don’t think that my mom loves me,” he sobbed.

“Why do you say that?” I responded.

“She doesn’t care where I go or who I’m with or if I come home at night. I don’t have a curfew and she never asks what I’m doing.”

Reluctance to set limits is not simply a U.S. phenomenon. Because of the challenges parents face after divorce—or many times simply because they believe freedom is the better approach—mum’s the word. “Parents often don’t want to be in their kids’ bad books,” says Sara Dimerman, a child and family therapist who is based in Toronto. After a twelve-year-old girl was stabbed on a street in Toronto’s entertainment district at two-thirty AM one Saturday in May 2006, many people wondered why a twelve-year-old girl had been partying at all hours in the first place. The answer, apparently, was that eighth-grade graduation now resembles a high school prom, and many twelve-year-olds party all night like older teens. Coed sleepovers and all-night clubbing often have the parents’ blessing: “Twelve is the new fifteen,” said the local papers.

In a survey of 1,000 girls in Britain, seven times as many teens picked “lap dancer” as a “good profession” as picked being a teacher. And Jessica, a twenty-one-year-old camp counselor in Paris, tells me she cannot believe the way the twelve-year-olds speak to one another: Les garçons disent aux filles, “Je veux te niquer,” et les filles répondent, “moi aussi.” C’est comme si ils se disaient, “Comment vas-tu?” et “ça va bien.” (The boys say to the girls, “I want to f--k you,” and the girls say, “me too!” It’s like saying, “How are you?” and “I’m fine.”) Si la fille ne répond pas “moi aussi,” ils se moquent d’elle en disant “es-tu homosexuelle ou quoi?” (If a girl doesn’t say “me too!” then it’s like, “Are you gay or what?”)

Who is countering these pressures? Well, there’s Sharon Stone, who travels around the world and hears from young people while she is signing autographs. Often she is asked, “What to do if I’m being pressured for sex?” In March 2006, asked this by yet another girl, Stone saw fit to make public the advice she’s been giving teen girls for a while: “I tell them what I believe—oral sex is a hundred times safer than vaginal or anal sex. If you’re in a situation where you cannot get out of sex, offer a blow job.” This advice was widely circulated. One Internet-based sex educator who works with teenagers thanked Stone for her “frank discussion”; he also “thought of teens I’ve talked to while doing sex education who have had sex when they really didn’t want to.” On the other hand, he “worried she may be unaware of the many STDs that can be transmitted via oral sex.”

Sexually transmitted diseases are indeed a problem: over 4 million new cas...

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