SSL Interview: Deborah Tolman (Part 1)

This is the second in my series of SSL interviews in which I highlight people whom I believe have contributed positively to the realistic perspective on female sexuality that Science Sex and the Ladies supports.

I have included Deborah Tolman in this series because, along with her career-long dedication to considering important and novel topics in sexuality with a keen feminist eye, she also wrote a book called Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality. This book is a qualitative study where Tolman speaks to 31 suburban and urban teen girls about their experiences of desire, and she opens our eyes to the very real and often adverse consequences of their wrestling with the heavily gendered cultural expectations surrounding teens and sex. In our movie, Science Sex and the Ladies, Dilemmas of Desire was used to illustrate how these cultural expectation force girls to shoulder an unfair amount of sexual burden, and it begin a discussion about what consequences those burdens have on our understanding of female sexuality. 

I don’t want to gush, but this is a fabulous book. For me, a by-night researcher, this book bridged important thought paths I was exploring at the time, but that’s not why it’s great. I would recommend this book to anyone, particularly anyone who may be involved in the raising of a teenager anytime in the future. Tolman takes teenage sexuality, a subject that so many people- even very thoughtful and smart people, think they have figured out to some degree, and displays for the reader the complexity and contradictions of the situation from a girl’s perspective, showing us that a developing sexuality is more than just a set of personal qualities and personal choices. And the girls…their voices, even when they are silent or confused or unsure, their voices are potent.

So read Dilemmas of Desire, but first read the rest of this interview. I can’t say enough about how excited I was to see the response email from Tolman the day after I sent out my first round of letters to authors I was interested in interviewing. I was quite unsure about what kind of responses I would get back, but I was overwhelmed by Tolman’s curiosity and willingness to engage in discussion. She introduced me to the SPARK movement (which will be profiled in the next SSL interview), and I was even treated to a sneak peak of her current work which is to become a book. Our interview was over the phone on a hot July day, and I was happy to find that Tolman is as vibrant and engaging over the phone as she is through email.

One of the reasons that I really wanted to interview you was because your research comes from a point of view where desire and sexual agency is expected of a healthy adolescent girl. Can you talk a little about how you got there and why this point of view is novel and important?

Deborah Tolman:
I became interested in this particular question about desire after reading Michelle Fine's 1988 paper on adolescent sexuality, “Sexuality, Schooling, and Adolescent Females: The Missing Discourse of Desire.” And, that really kind of caught my eye. I was interested in, you know, teen pregnancy, helping people after coming out of my work at Guttmacher, but really my interest had always lain with more front and center sexuality questions not just consequences; which are hard sorts of questions to have in a world where the only way people were talking about girls is in terms of diminishing their risks - keeping them from doing a bad thing. And, I never thought it was a particularly bad thing if you did it responsibly and consensually. So, I had that part of it too. I sort of had my own knowledge that all these ways of talking about girls sexuality didn't represent the full range of what I knew sexuality to be for adolescents, having not long before that been one and known a lot of them. 

So I started being interested in that question, and when I did a literature review...the only thing that came up was “Missing Discourse of Desire.” The only thing that came up was that paper about what we don't know. And as I started to research what we did know about girl's sexuality, there was a laundry list of predictors that people were looking at to explain girls having intercourse (which was really the only question people were asking, you know - protected/unprotected a little bit, but up or down was kind of the question). I was stunned by the cottage industry that really had built up around this question, but that no one had asked the question or thought maybe one reason they might is because they want to. And, it just seemed like a really seriously missing question.

So when you study an arena where no one knows anything, and I actually probably didn't know this then, but the best way to start is to talk to the people who know about it. And so, I just had a very simple question about, you know, do girls experience sexual desire? We don't know anything about this. There were kind of hints of it in that paper by Michelle Fine, but not really a lot of information about it actually...and I was also working with Carol (me: she's speaking of Carol Gilligan here) and thinking about the dynamics in girl's psychological development and where sexuality fit into that...So that kind of came together in this question about how do girls experience desire and if we thought about it as a normative part of adolescence, and frankly why wouldn't we if you stop to think about it, right? 

It's normal to become a sexual person in adolescence, and there was literature on how that was expected of boys. Becoming a sexual actor was actually how it was phrased...but not about girls. So it was really kind of a direct and simple question. What are girls’ experiences?...What are their experiences of sexual feelings of their own? They have them. What's that like for them? 

It is normal to become a sexual person. It is not normal to become an alcoholic or someone who uses drugs or someone who's violent, and those are the things that are usually packaged together - sex, drugs and violence as problems for adolescent risk behaviors, and sexuality just didn't seem to belong there. It wasn't a full accounting of what sexuality was about or development into sexuality was about in adolescence, so that's how I got to the question.

The name of the book is Dilemmas of Desire, and what you show is that each girl deals with the dilemmas involved in having desire and being a teen girl in her own way; and often by disassociating in some way from their desire. Could you speak to that?
So girls are not really supposed to have strong sexual feelings. I mean it's sort of lurking in the periphery, the recognition that it kind of must be true, somehow, but if we really gave girls full fledged access culturally to their sexual feelings, then the whole system would fall apart, because girls are still expected to be gatekeepers. They expect themselves to be gatekeepers, and they are expected by everyone in their lives and our society to be gatekeepers. So if they actually had sexual feelings and don't fulfill that role, then all hell's gonna break loose. So it's still very problematic for girls to recognize their sexual feelings and act on them – proactively. Though there's ways that girls do it (that is, act on their sexual feelings) that may keep them hidden from other people so that they can avoid this moniker that comes with girls who act on their sexual feelings, particularly outside the realm of condoned relational context - which is a sort of imitation heterosexual marriage context.
I think some of the most powerful aspects of your book are the points you make about how these girls are dealing with the same, I guess you could say, systematic oppression when it comes to their sexual agency, but most of them are dealing with it as if it is a personal problem. Can you tell us about this issue?

Well, I think that that's how social control works. We're meant to think that this is our personal problem, right, because the consequences are personal, either physically, materially, psychologically, or socially. I mean there's nothing that's self evident about how this is a social problem since we construct sexuality solely in our public discourse in terms of our individual development, in part because we tied it to our individual bodies doing their individual unfolding thing. So that conception leads you to think about you and your own problems, but if you know that there's a larger story that you're living in relation to, then that changes everything.

Yeah, you mentioned in the book and this is something I think about a lot, about consciousness raising groups from the 70’s and how they were dealing with the same idea - exploring personal issues that are political.

Yeah – right -  things that have always been framed as personal and individual and taboo to talk about, almost keeping us from talking about them because if we do, then we're gonna all discover we're all struggling with the same thing, and what does that mean? How do we make sense of that? Then we might start figuring out that it's not just about us as individual people but about us as a group.

Something you might actually be able to change


I’m curious about the process you need to go through in order to do a study with minors and particularly a study about sexuality with minors. It couldn’t have been that easy.

I mean it wasn’t as hard as people imagine, and it’s generally not as hard as people imagine. I mean certainly when I identify a sample and distribute active consent forms, which is what I do, there are certainly children...who don’t want to participate, and there are parents who say no. I mean, parents have to actively say yes before I can interview girls in a school context. And so, when I was garnering consent for the participants in the Dilemmas study, I had…some people who said no, parents who said no, kids who said no, but primarily they said yes. It’s a very small minority who say no…That has not been my problem. Increasingly the problem for school based research is not about asking questions about sex. It’s just about getting time – with, you know, (all the) testing – that’s much more of a barrier now.

Yeah, you know, I find people want to talk about their sexuality and sex more than you would ever think they do.

Well, I think girls and young people do when it is someone who really and truly wants to hear what they have to say; really and truly is capable of listening and not freaking out, so is not lying to them when they say they really want to hear what they have to say and really and truly want to learn from them and believes that they are experts, which they are. I think this is in the book. I had girls who were like, “what is wrong with you, are you a pervert? Why are you asking me these questions?” but they finished the interview…When kids don’t want to participate, they don’t. When kids don’t want to talk, they don’t. I mean aside from the ethical reasons for not forcing someone. Even if it were ethical, you wouldn’t get anywhere.

In the book you say, you wish you had been more prepared for the way their words and pauses affected you. Can you tell me about that?

I wonder what I meant by that (laughs). I mean if you sit for a ten second pause, it’s a really long time. It’s a really long time to sit, silently and receptively, and it made me think about why, and certainly there is the hesitation factor, but I also think part of the reason why is that girls so infrequently, at this time at least I think it’s still for the most part true, never really talked about this part of their lives. Or if they did, they have sort of this habitual story that they tell which may not include some of the things that I asked them to include in their stories, like their bodies for example. And so it’s hard to talk about something you don’t talk about. It’s hard to find the words. I mean, it’s also hard to talk about sexual experiences. Putting language to sexual experiences is in of itself a hard thing to do. And not necessarily plausible, you could argue, in all cases. It’s very hard to describe embodied experience in words.

I’m also very interested in orgasm and masturbation among adolescent females…

Believe me, everything I could find out about orgasm and masturbation was in the book. That’s how little there was. I asked them all the questions, and some of them described orgasm. A lot of them didn’t. A lot of girls said, “Well, I’m not sure.” That’s usually kind of a big sign. And masturbation for most of them was completely like, “what are you talking about. Like why would I do that, there’s no one there.” Although some girls did talk about masturbation, and then it kind of, because these were communities, it sometimes got a conversation about masturbation started between friends which was really interesting and unexpected.

Yes, I believe in the book you say the one girl (the only one really) who masturbated unapologetically and one of the girls who was in a sort of nice more long term relationship were friends, and they talked.

Yeah and that was not something that they had ever talked about before, and the one who did was shocked that the one who didn’t – didn’t, and it got them talking about something in their lives that was really helpful for them to talk about.

Now for a very important question. You use pseudonyms for the girls in the book, and one of them is named Trisha, which is my name – any particular reason?

(Laughs)It was a combination of the girls choosing names and honestly just me getting names of people who reminded me of the girls – no body close in…Like Eugenia, she chose her own name, which is something I would have never come up with.
But I always ask girls to choose their own names and boys too, because I interview boys now.

Check back on Monday, August 22nd for the final installment of my interview with Deborah Tolman.

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