Tales to bust taboos

Dilemmas of Desire
September 5, 2003

At the heart of this illuminating study, Deborah Tolman contends that youth sexuality is about double standards: "As a society, we parcel sexuality out, assuming that normal boys but not girls have 'raging hormones' - and that normal girls not boys long for emotional connection and relationships." Tolman states: "We have effectively desexualised girls' sexuality, substituting the desire for relationship and emotional connection for sexual feelings in their bodies."

In an attempt to redress this imbalance Dilemmas of Desire deals with female agency. Tolman interviewed a group of 31 girls aged 15-18 in suburban and inner-city locations drawn from different ethnic groups. Their stories make up the bulk of the book. Her subjects voice fears of being seen as sluts, of pregnancy, of Aids, as well as of rape and assault. The sample includes girls who have experienced rape, violence and sexual abuse. Many claim that they are opening up by talking about desire for the first time.

Interestingly, some of the interviewees only substantiate the stereotypes that Tolman wants to destroy. Seventeen-year-old Inez explains away her first sexual experience with the expression "it just happened". These words form the theme of the first chapter where the phrase is taken variously to connote "cover story", voice of the not yet totally constructed sexual self, and an "unsafe and unhealthy story for girls". This reinforces the good girl/bad girl dichotomy that runs through the book.

It was a long-standing criticism of the old studies of youth culture that girls (and gays) were largely ignored as a result of subcultural theorists' over-concentration on gangs and street-corner society. This account then is welcome for its taboo-busting attitude. But it potentially goes too far the other way: in her quest to prioritise girls' voices, it could be argued that Tolman has silenced any consideration of boys, providing a resultingly lopsided account.

On the subject of homosexuality, Tolman evokes the theory of "compulsory heterosexuality". The two bisexual girls and one lesbian interviewed make it clear that openly discussing sexual feelings held towards other girls carries the risk of societal disapproval. It would have been good to have more on this point.

The interviewees' testimonies bring this book to life. But Dilemmas of Desire is not simply a swath of decontextualised interview transcript. Tolman locates herself firmly in feminist tradition, arguing, for example that "girls' and women's knowledge is dangerous because it threatens to reveal that power differentials and abuses are not simply the way things should be".

Written in a welcome jargon-free style, this book should appeal to a wider audience than just academics. Despite its US-centredness, given that the UK boasts the dubious statistic of the world's highest teenage-pregnancy rate, Dilemmas of Desire deserves to find a readership on this side of the pond too.

Rupa Huq is lecturer in leisure management, University of Manchester.

Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality

Author - Deborah L. Tolman
ISBN - 0 674 00895 2
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £17.95
Pages - 259

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