Discuss the Significance of Relationships in Dutch and American Girls’ Experiences of Sexuality

Discuss the Significance of Relationships in Dutch and American Girls’ Experiences of Sexuality

Discuss the Significance of Relationships in Dutch and American Girls’ Experiences of Sexuality



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

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