“A man should pray to have right desires, before he prays
to have his desires fulfilled.” Plato (Jowett, 1875)
In her study of adolescent girls’ experience of sexual desire, Deborah L. Tolman reports how 30 normal adolescent girls were typically reluctant or unable to describe their own sexual desire. Half of the subjects the author invited to participate in the study declined the invitation (1).
A 17-year-old girl reports that her first sexual experience wasn’t planned but “just happened.” She says “He was kissing me,” not “We were kissing,” or “I was kissing him.” Some of the girls seem very confused, or perhaps they were deliberately trying to deceive the interviewer. One girl was asked if she felt sad, and with tears rolling down her face she replied “Umm…I don’t know.” Another girl reports “Well, I don’t really know what I’m thinking.”
The author interprets the girls’ statements as evidence that they are uncomfortable about the subject of sexual desire and need guidance. Ms. Tolman says many things that no reasonable person can dispute:
1. Sexuality is important throughout life and sexual desire is life-sustaining.
2. There is a strong cultural taboo against girls having and expressing sexual desire.
3. Young girls are capable (theoretically) of strong sexual desire.
4. Girls are morally entitled to experience sexual pleasure no less than boys.
5. Girls are being cruelly cheated by traditional beliefs and rules about what is “proper” for girls.
A girl is expected to appear seductive: she is supposed to stimulate a boy’s sexual desire, but she isn’t supposed to have any sexual desire of her own. Good girls are only supposed to desire emotional relationships. Good girls are desexualized and disembodied. Rarely does a young girl admit: “I want to have sex.” A girl saying that publicly is considered pornography.
Some adults claim they merely want to “protect” girls from the risk of negative outcomes. But the author notes if that were true then girls would be encouraged to engage in self-masturbation or mutual masturbation to avoid infectious disease and unplanned pregnancy. In reality female sexual desire itself is popularly considered the monstrous “danger.”
Amazingly, none of the girls in the book ever mentions the clitoris or clitoral erection, and neither does the author call attention to that glaring omission. The girls do frequently report faking sexual pleasure. The author says that some of the girls have “silent bodies,” but she avoids discussing the possibility that many of the girls may actually be sexually dysfunctional and lack sexual desire. Some of the sexually active girls admit they don’t have orgasms, and wonder what an orgasm would feel like. One girl says: “It’s not easy…to have one.” Another girl says genital intercourse is sometimes “very boring.”
A girl who considers herself a lesbian usually keeps her sexual desire (which she calls “being excited”) a secret. When she finally has a chance to feel and express sexual desire with someone who is uninhibited, she laments that “it’s not even that exciting.” The author doesn’t consider the possibility that this girl is sexually dysfunctional; the author avoids the obvious and instead offers the non-explanation: it’s “so difficult to play out her feelings authentically.”
One girl says sexual desire is “all in my head…my body has nothing to do with it.” I begin to wonder if Ms. Tolman, herself, has ever felt sexual desire, when she says here’s one girl who really knows how to describe it: the girl says she feels “really hot, like, my temperature is really, really hot…And my body would like have, I would like have a feeling going up my spine.” That’s the strangest kind of “sexual desire” I’ve ever heard of!
When girls deny sexual desire the author is skeptical of their sincerity, and she says they are reluctant to admit they feel sexual desire. But the author doesn’t consider the opposite possibility: when some girls claim they do feel sexual desire, they may be lying and trying to cover up that their genital organs are dysfunctional.
Ms. Tolman spends a lot of time arguing that sexual desire is “socially constructed,” and she promotes the belief that female “dilemmas” may be treated by a talking cure. She quotes one girl who said that after the interview her sexual experience was “better.” Does that mean the girl experienced clitoral erection and orgasm? The author doesn’t speculate what “better” might mean.
Talking to young girls about sexual desire and pleasure is important and profound, but the author never defines exactly what she means by “sexual desire,” except to say it is “a feeling of wanting.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.) one definition of desire is “that feeling or emotion which is directed to the attainment or possession of some object from which pleasure or satisfaction is expected.” I would define sexual desire as the wish or urge to have your genitals physically stimulated. Is that what Ms. Tolman meant by “sexual desire,” and is that what her subjects thought she meant?
By that definition even very young children can be observed spontaneously exhibiting sexual desire when they fondle themselves and press or rub their genitals against furniture, adult body parts or other children, although children might not label their feelings with grown-up vocabulary like “sexual desire.” Healthy children fondle themselves intermittently even during non-sexual play, and even when they are primarily focused on the non-sexual play – the sexual self-stimulation is incidental and secondary to the child’s main interest at the moment. It may be considered a failure in empathy for adults to see a child fondle herself and then bizarrely declare “children have no sexual desire.”
Sexual desire may occur before, during or after genital erection, but it is certainly (usually) strongest during genital erection. The existence of spontaneous erection in boys and girls indicates it is primarily a physiological process, not a psychological or cultural phenomenon. Genital erection may be influenced by psychological fears, expectations, or culturally induced shame, but in a healthy individual genital erection is a physiological state – not a social construct.
Oddly, the author says curiosity is “a precursor to desire.” I can imagine that young people’s curiosity is often a precursor to interpersonal sex play, but it’s more likely that some teenage girls who have been mentally castrated confuse curiosity with desire. The girl previously mentioned, with the feeling going up her spine, which the author points to as a model of sexual desire, says of her first time trying genital intercourse: “I just wanted to, because I wanted to see what it was like.” That is not sexual desire; that is curiosity mistakenly labeled as sexual desire.
In my opinion, a healthy individual (male or female, young or old) who has slept well, eaten nutritiously, and is relaxed, feels sexual desire. Curiosity is unnecessary and irrelevant to genuine desire or arousal. Some people also confuse real-world sexual desire with the dramatized fictional image of sexual passion, but in a healthy young person sexual desire is quite casual rather than intense or obsessive.
A few girls report that when they feel sexual desire their vagina “acts up.” Does that mean they lubricate and expand? Little girls often have clitoral erections, just as little boys have penile erections. Healthy mature males continue to have genital erections, but mature females usually don’t. The author does not mention that or ask her subjects about it. Clitoral erectile dysfunction is, as yet, a politically incorrect topic. Political correctness dictates that female sexual dysfunction be blamed on child sexual abuse.
The author arranged to refer girls who reported childhood sexual abuse (carelessly undefined) to so-called “therapists.” One 18-year-old girl revealed that when she was seven a teenage boy did “unspeakable things” to her, and threatened her not to tell anyone. She expresses anger and seems to feel very vindictive toward the boy. Her mother did nothing about it, and neither did the boy’s mother (as far as the girl knows).
The girl is certainly justified in feeling angry, and understandably feels confused. The boy should have asked for the girl’s consent first, and the girl should have had the opportunity to consult her mother before any actual contact. Was the boy previously instructed about that? Why wasn’t he forced to apologize and reassure the girl that he would never threaten her again? Where was the girl’s father when all this was happening?
But the author’s reaction seems just as odd as the mothers: Ms. Tolman suggestively asks if that early experience affects the girl’s current sex life. To the girl’s credit she replies: How should I know? The author’s question sounds to me like a transparent attempt to encourage the girl to blame a male for the girl’s later problems, while ignoring the possible part played by the mother in previously mentally castrating the girl.
Despite her many insightful observations about sexual desire in young girls, the author doesn’t mention that it is women who physically castrate their daughters in the Third World, and it is women (as early childhood educators) who mentally castrate little girls in the West today. Why do some women do that, and why doesn’t the author confront those facts?
Many parents are unaware of the specific physiological origin of female sexual dysfunction – both the lack of desire and the difficulty in reaching orgasm – as an understandable consequence of individual adults sexually neglecting or actively “inhibiting” little girls during early development (2), long before the confused period called adolescence. Many parents unthinkingly commit the same tragedy that they suffered when they were children. Are highly educated feminists unaware as well, or do their political priorities discourage them from acknowledging the inconvenient origin of female sexual dysfunction?
Ms. Tolman doesn’t challenge the ghastly myth that normal sexual desire and healthy sexual function can be safely “inhibited” during early childhood, because they will magically spring back into existence after puberty. In the end the author says what is needed is for women to help teenage girls think about and talk about sexual desire and sexual pleasure, to foster outrage against their “socially manufactured” dilemma. In the very last footnote of the book the author reveals she is well aware of the problem of sexual dysfunction in women – although she understates the prevalence (3), but she suggests that the origin of female sexual dysfunction is the social “dilemma” girls face in adolescence.
In reality the mass hysteria over child sexual abuse, which was started and spread by feminists (4), has legitimized the tradition of mentally castrating girls rather than challenging it. The mythology of child sexual abuse and the eager marketing of unverified “treatment” has demonized early sex play and become a politically correct dogma to excuse women’s responsibility in mentally castrating girls, not in adolescence but beginning in very early childhood.
1. Tolman, Deborah L. Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexual Desire. Harvard Univ. Press, 2002.
2. Clitoral Erectile Dysfunction. https://sexhysteria.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/clitoral-erectile-dysfunction/
3. Tolman cites a 1999 survey, but more recent evidence indicates that two-thirds of women suffer from sexual dysfunction. See: Sammy Elsamra, Michael Nazmy, David Shin, Harry Fisch, Ihor Sawczuk, Debra Fromer. Female sexual dysfunction in urological patients: findings from a major metropolitan area in the USA. BJU International, 2010; DOI: 10.1111/j.1464-410X.2009.09091.x, which was indirectly confirmed by a more recent ABC telephone survey. http://abcnews.go.com/images/Politics/959a1AmericanSexSurvey.pdf
4. Whittier, Nancy. The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse: Emotion, Social Movements, and the State. Oxford Univ. Press, 2011.