Take a moment to remember your teen years. Think back to your first sexual encounters. Remember your body, your environment, the people you were with. Paint the picture. What did it feel like? How do you feel now, trying to remember?
If you’re a woman reading this, you’re probably connecting to some awkward if not terrible memories. Most of us had mostly not-great sex before we were 20, have been coerced, assaulted, raped, or don’t remember our first sexual experiences because of substance use. Any of this sounding familiar? You are not alone. In fact, you’re a lot like almost every other woman on this planet. Perhaps you are man reading this, with daughters, sisters, or women in your life you love dearly, who already share or may come to know these same experiences.
Now allow yourself to imagine what it could have been like. What would you have wished for? Perhaps you’re wishing you could still have this now. Now imagine if that experience was an example to girls everywhere about what it means to feel empowered, connected to and in charge of her own body. Change anything?
I often ask myself, What if a girl was watching me right now?
Who would she see? How would she see me walk? Would she see me holding back or pursuing my desires? How would she see me treating myself? If she could listen to the words in my head, what would she hear?
Internalizing a girl’s gaze impacts how I behave on the outside and how honest I am about what it feels like on the inside. I am completely imperfect. I work with adolescent girls because that’s where I got lost. Adolescence didn’t come with instructions other than a soulless explanation of why I got my period and how to not get pregnant or contract an STD. Like most teenagers, my guides were mass media, porn and my peers. Almost all of my early sexual experiences included coercion, pain, peer pressure, or shame.
In the vulnerable transformation from childhood into adolescence, I bought what was being sold. I learned, like so many others girls, that sex appeal is essential – more important than learning about my own body, my pleasure, or my happiness. I desperately wished someone could see that I wasn’t behaving how I wanted to behave, that I wasn’t who I wanted to be.
I made mistakes, and I learned from them. I still make mistakes and I am still learning. I share my stories with the girls. I am not a licensed therapist. This is on purpose. I self-disclose far more than any license would permit, I text with girls about the dilemmas they and friends are facing off the clock, I take calls from parents in crisis. My girls and families can count on me to show up for them when they need me and have healthy boundaries.
I am devoted to supporting a culture of thriving, self-connected girls and women. I feel strongly that all of us have to get real about the current state of girls and women globally. But we can’t just talk about risk, pain and tragedy, and leave out the profound joys and pleasures of being girls and female-bodied. Both are part of the story.
I believe the core questions of adolescence – Who am I? What am I doing here? What is the purpose of my life? – are relevant for all of us. We all want to learn how to be authentic and still belong, how to feel part of something that matters. Teens are just stepping into an awareness of the greater world and how they fit into it, but we’re all carrying these questions. I offer spaces for girls to discover their evolving answers to these questions, and I share mine.
I want them to know when they are ready for sex, or not. How and when to give permission, or not. I want them to feel and pursue pleasure, safely. How to balance responsibility, joy, and the perpetual risk of the unknown. I want them to understand what values, what framework, they are going to use to make decisions, not to make “right” or “wrong” decisions, but to make the ones that serve them most. It is important to me that, as girls cross the threshold into adolescence, they have the tools they need to create the quality of intimacy they deserve, because this is key to creating the quality of life they’re after.
Are we as adults willing to provide a map for the ongoing obstacles girls will face as they explore the territory of sexual expression? We need to help girls access the power already within them to break the silence, get off the ‘script’, and create encounters that work for them, on their own terms. Are we brave enough to educate girls about sex as source of self- knowledge, creativity and power? Imagine what they’ll be capable of.
Whoever you are, I want you to picture a world where girls get the education and support they need to unleash their potential, because they are girls, not despite it. Where girls get the tools they need to understand what they want and what feels right for them, and get to embody that with people they trust.
This is a missing experience ‘Real Talk’ offers. We provide a space for girls to realize the importance of social, emotional and spiritual literacy, offering skills to practice asserting themselves around issues they face every day but are rarely talked about. Real Talk helps us “make more choices that lead to joy, pleasure, and honor rather than guilt, shame or tragedy.” These are the words of my mentor in this work, Charis Denison, featured in Peggy Orenstein’s latest book Girls & Sex (a must read), both of whose words echo throughout this article. From the book: “If girls were more in control of their sexual selves, if they were able to articulate what they want and didn’t want, they would actually make better choices instead of more risky choices.”
Our girls suffer daily harassment and assault. They regularly report being pressured to offer themselves sexually, in person and through technology, with increasing requests for oral sex (even before kissing) or nude images as a necessary step in the courting process (which later become currency for boys to share with friends, often leading to public humiliation for girls). Girls are expected to be submissive, always up for sex, and put up with things they don’t enjoy (often by porn-inspired boys).
Many girls see sex only in terms of performance, prioritizing others’ pleasure at their own expense, even pursuing painful aesthetic procedures. They are inundated by media that teaches them their power is dependent on being sexually consumed. Internalized objectification affects girls’ mental health, confidence, and academic performance. Whether it’s porn or a common billboard, images of girls and women existing for men’s pleasure overwhelmingly epitomize constructions of masculinity and femininity that are destructive to all genders of all ages.
The proliferation and globalization of hypersexualized imagery makes healthy sexual exploration a challenge. Many of these issues have been around for a long time, but they are getting significantly worse. With the primary sexual paradigm defined by porn, how can we expect teenagers of all genders to understand and pursue tender intimacy based on mutual respect, equal pleasure, and dare I say friendship first?
Girls often make vulnerable and uninformed choices that will impact the rest of their lives because they don’t have a model for what real intimacy looks and feels like, without discomfort or coercion. We can offer a map to safe, mutual, respectful sexual expression for girls. When we focus with girls on how to access what’s already inside of them, we become allies for one another in the process.
We honor the girls by holding them to who they are striving to be by offering tools and reflections to bring that out. As a result, we are seeing girls challenge destructive norms, stand up to bullying and harassment, pursue experiences of joy, feel proud of who they are, and even start circles of their own. The impact is visible, it’s tangible, and it’s far greater than we can even see.
This is about mentoring girls into being fully themselves and discovering their own unique relationship to the power of their bodies and their life. How we relate to what has happened or is happening to girls, to women, to ourselves -changes everything. We need to do more to help young people of all genders stand up against warped notions of sex, sexuality, gender and simply how we treat each other. This generation is the first to deal with the issue of pornography to this intensity and scale. How young people understand love, sex, and relationships is totally dependent on us. How can we use our own experiences as fuel to transform ourselves and be a model for girls everywhere? Whether it’s sexual assault or an eating disorder or just a day in the life… they are subject to all the same things we are. Real life is happening to these girls. We need to meet them in it.
To the girls:
Your courage, strength, beauty and wisdom gives me enormous faith in our future. Knowing you, loving you and learning from you inspires me to fiercely pursue my vision. Thank you.
EMILY FROST is an artist, mentor, and contemporary rites of passage guide. She is the founder of Love Your Nature, a movement devoted to girls and women awakening to their inherent wisdom, power and purpose. She keeps a private practice for youth and adults, and facilitates programs that develop social, emotional and spiritual intelligence, with a focus on girls coming of age. She is the co-founder of Real Talk Events, designed to inspire learning, honest sharing, and authentic connection about what it’s like to be alive in these times.