(And let’s stop stigmatizing feminine sexuality)
You feel like a bucket of rocks. HE is there. You try not to be seen, turn on your heels and bolt into the nearest stairwell. Music plays in the background and slowly you realize how valuable you are and find meaning in something—or someone—else.
This is the relentlessly portrayed high school breakup: movie version. Moving into the teenage years, I had this image in my mind of relationships being so simple, so clear-cut, exactly like the hundreds of movies that had at that point been ingrained into my mind. What I didn’t understand was what the movies fail to capture.
Last year, I met a girl named Beth* through debate, and we immediately became fast friends. She was a year older than I was, and therefore immensely, extraordinarily cool. Beth seemed to represent what to me was the model of the perfect high school girl—she was beautiful, sarcastic, an intelligent and eloquent arguer and had a cool boyfriend to boot.
It was around that time that I learned Beth suffered from chronic depression. I did not know if it was best to stay by her side at all times or to meet new people, give her some space. When her relationship ended, the perfect analogy that I had made in my mind connecting this girl to some kind of fairy tale began to fall apart with it. The resulting dynamic was not the silent, separated understanding of all high school movies, there was no crystal wall dividing the two. Instead, Ryan* started searching for some kind of revenge. Not only did Ryan spread the fact that they’d had sex, but words like “eager” and “nasty” painted her as some sort of sex-driven maniac.
The epidemic of unwelcome scrutiny of female sexuality extends beyond the phenomenon of the slighted ex. Fiona,* a student at my high school, says, “In English class I really struggle with spelling and comma placement, but basically a guy I sit with always makes crude comments about my bum whenever I try to ask for help so I kind of stop talking and asking for help in that class.”
The transition from the narrative of consent and sexual empowerment that we crank out on a daily basis to this other, darker side of shaming seems fluid, almost as if on a continuum. What’s really harmful here is not only the clear tendency of teenage culture to define us by what they choose to do with their bodies or even by the bodies themselves, but also the impacts that this unique form of bullying have in every area of a girl’s life. From mental health to something as simple as asking for help in class, unneeded sexualization has a tendency to make problems worse when support is needed and silence girls when their voices need to be heard.
On our seemingly eternal quest to become a world of happy, peaceful human beings, there are two key points that we need to take from this. The first is that girls are human beings, with the same basic wants and needs as other human beings. We need to consciously take steps to normalize female sexuality in social media, in writing and in daily life. It is OK! It is not shameful! Everybody across the spectrum of gender and sexuality (although asexuality is of course real and valid) has certain wants and desires, and Ryan’s ability to shame Beth for having those is because we have so heavily stigmatized feminine sexuality to the point where being open about it lends itself to a variety of choice terms.
The second things is, however cliché this may sound, to simply be a kind human being. Understanding that bullying related to sex is ultimately like most other forms of bullying, being an active bystander and supportive force in the lives of teenage girls gains a special kind of importance. If a girl you know, or anyone for that matter, is going through trouble with schoolwork, mental health, family or anything of the kind, be there for her! Be an active, vocal supporter of girls’ health and expression, all day, every day—even when you don’t think you need to. You never know who’s day you could be making!
*Names have been changed
Raina Sparks is a sophomore at Cape Elizabeth High School. Writing is one of her favorite things to do, because it allows her to make her voice heard by using words as a vessel for social change. She is inspired by her experiences as a volunteer at Planned Parenthood, climate activism and the individuals she’s met and grown close to across school and life. Raina’s collection of poetry, “The First Rule of Dancing,” will be based around themes of gender identity as we move through different phases of maturity, and will be published this summer through the Telling Room.