SSL Interview: Deborah Tolman (Part 2)

This is the 2nd half of my SSL interview with Deborah Tolman. Check out the first installment here. Before I go on to the interview, I thought I’d give you a quick rundown of her educational and career history.

Deborah Tolman has been interested in and working with sexuality issues her whole adult life. In fact, even before adulthood, her intellectual curiosity of Victorian pornography as a teenager followed her into college where she studied history and literature. Her senior thesis was about women’s sexual awakening in Middlemarch by George Eliot. She also became interested in social science during this time; being that she had a professor who was interested in sexuality questions, and importantly, in Tolman’s sexuality questions.

Her first job out of college was at the Guttmacher Institute, and this sparked an interest in qualitative research. “I was very taken by the fact that no one who worked there had ever been in an abortion clinic even though they were producing all the abortion statistics in the country,  which is how I got interested in qualitative research. Just the notion that nobody was talking to the people who were going through these experiences…was very troubling to me.”

She attained a Masters in Sexual Education from Pennsylvania University, and went on to work with Mary Calderone on an oral history and in various areas at SIECUS (Sex Information and Education Council of the United States). Among other accomplishments, she eventually gained an Ed.D in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University, founded and directed The Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality,  co-sponsored the SPARK Summit Movement to challenge the sexualization of girls, and is currently a professor of social welfare and psychology at the Hunter College School of Social Work and the Graduate Center of CUNY.

In the book you talk about some ways that we can begin to tackle the issues associated with girl’s sexuality that you raise in Dilemmas of Desire, but you also acknowledge how far reaching and complicated this issue is. I know you’ve been working in some activist arenas, so since this book, have your thoughts on the issue changed?

Well to be honest with you, I'm more flummoxed than ever because things have gotten much more complicated in the interim. When I first started working on this issue, the idea of sexual agency for girls was really like off the charts and new and innovative and weird and scary…but I think things have gotten much more fraught and complicated and difficult.

Kind of the minute girls’ desire became something people might acknowledge, it instantaneously became commodified…And, then there’s the notion of women having choices, which is a good thing except that if we don't question what the choices are, then that can be problematic and kind of re-instantiates the notion that we're just individuals doing our individual thing - which I think very much happened since I wrote the book. We are in a very neo-liberal moment where the idea that we're groups of people by which things happen has really fallen by the wayside, and we're all just individuals making individual choices, but no one is asking about the choices, who is putting them out there, and why are we making them, and what are the consequences. What other choices might we make if we just weren’t picking at this, what I call, this sparse buffet of choices? And so a whole discourse rose up around sexual agency as highly individualistic and at the same time was literally kind of cannibalized by things like the Girls Gone Wild franchise…(Then there is) the rising up of Raunch Culture, as Ariel Levy calls it, which has very much complicated the idea of sexual agency, because now what we have are a lot of representations of women who look like sexual agency and frankly they may even feel like sexual agency, but if you listen and look carefully at what women are doing and feeling, the sense that I get from the evidence I’ve been able to find is that what we really have more than ever is performances of sexual agency - which is a really hard nut to crack, even a hard thing to talk about.

Right, so you're performing sexual agency, but you're not really experiencing it or feeling it. So as young women are performing this way of being a sexual person, they're not embodied. It's still not about their own feelings and their own bodies. And the fact that a lot of women who are engaging in these kinds of experiences are drunk, which seems to be very pervasive, to me is very telling. Why so much drinking? Why do we have to get so drunk to do this? Once again, I think it's because it's not necessarily about what we want and what we feel.

You have interviewed girls since the interviews you did for Dilemmas of Desire. Do you feel as though things have changed significantly or not?
In some ways, yes, and in others, absolutely not…The concept of slut is alive and well as we know. I don’t know if you’ve been following the Slut Walks.

I have.

You just can’t believe we’re there again...The concept is completely entrenched...My sense is that the issue is that we never really got at the problem.

Yeah, it seems to me like kids, adults, pretty much everyone recognizes that there is a double standard, and are often appalled by it, yet at the same time go on living it and perpetuating it.

…If things had really changed…If that were the case, then the concept of the slut would be gone. It is not gone. We learn this story about doing what we want to do, but what we're doing is what we're told we should do, and what we're being told we should do has nothing to do with our sexuality, our feeling, our bodies.

I’d like to ask you about something. It’s kind of a tricky topic, I think. Most rapes are committed by a person whom the victim has some sort of relationship, and the victim may even have a romantic or sexual feeling towards that person. And in our book you do show us girls who are clearly confused at times about what they do and don’t want in partnered sexual situation and I think this is a really important aspect to the discussion surrounding rape and sexual assault but even bringing it up might seem as though – you know –it’s a step towards blaming the victim, and so what are your thoughts on that, and do you think we can have a nuanced discussion about this?

Well, I mean, it’s tricky in part because it’s a legal issue, and it’s very hard to have nuanced contradictory discussions about legal issues. It’s a black and white context. That said, I think it’s very, very complicated for a lot of people vis-a-vis their own experiences. And we know that a lot of young women describe experiences that fit the legal definition of sexual assault and do not understand, label, or maybe experience those things as sexual assault. The Bristol Palin situation is currently under discussion along those very terms. What does consent mean? Consent is very murky ground in a lot of ways, and there’s not a lot of agreement about when consent is established. So consensual and non consensual sex is definitely tricky territory. But, at the same time, it wouldn’t be so tricky if there were no big deal to acknowledging that, that’s a yes. “Yes, that’s what I want to do.” Yes. And, if girls and women could just say yes, and just say no, and I’ve said this I think in the book and elsewhere, then yes would mean yes and no would mean no. But if we can’t say yes, then no serves as both yes and no, even though legally, it doesn’t…So if girl’s can say yes and mean it and they can say no and mean it, then things would be much easier for everybody.

Are you asking boys the same types of questions in the research you are doing now?

No, I haven’t interviewed boys about desire, though I think that would be a great thing to do and really really hard because the cultural story about desire for boys is so so so monolithic…You know, asking boys to think about whether or not they are actually experiencing orgasm when they ejaculate is probably a pretty complicated thing to do, although I do think they are separate phenomenon…(There’s) a couple different directions I’ve gone, and I’m working on pulling this all together now. Hopefully a new book will come out about it. It’ll be a little while, but it will come.

One of the things I noticed when the girls talked about their sexual experiences was how much they were talking about the role of gender in organizing their sexual experiences in different relational context, and the ways that concepts about gender were just so enormously rooted in everything that they were talking about sexually and having to do with romantic relationships. And so, that was sorta the next direction I’ve gone in, and I feel like it’s been very fortuitous, and it’s the right direction because ultimately when we look at this phenomenon and things not really changing, that’s what really hasn’t changed - our gendered ideas about how boys and girls (these are heterosexual relationships), how boys and girls are supposed to play these things out. They remain extremely gendered; both girls’ expectations of themselves and boys’ expectations of girls and vice versa…and I suspect that this is the heart of how change will be possible. It really has to be at that deep deep level of gender and what the choices might be for being an acceptable gendered person.

And in part, the development of queer theory and queer politics really raised this up so it’s much more visible than it was and really challenged some of the ways we organize our relationships and sexuality around gender. So part of what I’m doing with these boys and girls is listening to how they talk about their relationship and about how girls are talking about themselves and boys and how boys are talking about themselves and girls; and trying to hear how that is actually working to reproduce these gender inequities in relationships that are about sex itself, but also about the relational context in which it happens.

I want to thank Deborah Tolman for her time, her book, and the work she has put into important sexuality questions throughout her life. It was an absolute pleasure to talk with her. And, like I said before, her book Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality is a must read for anyone involved in any way with teenagers. 

The next SSL interview will be with Dana Edell, the Executive Director of SPARK, a movement Deborah Tolman co-founded.

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