TOLMAN & HIGGINS: HOW BEING A GOOD GIRL CAN BE BAD
ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)
ATALANTA (FREE TO BE YOU AND ME)
I began to read Tolman and Higgins’ article agreeing with virtually everything they wrote until I read their analysis of the sexual acts discussed by Jenny, Sharon and Paulina. I particularly disagree with their analysis of Jenny’s explanation of her experience. Before I explain my reaction, let me summarize their article and highlight some passages.
Tolman and Higgins begin by discussing the consequence of sexuality for women in general:
When women act as sexual agents, expressing their own sexual desire rather than serving as the objects of men's desire, they are often portrayed as threatening, deviant, and bad. Missing is any affirmative account of women's sexual desire. (P 205)
Discussing teenage girls specifically, the authors identify the rigid roles available to girls engaging their sexuality with boys:
(1) bad girls, if they have been active, desiring sexual agents or (2) good girls, who have been passively victimized by boys' raging hormones. (P 206)
The authors focus on the legal ramifications of this cultural story, particularly with regard to nonconsensual sexual acts, explaining how the burden of proof for these crimes goes beyond establishment of non-consent to require demonstration that the victim is not a desiring sexual agent in general.
The good girl’s attempt to exercise her responsibility to regulate male sexuality is encoded in the requirement of non-consent to sexual intercourse. Proof of consent, however, frequently depends upon establishing an absence of desire. To be a victimized good girl and therefore entitled to protection, a girl or woman must both resist and lack desire. (P 209)
After analyzing the experiences of three specific cases, Tolman and Higgins conclude that an “affirmative discourse of desire for adolescent girls” is needed.
Such a discourse must recognize, reveal, and then reject the good girl/bad girl categories as patriarchal strategies that keep girls and women from the power of their own bodies and their bonds with one another. It should center on all girls' entitlement to their sexuality, rather than focus solely on the threat of lost status and respect or diminished safety. (P 221)
I agree with all of the author’s arguments and analysis described above and I agree with much of their interpretation of Sharon and Paulina’s stories. I do take some issues with their re-telling of Jenny’s experience.
I agree with the author’s ultimate interpretation how:
In the moment, Jenny was not able to hold onto her knowledge that she did not want to have sex because her own desire has never been available as a guide to her choices. We suggest that not feeling desire is one way to cope with the good girl/bad girl dichotomy. Were Jenny not subject to the good girl standard that prevents her from attending to her own sexual feelings, perhaps she would feel desire in some situations, and her lack of sexual desire could operate as a clear signal to her, perhaps leaving her less vulnerable to such confusion. (P 215)
I think this assessment is in total sync with the article as a whole. I agree that many girls don’t possess strong sexual agency because our patriarchal system benefits from it, creating confused and passive sexual acts.
I don’t agree with the author’s assessment of Jenny’s “no” told to the boy she has sexual intercourse with for the first time. On page 213, Jenny explains her feelings in a stream-of-consciousness method about engaging in sexual intercourse, focusing a lot on her choice of partner, and to a lesser extent her judgments on the experience as her first.
I think the authors reduced the social and sexual interaction to a contract bound by a verbal words. Regardless of whether Jenny is disappointed that she had sex, her verbal cue was isolated out of an experience that was also filled with psychological and emotional cues in the form of physical behavior. Human communication does not consist primarily of verbal cues, especially when a social interaction is occurring that is primarily physical (sexual). While I completely agree with the authors that Jenny lacked sufficient sexual agency to clarify to herself whether or not she really wanted to engage in sexual intercourse – and I agree that this is a systemic problem – I don’t think there is anything to suggest this act was nonconsensual based on Jenny’s telling.
The authors go so far as to ask, “Was Jenny raped.” They interpret her experience, suggesting that Jenny…
Seems to wonder whether this experience might somehow be connected to rape. She may associate this experience with rape because the word signifies something about what it felt like for her, a violation. Although she stopped saying no and apparently assented nonverbally to the act, this sexual experience was not related to any feeling of yes on Jenny's part. Jenny's experience of having passively consented and of having been violated suggests the disjuncture between consent and desire in women's experience, a disjuncture that likely heightens Jenny's confusion over how to interpret what happened to her. Such confusion prevents Jenny from speaking clearly in the first instance about her desire and from later interpreting what happened in a way that acknowledges her own resistance. (P 216)
I agree that this “sexual experience was not related to any feeling of yes on Jenny’s part” but I don’t think she apparently assented nonverbally to the act – according to what Jenny said, she did assent. I think there is merit to Jenny’s words when she says, “I mean I could've said no, I guess and I could've pushed him off or whatever 'cause he, I mean, he wasn't, he's not the type of person who would like rape me or whatever. I mean, well I don't think he's that way at all.” Jenny is saying that she could have pushed him off and not had sex with him, and that he likely isn’t the type that would have ignored a hypothetical physical rejection.
I think the author’s focus on Jenny’s ‘no’ missed their point – it is an indication that she didn’t have the agency to assert her objection, or to even clarify if she had objection. While I understand Jenny judging her experience as a “first time,” I think the authors play into the overvaluation of sexual encounters, especially for women, which seems at odds with their article in general. Women and teenage girls have sexual desire, and as such the ‘first time’ doesn’t need to be evaluated with the same lens that views a woman ‘losing her virginity’ as a high-priced transaction.