Sex Roles

, Volume 66, Issue 11, pp 746–757

Female Adolescents, Sexual Empowerment and Desire: A Missing Discourse of Gender Inequity


    • Hunter College School of Social Work and The Graduate CenterCUNY
Feminist Forum

DOI: 10.1007/s11199-012-0122-x

Cite this article as:
Tolman, D.L. Sex Roles (2012) 66: 746. doi:10.1007/s11199-012-0122-x


In this commentary, I offer a response to Lamb & Peterson (2011). I base these comments on the feminist scholarship on adolescent girls’ healthy sexuality that Lamb (2010a) critiqued in the first of this series. I address and redress several of her concerns by providing the context and history of my own research and recovering the meanings of desire, pleasure and subjectivity as they appeared in this body of work. I then engage Lamb and Peterson’s points of consensus about the role of sexual empowerment in adolescent girls’ healthy sexuality by 1) positioning sexualization as more than a context; 2) identifying a missing discourse of gender inequity as a central issue in their discussion; and 3) explaining how the use of theory and interpretation in feminist research methods is necessary for and distinct from a surface reading of narratives of lived experience. Finally, I will provide examples of some alternative paths for supporting healthy adolescent women’s sexuality that extend beyond school-based sex education and media literacy into alternative engagements with girls through technology, media activism and participatory practices.


FeminismEmpowermentAdolescent girlsSexualityResearch methods


At present, instead of silence about girls’ sexual desire, there is a virtual racket and, more importantly, there are pervasive images and representations of sexual-seeming girls that come at young people relentlessly (Gill 2008, 2009). Their environments are filled with billboards and with actual screens sporting advertisements for the latest reality television show (Murray and Ouellette 2008). Social media and new technologies have become extensions of who they are and how they connect with others (American Psychological Association 2007; Boyd 2011; Walther et al. 2008). Everywhere anyone looks, adolescent girls are portrayed as or seem to be portraying very sexy adult women (Levy 2005). Be it internet pornography both sought after and inadvertently viewed by them (Davies 2004; Ezzell 2009) or destination websites where mostly girls invite others to evaluate them (i.e.,, adolescent girls are being barraged by a deafening one-note anthem: Their appearance is what matters, and looking sexy is what counts. The importance of looking desirable, defined narrowly and unforgivingly, trumps all in the lexicons of movies and magazines portraying and targeting girls, teens and young people of all races, ethnicities, sexualities and geographies (Merskin 2004; Ward 2002).

The simultaneous intensification of consumerism and commodification pressures girls to be dissatisfied with themselves in every way, inciting a felt need for all kinds of bodily makeovers and a Pandora’s box of desires for the things that will fix the inadequacies they learn to find in themselves (Lamb and Brown 2007; McRobbie 2009). Within the emergent sway of neoliberalism (Harris 2004), the “girl power” movement made waves and made the news in the disruptive actions of riot grrrls and grunge music in the 1990s (Glenum and Greenberg 2011) by defying demands that being a good and real girl meant being passive, nice, and demure. As Lamb and Brown (2007) have noted, those enactments of power have now been overpowered, co-opted and commodified. The power to break the mold of what it meant to be a girl was quickly converted into the power to shop for the things that were being sold to girls as the way to make oneself into a newly molded perfect girl (McRobbie 2009). Thus a discourse of empowerment anchored in competence and self-knowledge has ironically been shaped into the power to conform and perform (McRobbie 2009; Tolman 2012).

Sharon Lamb and Zoe Peterson (2011) have opened up an important conversation about a feminist perspective on and approach to research on adolescent girls’ healthy sexuality under these present conditions that must and did inevitably engage the question of sexual empowerment. Notably, while they are committed to finding points of consensus in this joint article, it is marked by their intractable disagreement about what constitutes sexual empowerment as contextualized by the sexualization of girls (American Psychological Association 2007). Implicit in their disagreement is a question about how to tune one’s ear to what girls say about their sexuality, in particular about being sexually empowered individuals, under these current contradictory conditions. I agree with them that feminist scholars are facing unprecedented complexities in thinking about what developing healthy sexuality might be for adolescent women. I will engage their points of consensus about the role of sexual empowerment by 1) further explicating sexualization as more than a context that has complicated this question; 2) taking as a touchstone their recognition of “the need to please a partner” (Lamb and Peterson 2011, this issue) to elaborate a more expansive and intersectional feminist framework to deepen this complication, and 3) articulating an alternative to the conundrum of hearing what girls are saying about their sexuality under these conditions by focusing on how and for what purposes feminist scholars listen to, analyze and organize with girls. Finally, I will offer some alternative paths for supporting healthy adolescent women’s sexuality that might take us a step beyond their suggestions of adequate sex education and media literacy to ameliorate what McClelland (2010) has called “intimate injustice” (p. 663).

Feminist Research on Adolescent Girls’ Sexuality: A Fleshier Accounting

To provide firm footing for entering the ongoing dialogue between Lamb and Peterson in this series in the Feminist Forum (Lamb 2010a; Peterson 2010; Lamb 2010b; Lamb and Peterson 2011), I begin by providing deeper background, more variegated and of thicker gauge, on the original body of feminist research on adolescent girls’ sexuality, and my own scholarship in particular, that Lamb (2010a) critiqued in the first paper in this series. I will put flesh on what I think was her too-bare- boned reading, characterizing this body of work as defining healthy adolescent girls’ sexuality solely as “the idealized picture of the adolescent girl who feels pleasure, desire, and subjectivity” (Lamb and Peterson 2011, this issue). Throughout my commentary, when not focused specifically only on my own research, I will refer to “this body of work” as the collective efforts of an array of feminist researchers who have shared a commitment to the possibility of the positive dimensions of sexuality for adolescent women, to learning from the lived experience of girls, and to using feminist sexuality theory as an anchor of our work, including studies by Michelle Fine and Sarah McClelland (Fine 1988; Fine and McClelland 2007; McClelland and Fine 2008a), Laina Bay-Cheng (2003; Bay-Cheng and Eliseo-Arras, 2008; Bay-Cheng et al. 2009), Lynn Philips (2000), Sharon Thompson (1990, 1995), the Women, Risk and AIDS Project (WRAP, i.e., Holland and Ramazanoglu 1994; Holland et al. 2004), and Sue Jackson (Jackson 2005; Jackson and Cram 2003). I will refer to additional feminist research and theory as appropriate.

In the late 1980s, there was a vast body, a virtual cottage industry, of research on teenage girls’ sexual behavior and attitudes (Thompson 1990; Tolman 2002). However, this literature was as impoverished as it was enormous, focusing almost exclusively on identifying what predicted sexual intercourse (then assumed to be penile-vaginal) and what factors were associated with being sexually active (including having had sex only one time), as well as the negative consequences of intercourse for girls and young women (Fine 1988; Thompson 1990; Tolman 1994b). A body of feminist research began naming and critiquing this limited view of girls’ sexuality as an exclusive focus on sexuality as a risk behavior and on its potential negative outcomes. These researchers, myself included, began asking new questions about girls’ sexuality that generated a new body of knowledge about the complexity of girls’ experiences that included positive dimensions. Sharon Thompson identified a sprinkling of “pleasure narrators” (Thompson 1990, p. 350, cited in Lamb 2010a, p. 298) in her investigation of girls’ sexual and romantic relationships. In the U.S., while there already existed an extensive literature on adult women’s, and men’s sexual desire (Basson 2000; Hite 1976; Kaplan 1974; Masters and Johnson 1966), Michelle Fine named a “missing discourse” of female adolescent sexual desire in both the literature on teen sexuality and within the walls of schools and sex education classrooms (Fine 1988, p. 53). I responded to Fine’s observation by asking girls about their experiences of sexual desire (1994a; b; 2002; Tolman and Szalacha 1999). There was also at that time a great deal of concern about what I have called the “cultural story” (Tolman 2002, p. 13) of adolescent boys’ sexual desire that seeped into assumptions in the public health literature and public discourse on teen sexuality (Fine 1988; Thompson 1990; Tolman 1994a) and into sex education curricula (Fine 1988; Fields 2008; Thompson 1995). Even prior to federally-mandated abstinence-only until marriage education that severely limits sex education to the dangers of all premarital sex and does not provide medically-accurate information about condoms, contraception or abortion (Fields 2008; Ott and Santelli 2007), assumptions of girls as gatekeepers of boys’ uncontrollable sexual urges, calibrated by race and class, pervaded classrooms and suffused curricula (Fields 2008).

But the publication of “The Missing Discourse of Desire” in 1988 (Fine 1988) inspired and marked a critical turning point and interpretive turn in the study of female adolescent sexuality (Tolman 2005). In the impoverished grammar which demarcated girls’ sexuality at the time exclusively in terms of danger, moral turpitude and violation (Fine 1988), the recognition and articulation of questions about the possibilities of girls’ desire, pleasure and sexual subjectivity was, I suggest, both extraordinarily radical and extraordinarily obvious. Fine’s article asked us as feminist researchers not to take this “missing[ness]” of female desire (Fine 1988, p. 29) as evidence of a lack, but instead, as a social silence that was established early in life and reconstituted institutionally within classrooms in U.S. schools. This seminal article followed in the wake of important feminist scholarship on female sexuality in the 1980s, in which the complex interplay of pleasure and danger (Vance 1984), women’s bodies and cultural constructions of their sexuality (Rubin 1984), and the constraints of patriarchy on women’s sexuality (Rich 1980) were articulated and debated (Hollibaugh 1984; Snitow et al. 1983).

At the same time, Carol Gilligan, Lyn Brown and colleagues were developing a relational theory of girls’ psychosocial development (Brown and Gilligan 1992; Gilligan et al. 1991; 1990b) and women’s psychology (Gilligan 1982; see also Miller 1976) that challenged the notion of human development as a march towards individuation, especially in adolescence. This relational theory was grounded in feminist standpoint epistemology (Nielsen 1990). This approach to knowledge production posited that women, as members of a group marginalized by mainstream society, had different perspectives on and experiences of reality that were central to what they could observe or know, and who they became (see Cole (2009) on the importance of intersectionality as a corrective to feminist standpoint epistemology of the time). In her research on women’s morality, Gilligan (1982) had listened to what women knew and felt that was distinct from what mainstream society had deemed moral. She recognized women’s ability to speak in terms of expected social norms and at the same time to express an alternative moral position rooted in the value of relationships, care and connection. She and other feminist psychologists articulated this perspective as a feminist understanding of a relational self (Gilligan 1982; see also Belenky et al. 1986; Miller 1976; Surrey et al. 1991).

Recognizing that standard scales did not capture what women knew and felt, Gilligan, Brown and others developed a narrative research method predicated on listening to women’s and girls’ stories of lived experience (Brown et al. 1989). Understanding these stories as narrations of struggles with “good womanhood” rather than simply as reports (Brown et al. 1989; Gilligan et al. 2003; Sorsoli and Tolman 2008) enabled an explicit and rigorous interpretive process. This method yielded new knowledge about an unknown dimension of girls’ psychological development and women’s lives. Using this method in research on girls to understand how women developed the solution of telling the “right” story, Brown and Gilligan (1992) found that as they became adolescents, many girls learned to ventriloquate, or speak in terms of, norms of femininity that were newly expected of them but which did not fit with or express their experience (Brown 1991). Girls had to solve the psychosocial problem they encountered when they recognized that what they actually thought and felt (that is, their authentic thoughts and feelings) violated those norms, such as being angry. To resolve this contradiction, some girls at adolescence made an active choice to suppress (or take “underground”) this “authentic” self, in service of preserving relationships, thereby making themselves into good and appropriate women and girls (Brown and Gilligan 1992, p. 15; Gilligan 1982, 1990; Gilligan et al. 1991). The risk of this psychological move was to lose track of, to forget, this knowledge and these feelings altogether or to live with the now internalized contradiction between their own perceptions and reactions and what they were supposed to do and feel. As relationships require two present people (Gilligan 1982, 1990; Jack 1991), this solution is ironic and also renders difficult the sort of mutuality that Lamb (2010a) suggests as a more realistic approach to healthy sexuality for adolescent girls.

At the other end of the spectrum were resistors, girls who refused to give up what they observed that put them at odds with norms of femininity, who lived with the consequences of stepping out of the bounds of expected behavior and emotion. This research situated girls and women’s psyches as “embedded” or anchored in their bodies and in culture (Gilligan et al., 1990a, p. 86) and that contextualizing any understanding of girls’ and women’s lived experiences in the specific ways that their bodies and cultures located them was necessary. In this and subsequent research, the most marginalized girls (African American [Fine 1988; Fordham 1988; Taylor et al. 1995], Latina [Fine 1988; Taylor et al. 1995], poor and working class White girls [Brown 1999; Taylor et al. 1995]) have often been the resistors, refusing to give up their authentic selves to comply with the norms of White, middle class femininity. These girls were and continue to be seen in and out of schools and in the streets, as “loud” and in need of containment and punishment (Fordham 1988, p. 64; Fine and McClelland 2006).

I review this research on girls, because this is the historical context and a large part of the motivation for my work that was not evident in Lamb’s (2010a) critique. These clarifications, then, raise specific questions about her assertions. Feminist relational theory (Brown and Gilligan 1992) is one of the key threads in a web of theories that I used. I wove together this understanding of how girls and women managed the collision of their authentic thoughts and feelings with norms of femininity together with feminist analyses of female sexuality under patriarchy. These theories articulate how female sexuality is always constituted by both pleasure and danger (Vance 1984), as inclusive of but never limited to bodily sensation embroiled in and produced by an array of relational and cultural contexts (Rich 1980; Rubin 1984) and society’s structural asymmetries contingent upon race and socioeconomic status (Collins 1990; Frankenberg 1993). This research on girls also provided a method for how to listen to the primarily 16-year-old girls in this and all of my research as narrators of, rather than just as reporters on, their sexual experiences (Tolman 1994a, b, 2000, 2002; see also Tolman et al. 2003; 2006; Burns et al. 2011).

While Brown and Gilligan (1992) had documented girls’ development of self in relationships, I had been most curious about and focused on their adolescent experiences of one dimension of self and one dimension of sexuality that society had been silent on and silencing of: their sexual desire. By highlighting their own sexual feelings as a fly in the ointment of how girls were supposed to think, feel and behave, I was explicating a dimension of girls’ psychological development that had not been addressed in that research thus far. My analysis and finding that desire incited dilemmas for girls, and tracing how they resolved those dilemmas, was guided by what Brown & Gilligan’s research had documented about girls’ and women’s psychological negotiation of broader norms of femininity. Importantly, my conception of desire itself is anchored, in part, in relational theory.

Thus, neither I, nor the other feminist researchers Lamb calls to task, restrict desire to one’s genitals nor to a replication of beliefs about male desire, as Lamb presented it (Lamb 2010a; Lamb and Peterson 2011). My own positioning of desire was explicitly relational and contextualized: “Feeling desire in response to another person is a route to knowing, to being, oneself through the process of relationship” (Tolman 2002, p. 21; see also Jordan 1987). This mindful reconceptualization of sexual desire is both beyond the boundaries of the body and inclusive of it (Tolman 1994a, b, 2000, 2002); rather than simply bodily, it is embodied (Holland and Ramazanoglu 1994; Holland et al. 2004; Tolman 2002). By embodied desire, we designate sexual and pleasurable feelings in and of the body that constitute a form of knowledge about the self, one’s relationships and one’s cultural contexts or social worlds. We have been invoking the fleshy sense of embodiment, that our bodies are created rather than mediated by these contexts. This conception of embodiment is well established in sociology and health psychology, having been linked to health in general (Dowsett 1998; Scheper-Hughes 1992) and healthy adolescent girls’ sexuality (Pick et al. 2005), respectively.

Using this reconfiguration, I was able to trace how a group of girls, who were explicitly diverse by race, class and geography, navigated embodied desire. They described desire as a profoundly relational experience that did inform and shape, even as it was informed and shaped by, girls’ navigation of their bodies and social landscapes. My analysis was squarely conceptually situated in this feminist understanding of women’s and girls’ knowledge of self and of their social worlds. Using this theoretical framework, I demonstrated how they narrated the dilemmas that their own desire presented, erupting and disrupting the boundaries of how to become good and acceptable women. And it was in those navigations of self, including their bodies, their relationships and their social worlds, that most of the girls in my original study narrated dilemmas of desire as strangleholds on their capacity to know and express what they really thought and felt. They described sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, sometimes hopeless experiences, rooted in struggles with what Jean Baker Miller called “sexual authenticity” (Miller 1976, p. 106). In listening to these girls, I interpreted their stories of sexual desire explicitly within the racial and cultural histories of sexuality that informed their experiences. In a few exceptional cases, some girls voiced resistance to refusing their own desire. These girls recognized the unfairness of a sexual double standard and of splitting girls into “good” and “bad” categories, refused to play by the rules of femininity, and insisted on developing an understanding of their sexuality in adolescence as part of their humanity (Tolman 2002). This theoretical and research context suggests that developing desire is not an age-specific process nor an event with a stopping point but ongoing, individual and sociocultural, as adolescent girls become adult women (Brotto et al. 2009).

Rather than being essentialized, the way this body of work characterizes desire is in fact a resistant response to equating bodily experience with a hard-wired biological perspective (Tolman and Diamond 2001), providing an alternative to that impoverished and at the time exclusive notion of sexual desire. Instead, we have suggested desire is a part of the self, a knowing, feeling, experiencing self, which we have described in terms of sexual subjectivity and sexual agency (Horne and Zimmer-Gembeck 2006; Fine 1988; Harris 2004; Philips 2000; Tolman 2002):

By sexual subjectivity, I mean a person’s experience of herself as a sexual being, who feels entitled to sexual pleasure and sexual safety, who [can] make…active sexual choices, and who has an identity as a sexual being. Sexual desire is at the heart of sexual subjectivity” (Tolman 2002, p. 5–6, my italics).

Invoking Karin Martin’s conception, I explained, “sexual subjectivity is a necessary component of [sexual] agency…[that] affect[s] her/his ability to act in the world and to feel like she/he can will things and make them happen” (Martin 1996, p. 10, quoted in Tolman 2002, p. 6). Sexual subjectivity is a set of capacities rather than the set of mandates that Lamb ascribed to us, a sense of entitlement rather than the responsibility she claimed we demanded (2010a), which adolescent girls have a right to bring into relationships and their explorations of sexuality.

Lamb (2010a) characterized this body of work as purporting that girls arrive at adolescence with a full-bodied knowledge of their bodies, who they are and what they want. What we have actually argued for is girls’ entitlement to include their desire in developing a healthy understanding of their bodies within an array of feelings and experiences that are part and parcel of what one might call a stew of sexuality and relationships. As this body of work has consistently shown, such a stew is made from pleasure and desire, betrayal and coercion, connection and isolation (Fine 1988; MacPherson and Fine 1995; Impett et al. 2006) and also ambivalence (Muehlenhard and Peterson 2005) and messiness (Burns et al. 2011; McClelland and Fine 2008a, b). We have articulated and emphasized that a right to desire (Correa and Petchesky 1994) does not presuppose that most young women do or should experience, narrate or embody desire in any simple form. Desire, like an appetite for democracy or freedom or justice, may be an entitlement (Correa and Petchesky 1994; Tolman and Costa 2010), a yearning (hooks 1999), a worthy goal to stretch towards (Burns and Torre 2005; Fine 2005; Fine and McClelland 2006, 2007; Welles 2005) or asymptotic, never quite achieved (Brotto 2010; Tolman 2000, 2002).

And rather than privileging sexual desire and a narrow view of pleasure as “managing orgasms” and constituting “good sex” (Lamb 2010a, p. 300) as Lamb asserted about this research, this body of work interjected desire, pleasure and subjectivity into a set of impoverished public and academic discourses of teenage girls’ sexuality. This work extended the conception of female adolescent sexuality beyond the counting and predicting (solely) of behaviors, framed only in terms of risk, danger and vulnerability, rather than displacing these dimensions of their sexuality (Tolman and McClelland 2011). This reworked construction of girls’ sexuality was not prescriptive (nor a model nor theory nor “a project” that we imposed on individual girls (Lamb 2010a, p. 299)). Rather, it was descriptive, specifically based in theoretically-anchored interpretations of girls’ narratives. Across groups of young women, there was a recognition that gendered selves, voices, silences and bodies were in dialogic conversation with structural, material, cultural and discursive formations in which young women were growing up (Brown and Gilligan 1992; Fine 1988, 1991; Fine and McClelland 2006; Gilligan et al. 1990a; Tolman 2000, 2002).

In particular, Fine and McClelland (2006) critiqued and took the research on girls’ desire that developed as a response to “Missing Discourse,” my own included, a step further, complicating it into the innovative notion of “thick desire” (p. 297). That is, rather than an effort to predicate an array of freedoms and rights on sexual entitlement, as Lamb (2010a) claimed, Fine and McClelland (2006) argued that constituting desire only in sexual terms delimits the broader context and meaning of all forms of wanting and hoping (see also Debold et al. 1993, for a broader concept of desire). Grounded in focus group research that they and their colleagues conducted with women and girls living in poverty and/or women of color (Burns and Torres 2005; Fine 2005; McClelland and Fine 2008b), they argued that sexual well being is in fact not a sufficient construct in and of itself. Rather, they urged holding the complexity, the webs of desire, of which sexual well-being is one component rather than one to be privileged or taken out of the larger context of young women’s lives. In their work, they argued for the place of knowledge about and a sense of entitlement to one’s own body, including one’s sexuality and bodily pleasure, as a right and a touchstone for the capacity to know and demand other rights (Fine and McClelland 2007; McClelland and Fine 2008a; see also Piran et al. 2006).

Always based in research with girls, in listening to girls, what this body of work argues for is girls’ rights to self-knowledge and self-expression, sexual and otherwise, to connection to themselves and to others, hopeful that they won’t have to fear so many social and material reprisals or so much violence, danger and control that continue to undergird female sexuality. If we have articulated any mandates or projects as Lamb suggested (2010a), they are societal ones. We have displaced the blame and shame that girls suffer with a call for social responsibility to create “enabling conditions” (Correa and Petchesky 1994, p. 95) for girls’ sexuality development and well-being. Enabling conditions are structural social conditions of safety, resources and social norms that make such well-being possible. In and beyond our scholarship, we have worked towards such conditions in the U.S. through the legal system and policy (Fine 1988; Fine and McClelland 2007; McClelland and Fine 2008b) and through public discourse and social action (Brown in press; Fine 1988; Tolman 2002; Tolman and Costa 2010; Tolman et al. in press) to increase the possibility that our hopes for girls will materialize. We fear that just as complex second wave feminism has been corrupted into individualistic, consumer Girlie Power (Aapola et al. 2005; Lamb and Brown 2007; McRobbie 2009), our complex sense of desire as informed by an array of social forces has been hollowed by a neoliberal psychological interpretation that reduces desire only to the property of an individual girl (Peterson 2010; Lamb and Peterson 2011).

The Quandary of Sexualization, a Missing Discourse of Gender Inequity and the Role of Feminist Researchers

When the research on adolescent girls’ sexuality that Lamb (2010a) found so problematic was conducted, the need to interrupt the silencing of desire and society’s refusal to recognize girls’ bodies in any way, as I have described above, was potent. At that time, girls’ bodies were seen only as containers of risk and vulnerability, which necessitated fronting desire as a research strategy. This approach was a theoretical and political intervention into psychological understandings of young women and educational initiatives about sexuality with young women and men at that time (Fine 1988; Tolman 2002). As Lamb and Peterson (2011) note and agree upon in their joint article, current representations of female sexual empowerment entwined with sexualized images infuse the everyday lives of teenage girls and boys (see also American Psychological Association 2007; Levy 2005; Piran et al. 2006; Zurbriggen and Roberts in press). In such societal representations, those aspects of desire that involved social analysis, critique, refusal and engagement are ignored, leaving only ‘sexy’ remains available for empowerment (Levy 2005; Tolman in press). The question that Lamb and Peterson seem to be struggling with is how to make sense of (heterosexual) girls’ claims of empowerment when they have been socialized through sexualization to be sexual objects for an internalized male gaze (de Beauvoir 1961; Fredrickson and Roberts 1997). It is challenging to make sense of sexual empowerment when girls and young women have become commodities to be dressed for and consumed by male sexual desire (Gill 2008, 2009; Lamb and Brown 2007; McRobbie 2009; Tolman in press). When representations of lesbian sexuality are implied as sexual empowerment but appropriated as fodder for heterosexual titillation (Diamond 2005; Gill 2008; Levy 2005), the question of lesbian, bisexual and trans young women’s sexual empowerment, which has not yet been raised in this dialogue, becomes salient.

In the year 2012, sexual empowerment is part of the social landscape in real and present ways, from reality television shows like The Girl Next Door (Cato and Carpentier 2010) to the burgeoning and contested Slutwalk movement (Traister 2011), presenting girls with a different kind of challenge to developing healthy sexuality. This social landscape is not only packed with a profusion of sexualization (American Psychological Association 2007), it is also infused with incitements to women and girls to use the commodity of their sexual allure in service of financial gain. This provocation is demonstrated by the publication by Catherine Hakim, a professor at the London School of Economics, of Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital (2011). In this book, the author argues that young, sexually appealing women should take full advantage of the short window of opportunity during which they have significant “erotic capital” to beat out their male and elderly adversaries in the corporate world (see also McRobbie 2009). Images of female sexual empowerment are virtually always referencing the incitement of male sexual desire (Gill 2008; Levy 2005), including portrayals of sexual interactions, primarily kissing and close, sexualized physical contact, between girls (Diamond 2005).

Sexual subjectivity that is predicated on being a sexualized, not simply a sexual, object is confusing at best (Tolman in press). Recent research suggests that young women continue to be negatively affected by sexualized portrayals of young, lithe women, in particular leading them not to feelings of sexual empowerment but to more constrained and stereotypical notions about gender roles and sexual roles, i.e., that women are sexual objects (Kim et al. 2007; Ward 2002; Zurbriggen and Morgan 2006). At a time when sexual agency itself has been objectified (Tolman in press), that is, when representations of desiring women, younger and older, are the latest production to induce male desire (Attwood 2007; Farvid and Braun 2006; Harris 2004), how can we understand adolescent women’s claims of sexual empowerment? Is the power to perform sexual desire a form of sexual empowerment? What about the power to engage in or accept sexual violence and hyperbolic sexual (and relational) aggression and name it “normal” female sexuality? When the hegemonic discourse is one of sexual empowerment, how do we understand what girls say when asked about their desire, their sense of choice and their negotiation of sexual encounters and relationships?

Lamb and Peterson wrangle over young women’s claims to sexual empowerment under these conditions, with Peterson fearful that it could be “hurtful” to name this as “false consciousness” to young women who make this claim and Lamb worrying that imitating such performances in adolescence could shape their adult sexuality in problematic ways (Lamb and Peterson 2011). They are unable to come to agreement despite a profound desire to do so. I think that the remaining gap is an effect of the question they have stopped just short of articulating: How do we judge whether a girl is “really” sexually empowered simply because she says she is sexually empowered? I suggest that this impasse can be resolved for feminist researchers by clarifying our task and how we approach that work. Rather than rendering judgments or assessments of who is or is not “authentically” sexually empowered (Lamb and Peterson 2011), I suggest asking a different question posed for a different purpose, with transparent anchors in feminist theory and praxis, taking into account what girls are up against as they develop into women today, as I articulate below.

Feminist (qualitative) research creates occasions to interrogate both the words that girls and young women speak and what is under them (Fine 2006; Hesse-Biber and Leavy 2007; Kleinman 2007). A feminist approach to asking and listening is embedded in positioning girls as narrators of their experience (Brown 1991, 1999). As they talk about their experiences, it behooves us to make explicit the processes of interpretation we use to generate an understanding of how they are managing, rather than a judgment about the correspondence of what they say and what they narrate (Brown 1991). Placing narrations within a larger context is feminist analysis not feminist betrayal (Fine 2006), nor is it evidence of false consciousness. Rather, such feminist analysis can provide evidence of a thorough public education and media campaign to deny gender inequity, undermine women’s rights, and to ignore violence and women’s embodied pleasure (Fine et al. 2000; McRobbie 2009). If girls and women are making sense of their experiences in seriously limited situations, then we cannot assume their words are true narrations or false ones. Rather, what they say constitutes ways of making sense and telling a coherent story in an already over-determined discursive theatre (Billig 1997; Plummer 1995). Feminist methods are needed and designed to peek under skirts and under the sheets of girls’ and women’s lived experiences (McClelland and Fine 2008b; Ribbens and Edwards 1998).

While Lamb and Peterson come to consensus on the challenge that “pressure to please a partner” makes for evaluating girls’ claims to sexual empowerment (this issue), I suggest that they have excavated only a single thread in a much larger and systemic and ongoing blanket of a problem: the persistence of institutionalized heterosexuality or heteronormativity that continues to reproduce gender inequities in heterosexual romantic and sexual relationships (Jackson 2006). I make this claim based on ongoing feminist research on adolescent women’s sexuality (i.e., Bay-Cheng et al. 2009; Payne 2010; Stokes 2007), as well as analyses of cultural depictions of and responses to women who are represented as sexually empowered in the media and in the social lives of teenagers (i.e., Sue Jackson 2005; Stevi Jackson 2011; McRobbie 2009; Tolman in press; Zurbriggen and Morgan 2006).

Even as girls narrate resistance to these gender arrangements, they continue to have to negotiate them. For instance, Sue Jackson and Cram (2003), analyzing girls’ talk in focus groups about the sexual double standard, found that 16–18-year-old participants were aware of the ongoing double standard, reporting that girls who had “promiscuous” sex were labeled sluts and also resisted the double standard in being less tolerant of boys’ promiscuous sexual behavior, calling them “sleaze ball” (p. 118). While one girl suggested that girls, too, could be “studly” (p. 117), these girls ultimately remained worried that they and/or their friends would be tagged with the scarlet letter and regulatory power of “slut.” Even as girls and women narrate flirting with bad girl status, the system of good and bad girls remains intact and consequences still ensue. In an analysis of sexual scripts on African–American girls’ home pages, Carla Stokes (2007) found adolescent women simultaneously defying and complying with the particular rendition of the sexual double standard and unequal gender arrangements that they negotiate, shaped by history and race (Collins 1990, 2005). She found portraits of “Freaks” who resisted good girl scripts but performed hypersexual Jezebel scripts and “Virgins,” who resisted those scripts but described themselves as “sweet” and “nice,” reflecting proper norms of denying sexual feelings. She also identified girls who represented themselves as “Down-Ass Chicks/Bitches,” who resisted hegemonic discourses of female sexuality by taking on dominant masculine attitudes but “fail[ed] to express sexual subjectivity, given their focus on their partners’ needs and subordination of their own identities” (p. 180).

In a new study of teen girls performing fellatio, my team and I asked 98 heterosexual girls who were aged 15–17 and White, Asian, Latina and African–American, to tell a variety of narratives about their experiences with oral sex. In analyzing these narratives, April Burns et al. (2011) heard a discourse of achievement organizing girls’ desire to work hard and perform well in oral sex as in school. They described giving boys oral sex as “just like doing homework” and “taking tests” (p. 243). They narrated ongoing gender inequities, which positioned boys as “teachers” and girls as “students” (p. 246) learning how to provide pleasure to boys successfully. This “intimate injustice” (McClelland 2010, p. 663) is audible in how one girl described her experience: “[w]ell were in his room and when were like fooling around on his bed and then he said hed teach me how to do that. […] and then hes like see, you just do this its really easy! (laughs) I was like, okay. Then I like, tried to do it and then I did it. Yeah” (p. 246). Some of these adolescent women described pride in a job well done, as one girl explains, “Well he didnt complain so I kind of felt relieved…I was kind of proud of myself I guess…I dont know how thats something to be proud of but I was proud, a low bar, yeah I was proud and I was like, Yes! I did it right this time (p. 248), but neither their desire nor their satisfaction was described as having an embodied component. Virtually no girls in this sample had a story to tell about a time when giving oral sex was associated with unfettered pleasure for them.

To make sense of girls’ narratives of sexuality, whether sexual empowerment is part of the story or not, and even as some girls play with or try to reclaim it, feminist interpretations do need to take into account the intactness and stickiness of the “slut” moniker (Attwood 2007; Payne 2010; Valenti 2008). In listening to and listening under what girls say and how girls say it, in coming very clean about doing and owning interpretation, feminist researchers will enable us to understand better how to make sense of a discourse of sexual empowerment playing out in adolescent women’s stories of their lived experiences. Such interpretations may not resonate with girls themselves (see Tolman 2000). If we take seriously that there is no single objective version of reality (Berger and Luckmann 1967), feminist filters may turn up the volume on an important subtext that is not within the awareness of the girls who are telling the story. Without access to the analytic tools, impulse, psychic armor or consciousness to excavate, recognize or name gender inequity as part of their experience (Budgeon 2001), outing and outlining the kind of invisible intimate injustice that McClelland (2010) articulates may be difficult at best. As feminist researchers, we are speaking with girls, young women, their parents and caring adults, as well as to the academic community, to report research findings, not to give girls a diagnosis, nor to treat, judge, assess or categorize their individual experiences.

The next question on the table for me is if and how embodied sexual desire might develop under conditions of pervasive sexualization and self-sexualization, in pictures and in practice. That is, in what ways does a hegemonic discourse of sexual empowerment that rests on an uninterrupted reproduction of gender inequities in heterosexual relationships inform adolescent girls’ sexuality? How does it shape her connection with her own body, her thoughts and feelings, motives and desires, as her sexuality develops? In part, it is posing as much as answering these questions that might yield insight into how different girls are negotiating the conflation of sexualization and sexual empowerment.

Moving Forward

The body of work on desire that Lamb critiqued in the first article in this conversation (Lamb 2010a) was most decidedly grounded in the lived experiences of girls, in research that invited girls to tell their often taboo stories and to which feminist scholars, as noted throughout this commentary, listened. Perhaps the reason this debate has not been as full bodied as it can, and hopefully will, be is that it does not yet include the voices of diverse young women and girls living in this specific cultural moment with its particular array of technologies (meant both materially and in the Foucauldian sense (Foucault 1980)) and realities that contextualize sexuality. The LGBT movement is alive among youth (Russell 2002), yet the possible connections between the constraints heteronormativity puts on sexual-minority youth’s developing sexuality and those that institutionalized heterosexuality puts on heterosexual youth—intimately entwined in the same system—are not much being made either in academia or activism.

Sex education and media literacy are each moving targets today, transmogrifying into new forms and formats as policies and technologies, disabling some strategies for intervention and support for adolescent girls and enabling other ones (Friedman 2011; Orenstein 2010). The conversation about sexuality education these days is more often how to shift dependence on schools, now so over burdened with testing, to how to relocate it outside of schools where teens are unshackled by discursive restraints placed on adults (Kirby 2010). This shift is exemplified by Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s “Teen Talk” on their Facebook page ( Media literacy is already being reimagined as media activism (Brown in press; Tolman et al. in press), as in SPARK (Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge, SPARK is an intergenerational, girl-fueled movement co-founded by a collaborative of community-based organizations and activist academics, myself included, that engages girls in becoming activists themselves to challenge sexualization rather than being protected from the problem. Participatory conferences and research that enable public critique and innovative responses to punitive control when young women evidence sexuality are on the rise. For instance, in December, 2011, a public mini conference entitled “Growing Up Policed: Racialized Sexualities” was held at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York ( It was inspired by and included the participation of one young woman in an African–American lesbian couple whose just-turned-18-year-old girlfriend was convicted on felony charges in Oregon for sending a flirtatious, suggestive text message (“sexting”) to her. Young people who participated as researchers in a study on the criminalization of queer youths’ sexuality presented their findings. The conference was a “split-venue” event, held and streamed on both coasts.

The saturation of society with sexualization, the commodification of sexual agency, and confusing, contested, and contradictory messages about sexual empowerment call for new ways of working with young women and also young men (i.e., Martino 2006; Tolman 2006; Way 2011). Insuring that we recognize and generate collective responses to ongoing gender inequities may ameliorate some of the daunting dilemmas, intimate injustices and potent possibilities for adolescent girls’ healthy sexuality as they develop into young adulthood and beyond.


I want to thank Michelle Fine, Sarah McClelland and Lyn Mikel Brown for their comments on this manuscript, and Amy Baker for assistance with manuscript preparation.

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012