Discuss sexual Subjectivity based on Gender and Society

Discuss sexual Subjectivity based on Gender and Society


Discuss sexual Subjectivity based on Gender and Society



The Significance of Relationships in Dutch and American Girls’ Experiences of Sexuality

AMY SCHALET University of Massachusetts–Amherst

In-depth interviews with white middle-class Dutch and American girls demonstrate two important differences in the cultural beliefs and processes that shape their negotiation of heterosexuality. First, Dutch girls are able to integrate their sexual selves into their rela- tionships with their parents, while reconciling sexuality with daughterhood is difficult for the American girls. Second, American girls face adult and peer cultures skeptical about whether teenagers can sustain the feelings and relationships that legitimate sexual activity, while Dutch girls are assumed to be able to fall in love and form steady sexual relation- ships. This research suggests important differences in institutionalized forms of hetero- sexuality. It also suggests the significance of girls’ relationships, and the cultural perceptions and processes that shape those relationships, for their sexual subjectivity.

Keywords: adolescence/children; comparative/historical; culture; family; sexuality; theory

Feminist scholarship on adolescent sexual subjectivity has demonstrated a troubling lack of such subjectivity in girls, as evidenced by, among

other things, their lack of pleasure and agency in sexual decision making and heterosexual relationships. Much of this scholarship has reached empiri- cal and theoretical conclusion based on data collected primarily in North America. However, the sexual subjectivities of girls vary a great deal across the advanced industrial world. And although the existing scholarship on girls’ sexual subjectivities has suggested the significance of their intimate relationships, most research has examined girls’ individual capacities rather

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I want to thank Catherine Jones, Sarah Miller, Joya Misra, the Gen- der & Society editors, and the anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier ver- sions of this article. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation, Sigma Xi, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.

GENDER & SOCIETY, Vol. 24 No. 3, June 2010 304-329 DOI: 10.1177/0891243210368400 © 2010 by The Author(s)





than the relationship contexts in which those capacities are developed or inhibited.

The lack of attention to international differences in the literature on sexual subjectivity is surprising given that several bodies of research have indicated important differences between countries in the way gender, sexuality, and intimacy are constituted. Public health research has long shown strong dif- ferences among developed nations in contraception and abortion access, education, and usage among adolescents. And scholars of gender and the welfare state have shown how gender regimes organize work, family, and the provision of care differently.

The United States and the Netherlands are informative cases to compare. Occupying opposite sides of the spectrum among advanced industrial nations in terms of reproductive health resources and outcomes of adolescents, the two countries also have very different welfare states. Existing research indicates, moreover, that Dutch girls experience more agency and pleasure, and fewer misgivings, with regard to their sexual experiences than do their American counterparts (Abma et al. 2004; Albert 2007; de Graaf et al. 2005; Thompson 1995; Martin 1996). This article explores sources for these dif- ferences by investigating the negotiation of heterosexuality in relationships with parents and peers among white middle-class girls.


Starting in the 1970s, Anglo-American feminist scholars began drawing attention to the issues of female sexual agency and subjectivity. These two terms refer to the capacity to be aware of one’s sexual feelings, to enjoy sexual desire and pleasure, to conceive of oneself as the subject of one’s sexual acts, and to experience a certain amount of control in sexual relation- ships.1 Early work on female sexual agency and subjectivity examined the experiences of adult heterosexual women. Kristin Luker (1975) observed that, economic, technological, and cultural changes notwithstanding, many adult women still saw sex as something that “just happened to them” and used “contraceptive failure” to bolster their agency vis-à-vis their partners. Jessica Benjamin (1988) called attention to the denial of women’s subjec- tivity, leading them to project their desire and will onto men rather than experience desire as their own.

Much of the work on girls’ sexual subjectivity since has focused on desire. Building on Benjamin, Karin Martin (1996) argued that desire is intimately linked to the development of nonsexual agency: awareness of their bodies and desires helps girls to develop a sense of mastery and ability



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to act on the world more generally, while girls with greater confidence in their individual talents and accomplishments are also better able to recognize their desires as independent from the interests and needs of boys. And building on Audre Lorde’s (1984) conception of the erotic as a source of creative power and personal empowerment, Deborah Tolman (2002) has made the case that feeling desire is a fundamental part of being oneself and connecting to other people. Knowing about their sexual desires, she argues, gives girls more facility in recognizing sexual violation; without such inner awareness, they lack an important tool to fend off external dangers.

Yet it is precisely the recognition of girls’ own desires and pleasures that scholars have found so sorely missing in the accounts offered by profes- sionals and teenage girls alike. In her pioneering study of teenage girls’ experiences of sex and romance, conducted from the late 1970s to the mid- 1980s, Sharon Thompson found that only a quarter of the 400 girls she interviewed spoke of those experiences as physically pleasurable. The les- bian girls Thompson interviewed were more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to report sexual pleasure. Heterosexual girls often derived pleasure from reading and fantasizing about love, even though, in reality, their romances often ended in tales of woe and a sense of victimization (Thompson 1990, 1995). In an interview study conducted in the early 1990s, Karin Martin (1996) found even fewer “pleasure narrators” among girls than Thompson did. Noting what she termed the “missing discourse of desire” and the discourse of danger and victimization in official sex educa- tion curricula, Michelle Fine found acknowledgment of girls’ sexual desires only in the furtive communications of the low-income African American and Latina girls she interviewed (Fine 1988).

In a study designed to excavate the missing discourse of girls’ desire, Deborah Tolman invited girls to talk about desire (Tolman 2002). Most of her interviewees could recognize and describe, sometimes very vividly, their desires, although they experienced these desires as threatening and as posing a dilemma, not in the least because the double standard leaves them always vulnerable to being branded “a slut.” Tolman found some notable differences between the urban, low-income girls of color and the suburban, middle- and upper-income white girls she interviewed. The former were more afraid of physical violation and ruination and encountered stereotypes that oversexualized them. The latter enjoyed more physical safety but con- fronted a different problematic stereotype: the “good girl” who is not sup- posed to give evidence of any sexuality at all.

Scholars have pointed toward myriad forces that undermine girls’ connec- tion to their own desire: discourses—from high-brow psychology to low-brow




popular culture—deny and demonize girls’ desires. At home, at school, and in the media, girls are encouraged to objectify their bodies rather than develop what Martin (1996) calls “subjective body knowledge.” Peer culture subjects girls to the risk of social derogation, especially, though certainly not only, if they become sexual outside of steady romantic relationships (see also Meier 2007; Tolman 2002; Martin 1996). Even “love” is a culprit. Both Thompson and Martin argue that attachment to a romanticized conception of love dimin- ishes girls’ sexual subjectivity—especially for working-class girls who lack alternative sources of affirmation and excitement. “Love” obscures the dif- ferences between emotional and physical desire—girls often feel the former but not the latter—as well as the conflict of interest between girls’ own wishes and those of their boyfriends.

Recommendations to bolster girls’ sexual subjectivity generally fall into three categories. The first is to bolster girls’ nonsexual subjectivity and the economic and psychic resources they have available, for such strengths also facilitate girls’ awareness and control with regard to sexuality. The second is to teach girls to distinguish desire for sex from desire for love or, for hetero- sexual girls, from desire for a boyfriend, to recognize the nature of their own sexual desire and to make that desire a precondition for their sexual acts with a partner. A third recommendation is to teach girls to recognize gender oppres- sion in society and in heterosexual romantic relationships, for instance, by deconstructing oppressive beauty standards and the double standards that give teenage boys, but not girls, the latitude to experience heterosexual plea- sure and experiment with different kinds of sexual relationships.

Important as the observations, analyses, and recommendations offered by scholars working within what I have called an “empowerment paradigm of adolescent sexuality” are, they also contain some notable limitations and blind spots (Schalet 2009). First, scholars have tended to attribute girls’ missing sexual subjectivity to “heterosexuality as an institution,” or to gender oppression more generally, without sufficiently considering the nature and effects of political, social, and cultural variations. The assump- tion that girlhood—in the context of institutionalized gender inequality—is the ultimate determinant of girls’ experiences of sexuality and romance has allowed scholars to theorize about the nature of female sexual subjectivity based on research that is drawn from the United States and other English- speaking countries that share one particular set of political and cultural features and traditions.

Second, the analytic focus of much of the research to date has been on girls’ individual attributes—desire, pleasure, contraceptive use, and capacity for social critique—rather than on the attributes of the relationships in which sexual subjectivity is or is not developed. This lack of attention, empirically



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and analytically, to the different relationship contexts in which sexual sub- jectivity and agency are attained or hindered is particularly striking given that evidence of their significance can be culled from existing studies. That research suggests that mothers, and other adult women, can serve an impor- tant role in helping girls to feel entitled to pleasure, feel validated as agents of their own choices, and develop a critique of gender inequality. But the variations in parental responses—especially in the ability to recognize daughters’ sexual subjectivity—and the ramifications of different parental responses remain unexplored and undertheorized.

Likewise, we know little about whether, how, and under what conditions romantic relationships themselves help and hinder the development of sexual subjectivity. While much of the work on female sexual subjectivity has sought to validate girls’ sexual desire and pleasure—traditionally coded as male prerogatives—the same cannot be said for what has been coded as a “female” tendency: to long for, and enjoy, emotional intimacy. Scholars working within the empowerment paradigm have expressed a profound ambivalence about, if not outright rejection of, “love.” They have highlighted the ways relationships put girls at a disadvantage and limit their develop- ment of full-fledged sexual subjectivity. But in critically assessing adoles- cents’ experiences of love, these scholars have left largely unaddressed the question of how to nourish the intimate relationships that further sexual subjectivity, especially given evidence suggesting that good relationships can make sex more enjoyable for girls.2

This article foregrounds the different ways that white middle-class girls and their parents negotiate heterosexuality in the United States and the Netherlands. It also focuses on the different perceptions of teenage sexual relationships on the part of girls, parents, and peers—perceptions that, in turn, create different social environments in which girls view and experi- ence sexuality. It draws on interviews conducted with white middle-class girls in the United States and the Netherlands as part of a larger study of parents and teenagers in the two countries. Comparing cross-nationally using in-depth interviews limits the exploration of intranational variation. At the same time, it can illuminate specific cultural differences that enrich our understanding of the universe of possibilities and constraints girls face as they mature sexually and emotionally.


Public health researchers have long been aware of the enormous variation in the health outcomes of adolescent sexual activity across the advanced




industrial world (e.g., Darroch, Singh, and Frost 2001; Jones et al. 1986). At opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of government poverty prevention efforts, as well as in the provision of comprehensive sex education and contraception and abortion services, the United States and the Netherlands are also at two extremes in terms of the public health outcomes of teenage sexual activity. Girls initiate heterosexual intercourse on average around age 17 in both countries, but American girls are much less likely to use the birth control pill, twice as likely to have abortions, and eight times as likely to give birth (Abma et al. 2004; Garssen 2008; Graaf et al. 2005; Santelli and Schalet 2009; Ventura, Abma, and Mosher 2009).

Outside of public health and policy contexts, however, social scientists in general, and feminist scholars in particular, have been slow to recognize the entrée international comparisons provide into understanding the forces that shape our understanding and experiences of gender, family, intimacy, and sexuality, despite an extensive literature that documents differences in the ways states organize gender, family, and work policies (see, for instance, Haney 1998; Korteweg 2006; Lewis 1997; Orloff 1993). With its “liberal” features and strong breadwinner model, the American welfare state has for the past three decades encouraged female labor force participation. But with few supports from their government in the areas of housing and health care, full-time labor force participation is for most American women as much a matter of necessity as of choice.

The Dutch welfare state, by contrast, provides a host of benefits to fami- lies of all income levels, ranging from paid maternity leave to child benefits and subsidized in-house neonatal care (Goodin et al. 2000). At the same time, until fairly recently, policy makers and the general public viewed Dutch women primarily as mothers and homemakers. Starting in the mid- 1990s, Dutch women began participating in the labor force at the same rates as their American and European counterparts. However, they remain far more likely to do so part-time and to lack power in the public realm (Knijn 1994; Praag and Uitterhoeve 1999; Pruin 1998). In the late 1980s, Dutch sociologist Aafke Komter (1989) argued that women’s lack of economic power left them disenfranchised in marriage, and thus unlikely to initiate conflicts over matters such as housework, child care, and sexuality, despite desiring change in these areas, resulting in the (false) appearance of con- sensus. Monique Kremer (2007) has argued that a tension remains: While a policy ideal of parental sharing has enabled Dutch mothers to enter the labor force and has led Dutch fathers to shoulder more care responsibilities than in other countries, the latter have defied the ideal of equal caring by typically continuing to work full-time. While this unequal arrangement



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appears to be in accordance with the stated preference of mothers with young children, Kremer argues that it does not give women the opportunity to work as much as they may actually want or need.

Available survey data on teenage attitudes and behavior suggest that Dutch girls are more likely to report feeling sexual pleasure and exercising sexual agency than their American counterparts. While masturbation remains shrouded in taboo for many American girls, two-thirds of Dutch 17-year-old girls report having masturbated. Only 13 percent of Dutch girls agree that “after masturbating I often feel guilty.”3,4 A majority of American teenagers say they wish they had waited longer to have sex (Albert 2007), while in a national study of Dutch youth ages 12 to 24, the vast majority say their first sexual experiences—broadly defined—were wanted, well timed, and fun (de Graaf et al. 2005). The same study found that 27 percent of female respondents regularly or always have trouble reaching orgasm—and a major- ity feel pain at least sometimes during sex. Still, more than four out of five Dutch girls and young women say that they are (very) satisfied with the physical pleasure as well as the contact with their partner they experience during sex (Graaf et al. 2005).5

Existing international comparative research suggests important differences in institutionalized heterosexuality, which can also be observed in public policy: In their review of Dutch sex education curricula, Lewis and Knijn (2003) found that textbooks deal openly with issues of female pleasure and homosexuality and emphasize mutual respect between girls and boys, the development of relationships, and the acquisition of “interaction competency.” The political successes of the Dutch gay and lesbian movement, high public tolerance for homosexuality, and the uncontroversial passage of a law allow- ing same-sex marriage also indicate a comfort with sex outside of the context of heterosexual marriage. In the United States, by contrast, legal recognition of same-sex couples remains highly contested, and traditional concepts of sexuality and gender are reinforced by “abstinence-only-until-marriage” and other sex education programs that avoid teaching about sex and romantic relationships outside of heterosexual marriage (Badgett 2009; Fields 2008).

Outcomes of many different cultural, political, and economic forces, these different forms of heterosexuality are also institutionalized in cultural assumptions and practices. I examine this cultural dimension among the white middle-class. Previously, I have argued that American white middle- class parents “dramatize” adolescent sexuality, conceiving of it as involving perilous struggles between a young person and his or her difficult-to-control hormonal and emotional urges, between the sexes, and between parents and children; while Dutch white middle-class parents view teenage sexuality




as a phenomenon that can and should be “normalized”: that is, be subject to self-determination and to self-regulation and embedded in relationships that are negotiated with parents as well as integrated into the household (Schalet 2000, 2004). This article foregrounds teenage girls and examines how the dramatization and normalization of adolescent sexuality shapes their views and experiences of sexuality.


The data for this article come from semistructured, in-depth interviews I conducted between 1994 and 2000, with 20 American and 20 Dutch girls— a subset of a large study of white, secular or moderately Christian, middle- class teenagers and parents in the United States and the Netherlands. In both countries, girls lived in more cosmopolitan and relatively liberal com- munities, as well as less cosmopolitan, more conservative communities; and they came from both upper- and lower-middle-class families. The bulk of girls were in 10th grade in both countries, and about a third of them had experienced heterosexual intercourse, which is in keeping with national averages for girls of their ages, class, and race. Most interviews lasted an hour to an hour and a half and covered a variety of topics, including school, work, alcohol consumption, and family. Questions on sex used gender- neutral language, but all of the girls spoke in heterosexual terms.

After each interview, I took notes recording girls’ notable verbal and nonverbal communications. All interviews were transcribed. Using qualita- tive software programs, I grouped interview segments by topic and codes and systematically compared them within and across national samples. In my analyses, I moved back and forth between “quantitative skeletons” derived from interview questions that could be tallied and the qualitative analysis of the often-subtle cultural conceptions, taken-for-granted assumptions, con- tradictions, and processes. In the data sections that follow, I use vignettes that illuminate most clearly several themes that emerged from this analysis of the 40 cases. The vignettes are followed by discussions that show how these themes play out in the lives of different girls, how tensions are negoti- ated, and how themes can be interrelated and mutually reinforcing.


“If there is a heaven, I’m sure it was just like my childhood,” says 16-year-old Kimberley.6 As the youngest of four, and the only daughter,



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in a close upper-middle-class American family, Kimberley counts her blessings.

I think a lot about what a wonderful job my family, and the society that I was exposed to, did of keeping me a kid, and unaware of all the horrible things that happen [in the world]. [I experienced] total happiness as a kid.

“Sex is the main thing,” says Kimberley when asked about what kind of things she and her parents disagree. She is not allowed to be in a house alone with her boyfriend. Generally, Kimberley respects her parents’ rules, but, she says, “I don’t follow that one.” “I mean you can make [rules for sex], but you can’t always expect them to be followed, if you want to have like an independent kid.”

When Kimberley and her boyfriend had been together for four months, they decided together that they wanted to start having sex. “We both, just really find each other to be, like interesting people, and, just as we progress in our relationship, it’s like, you want to touch this interesting person, and you want to see what they’re like.” She believes that

you have to keep yourself safe and protected and do everything you can to not come across any problems. In my opinion, if you love someone, it’s okay to have sex. That’s my morals. I’ve always thought that since I was little and it’s come time, I guess.

When that time came, Kimberly took herself to the clinic to get on the birth control pill. Her parents never brought up contraceptives. In her school, teachers were forthcoming with information about sex and contraception “from the time I was like in fourth grade, and we started to get curious. . . . They gave us [sex education], and I thought that was great because you’re not like running around to try and find out that information.”

Sex happens at her boyfriend’s house, when his parents are not home. His parents “wouldn’t want it,” she says. “But I’m sure they know. Maybe his dad doesn’t condone it, but he doesn’t say anything against it either, and I think his mom’s the same way, just kind of, lets us do our own thing and trusts us.” Kimberley cannot imagine her own parents ever giving her such tacit permission. When her mother found a letter suggesting before the fact that her daughter had lost her virginity, Kimberley says,

We had a big fight and she said I was not allowed to see him anymore. I told them I didn’t do it and [the letter] was a joke. They finally believed me. But they said, “It’s our business just as much as it’s yours until you’re an adult.”




It bothers Kimberley that she has to hide part of her life from her parents. “I’m not completely open,” she says. “I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work.” Instead, the two parties live with a tacit “don’t ask, don’t tell:”

They’ve learned a little bit to accept it more and I’ve learned a little bit how to hide what I’m doing better. Before I wanted to share everything with my parents, but I realized that doesn’t really work. For them, it’s just easier not to know. So, now I just do my own thing and. . . . [Just] let them see what makes them happy.

Kimberly is careful not to rock the boat and “shatter” her mother’s image of her “as a little princess: ‘Do everything right. Just get the As.’ But if it makes her happy, I’m willing to do whatever I can to uphold it.” Hence, she does not want her parents interviewed: “I don’t want to start them thinking about sex,” she says. “They’re doing a very good job of being oblivious. . . . I’m not a liar. If they ask me, I can’t lie.” While she finds the pressure to hide difficult, she also thinks that things could be a lot worse: “I have a good relationship with both my parents, in every way except for the fact that I have to hide a few things because I’m the baby, and the baby has to be a certain way.”


Unlike Kimberley, 16-year-old Natalie from the Netherlands does not have to bifurcate her love life and her family life. Natalie is delighted about her courtship (verkering) with Rob, having “chased” after him for years to no avail: It “is really very wonderful. I am just really happy about it.” When they started their courtship, Natalie told Rob she did not want to have sex yet. It is not, she says, “that I did not want to do it, but I waited, because I thought, ‘If I do it now and things don’t work out, that is a shame.’ You know, you can only give it away once and that’s very special.” Timing matters, explains Natalie, in determining whether sex is a good thing: “Not that you go to bed after a week. I think a few months. For us, it was exactly three months. That’s still a little short.” For Natalie, being certain that love is real and mutual is important:

I think you need to be VERY sure about him, that you know for sure that you love him; that he accepts you as you are; that you have a great time together. I mean. At this point I can’t imagine that I would wait a year. . . .



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But at first, I still said I didn’t want it; that I wanted to take the time to get to know him. I was just really happy with him so. . . . It hurt, but I don’t regret it in any case. It was pretty fun.

One reason her first intercourse was “pretty fun” is that it did not leave Natalie fearing pregnancy. Several months before Natalie had her courtship with Rob, she was reading about the pill as a method for regulating men- struation in a magazine for teenage girls: “I had already been thinking about [the pill]. So I showed the article to my mother and I said, ‘I want that too.’ She said: ‘Sure, that is alright. Go to the doctor, tomorrow. Let’s go together.’” Between the magazine article she read and her mother’s reaction, the deci- sion to go on the pill became an entirely unproblematic, almost taken-for- granted process for Natalie: “It was really very easy. [My mother] had no issues with [me being on the pill] or anything. . . . She also takes it—so I could always ask her questions.”

Still, when the moment of her first intercourse came, Natalie “just did not want to tell [her parents]. I don’t know why. But at a certain moment, you can’t keep it to yourself, you’re just really happy. . . . Well, I did not exactly tell them. They discovered it. . . .” A week after Natalie and Rob had their first intercourse at his house—where Natalie was allowed to spend the night—Natalie’s father found Rob in her room at home: “Okay, five minutes, Rob, and then you have to be out!!” Natalie was furious. In the conversation that followed, Natalie told her parents where things stood. Luckily, they “weren’t shocked.” In fact, her father said, “Sixteen is a beautiful age.” And her mother “thought it was really great. She did not mind because she knows how serious we are.”

Natalie feels confident that her parents will soon let Rob spend the night with her at home “because they trust me. . . . That is just really important.” Natalie relishes the prospect she imagines is imminent: “It’s wonderful isn’t it, lying next to him at night?” She is unaware that her father will, as I learned a year later when interviewing Natalie’s mother, put up a bit of a fight first. “Absolutely not” was, according to Jolien, her husband’s first response, when Natalie asked whether Rob could spend the night. Jolien explains Mark’s response: “He was confronted with a fact that he was not really thinking about yet or ready for. He saw Rob as an intruder . . . because Rob was a boy who had a relationship with his daughter.” But after a few months her husband acquiesced. When I interview Jolien, Rob had been spending the night for nine months and, she said, “Mark doesn’t have any problems with it anymore.”





As Kimberly and Natalie illustrate, white middle-class girls in the United States and the Netherlands confront different home environments when it comes to sexuality and relationships. In many American families, girls’ sexuality is denied or viewed as potentially problematic. Kimberley’s expe- rience of not receiving any education from her parents about birth control is shared by half of the American girls in this study. Alexandra also belongs to this part of the sample. Her mother never brought up contraceptives, but unlike Kimberley, Alexandra did not receive much information about con- traception in school. She says that sex is a topic

that people just kind of close off on. . . . More teenagers are doing it . . . and nobody is talking about it so I can see why they are running into problems with teens getting pregnant and stuff.

The other half of American girls say that their mothers have raised the topic of contraception. Such conversations do not mean that girls feel that their parents would accept their becoming sexually involved. Katy says,

If I actually told [my mother] that I was ready . . . she would probably freak out and she would try her hardest to talk me out of it and keep me in the house and away from my boyfriend, [so] there is no way that I could actu- ally even attempt to try it.

But Joan’s mother gave Joan the impression she understood that “when you love someone, you want to do stuff with them that is not just holding hands or going to the movies.” Recounting her own experiences with boyfriends, Joan’s mother told Joan to come talk to her if she decided she really loved somebody: “So I won’t be sneaking around unprotected.” Her mother’s words came as a surprise. Joan expected her to say, “I don’t really want you to have sex until you’re married.”

But it is the question of the sleepover that demonstrates most viscerally the antagonism that most American teenage girls and their parents experi- ence between a girl’s role as a good and respectful daughter and her sexual coming of age. The recoiling when asked about a potential sleepover is most striking in relatively liberal families such as Caroline’s. “No,” she responds when asked. “My parents would kill me. No my parents would not go for that at all. [It’s] more out of respect, respect for their rules and they don’t want that.” Her mother knows she has sex, loves Caroline’s



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boyfriend, and supports her contraceptive use. But Caroline must keep the door open when her boyfriend is in her bedroom:

They don’t want to know that I’m doing it. It’s kind of like, “Oh my God, my little girl is having sex” kind of thing. . . . It’s really overwhelming for them to know that their little girl is in their house having sex with a guy. That is just scary to them.

Indeed, it is among the more socially liberal American households that one bumps up against the limits of what is possible: Unlike Kimberley’s parents, the more liberal American parents may come to accept their daugh- ter’s sexual experiences. But even when their parents know and accept that they are sexually involved, girls often feel that their sexual activity compro- mises a parental ideal. Seventeen-year-old Michelle is unique in this sample in that her boyfriend may spend the night in her room. Michelle knows that not being “like this perfect little girl,” for instance, by having become sexu- ally active, is a source of disappointment to her mother. And like her older sister’s boyfriend, Michelle’s boyfriend must sleep on the floor next to her bed. Explaining the sleeping arrangement, Michelle makes clear that hers is the exception that confirms the rule: “It’s just out of respect for my parents. We don’t have our boyfriends sleep in our bed.” Were they to share the bed, Michelle explains, “All [my parents] think we’d probably do is have sex.”

The negotiation of girls’ sexuality is not without tension in Dutch families. As Natalie’s experience with her father illustrates, the Dutch parents may also express reservations when they are confronted with their daughters’ (imminent) sexual activity. But while their parents may have reservations about a daughter’s sexual debut, three-quarters of the Dutch girls say they and their parents have talked about contraception. Like Natalie, Elizabeth was happy that her mother was “really open . . . explained everything.” That gave her “a safe feeling.” But some girls are uncomfortable. Fleur’s first reaction when her parents gave her a sex education book when she was eight years old was, “Get out of here with those books.” They “meant well,” she says, “but I did not like it at all!” At 15, Fleur is irked by her mother’s words: “You shouldn’t do anything you don’t want to. And if you do it, you need to do it safely.” Looking ahead, she foresees “no desire” to tell her parents when she has sex.

What is notable is how girls and their parents navigate such reservations and discomforts. About three-quarters of the Dutch girls think it is likely or possible that before they turn 18 a sleepover with a steady boyfriend will be permissible. Petra belongs to the other quarter. Her parents do not want




her going too far with a serious boyfriend, although her father added, “You’re allowed to touch,” which Petra thought was sweet. Her parents did encour- age her to go on the pill. Petra is sure that once she is 18 and has a boyfriend for two years her parents will come around and permit a sleepover. And it is not just parents who come around. Fleur foresees that once she is in a relationship that lasts a few months, her parents “will get the idea that it could happen” and start talking about condoms and “whatever.” And although at 15, Fleur just wanted to keep her parents out of her business, a year and a half later, she is passionately trying to convince her reluctant parents to permit her boyfriend to sleep over in her room.

Through such negotiations, the Dutch girls are able to integrate their sexual maturation into their relationship with their parents. This communication has two sides. Julia wants her parents to stop urging her not to have sex too easily with someone. “They should know,” she says, “that I am not someone [who jumps into bed right away or does it unsafely].” Still, Julia foresees that when the moment comes, she will tell her parents about it: “I myself will want to tell them,” she says. “Not because they have to know, but I myself, I will want to say it.” A friend of Julia’s did not want to tell her parents, but “they knew.” It came up in conversation and was not a problem. “Fun for you” was their reaction. Julia understands: “I also think it would be fun—if I were a parent. [I would also think it was fun for you], that you are experiencing all of that when you’re in adolescence. After all, it is all very exciting.”

In other words, while they may face some similar tensions, the Dutch parents and girls resolve those tensions differently than their American peers. Parents may have reservations and girls may be reluctant to share, but most Dutch girls expect to receive parental recognition of their sexuality. Indeed, the sleepover is itself a vehicle to instigate discussions of relationships, being ready, and contraception. Such parental engagement in girls’ sexual and romantic development is a double-edged sword. Girls can draw on their parents for support, as they form their romantic relationships and explore sexuality. But such support often includes an element of social control with girls receiving spoken and unspoken admonitions to limit sex to long-term relationships.

In sum, Kimberley, who is coming of age in a relatively conservative American family, and Natalie, who is coming of age in a more liberal Dutch family, suggest a dramatic national difference in whether middle-class parents can recognize their daughters as sexual subjects. These differences are not idiosyncratic: Reflecting national trends, Dutch interviewees are more likely than their American peers to report that their parents have talked



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with them about contraception (Abma et al. 2004; Graaf et al. 2005). They are also more likely to say that they are, or can imagine being, allowed to spend the night with a steady boyfriend. Additional examples show how even in the more conservative Dutch families, girls’ sexuality is negotiated so that it can be integrated into their roles as family members; while even in the more liberal American families, girls are required to bifurcate their sexual maturation and their roles as good daughters.


Cultural ambiguity about the conditions under which sex is acceptable for girls and skepticism about whether teenage girls can attain those condi- tions make it more difficult for the American girls to navigate their first sexual experiences. Consequently, the threat of social derogation looms much larger for American girls than it does for their Dutch counterparts.

Sixteen-year-old Stephanie is a quintessential “all-American good girl.” As she explains, “I get the good grades. I’m obedient; I follow the rules most of the time.” But she is also a cheerleader and people often get the wrong idea: They think “[cheerleaders] are slutty and that they sleep around—probably because they wear such short skirts. . . .” Getting a bad name has serious and long-lasting repercussions, as one of Stephanie’s friends discovered a few years ago:

She was drinking and, if you drink, then you are automatically easy, so she got a really bad reputation and guys started spreading rumors that, you know, she was a sure thing. . . . One little thing can wreck your whole repu- tation for all of high school.

Boys don’t have to worry about these kinds of mistakes, Stephanie explains, “because . . . [if you are a boy] you are cool if you drink, you are cool if you have sex.” Stephanie believes “girls and guys are a lot different.” She does not blame boys for the fact that “they always want something physical, it’s just the way they are, their hormones or the way that they think. Also, it is peer pressure because I know that if guys do it, then they are considered cool.” The whole thing is extremely unfair, according to Stephanie: “Because if guys do it they are looked up to and if girls do it they are looked down upon.”

When Stephanie and her boyfriend, John, had been going out for 10 months she started researching birth control options on the Internet. But her mother’s response when she told her was, Stephanie recalls, “You may think that you




are physically ready because your hormones are, but you are emotionally not going to be ready.” Shortly thereafter, Stephanie and John had their first sexual intercourse, unprotected. Stephanie cannot explain why: “[My boyfriend] never pressured me ever to do any of that.” Still she felt pressure, “like I was obligated to because we were going out for so long.”

While Stephanie has a blurry recall of what came before, the aftermath of her first sexual intercourse is ingrained in her memory:

I was just, like, scared to death. I was a nervous wreck and I told my mom about it because I tell her everything and I just wanted her to know that she was right. I was definitely not emotionally ready. My boyfriend and I were both a wreck.

But only Stephanie was shamed at the pharmacy the next day:

I had to go and get the morning-after-pill, which was scary because they just looked at you like, “You stupid teenagers.” . . . I had to get counseling to get it, and I was crying the whole way through because they just looked down on you. . . .

Her mother responded as a friend who helped Stephanie “get over it” and as a disciplinarian who “shortened [her] chain.” Now there are limits to how long Stephanie can spend alone with a boy. Stephanie does not mind. She does not want to be put in a position again to do something before she is ready. She and John broke up shortly after their fateful intercourse, but not before hashing over the big mistake at great length:

[We talked] about how we shouldn’t have done it and how it was a big mis- take and we were pushing ourselves too hard. After talking about it, you know [that helped] like being able to get over feeling really ashamed of myself because I didn’t think that I would ever do that because I wanted to wait until I was like eighteen or married. . . .


Unlike the white middle-class American girls I interviewed, for the white middle-class Dutch girls, the conditions that legitimate heterosexual inter- course are clear—being in steady relationship and being ready, as evidenced, among others, by preparing and using contraception. As we will see, Pauline knows that her first time did not fully meet those conditions. But she is also confident that at 16, she can meet the cultural standard, and she looks



320 GENDER & SOCIETY / June 2010

forward to experiences with sexual intercourse that are more positive than her first one was.

Pauline does not doubt that teenagers can be in love. She herself has plenty of experience being in love, which she describes as “thinking a lot about that person, feeling comfortable with him, being able to talk well with him. . . . You just feel good with that person. You want to be near him.” For people her age, Pauline believes, being in love “has a lot to do with your hormones, “with your sexuality.” She explains: “It’s the” feeling that you can have of being really sexually attracted to that guy or girl, and [thinking] whether you want to do something with him, want to go to bed with him.” Those experi- ences are similar for boys and girls, she says. Asked whether boys and girls are viewed differently, Pauline sees clear gender differences:

If [boys] have not lost their virginity by age 18 [it is a problem]. With girls, it is like, “I am not ready. So I’m not going to do it yet.” They deal with it differently. . . . And girls who kiss every week with a [different] boy are much sooner called a “slut” than are boys that kiss a [different] girl each week.

Pauline’s first intercourse came after she had been with a boyfriend for six months and “gone further [than just kissing] and stuff.” Sensing where things were heading, Pauline told her parents where things stood: “I had asked whether I was allowed to sleep at his house—it was the first time I spent the night there—we talked about it well. Of course, I went on the pill.” However, when the time came for Pauline to spend the night with her boyfriend, she was still waiting for her period to begin taking the pill:

And then he asked me: “Would you like to go to bed with me?” And then I did it. It is very strange, what you then consider. Why you would and why you would not. I thought, at a certain point: “Well, why would I not do it? I want to, but. . . .” And what that “but” is, you don’t know, just that you’re not completely behind it.

Things did not get better after that: “The condom slipped off. That is really very shitty . . . for your first time!” Pauline went to the hospital to get the morning after pill, and two weeks after the fateful night, she and her boyfriend broke up. Her parents were disappointed because “they did not think it was safe and of course, it was not.” All in all, her first time “scared her to death.” Still, she does not harbor regrets about what happened. Her boyfriend at the time was “not someone who talks, you know. That does




play a role, because if he had started talking [and telling everyone about it] then you do start to think, ‘Oh, why did I do this?’”

Looking back Pauline says,

I was 14; I was young compared with other girls in my class. But that hap- pens, when you have a boyfriend for six months. He was also older. He was 18, and you know, then you come to it sooner. If you don’t have a boyfriend, then it just doesn’t happen.

Two years and several short-term relationships with no intercourse later, Pauline says, “I am ready for it. And I would like [to do] it.” She is “open to” having sex with her current boyfriend. If things progress to that point, she thinks her parents might ask her, “Are you sure?” knowing “what hap- pened.” But, says Pauline, “If they know that I am on the pill and safe,” they “wouldn’t stop” me.


Stephanie and Pauline had their first sexual intercourse under conditions that were less than ideal—uncertain, unprotected, and, from what we can ascertain, unsatisfying. Notably, both report having been scared and some- what scarred by this first experience. At the same time, the shadows cast by those scares and scars are distinct in their shading. Unable to reconstruct a narrative in which her choices make sense to her, Stephanie looks back on her first time as a terrible personal mistake, followed by shaming. Pauline, by contrast, has drawn the conclusion that she behaved unwisely, without viewing her actions as a big, regrettable mistake. Instead, her unpleasant first time has led her to take subsequent relationships more slowly, to experi- ment with romance and sexuality within parameters that feel comfortable, and to remain confident that she can recognize when she will really want it.

One key difference between the girls is their risk of being socially dero- gated. The category of the slut is very salient in interviews with American girls: Almost half of the girls spontaneously use words like “slut,” “slutty,” or “easy” in reference to perceptions of girls’ sexuality, or recount examples of girls who have been, often quite randomly, slandered as a slut. Having sex is “always [viewed as a] negative” in girls, posits Stephanie. Indeed, Kimberley has “seen a lot of girls, like, just made into these bad, horrible images that they can’t get out of just for like one dumb [sexual] experience.” Even girls who have sex in long-term relationships are at risk, says Dorothy. If friends of a girl’s boyfriend don’t like her, “then it will get spread around



322 GENDER & SOCIETY / June 2010

everywhere that she is a slut.” Although she was sexually inexperienced, Katy was called “a little whore” by an angry boyfriend who “started like spreading rumors around the school.”

The Dutch girls do not spontaneously use the “slut” category. Nor do they tell stories of girls apparently randomly being slandered with the label. But as they talk about sex, the contours of the permissible are quite clear. Lieke thinks sex is okay when “you’re 15 or 16 and you have a boyfriend you can trust.” She explains that “if he loves you and you are both ready for it, then I think it is okay.” But having sex “just for an evening,” Lieke says, “is stupid.” And as Pauline illustrated, when Dutch girls are explicitly asked whether girls and boys are perceived differently with regard to sex, the S-word starts to fall. Fleur explains, “About boys, people don’t say, ‘Oh, he is going to bed with everyone.’ Well, they say it, but it is less problematic than with girls. With girls, it is a shame.”

If girls in both countries can be derided for sex, why do the American girls appear more troubled by the prospect of being labeled a slut than are their Dutch counterparts? One reason is that American peer and popular cultures remain profoundly ambivalent about girls’ sexual desire and plea- sure, alternatively denying girls’ desires and viewing them, akin to boys’ desires, as indiscriminate. Melissa and Katy illustrate this duality. The first says, “not very many girls want to have sex” and just go along for the boy’s sake. Katy makes the competing observation that “some girls” “are really into like having sex,” but she also shows that saying that some girls are “really into it” does not mean recognizing sexual desire as part of normal individual and relational development: “You are either really into going for [sex] or you are not, there is no real in the middle.” Caroline sees three groups: “the easy girls or else the girls who are prudes and don’t do any- thing with guys at all [or] the girls who have been in relationships for a long time.”

Another reason for the slut’s enduring power in American peer culture may be skepticism about whether most girls can attain the feelings that legitimate sex. Kimberley disagrees when people say, “You’re young. You can’t fall in love.” She thinks that “some [young] people do fall in love. . . . And when some people fall in love, [sex] is one thing they decide to do.” But Margaret thinks “a lot of teenagers who have sex don’t love each other. They may care about each other, but they’re not in love.” Several American girls question whether teenagers are capable of accurately assessing their feelings. Teenagers “think they have sex for the same reasons as adults do,” says Dorothy skeptically. “They ‘think anything is love,’ but it “just may be infatuation.” Alexandra has similar doubts:




Maybe there’s a few that actually care about the people that they [have sex] with. . . . I don’t think most people that do it really love the people they that they are with just because it’s . . . hard to know how you feel about a person at this age.

Indeed, echoing a theme from the interviews with parents, many American girls say that teenagers who have sex are not typically in meaningful rela- tionships (Schalet 2004). “Most teenagers have a hard time knowing what love is. . . . Some are really mature and they have been with that special person forever,” says Fiona, but “usually [sex] is with somebody that they didn’t know or something that they did at a party.” Even many girls who are in long-term sexual relationships describe themselves as exceptional: “A lot of kids . . . are just like having sex all the time,” says Caroline. “They just do it because you can do it.” Other than herself and a few other couples, she says, “there are not many kids who actually have relationships.” Most “are just . . . pretty easy.” Michelle says she has a good relationship but she believes that for most teenagers, sex “has nothing to do with love.” Paula also distinguishes herself and her friends for whom sex is “a very sacred thing” from most people she knows for whom “sex is just a frivolous thing.”

What differentiates the Dutch girls I interviewed from their American counterparts is first their certainty that within a well-functioning, steady relationship, sex is permissible. A girl who has sex in the context of a one- night stand may be looked down upon, says Marjoleine, but when a girl has sex “with a boyfriend, it isn’t [looked down upon] at all.” Sarah agrees that girls are not looked down upon if they have sex: “If a girl jumps into bed with everyone, she’ll be called a slut,” says Sarah. But this is not the case if she does so with one boy. In short, the key distinction is not a girl’s virginity status, but the speed with which she initiates sex and moves from one relationship to another. Having sex in one or two successive relation- ships is acceptable for girls, Lieke believes, as long as girls do not have too many different boyfriends and, within the couple, “they are both in love.”

Second, the Dutch girls assume, as do their parents, that teenagers can and do fall in love and form the kind of relationships in which sex is legiti- mate, even if their actions and feelings are more experimental than those of older people. Heidi thinks most teenagers have sex because they are in love. For Elizabeth, it is a “matter of course” that young people love each other when they have sex. Lieke believes that teenagers typically have sex “in a relationship.” Karoline concurs: “When you love each other.” But she also knows that some boys do it just for “a little pleasure.” Tanja says most teenagers are in a relationship when they have sex, although within the relationship, many young people have sex relatively quickly and without



324 GENDER & SOCIETY / June 2010

“really thinking about it.” Marjoleine thinks that “love” is “too heavy” for most girls her age. A more typical experience is being “in love,” which she describes as “being able to count on each other, feeling comfortable with each other,” and having the idea that, “I can be together with this person for a while. . . . It is fun, it is going well together. You have a good feeling. You like that person a lot.”

If being in love is normal, it also requires negotiation, several Dutch girls suggest. Dorien believes that at 16, boys are not interested “in really steady” relationships. As a consequence, in relationships, “The boys are really always older,” she says: “Most of the boys at 16 are different than older boys, more child-like . . . not as far along. Maybe the younger ones [want to have sex] but girls really always go for the older boys.” When they do, girls sometimes get more than they bargained for. Some of Marjoleine’s friends have older boyfriends who “suddenly say, ‘I love you.’ And that is like, ‘Geez, yuck, what is this? Don’t say that!’ And then they really can’t say it back yet.” Sex too may be sped up, Marjoleine believes, when girls have relationships with boyfriends who are more mature emotionally and physically.

In short, the slander of the slut may loom so large for the American girls not only because their desires remain stigmatized but also because their professions of love are viewed askance, and meaningful teenage sexual relationships are viewed as rare. These beliefs do not necessarily describe reality: Kimberley and Stephanie were, in fact, in relationships when they had sex.7 But an assumption that sexually active teenagers are not typically in love or in meaningful relationships puts those who are on the defensive. The Dutch girls face a different dilemma. Confronted with a culture that sanctions sexual experience in solid relationships but frowns on sex in fleeting encounters—a culture moreover that assumes falling in love is normal—most of the Dutch girls feel entitled to gain sexual experiences within steady relationships. But the negotiations necessary to form and maintain those relationships—especially if they involve bridging large age differences—may compromise girls’ sexual agency, as they did Pauline’s.


American feminist scholars have rightly problematized the issue of sexual subjectivity and agency for teenage girls, drawing attention to their apparent lack of pleasure and feelings of control in their sexual decision- making process. But in using almost exclusively research conducted in North America and English-speaking countries, this literature has missed




significant cross-national differences in constructions and experiences of sexuality. Given the national differences in the effective use of contracep- tion and unintended pregnancy among teenage girls and the differences in ideals and the organization of welfare states, we might also expect to see important national differences in girls’ experiences of sexual subjectivity. Drawing on existing research, this article has suggested notable cross- national variations in girls’ sexual agency and pleasure. Based on interview data from white middle-class girls, I argue that that there are important differences in girls’ relationships with their parents and in assumptions about whether girls can have the feelings and relationships that legitimate heterosexual sex.

In the American families, girls are required to bifurcate between their roles as good daughters and sexual actors because of the assumed antinomy between the two; while in the Dutch families, parents and daughters negoti- ate similar tensions in such a way that girls can integrate sexual maturation into their relationships with parents. While the double standard circumscribes girls’ agency in both countries, the American girls are at greater risk of the slander of “slut” because few are assumed capable of the feelings and rela- tionships that legitimate sexual activity. That Dutch girls are assumed to be able to fall in love and form steady sexual relationships protects them against such slander but may also obscure the challenges of negotiating differences, especially large age differences, within those relational contexts.

Further research is necessary to establish whether and to what extent the cultural patterns found among the two white middle-class groups extend to other groups and to same-sex experiences and relationships. The historical legacy of defining “good” white middle-class girls in the United States as asexual in opposition to their nonwhite and working-class peers, often stig- matized as “hypersexual,” may make the integration of girls’ sexuality in white middle-class families especially challenging. But recent research sug- gests that American parents across racial and class categories find it difficult to recognize their teenage children as sexual subjects (Elliott forthcoming). And while certain religious minorities—devout Christians and Muslims—in the Netherlands embrace alternative family and peer cultures, survey research suggests that the normalization of adolescent sexuality does extend beyond the middle class: from the midteens onward, steady teenage couples are usually permitted to sleep together in one room—with girls as likely as boys to receive permission (Jeugd, Cijfers en Feiten 2003).

The cultural patterns observed also play out in policy and policy debates. Dutch adolescent sexual health policies have been consensus-oriented (see for instance, Lewis and Knijn 2003), while American debates have been



326 GENDER & SOCIETY / June 2010

contentious, with conflict often hinging on an assumed antinomy between girls’ sexuality and parental control. American abstinence-only policies can be viewed as an extreme expression of a broader cultural skepticism about whether teenagers can sustain the feelings and relationships that legitimate sexual activity. In the Netherlands, the legitimacy of sexuality has been decoupled from heterosexual marriage—as evident in legal recognition of same-sex and cohabiting couples—though not from intimate relationships. “Indeed, recent reports of adolescent sex in which the primary motivator is not “the development of a relationship and intimacy” have caused concern among policy makers (de Graaf et al. 2007).

Cultural assumptions do not just inform beliefs and practices on the ground; they also circumscribe research and theory. Anglo-American feminist scholarship has conceptualized girls’ sexual subjectivities from within a particular, often taken-for-granted, form of institutionalized het- erosexuality. But there are important differences in how heterosexuality is institutionalized, culturally and by way of policy. Future research should explore how these differences in the constitution and experience of hetero- sexuality relate to differences in the ideals and organization of welfare states, including those governing sexual and reproductive health services. Broadening the empirical lens to bring into view those differences in the cultural and political institutionalization of heterosexuality shows that schol- ars must also widen their analytic lens to focus on girls’ relationships with parents and partners, for these are the relational contexts in which they develop their sexual subjectivities. Scholars must also extend beyond an analysis of gender inequality to the study and theorization of positive ado- lescent relationships. After all, most teenage girls and boys seek to relate to one another in positive ways, and their subjectivities can be fostered by our understanding of how to nurture such relationships.


1. The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but typically sexual subjectivity is used to refer to girls’ internal bodily awareness, connection to sexual desire, and understanding of gender relationships; while agency is used to refer to their actions vis-à-vis romantic partners and the external world at large.

2. Some of the seminal work on sexual subjectivity suggests that good intimate relationships make it easier for girls to enjoy their sexual experiences (Martin 1996; Thompson 1995; Tolman 2002).

3. Data on Dutch girls and masturbation come from de Graaf et al. (2005). No national data are available for American girls this age. Laumann and colleagues




(1994, 82) found that only 36 percent of women and 60 percent of men ages 18 to 24 masturbated in the past year; more than half say they felt guilty after masturbation.

4. Quote was translated by the author. 5. Comparable data are not available for the United States. A recent study found

that three-quarters of American girls who had heterosexual intercourse in a relation- ship said it made them feel closer to their partner (versus 32 percent of those who had sex outside of a relationships), suggesting that when American girls are in rela- tionships, like their Dutch counterparts, sex makes them feel emotionally connected (Manning, Giordino, and Longmore 2006). Data on the sexual satisfaction of American teenagers are more difficult to come by. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health included questions on orgasm and sexual satisfaction for older adolescents but not for those under the age of 18. A recent study of 70 American girls in their senior year in high school found that while most rated their most recent intercourse positively, fewer than half said they liked how their body felt during sex (Impett and Tolman 2006).

6. All names have been changed. 7. Indeed, most American teenagers have their first heterosexual intercourse

in romantic relationships, even if, once sexually experienced, the majority also have such intercourse outside romantic relationships (Manning, Giordino, and Longmore 2006).


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Amy Schalet is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. She has authored articles on comparative adoles- cent sexuality. A book based on the study, of which the data reported in this Gender & Society article is part, will be published by the University of Chicago Press.

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