Why Do Girls Have to be Scared into Womanhood?
Would you say getting catcalled by construction workers qualifies as a rite of passage for girls who come of age in NYC? I was not particularly savvy as a teen, but I knew I didn’t want grown men to pay attention to me. Perhaps my choice of apparel could have been better curated by the adults in my life: why did they let me go out in too tight T-shirts or jeans that needed to be zipped up with coat hangers? But setting aside my wardrobe malfunctions for a moment, I know there is no good excuse for grown men engaging young girls in a sexual manner. And I say this knowing that girl-men relations are a thing of our documented human history, and remain so in many societies. Just consider the age of consent ages set by various countries: You can be as young as 11 years old in Nigeria and 13 years old in Japan to have sexual relations, and in the United States, the age range is between 16-18 years old.
As a thirteen year old, how mentally and emotionally ready are you when it comes to participating in relations with people, let alone men? Perhaps there are girls at thirteen who do have a grasp of their feelings on what it means to be a girl and a soon-to-be woman, having parents who are able to talk to have that “sex” talk with them, but I didn’t and neither did many of my peers. I had to work out these feelings out on my own as my parents were unable to offer much useful information as it was a subject they themselves were not comfortable with. I was the girl who was going to need a lot of time to acknowledge and accept that I had sexual feelings, so having men burden me with their distorted take on desire made my work even more fraught. And though I usually agree that personal growth does require some adversity, as it is the overcoming of difficulties that brings forth insight, I will say that having to overcome other people’s inappropriate sexual conduct is not the kind of epiphany I was seeking.
I wonder how men think they configure into the lives of young women. If not in a paternal role, then what’s the other option? Is the default sexual? As in taking part in a young woman’s sexual awakening? How did our teenage sexuality become so embedded in the popular culture? As I ask this question, I am reminded of the 1985 movie “Smooth Talk” based on a Joyce Carol Oates story about a fifteen-year old girl who seemed to be looking for Mr. Goodbar, but then again maybe that’s not really what she was doing, because at fifteen there is a struggle to reconcile one’s conflicting urges: remain a child or become a woman? Well, the becoming a woman part is non-negotiable, but how we enter into womanhood ought to be. In reading over some of the critics’ notes on “Smooth Talk,” one recurring perspective was that in order to leave “girlhood” girls must face some sort of bogeyman. One reviewer wrote, “He’s literally the monster girls must face when it comes to abandoning girlhood” (Cinapse, March 10, 2016).
And then there’s the “fine line between seduction and rape” as noted by a critic in the Harvard Crimson (Wurtzel, Elizabeth, “Cruising Back to Adolescence,” April 25, 1986) who went on to notice how “desire and fear become one and the same” for our heroine as she looks for the thing that she cannot name. She may not know what it is she is looking for, but I question our culture’s assumption that it has to be a bogeyman. Why do girls have to be scared into womanhood? Even butterflies get to have their private chrysalis stage––their transformation free from public consumption.
I was 15 in 1985. I had my first make-out session that year and then met my first boyfriend the year after, and in retrospect I wish I had waited. Though my peers were veterans by then, having started their experimentations with boys when they were thirteen and fourteen, I don’t think they gained anything through their early sexual encounters. Especially when the research says our brains are developing up to age 25. According to research published by the National Institutes of Health:
The frontal lobes, home to key components of the neural circuitry underlying “executive functions” such as planning, working memory, and impulse control, are among the last areas of the brain to mature; they may not be fully developed until halfway through the third decade of life.
(Johnson, Sara B., Robert W. Blum, and Jay N. Giedd. “Adolescent Maturity and the Brain: The Promise and Pitfalls of Neuroscience Research in Adolescent Health Policy.” The Journal of adolescent health : official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine 45.3 (2009): 216–221. PMC. Web. 28 Aug. 2018.)
My brain and my body were at cross-purposes for much of my teenage years: my body putting out breasts and getting ready for the menses process, my brain stuck on the Muppet Show and making clothes for my paper dolls. It would have been good to know back then.
I watched Smooth Talk when it came to TV. I don’t know that it captured my plight as a fifteen year old because, but I did identify with being confronted with pressures from a society that pushes you to be older than you are ready to be. But we can push back by rethinking how we relate to each other in the sexual realm. Our sexuality is an essential aspect of our humanness. The power we garner from a healthy sexual self-image is what fuels our creativity, our drive to be successful and strong, as well as our capacity to be compassionate and kind. It is our core and what makes each of us unique and non-other. And why each person must decide how they will express their sexual identity and why it is so heart wrenching when that power is taken away from us.
At 48, I’m still that fifteen year old girl who jumped out of her skin every time she was ogled by men who should have known better, but who themselves fell victim to the macho-men brain washing that taught them it was okay and normal to exhibit these chauvinistic responses to the young women in their midst. And at 48, I am a woman who can decipher this phenomenon for what it is: Society’s worthless baggage that we must toss to the curb.
Jiwon Choi: "I am a poet, teacher and urban gardener. I teach preschool at the Educational Alliance, a multi-generation non-profit located on the Lower East Side of NYC. I am also a long-time urban gardener and membership coordinator for the Pacific Street Brooklyn Bear’s Community Garden located near Downtown Brooklyn.
"One Daughter is Worth Ten Sons, published by Hanging Loose Press in 2017, is my first book of poetry. I live in Brooklyn, NY."