I have been working on the internet as a freelance writer since before the advent of the World Wide Web. I had one of my most interesting jobs in 2000. That year I went to work for a new start-up called iEmily.com, a health website for teenage girls. I wrote the column Ask the Ob-Gyn.
In advance of the site going live, I prepared a variety of sample questions that I thought might come my way, and I collected research papers on conditions that I though the girls might ask about. I figured that in addition to questions about sex, I’d be asked about weight, about drugs, about drinking and about self-harm.
Surprisingly, over the 12 months or so of the project, virtually all the questions I received fell into one of two categories. The first, and smaller category was weight, specifically “am I fat?” Almost all the girls who wrote had a BMI (body mass index) in the normal range, so it was easy to offer reassurance.
Far more common were questions like this:
Dear Dr. Amy,
I’m 14. I’ve been going out with this cute guy. We just had our one week anniversary yesterday. He wants me to go down on him. I’m not sure what to do. What do you think?
Dear Dr. Amy,
I’m 15 and there’s this guy I really like. All his friends say he will go out with me if I sleep with him. Should I do it?
I always said no. I never said yes. At first I was concerned that the girls would stop writing in because they would think I was too judgmental, but I couldn’t in all honesty say anything else. I was startled to find that the more I said no, the more girls would ask me for my opinion.
There were a variety of reasons why I always said no. First, I figured that if a girl needed to ask a stranger on the computer about such an intimate decision, it reflected the fact that she didn’t really want to do it. Second, I could not and cannot envision a situation in which sexual activity among young teen acquaintances or strangers is ever a good idea. Third, I was concerned about the risks. I developed a little riff on the risks and benefits that went something like this:
Let’s consider the risks: You could get pregnant; you could get gonorrhea; you could get herpes; you could get genital warts and risk cervical cancer down the road.
Now let’s consider the benefits. I personally cannot think of any benefits, can you?
Keep in mind that all the questions and all the answers were visible. Yet every time I said no, girl after girl would write in to ask me whether I thought that she should sleep with her boyfriend despite the fact that I had told the previous 10 girls no. Sometimes I would get 12 or even 15 questions in a row that were all asking the exact same question.
At first, I thought they were checking to see if I would ever give a different answer. Gradually I realized that something else was going on. They wanted me to say no. They wanted someone to give them permission to do what they had wanted to do all along, refuse the demands of acquaintances or strangers. Evidently there was no one in their lives whom they could count upon to watch out for their interests, to remind them that they were worthy of respect, and to tell them that they deserved to be healthy, which meant not taking health risks.
As a clinician and mother, I found the seemingly endless stream of girls asking for permission to say no both touching and horrifying. It was touching that they were so desperate for guidelines that they would ask a woman they didn’t know for advice, and it was horrifying that they did not feel that they had a right to speak up for themselves.
The job ended after a year when the start-up ran out of money. Ever since, I have pondered how it is that we tell our daughters that they can be astronauts or soccer stars, yet when a boy asks them to drop to their knees and “service” them, they don’t feel entitled to refuse. While aiming for career achievement is a worthwhile goal, we should start with the basics.
Every girl should know:
Your body is yours, and being a teen girl does not mean that you must lend it to any boy who asks.
You deserve to be healthy and sex poses serious health risks, especially if you and your partner are unwilling to obtain protection.
A relationship revolves around mutual interests, caring and concern. Any boy who is pressuring you into oral sex or intercourse does not really care about you.
Any boy who refuses to protect you by using a condom does not really care about you.
You are not in a relationship if the boy does not care about your feelings and your health.