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Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality
Tolman receptionDeborah Tolman Offers Insights into Girls’ Attitudes toward Sex

September saw the start of the Center’s Gray/Wawro Lectures – a three-year series on gender, health, and well-being.  Through the generous support of CSWGS Founding Partners Melanie Gray and Mark Wawro, this series recognizes health as a matter of physical and social well-being and highlights gender as a key factor in determining opportunities and quality of life.  Each lecture brings to Houston a leading scholar whose work inspires deeper understanding of the gender features underlying urgent health concerns and fosters public conversation that can prompt informed action toward a more just world.  The Gray/Wawro Series will offer four lectures this year, and the Center was pleased to inaugurate the series with a lecture by Dr. Deborah Tolman (pictured above at the reception following her talk).

Tolman is Professor of Social Welfare and Psychology at the City University of New York’s Hunter College School of Social Work.  On September 24th, her lecture, “Adolescent Girls’ Sexuality: Developments or Derailments?” focused on the sexual health of adolescent girls, specifically their expectations of pleasure that are informed by discourses of femininity and masculinity.  Her talk explored how these girls’ beliefs shape their experiences of sexuality and the role of the media in shaping those beliefs.

One of the central questions of Tolman’s research is what we might mean when we talk about the healthy development of female sexuality.  The sexual education offered to many young women often stresses safety, specifically risk prevention and harm reduction.  Girls are explicitly taught to be sexually careful, but are seldom afforded an education that conveys the multiple possibilities of female pleasure.  Against these trends, Tolman argued eloquently for the recognition of sexual pleasure as a human right fundamental to personal well-being.

Tolman conducted a series of surveys and interviews with adolescent girls at an average age of about seventeen, looking to document the ways in which young women talk about sexual pleasure – with whom they talk about sex and what these girls’ experiences of pleasure depends upon.   She found that often young women have insufficient information about female sexual pleasure.  As she related, many young women narrate their first sexual experience with a phrase like “It just kind of happened.”  Due in part to inaccurate images of women’s pleasure in the media, many of the girls with whom Dr. Tolman spoke had skewed or misguided ideas about female orgasm.  Furthermore, some young women are reluctant to search for information about sexuality because of a perceived cultural prohibition against female sexual pleasure.

Gender inequalities play no small role in the difficulty adolescent girls often exhibit when experiencing and understanding their sexual pleasure.  Ideologies of femininity and masculinity inform these inequalities.  According to Tolman, in order to support healthy sexual development in young women, we must provide explicit challenges to these ideologies.  Encouraging relationships based on authenticity and providing girls with knowledge about their bodies’ capabilities for pleasure are two strategies that would enable the development of female sexuality in young women.

The Gray/Wawro Lecture Series for 2010-2011 offers three more lectures.  On October 7, Bina Agarwal delivered a lecture titled, “Domestic Violence and the Security of Women’s Property.”   Londa Schiebinger will speak on February 16th about "Sex, Botany and Abortion: The Gender Politics of Plants in 18th-Century Atlantic World."  On April 7th, Sandra de Castro Buffington will present her lecture, "Is Television Good for Our Health?: Working with Hollywood's Scriptwriters to Increase Health Accuracy in TV Story Lines.”

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