Research Blog:
Beyond STDs and pregnancy: Can sexual experimentation be good for girls’ agency?

by Hannah Bernhardt

My favorite scene in “Mean Girls” is when the entire school is brought together for Sex Ed. In this scene, all the students are gathered in the gym while the P.E. teacher rants about the dangers of sex. It’s ridiculous, it’s over-the-top, and honestly… it’s kinda relatable. That scene is so funny precisely because so many of us were subjected to similar scare tactics in our sex ed: “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and DIE.” The U.S. has a notoriously regressive public sexual education system. Sex Ed is mandated in only 21 states and most states require that any sex education that is provided must stress abstinence. I went to a pretty progressive high school in Washington, D.C., so I escaped abstinence-only sex ed, but our curriculum still centered almost exclusively on the risks and dangers of (heterosexual) sex. For girls, in particular, we learn only how to protect ourselves from boys, STIs, and pregnancy.

What I saw in my sex ed’s focus on girls needing to protect themselves from boys who just constantly want to have sex with them, is that it reinforces the sexual double standard that is so pervasive for teens: you know, the idea that girls are considered sluts and boys are players when they sleep with people. Some of my most prominent memories of high school are of the gossip that surrounded girls’ sex lives; rumors would fly accusing the girls of being “used” or “disgusting.” It was so different from the gossip that surrounded the boys’ sex lives; usually they were praised for having “conquered” something or someone *major eye roll*. This double standard is as dangerous as it is pervasive. There was one case where a freshman girl hooked up with a senior boy and she was immediately branded with the infamous title of “slut”. Throughout the year she endured ruthless gossip, taunting, bullying, teasing. And what did he get? High fives and praise. I mean, it was just so obvious. Obvious how unfair the situation was and obvious how damaging this inequality is. And it seemed to me that vilifying teen girls’ sexual agency is a large part of what works to uphold and perpetuate this double standard.

In high school, I witnessed my friends struggle with expressing their own sexualities. The constant threat of slut-shaming made them feel trapped, scared, and insecure. And our sex ed classes didn’t do anything to address this issue. If anything, the constant reaffirmation that sex is some sort of scary, dangerous activity that teen boys demand and teen girls need to protect themselves from, promoted these feelings of discontentment and insecurity. Of course it’s important to feel prepared and be informed about sexual protection. But our sex ed curriculums promote an incomplete picture of sexuality: we talk about stigma and shame, but sex is about a lot more than that. Now, as a college student, I explore the social implications of girl’s sexuality and I’ve been wondering: What could be the benefits of filling in the gaps that we’re leaving blank? How can we incorporate the positive aspects of sexuality into our curriculums? We need to talk about pleasure, especially female pleasure. Where is the focus on all the ways that sex can be great for girls and how might a focus on pleasure help challenge the double standard?!

It turns out that two Australian researchers set out to examine just this. Sharon Horne and Melanie Zimmer-Gembeck[1] noticed a definitive lack of studies on teen girl sexual experimentation: most research from the past 30 years centered on the risks of sexual exploration for teen girls. But Horne and Zimmer-Gembeck thought that sexual experimentation for girls could be positive for their sexual subjectivity (how you think about yourself as a sexual being) and resisting the sexual double standard. To find out, they gathered 449 young women, aged 16-20 years old (most were white and straight but there were queer girls and girls of color), and instead of asking about risk and disease, they asked them about their sexual experiences, the double standard, and their sexual subjectivity. They measured sexual subjectivity as sexual body esteem (how confident you feel in your attractiveness), sexual entitlement and agency (if you believe you deserve pleasure and are able to ask for it), and sexual self-reflection (how much you think about past sexual experiences). The sexual experiences girls could report included a broad range of activities from kissing, masturbation, intercourse, and even fantasizing about sex. As a young lesbian who never heard any mention of same-sex sexualities in my sex ed, it feels especially important that these researchers expanded what it means to have sex in their study. It’s not just about penises and vaginas!

So what did they find out about teen girls’ sexual lives? Well, for one thing, the girls in the study reported a huge range of type of sexual experiences, not just heterosexual, penetrative intercourse. And the girls who engaged in consensual, informed sexual exploration of all types also reported higher sexual body esteem, sexual agency, and sexual self-reflection. They also found that engaging in these sexual experiences can actually help teen girls become more resilient to sexual double standards. This means that young women who sexually experimented more outside of heterosexual penetration (activities like self-masturbation, light or heavy petting, etc.) were more vocal about their desires and their comfort in relationships AND less likely to follow the rules of the sexual double standard.

So a range of sexual behaviors were not only NOT negative, but they were related to girls’ sexual well-being. Listen, the way I see it, is we’re all going to do it. We’re all going to fantasize, masturbate, kiss, and love. And when someone is in a safe, comfortable, and informed position, sexual experimentation has tons of really crucial benefits. By enforcing a sexual education curriculum that truly informs us on all aspects of sexuality (not just STDs and pregnancy) we have the opportunity to change the conversation around sex. Normalizing the sexual experimentation of adolescent girls is long overdue. By ending the vilification of teen girls’ sexualities we are creating a safer environment for them: one that discourages the sexual double standard and promotes self-esteem, agency, and self-reflection.

Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and DIE… or achieve more self-confidence and a more nuanced understanding of what exactly “sex” is! I’m not demanding that high school sex ed actively encourage teenagers to have sex, but I am demanding that we put an end to the scare tactics and educate teenagers responsibly and completely. Engaging in full, nuanced conversations about sex in the classroom means we can create space for questions to be voiced and answered, we can remove the stigma that results in the “slut shaming” and harassment of so many girls, and we can promote a healthier generation of girls (and boys!) to engage in safe, fun, and consensual sexual exploration.

[1] Horne, Sharon, and Melanie J Zimmer-Gembeck. “Female Sexual Subjectivity and Well-Being: Comparing Late Adolescents With Different Sexual Experiences.” Sexuality Research and Social Policy: Journal of NSRC, vol. 2, no. 3, Sept. 2005, pp. 25–40.

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