Girls Initiation

Alan Thein Durning, Chris Crowther, and Maria Dolan on the desires, friendships, shames, and pleasures of the uncertain journey to womanhood
Girls Initiation

Writer Maria Dolan recently edited an “all-grrrl” issue of synapse magazine, dedicated to the poetry, prose, and art of Seattle girls. This article first appeared in Steelhead magazine.

The first time I had sex I was just expecting some high school-style couchwrestling. My “partner” was a lanky young stockbroker, an older man whose interest flattered my 16-year-old ego. When he took my agreement to lie down with him in his apartment as the cue to pull down his pants in front of me, I literally lost my ability to speak. I looked away in shock from his naked eager body. I wanted him to put his clothes back on, wanted to return to kissing and stroking and the way things had always been, but I didn't know how to say that. I didn't know how two people communicated that they wanted it or didn't, but figured I'd given him some sign. If I backed out, I would be doing what I'd heard angrily described as leading a guy on. I was scared and ashamed, and while we had sex I thought mostly about how to forget it.

When I read Schoolgirls, journalist Peggy Orenstein's chronicle of a year spent getting to know eighth-grade girls, my first time came back to me with painful force. Orenstein found that this generation's girls are learning the same anxious confusion about their own desires that I once learned. Dangerous lessons, I think, because girls ashamed of being sexual risk becoming spectators in their own lives, unable to clearly state their desires or their limits. How can you make decisions about what you want if you aren't even supposed to want? As Orenstein says, “Responsible preparation for intercourse requires an active admission of desire.”

A 1990 study by the American Association of University Women revealed a serious confidence loss in girls entering adolescence. While it's a hard time for all kids, by high school almost 50 percent of boys say they're happy the way they are, compared to less than a third of girls.

The anti-sex platforms of moral conservatives (premarital abstinence, family values) are questioned by much of the public who know from experience how hard it is to live within such narrow boundaries. A morality that calls a girl a slut if she doesn't protect her virginity, and values her by her ability to control both boys' hands and her own curious body, breeds shame and confusion – not smart decisions. Research has shown that sex-negative attitudes discourage only responsible use of contraception, not sex itself.

It is difficult to convince even liberals and feminists to teach a girl that her desire is normal and even good. Adults balk at helping girls become initiators as well as negotiators of sexual activity rather than victims of male desire. It's scary letting girls feel good about the pleasures of their bodies even as we inform them of the dangers.
In other industrialized nations where sex education is taught from childhood, significantly fewer teenagers get pregnant, have kids, or have abortions. Researcher Michelle Fine compares the recommendations of a Swedish teachers' handbook for sexual education – “Equip [students] to experience sexual life as a source of happiness and joy in fellowship with other [people]” – to an exercise from our delight-impoverished high school sex curricula: “Discuss and evaluate things which may cause teenagers to engage in sexual relations before they are ready to assume the responsibility of marriage.”

I now have friends who can talk about sex as if they know its wonders as well as its complications, as if they are as familiar as I am with what draws us to it: the smell of skin, the hunger for communion, the hormones nature floods us with long before most people are ready for a lifetime commitment. What would it be like for a generation of girls to be taught that their desire is not immoral or even embarrassing? If I recreate the scene in that apartment – me again, but after years of this kind of retraining – I don't have sex. I recognize when I'm ready to stop and say so and go home. No, I don't remain a virgin until marriage. I decide to have sex when I feel ready, and even if the experience is more awkward experiment than ecstasy, I get up from the bed with my self-esteem and my health intact.

Sex, Lies, & Child Abuse

Alan Thein Durning is executive director and Chris Crowther is an intern at Northwest Environment Watch. This article is adapted from Misplaced Blame: The Real Roots of Population Growth, available from Northwest Environment Watch, 206/447-1880; outside Washington, 888/643-9820.

Paige Latin always gets nervous before a talk. As the founder of Prostitution Alternatives Counseling and Education (PACE), she has given hundreds of informal speeches in all parts of British Columbia, but it's still difficult for her to get past the anxiety of standing in front of 20 or 100 people and saying, “Hi. I'm Paige, and I used to be a prostitute.”

“It's hard sometimes,” she says of her presentations, “but talking about it does help the healing.”

That's not why she talks, though. She gives these lectures to find sexual abuse victims, to direct them toward help, and to inoculate others against the abuse that so often leads to prostitution later on.

“When I'm talking about what it feels like to be sexually abused, I see this look in their eyes – the kids who are being abused – of ‘Oh, my God! That's what's been happening to me,'” Paige says. “There are three or four in every class.” These three or four are at risk of involvement in prostitution.

Inside a classroom at an alternative secondary school, Paige launches into her story. It's an excruciating tale. It turns the stomach and incites rage, and Paige seems to live it over as she speaks, her form bent almost double. “I remember being sexually abused from age two,” she recounts. “My parents didn't know about it, and I thought it happened to everyone. I was abused again at age three by a guy that used to work for my dad.”
Like most sexually abused children, Paige came from a family with more than its share of problems. Her mother suffered from untreated clinical depression. Her father traveled extensively in his struggling construction business, and his income left them far short of middle class.

“At age five,” Paige recalls, “it was a guy at a gas station. He gave me hepatitis, and I almost died. Ages six to eight, it was the guy that ran the tourist information booth next to the playground. He penetrated me at age six.”

Abuse seemed to seek her out – a commonplace pattern among abuse victims. Sexual abuse truncates the ability to sense unsafe situations and untrustworthy people. It corrodes children's self-esteem, making them desperate for approval, affection, and safety, and teaching them to expect violation as the price of these commodities.
“Another guy abused me from age eight to 12,” says Paige. “That's the one that affected me the most. It was my girlfriend's dad.” Authority figures commit more than half of all rapes. “He would give me alcohol and cigarettes and money,” she says. “That's where I think I got my introduction into prostitution. He did a real number on my head, saying that I was ‘really good at this.'”

All eyes are on Paige – almost. A boy in the back of the room pulls the hood of his sweatshirt up, drops his chin, and begins furiously doodling on his desk. Paige watches him for a moment. She is convinced that he is an abuse survivor. She takes a breath and goes on.

At 13, she was brutally raped by a stranger who abducted her at gun point from her family's motel room while they were on vacation in Florida. In the months that followed, she suffered a full-scale psychological crisis with nowhere to turn. “I started drinking when I was six. I started sniffing glue when I was nine.” But after the rape, she took to drugs with a vengeance. “At times, I tried to kill myself by overdosing.”

On the other side of the room, another boy has withdrawn into himself. She makes a mental note. She's not as sure about him as the boy who is doodling, but she is suspicious. And she's getting an uneasy feeling about two girls sitting on a bookcase against the wall. Their eyes are too big; they look like abuse survivors, too.
When she was 15, she left her home in the small Rocky Mountain town of Williams Lake, British Columbia. “I moved to Toronto,” she says, “and it didn't take me very long to end up out on the streets. I worked as a prostitute from age 15 on and off, mostly on, until I was 29. I'm 35 now.”

Paige Latin has done this same basic presentation at dozens of schools, youth detention centers, universities, hospitals, and civic group meetings across BC in recent years. As far as she knows, she and the other former prostitutes she has recruited are the only people speaking out about sexual abuse to BC's young people and the professionals who work with them. She continues her story, telling how she got out of prostitution, thanks to a former prostitute who counseled her by phone for months.

In 1994, Paige established the nonprofit charitable group, PACE, to help women escape from – and avoid getting into – prostitution. Over time, she has focused more of her energy on preventing the sexual abuse from which prostitution stems.

“If abuse is happening in your life, you can talk to Natasha,” Paige tells the class, pointing to the school counselor. “Nobody ever talked with me about sexual abuse when I was a kid, and I don't want that to happen to you.”

Later, she will call Natasha about the four she has identified. She has a knack for finding abuse victims. “The terrible thing is that my hunches are almost always right,” she says.
Paige doesn't talk much about the other major consequence of child sexual abuse: teen parenting. But it's a consequence far more common than prostitution, so her fight against abuse is also preventing teen births.

The US has been in the midst of a national witch hunt, vilifying teenage mothers for corrupting the moral fiber of the nation, bearing most of the country's criminals, and soaking up public dollars to support idle lives. What is not common knowledge is that 62 percent of school-age mothers are victims of sexual abuse before becoming pregnant – at least two and more likely five times larger than among the general population of teenage girls.

The litany of abuses they have suffered is shocking. 43 percent of school-age mothers are rape victims; 5 percent of them conceived their first child by rape. Physical abuse is also rampant: 59 percent have been hit with a belt or strap, 31 percent have been hit with a stick, 26 percent have been thrown against a wall, 5 percent have been intentionally burned or scalded, and 22 percent have been beaten up by a man to the point of requiring medical treatment.

The average teenage mother has also spent her childhood in poverty. It's been possible to predict the teen birthrate in the US with 90 percent accuracy by looking at the previous decade's child poverty rate – poor nine-year-olds become pregnant 18-year-olds.
Abused girls and those raised in poverty have babies not because they are foolish or ignorant, as common misconceptions hold, but because they are playing the hand they were dealt as best they can. Their life experience confirms that they will not go far in the new, fiercely competitive global economy. They do not actively seek pregnancy, but they are less aggressive than women who are not poor in attempting to prevent it. At least, they reason, they can be good mothers, raise good children, and fill their lives with the challenges and rewards of having a family. In a money-mad world, motherhood is one role they cannot be denied.

Abused women often look on reproduction as a healing event. Early childbearing is part of the pathology of child abuse, but to the victim, it appears to be part of the cure.
What's needed, Paige believes, is public mobilization against abuse of children by adults. As things stand now, most adults do not know the signs of abuse, are uncomfortable discussing it, and do not know what to do when they suspect it. “In 1995,” writes Mike Males in his book Scapegoat Generations, “a spokeswoman for the US National Commission on Child Abuse complained that it was easier to get information from the Centers for Disease Control on soccer goalpost injuries than on adult violence against children.” Six-year-olds have a better chance of knowing what to do if a stranger offers them candy than if their uncle tries to rape them, yet sexual assault by a parent or parent-substitute in the home is 200 times more common than abduction off the streets by a stranger. We live in a massive state of denial about the sexual crimes suffered by our children.

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