December 30, 2000

"Have sex to be popular." "Be skinny to fit in." "I’m only 16 but I feel like I’ve been around this world twice." These are some of the provocative things teenage girls are saying about their struggles with sex, peer pressure, and body image. Voices of a Generation: Teenage Girls on Sex, School, and Self, a new report released today by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation, describes and analyzes differences among girls' responses by race, ethnicity, and region.

"This report is a warning flag to America’s parents and teachers," said AAUW Educational Foundation President Sharon Schuster. "As students return to school, we need to be thinking about more than test scores and vouchers. Because the social and academic aspects of school are inextricably intertwined, educators must also address the difficult issues teens face."

Voices of a Generation is based on Sister-to-Sister Summits sponsored nationwide by AAUW to bring together teenage girls ages 11-17 to talk openly with each other about the most important issues they face today. From November 1997 to November 1998, girls participating in these summits answered six questions about their daily lives. The report is a detailed analysis of responses by 2,100 girls.

Girls want to learn how to say no to sex and still say yes to intimacy. Sex and pregnancy are the number one issues facing teenage girls today. While the majority of girls list sex and boys as major issues in their lives, only a handful of girls discuss "love" or "sexuality." One girl suggests that schools should "educate everyone that there are other ways of showing affection besides sex." Girls say they need the tools to learn how to say no and how to negotiate emotionally charged relationships.

According to the report:

Girls admit that sexual pressure comes not just from boys but from other girls, from their friends, and from the media. Astoundingly, the only age group not to mention "pressure to have sex" at all are the 11-year-olds.

While the pressure on teenage girls to have sex at an early age knows no ethnic, racial, or geographic bounds, African American and Hispanic girls cite pregnancy as an issue in their lives more than white and Asian American girls and do so at a younger age.

African American and Hispanic girls describe pregnancy as a "choice," though not one they generally condone, while white and Asian American girls describe it as an "accident" and caution against the "risks" and "dangers" of sex.

Only a small number of girls voice concern about birth control, abortion, and AIDS despite all their talk about sex.
"Girls want to learn how to say ‘yes’ to relationships without automatically saying ‘yes’ to sex," Schuster said. "They don’t want sex to be an all or nothing issue. They’re missing the middle ground of affection, intimacy, and relationships."

The Need to Belong. Voices of a Generation reflects the conflicting pressures teenage girls face today – pressure to fit in, to look and act a certain way, to have sex, do drugs, and drink. The pressure to be popular and cool competes against the hidden "authentic" self that many girls admit they repress to be included. White and Asian American girls talk about the "pressure to fit in" far more than Hispanic and African American girls.

A number of girls talk about the climate of sexual harassment in schools. Girls frequently cite incidents of boys as young as 12 or 13 calling girls "bitches," "sluts," and "whores" or making crude requests for sex. One 13-year-old writes: "Once someone told me to have sex with them, and when I didn’t because I’m not that kind of girl ... they called me a bitch and a lesbian."

Mirror, mirror on the wall. Voices of a Generation notes the conflicting roles girls face as they struggle with what it means to be a girl today. They are torn between a traditional view of femininity and the contemporary realities of being a woman. As one girl writes, "Girls need a clear definition of girls or women. We are encouraged to be assertive through TV, magazines, and some adults, but we're punished indirectly by the world when we do."

The report also finds that many girls point their fingers at the media for promoting a very narrow, restrictive image of women and girls as skinny, sexually alluring, and popular to the exclusion of more important attributes and values. A summit participant writes, "...Media messages tell us to be a certain shape and size, our friends and peers want us to like certain things, our parents wish we’d act a specific way. With all the different messages from all different angles, it is sometimes hard for a girl just to find the person she really is."

Taking action. Educators focus on academics and standards, yet generally ignore social pressures girls face every day in school. Girls’ propose innovative solutions to help them combat these pressures.

Call to girls: Many girls note that the problems and issues they face are related to boys. The girls propose innovative boy-girl summits to address these issues together and better learn to understand each other.

Call to schools: Girls need real tools to help them navigate the stormy waters of teen sexuality. They call on schools to move beyond "just say no" and abstinence training to help them better understand the complex social and emotional nature of relationships, not just the basic anatomy and biology of sex.

Call to the media: Girls want the media to show "real bodies, not made up thin ones." Many call on their peers to boycott magazines and TV shows that promote unrealistic images of women.

"When it comes to school and education, it is critical that we listen to what our teens have to say about the issues they face." said AAUW President Sandy Bernard. "These girls are coming up with important recommendations as they call on schools to improve sex education and challenge the media to present realistic and powerful images of women and girls."

The AAUW Educational Foundation is one of the largest sources of funding for graduate women in the U.S. and abroad and commissions groundbreaking research on educational equity. AAUW, representing 150,000 college graduates in 1,500 communities, is the nation's leading advocate for education and equity for women and girls.

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