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3 ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ What’s a Young Woman (Not) to Think? Sifting through Early Messages about Hetero-Relations It’s funny how you just pick up these messages so early on. I mean, it’s not like anybody even necessarily has to teach you directly, but you get these messages all growing up, and whether you believe them in your conscious mind or not, . . . they kind of stick. Sometimes you try to fight against them with what you think now, but they still nag at you from the back of your mind. Those early messages . . . it’s hard to put your finger on them exactly, but they’re a lot more powerful than you’d like to think. —Diana, 21, “bisexual,” “white” I BEGAN THIS STUDY seeking clearer understandings of the nuances and apparent contradictions in young women’s contemporary thinking about their hetero-relations. In conducting the interviews, however, I came to understand that their current perceptions and relational decisions were rooted in lessons learned in childhood and early adolescence.1 As women spoke, stories about these early lessons wove in and out of their re- flections on both their past and present experiences. Consistent with my understanding of the social construction of subjectivity, it quickly became clear that I could not do justice to women’s fluid and multifaceted subjective experiences without first backing up to examine the cultural messages that, early on, began to contextualize their current perceptions. Eager to understand these early influences, I asked them what kinds of messages they had received from their families, their teachers, their peers, and the media. What did their caregivers or siblings tell them (through their words or their actions) about sex, gender, and romance? What had they learned in sex education? What kinds of books, magazines, TV shows, and videos were they drawn to, and what did these sources have to say about hetero-relations? What about pornography? How did their friendships and adolescent sexual experiences help to shape their early understandings ? I wanted to learn what types of images and ideas they found most compelling, what they resisted, and what they accepted as simply “the truth.” As I asked such questions, women’s memories came pouring forth. At times they were comical, as when Andrea laughingly told of her childhood penchant for Brady Bunch reruns, and of how she came to believe that the kind and virtuous Carol Brady (the mother on that show) was the ideal image of a “good woman.” Sometimes they were painful, as when Robin described the sense she got from her sex education teacher that women’s bodies were dirty and that normal women did not feel desire . Often messages that seemed troubling to women in retrospect had simply seemed like “a given” at the time, as when Wendy recalled her grandmother’s cautions that when it comes to relationships, “men don’t come through.” Like Diana, women noted that they were not always conscious of receiving these messages at the time. But those early ideas and images had clearly made a strong impression, and often they had left them feeling deeply conflicted about male and female entitlement and responsibility in their hetero-relationships. The young women I interviewed felt a strong need during adolescence for information and spaces to talk about sexuality and relationships. Yet few expressed satisfaction with the types of information they received or the forms in which they received it. Since the women in this study came through middle school and high school during a time when HIV/AIDS was well known (although still often misunderstood) and teenage pregnancy was framed as a public emergency, I had hoped that their educators would have been more forthcoming about sexuality and relationships than 34 ❙ What’s a Young Woman (Not) to Think? my own were some twenty-five years ago. However, the participants’ early educations also took shape during the conservative Reagan/Bush era of the late 1980s and early 1990s. While liberals and conservatives engaged in heated debates regarding the distribution of condoms, access to information about birth control and abortion, parental notification/consent, and the inclusion of gay and lesbian sexualities in the curriculum, schools increasingly chose or were forced to retreat from discussions of “controversial ” issues like abortion or birth control, let alone desire.2 Never particularly progressive from its inception, school-based sex education became ever more watered down in the face of mounting pressures from the Right. As the participants’ experiences confirmed, sex...


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MARC Record
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