Dirty Little Secrets: Breaking the Silence on Teenage Girls and Promiscuity
2011, Sourcebooks, Inc.
review by Tessa
Girls who have sex, and the people who study them.
Teenage promiscuity is a Heated Topic. Kerry Cohen is the author of a memoir about her struggle with being what she calls a “loose girl” and this is her exploration of the wider experience of women and teenage girls with having sex–specifically why some girls have a lot of it, and why they feel bad about it and get stuck in harmful patterns of it.
The tagline on the front of this book reads: “It’s not about when girls are having sex. It’s about why”. In general, Cohen sticks to the guns of this thesis, but she’s often co-opted by culture and her own past angst.
Lots of different groups of people freak out about teenagers having sex. When they’re having it. How often. What kind. I’m having trouble writing about it now, because I’m worried about people freaking out about me writing about teenagers having sex. So I have to applaud Kerry Cohen for writing as straightforwardly as she possibly can about teenage girls and sex, and for acknowledging that the sex is happening and will happen and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In the introduction she explains that
“this is not a book telling teenage girls not to have sex. On the flip side, it’s also not a book that encourages promiscuity. It’s a book about how we can all work together to find a way to let teenage girls top harming themselves with their sexual behavior. It’s a book–at its core–about girls’ rights and sexual freedom.”
For a nonfiction book aimed at (at least partially) the parental segment of the population, this is one of the shorter ones I’ve seen. It’s about 190 pages. And yet, I think it could have lost about 30 of those and been even more effective at delivering its worldview. Much of the introduction covers things that anyone who has thought about the subject of sexual identity and feminism has probably heard before. For example, the first chapter ends with these musings: “a girl’s sexual maturity must be a paradox. Look, but don’t look. Touch, but don’t touch. In this way being a girl is invariably tied up with need and negation, and with how a girl must negotiate these opposing forces. For boys, it is entirely different.” True. And…? But then again, I’m assuming things about the intended audience for this book. It’s not written towards teenagers, it’s not totally written towards parents, and it’s not really a guide for people working with teens. It doesn’t prescribe antidotes to the problems it talks about, but it does provide an appendix of worksheets. So if it is a book about how “we” can help teenage girls find sexual freedom, why isn’t it written for teenage girls in the first place? And how am I supposed to go around using my new knowledge to help teenage girls?
Cohen wants a world where girls can have sex, or not have sex, and it isn’t a big deal, and no one is called a slut or a prude, and no one feels compelled to develop a process addiction wherein they have sex just for male attention. She knows there’s no easy way to get there save through hard work involving the women who are already in this cycle. As for a way to talk to girls who are just starting their sexual lives, so they can understand the subtleties of feeling free to have sex, but not as a substitute for total emotional fulfillment. Cohen is honest enough not to have One Answer, but that leaves a book that ends up feeling like a mishmash of anecdote and hopeful thinking. There’s a core of helpful and intelligent thinking in there, but it can get lost.
The thing about Cohen is that she has her whole history to contend with. She obviously feels one way about the sex she’s had, and the way it has shaped and damaged her. I don’t think she feels negatively about having sex, but the terminology of the book uses “promiscuity” as a bad word, describing girls who can’t separate the urge for sexual attention from their own sexual desires. At times I forgot I was reading a book that was striving to create a neutral world of teenage sex.
Cohen uses a frank tone without dipping into overly jokey encyclopedic teenage health issues territory. There are things in here that need to be talked about. And I challenge any woman who reads this not to see a little of herself in some of the stories. It’s a great conversation starter, even just for a conversation between you, yourself, and… you.
Dirty Little Secrets takes a good-sized chip out of the anxious, frozen wall around teenage-girl sex talk, but it’s searching for a way to build a utopian society of sexual self-awareness while examining the entirety of current sexual culture, which leads to some murky ambiguity. Even so, I’d like to see more books like this, and I’d like them to start discussions among their target audiences, so that the issues to tackle become smaller and smaller for future authors.
Rookie Mag has the most honest writing from teenagers and young adults I’ve seen in a long time. I guess it was hiding out in blogs and zines, and now a lot of it is in one place, thank you Tavi Gevinson and Jane Pratt. In fact, they just published an article by a girl named Lexi, called “The Perfect Girl”, about some of the very things that Cohen talks about:
“What my point is: society sucks. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of situation. I’m not allowed to be fat, but I’m not allowed to go on a diet either (or keep a food diary, for that matter). I’m not allowed to be dumb, but I’m not allowed to be smarter than a boy. I’m not allowed to do drugs or drink, but I’m considered boring if I don’t. I’m supposed to be an empowered woman, but if I ask for respect dudes will just call me an annoying bitch. Heck, if I wait to have sex I’m labeled a prude, but if I lost my virginity today there would be a lot of people thinking that slut.”
A cheerfully honest book to help girls through craziness of puberty
I got this book from: the library, after reading a review of it in Library Journal.