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
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
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
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.