Recently, I reviewed Dr. Leonard Sax’s excellent book Boys Adrift, which explored the causes of the Extended Adolescence phenomenon. This series is dedicated to Dr. Sax’s equally excellent follow-up book for girls: Girls on the Edge.
“Go into yourself and find out how deep is the place from which your life springs,” wrote the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. If your daughter can develop a sense of self that is deeply rooted, then she will grow up to be a resilient and self-confident woman.
With these words, Dr. Sax frames the issue facing girls growing up today. “Girls” refers to females who are not yet adults – roughly females who haven’t graduated from high school yet.
Girls aren’t developing a strong sense of Self; instead, they are being formed by external expectations.
Girls today are regularly treated for depression and anxiety. And while girls today have many more external opportunities than their grandmothers did, girls today often do not cultivate an inner life. As he did with Boys Adrift, Dr. Sax identifies key factors contributing to this loss of identity.
1. Sexual Identity
Beginning with a reflection on Halloween costumes, Sax notes that clothing even for girls as young as 9 years old has become increasingly “skanky” (his word!). The real problem with this, according to Sax, is that girls are becoming sexualized before they become sexual:
Sexuality is about who you are. Sexualization is about how you look… Girls who are dressing in camisoles and hot pants prior to the onset of puberty are not expressing their sexuality. They don’t have, and should not have, a sexual agenda to express… Pretending to be sexual when you don’t feel sexual makes you an object on display for others. It’s not who you really are. It’s not healthy. (emphasis mine)
What young girls really want is attention, to be noticed. And when attention is sexualized at such a young age, girls learn to conflate attention and relationship with sexual interaction. This confusion has contributed to the rise of oral sex – almost always girl to guy – among teens. For many girls, these experiences begin as early as 12-14.
These days, if women marry, it’s often in mid-20s or later. That means many girls today will have a decade or more of sexual experience before they marry.
More and more, girls are providing sexual services for guys without any relational “strings” attached at all.
From his counseling experience, Sax observes:
Many of these girls seem to believe that sex is a commodity that girls provide to boys… providing a boy with a sexual outlet may give a girl the feeling of being wanted, desired, and somehow in control.
Sax hypothesizes that this divorce of sexuality from sexualization explains the popularity of Twilight and songs like Taylor Swift’s “Love Song”. Both offer up mythic, antiquated gender roles that you’d think would be off-putting to a modern girl.
But for girls who regularly engage in sexual activity divorced from relational intimacy, a princess being rescued by a chaste prince can be an attractive fantasy.
The root problem is that girls don’t have space to develop a healthy sexual identity. From a young age, girls are taught that if they want attention, they must display their bodies in ways others deem attractive.
Girls don’t have the space to figure out their own likes and dislikes, to cultivate a fashion sense that truly expresses who they are. Because what matters isn’t what the girl thinks is cute or fun or cool. What matters is what He thinks is cute or fun or sexy or cool. In Sax’s words:
The problem I see is that our culture is pushing girls into adopting a sexual identity—and to becoming sexual agents and sexual objects—too soon.
Girls grown up without a clear sense of self because they’ve been taught to present themselves for Someone Else’s Gaze.
In moving towards a solution, Sax closes with excellent wisdom from the most famous ancient love song:
I charge you, daughters of Jerusalem:
Do not awaken love before its time. — Song of Songs 2:7