Monday, 27 February 2012

Romance, Competition and Sexuality among Teenage Females

In the previous post, we caught an imaginary glimpse of what the high school psycho-social world might look like from the perspectives of some teenage males.

Now we’ll switch our carnival masks and explore the “mating game” and same-sex desire from the female perspective.

There are two important distinctions to consider in this respect. One: females are typically raised to regard themselves as objects of desire. Two: the masculine is in general more highly valued in our society than the feminine.

The competitiveness of young girls seems unbelievably petty from a boy’s point of view. Many girls will bear grudges over offences done them by peers that it would be embarassing for a boy to show any displeasure over. Girls are almost always encouraged to be sensitive, and to display their feelings. Their sentimentality is fed by an endless stream of romantic fantasies typically involving men, even from a young age. Many girls are busy planning their weddings before boys their same age show the slightest awareness that girls even exist.

By the time they’re young adults, most girls are theoretically ready to mate. Guys, by contrast, are ready to have sex, but not really ready to be a mate. In the past, families would marry their daughters off as soon as possible to older men. Unlike boys, girls are mainly really looking for a single, long term mate, who in theory could come along at any time between puberty and menopause. Males are biologically equipped to inseminate hundreds of females, and most would happily attempt to do so if they could. But females only need a single sexual interaction with a single male to keep them busy for two decades with the results. So the competition for high-quality males is fierce. If a girlfriend is a status symbol for a teenage guy, a boyfriend is twice as valuable a symbol to the girl.

But how many females will openly admit to being competitive? Girls are supposed to be one another’s emotional supports, and to stick together against the superior social power of males. The intense competition for males is driven below surface-level co-operation. Young women do each other’s hair. They give each other advice. Yet they’re secretly jealous of the successes of others, become they’re in direct competition with them for the same kinds of males. And they secretly fear the jealousies their friends might bear towards them.

Most girls are trained from a young age to regard themselves as others regard them – to make use of mirrors, to practice their manners and their modes of dress, and to recognize how their choices attract attentions and produce reactions. Girls are also familiar with touching other female bodies. Like their brothers, they spent most of their first year attached to their mothers’ bodies – but those bodies were the same gender as their own. Girls happily hold hands, hug, cuddle, and sleep together right through adolescence without any social censure. Best friends take the place of one another’s virtual future partners as they bestow valentines and sympathy on one another, go on dates, and dance together.

So what happens from a peer-group perspective when it becomes apparent that some girls are finding comfort with other female bodies is turning into stimulation?

Unlike the situation with guys, the very idea of being intimate with bodies of the same gender isn’t shocking. Nor is it strange to feel like the object of desire. Nor is it tremendously problematic to be associated with what might be considered masculine behaviour. These may be some of the reasons why it’s largely teenage girls who have initiated Gay-Straight Alliances in their schools.

But does this mean that lesbianism has “equal rights” with heterosexuality among teenage girls?

Most girls have been raised to expect to become mothers, even if they resist this inclination over long periods of time. There must be something wrong with girls who don’t show this desire, you might assume, if you were a heterosexual teenage girl devoting large amounts of time and energy into making yourself appear to be an attractive potential mate to handsome, intelligent, healthy guys. When “tomboy” behaviour starts turning into “butch,” you might be put off by these girls’ failure to play the game. You realize these butch-girls just aren’t on the team, with their baggy jeans and shirts and bizarre hairstyles.

And what happens when you suspect that you’re the object of some other girl’s desire? The female body you’re most familiar with is that of your mother, your original source of nourishment and your principal rival in life, so you might be put off when you subconsciously make this connection. You’re accustomed to being the object of desire, but do you want to be desired by a woman? If it gets around that you’re hanging out with dykes, you fear any interest you’ve managed to elicit from guys is going to dry up quick. Lesbians may appear to you to have given up on the essence of feminine identity, putting the entire psycho-social edifice into question. And since most men don’t care for lesbians, they’re even lower on the power-scale than heterosexual women, which might seem to imply a demotion by association.

Now imagine you’re a girl who’s really enjoying having a best friend with whom to share proto-love affairs. But inside, you have this feeling that you’re maybe not really all that interested in the standard romantic fantasy, or the standard marriage-and-children scenario. Maybe you’re appalled by the looming straightjacket of “womanhood.” Maybe you have always felt a bit like a boy. Maybe you’ve never been able to succeed at the game of attracting male attention, and don’t expect that to change. Why should you put your self-esteem at the whims of males and their shallow, fickle desires? What if the female body means love, while the male means exploitation? What if male bodies repulse you, while female bodies allure? How will you know until you try?

How do you express these feelings to your friend? What’s she going to think when she realizes that you’re not playing the game of catch-the-boys, but wouldn’t mind catching other girls? If you’re not going out of your way to attract boys, the romantic-fantasy bonds between you and her are broken. You try to find some other girls who feel like you do, but you don’t want to broadcast it to the world. You need people to think you’re just like the other girls so you don’t get treated badly. You get lonely when your friends grow distant. Do you go looking outside your school for other girls to be with?

Where does this leave the heterosexual girl crew? To the degree that they have plenty of love in their lives and aren’t desperate for male sexual attention, they won’t fear their status falling. To the degree that they have confidence in their own attractiveness, they won’t put too much weight on high school relationships, rendering much of the problem moot. And if they’re intelligent and haven’t been trained to regard wife-and-motherhood as the primary measure of success in life, they too will leave the romantic fantasies behind.

Are these not the girls who have had the courage to support “Gay-Straight Alliances?”

But what if you’ve been told that your own value is measured by the quality of man you manage to catch, and you privately fear that your charms aren’t up to the task? What if you can’t get a decent guy? Will you have to “turn lesbian” too? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate admission of failure as a woman? What if those dykes remind you of yourself somehow? How do you feel when you’ve taken every possible step to hide your own masculine aspects, physical and psychological, and now these butch girls put them right out on display in front of you?

Now imagine that those childhood insecurities come back into play. You’re failing your courses. Your mother’s on your case to be more like her. Your boyfriend’s checking out other girls. If you lose him, you don’t know if you’ll be able to get anyone else. You find yourself resenting the very existence of these butch girls, and you jump at the chance to ridicule them. I may be stupid, flat-chested, and clumsy, but at least I’m not a lez, you say to yourself in a desperate but calculated attempt to salvage self-respect. You find yourself taking every opportunity to belittle, sneer at, and taunt the “fat dykes” in front of your friends, even calling them “sluts,” tarring them with promiscuity to boot. The latent competitive tension between you and the other girls seems to ease off when you do. You might be all competing for the same kinds of guys, but you can be united in your derision of “queer” girls.

With countless numbers of male and female students going through scenarios like the ones described in these last few posts every day, year after year, as hormones surge and bodies change, there’s no question that both immediate learning opportunities and long-term psychological development can be dramatically impacted for the worse if social dynamics at school are allowed to deteriorate.

But what can teachers and administrators do to keep this from happening? How do we prevent our school’s web of psycho-sexual relations from disintegrating to the point of tangible abuse, let alone start improving it? 

We’ll take a look at that challenge in the next post.

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