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EXTRACT: Underestimated: the Wisdom and Power of Teenage Girls

Extract of Underestimated the Power and Wisdom of Teenage Girls by Chelsea Goodan

This is an edited extract from Underestimated: the wisdom and power of teenage girls, by Chelsea Goodan, published by Scribe.

I’ve found that the topic of a teenage girl’s sexuality exposes the most gripping, overpowering, alarming, toxic, and understandable fears. It’s a space full of so many charged opinions that I’m certainly going to step in some shit here. But I’m up for it. You may disagree with me at times, but having this conversation is too important and cannot be avoided. 

This chapter is going to be longer than others because the whole book could be an expansion of this topic. There is so much to learn about a teenage girl’s wisdom and power during conversations about sexuality. I’m often the only adult in their life who they feel that they can talk to about sex, and they really want to talk about it. It can be something as minor as “Can I get an STD from kissing?” or as serious as “I might be pregnant, what the fuck do I do?” There have been so many questions about birth control, and so many devastating tears when a girl tells me that she’s been sexually harassed or assaulted. I embrace these conversations, connect with parents when needed, and hold space for a whole lot of feelings. 

As often as I witness words like pregnant, STIs, or rape ignite people’s fear of a teenage girl’s sexuality, I also see the words pleasure, orgasm, and clitoris ignite just as much fear, possibly more. This conversation is all just one big forest fire ignited by fear. So, let’s do this . . . let’s jump into the fire together, feel the heat, maybe even get burned, but still, hopefully, learn how we can eventually turn this into a campfire where everyone is sitting around discussing, laughing, learning, and having a good time. 

With teenage girls, the conversation around sex usually starts with a question like “No one wants to talk with me about sex, in a real way. Is there a class at school that’s going to cover it in more depth?” 

Hmmm, well, according to the Guttmacher Institute, as of 2023, only 25 states require that public schools teach both sex and HIV edu- cation, with only 17 of them requiring that the information be “medically accurate.” Meanwhile, 29 states require an emphasis on abstinence.

So . . . with deep anguish over the American sex education debacle, I respond to that wide-eyed, hopeful, curious girl with, “No. It’s very unlikely they’re going to go into more depth at school.” 

No one should be assuming that schools have it handled, and parents obviously need to be a focal point for sex education conversations. I’ve found that a lot of parents are daunted by the task, so I’m working to offer support here. I’ve had success with girls really opening up to me and sharing their questions and concerns, so I’ll be giving tips on how to approach these conversations, with inside info on how teenage girls are thinking about sex and how we can support them. 

Overall, I’ve found that we could all be more courageous in these conversations. A teenage girl’s sexuality is the epicenter of society’s top-notch squashing, controlling, silencing, dismissing, minimizing, and fearing, and if we continue doing the same thing, the situation will never get better. I’ve found that adults who didn’t get an early education in the topic have had to unpack and heal decades of shame and heavy baggage around sex and sexuality. 

When people ask me if I can give explicit advice on “how to talk to your daughter about sex,” I often respond: 

“Why is it hard for you to talk about it with her? Why do you feel uncomfortable?” 

I really recommend examining those answers first. There will be questions throughout this chapter that can help prompt that exploration. A teenage girl will definitely pick up on whatever discomfort or wounds you might still have around sex, and I’m hoping you don’t want her to absorb and play out those same wounds. Our wounds are understandable because we’ve been functioning from a broken system that can’t seem to figure out if it’s selling sex or afraid of it. However, within my heartfelt conversations with teenage girls, I’ve learned a poignant lesson: Rather than working to prevent and judge teenage girls’ sexual choices, let’s work to create a world that thoroughly educates everyone on sexual responsibility and pleasure. 

I’m going to start by diving into a tough topic because it’s the number one thing girls bring up with me. Sexual violence, harassment, and gender double standards. Girls may be hesitant to talk to their parents about sex, but I find that they will talk intellectually about these topics. I don’t mean a debate or a conversation provoking fear about these issues. I mean that teenage girls like to know that their parents are examining these issues with an attitude of “Wow, this is so awful and unfair that girls have to deal with this.” 

It’s a really helpful gateway into building trust and rapport because a girl needs to know that you’re on her team. A teenage girl can handle these heavier conversations, and for her, it feels extremely frustrating that people aren’t talking about America’s sexual violence epidemic with more outrage. Without feeling like people are on her team, these issues can block a teenage girl from connecting to a healthy expression of her sexuality. 

Every single teenage girl I know who has a large chest has told me at some point that “men are creepy.” Seventeen-year-old Riley describes the stares she has to endure when she goes to the gas station, coffee shop, grocery store, or anywhere, really. With a defeated spirit, she’s begged me, “I really want the catcalls to stop, or how they undress me with their eyes! Ughhhh, please make it stop!” 

Instead of asking Riley how she would like to be supported in this, her parents have endless commentary on Riley’s clothes. They believe that if her cleavage finds the light, the shine will be too bright for the men who walk the streets of this world. And for some reason, men lacking sex education who have been socialized to think that it’s okay to flagrantly stare at a girl’s chest without understanding the impact, are still getting to control the story and dictate Riley’s choices. 

The social constructs of toxic masculinity that are geared toward violence, fear of emotion, dominance, anger, and entitlement have created a lot of pain around this topic. Under our current system, in 2023 the CDC reported that 14 percent of American teenage girls have been raped at some point in their lives and 18 percent had experienced sexual violence in the previous year. That’s really hard to reckon with, and I don’t think anyone is okay with these horrific statistics. 

I’ve had so many amazing, supportive men in my life stand by me in addressing these issues, because like me, they agree that a healthy expression of masculinity is in desperate need of exploration and expansion. I’m asking us to consider: Is the rampant sexual assault, objectification, and harassment that comes with men acting “creepy” a product of our collective socialization, lack of sex education, and the undeveloped masculine energy that simply can’t hold the powerful container of a teenage girl’s sexuality? One thing I know for sure: 

None of this is her fault. 

All of the fear that is directed at her should be directed at addressing the core issues that create male violence. But instead of naming the social problem “violence perpetrated by men,” we call it “violence against women.” This emphasizes the victim and frames it as a woman’s issue, which is so frustrating, because if she had the power, she would have ended the violence by now. 

After hearing so many assault stories, I’ve tried to support girls in this struggle however I can. Alongside inspiring men, I’ve facilitated conversations within the entertainment industry on how masculinity is portrayed in film and TV and organized events for the nonprofit A Call to Men,4 which is a violence prevention organization that educates boys and men and promotes healthy manhood. There are men doing exciting work in this space, and I’ve witnessed how it can help create a world that feels safer for a teenage girl to explore her sexuality. 

However, unfortunately, the status quo is still applying a Band-Aid to the problem rather than figuring out what’s causing the wound in the first place. I know so many girls learning self-defense in schools across the country, while as of 2023, only 11 states require that boys learn consent within the sex education curriculum . . . 11 states?! Obviously, my inner teenage girl is enraged about all of this, and so are all the girls I talk to. I could have filled this entire book with girls’ quotes sharing their agony and fury about sex as it relates to our patriarchal culture. They know the timeless, tragic tale, but again, no one is listening to them. 

Seventeen-year-old Hazel read an early draft of this chapter, and at this very point, she wanted to make sure we were all listening when she said, “Girls are taught over and over how not to get raped, but boys aren’t explicitly taught to not rape. Or not to harass or not to be creepy. It seems like no one is focused on teaching boys how to be better, so that girls can be safe. Go talk to your boys!”

With these conversations in particular, so many girls have told me how frustrated they are with their father, who they wish was more out spoken in his support and showed the same type of outrage about sexual violence that he has for high taxes. Of course, not all fathers are like this, but unfortunately so many girls have brought it up with me that I don’t feel comfortable moving forward without noting it. When a father is silent on these issues, he’s missing an opportunity to model for his daughter the type of treatment she deserves. If a father is looking for a way in, one example could be to use current events, casually saying to her:

“I was reading about the Harvey Weinstein trial, and it’s absolutely horrific that women have to deal with stuff like this. I can’t believe 87 women had to come forward in order to make the system hold him accountable. One woman is horrible enough. What are your thoughts on it?” As I’ve noted before, I recommend listening, agreeing, and showing up for her in the way that she needs. She will most likely be very impressed and touched that you care.

This is one pathway into a conversation that is particularly helpful for fathers, but I have worked with many moms who have desperately asked me how to have more explicit sex-ed conversations with their daughters who immediately shut down when their moms bring up anything. I recently asked a mom to really unleash her questions and fears on me, so I could better understand how to help.

“I just want to know what’s going on. Is she having protected sex? Are friends pressuring her to have sex? Are boys pressuring her? Or does she feel ready, and if she does, how can I know if she feels physically, mentally, emotionally safe to do it? I’m scared because it means she’s growing up, she’s leaving me, she’s becoming a woman, she’s not my little girl, and I can’t protect her anymore. I mean, what if she likes it too much and stops focusing on school because she likes it so much? What if she gets pregnant and it ruins her life? I’m just scared and don’t know where to even start.”

I’m going to do my best to unpack some of this, but again, the answers could be an entire book, and I direct you to Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape for a deeper dive. It can be hard to give resources and concrete advice because this cultural conversation is evolving, and it might go in directions I don’t expect.

At this moment, I want to lean into the ways we can further conversations and listen to the type of support girls are asking for from parents.

Sixteen-year-old Zandy requested, “Please tell parents to bring up sex with more ease. I feel like they’re subconsciously looking at it like their girl is about to lose something. It’s not a loss of her purity or childhood, that’s insane and some bullshit. Don’t frame it like a loss.

 

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