Jen's Reviews > Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality

Dilemmas of Desire by Deborah L. Tolman
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's review
May 08, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: feminist-etc, counseling-related

Who bears the responsibility for a teenage pregnancy? Is it possible to balance out the fear and objectification of the current ways children and adolescents learn about sexuality, including graphic slides of STD sores and music videos of strong, implicit messages about gender and sexuality? Is there room for women to have desire when the messages about being objects and gatekeepers prove to be internalized?
Tolman sets out to illuminate how girls describe their sexual desires, which is neglected in research that covers more extensively the risks and dangers associated with female sexuality in adolescence. What she reports she found, however, was that young women reached barriers to their own desires, choices, behaviors, and even experiences that prevented them from being able to express these things, or even acknowledge them. This feminist work provides a starting place for asking questions about the void of authentic support, calling parents, teachers, and researchers to provide more validation for the complex process girls must navigate during their sexual development.
Recipient of the 2003 Distinguished Book Award by the American Women in Psychology, Dilemmas of Desire features interviews with 31 adolescent women, with research woven as context for the reports. Tolman uses qualitative methodologies – which she has established in other texts – to answer some of these questions, arguing that young women have little safe space to express or even develop their sexuality. She expands on this by explaining the Listening Guide in the final chapter. Tolman emphasizes the importance of sexual subjectivity, defined on page 11 as “the ability to know and express oneself as a sexual person with desires, rights, and boundaries…”
Tolman outlines the problem that “the dynamics underpinning pressure on girls to restrain their sexuality have become more subtle and variable than before” in the introduction, and shows that boys who express sexuality are considered healthy, while girls are seen as bad. She goes on to say that controlling female sexuality is a major component to the oppression of women on which patriarchy finds its base, citing Adrienne Rich’s use of the term “compulsory heterosexuality” as a way of maintaining gender inequity.
As a developmental researcher, Tolman completed her doctoral studies with Carol Gilligan, who is known for confronting the “morality of care” so that women’s voices can be heard among the quantitative research that can label men’s experiences normal and incorrectly pathologizing women whose experience differs. Tolman also quotes another major influence, Michelle Fine, through different parts of the book, including this on page 80: “While too few safe spaces exist for adolescent women’s exploration of sexual subjectivities, there are all too many dangerous spots for their exploitation.”
A theme through most of the interviews is the girls’ awareness that having sexual intercourse puts them at risk. The idea that it might be part of regular, healthy development to begin having desire clashes with the messages that feature more prominently for girls. Tolman argues that the roles that women are allowed by society serve to keep them subservient; for those that admit to sexual desire or behavior, they understand that disclosing this is likely to lead to “being judged,” as one girl says, often by hurting one’s reputation and being labeled a slut or a “bad girl.”
The book consists of seven chapters and then further explanation, notes, and references follow. It starts with “Getting beyond ‘It just happened’” which sets up the background and rationale for the research questions and approaches. The second chapter talks about the sample of girls that she interviewed, explaining the value of having girls from both urban and suburban schools, those that disclosed sexual abuse or rape and how she responded, and sexual orientation. This chapter also talks about the unexpected silence and lack of safety she sensed when she had the girls meet together for a simple orientation. The next five chapters offer the interview content and the information and interpretation of what the girls said. Tolman first introduces those who could not acknowledge or sense sexual desire. They “did not experience their sexual desire as posing a dilemma – they lived it.” With each chapter, she moves on to discussing girls who have greater recognition of sexual desire, illustrating the different conflicts that each experiences.
Tolman offers directions for providing safer space for girls, especially recommending that adult women normalize the dilemmas and inequality of sexual development. She briefly mentions that boys need more appropriate spaces and ways of learning about male sexuality, and pushes for both to learn about the gender inequality in relationships. This is one part of the book, however, that lacks depth and context. It may be that Tolman considers the realm of male sexual development outside of the scope of this work, but there are questions left unanswered about adolescent boys that seem crucial to improving the health and balancing power.
Tolman’s success in arguing that women and girls have few healthy choices because of society’s conflicting messages presents comes from her integration of the actual words of those she interviewed with research. Though this qualitative approach may require thinking about gathering information in a new way, Tolman presents her information articulately and thoughtfully. Some of my frustration as a reader comes more from the inability of the girls to name or claim any of the emotional or cognitive processes involved in their decisions – which is exactly how Tolman demonstrates that the dilemmas occur within adolescents. Not surprisingly, Tolman is currently conducting longitudinal studies on the role of social context of television on the abilities of boys and girls to pursue healthy relationships. I look forward to reading more from her as she illuminates such an ignored contribution to adolescent development.
I recommend this book for its clear, strong message and because it opens a topic that we desperately need to include in parenting and education. Tolman says that this project prompted her to consider – for the first time! – some of the ways that her sexual development had been impeded by societal messages of danger. If someone with an early and well-developed sense of the obstacles to female sexuality learns something from the voices of young women, then it is something that will provide readers with meaningful insight that is both personal and cultural.

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