I have been doing qualitative research on gender and adolescent sexuality for over twenty years. I have studied adolescent girls’ experiences of sexual desire (aged 15-17), primarily using narratives elicited through individual interviews and analyses of those narratives to understand how girls experience themselves, their bodies, their identities and how they navigate heterosexual and same-sex sexual encounters and relationships. My first book, Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality, provided researchers, practitioners, teachers, parents and girls a new way of approaching the discussion and study of adolescent girls’ sexuality. I revisited the original questions from Dilemmas in a new study, to include the development of social media, new technologies, and current representations of diverse girls’ sexuality as part of what girls have to navigate, and am writing a new book, tentatively titled Catching Feelings: Teenage Girls Talk about Desire, Sex and Relationships.
Working with my talented students and colleagues, I have conducted studies using both qualitative (interviews, focus groups) and quantitative (surveys, scales, quasi-experiments and statistical analyses) methods, usually combining these different forms of knowledge. This research includes teen boys and girls’ experiences of heterosexual relationships with a focus on how their beliefs about gender shape and the sexual double standard inform their interactions and experiences, in particular, how traditional gender beliefs are “audible” in the reproduction of gender inequities in relationships. We have identified how girls have less power, feel less entitled and more conflicted about expressing their thoughts and feelings and how boys express or feel pressure to be coercive in those relationships, to portray themselves or act as more powerful than girls by controlling them in various ways, and struggle with a sense that they are always supposed to want sex and not have feelings (except for) or be vulnerable. In this research, we have found that both boys and girls want relationships, closeness and to express their feelings sexually (not necessarily via intercourse but physically) but feel that the consequences of not following gender norms make that difficult or lead to negative consequences (socially, emotionally, physically).
Another qualitative study on girls’ experiences of giving fellatio (oral sex to boys) revealed that the persistent sexual double standard, gender norms and “regulation” of their sexual behavior was central to their experiences navigating sexual encounters and relationships with boys, putting pressures on them to give boys oral sex whether they want to or not and at the same time worrying about their reputations, while rarely considering their own desires or sexual feelings as part of this experience or process. The neoliberal idea of individual (girls) being accountable and responsible as if there are no other factors involved—such as societal beliefs about what girls and boys are supposed to be like and about girls of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds—makes sexuality even less about girls’ own feelings and more about their worries about being “good”—now including “performing well” and being even more responsible for the opinions and feelings of others.
We have also done research on how “heterosexual scripts” which are in essence gender rules about how girls and boys should behave and not behave in developing heterosexual relationships, including sexual expression, are represented on television and the statistical associations between viewing these scripts and adolescents’ (aged 14-18) sexual behavior. We are currently doing new research on how self-sexualization is related to and part of how girls and young women are able to engage in healthy sexual decisions and have experiences in which they feel entitled to their own bodies and how race informs these experiences and associations as well as their understanding, feelings and navigation of racialized sexualization.
I have a doctoral degree in applied developmental psychology from the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. I was trained in and have contributed to scholarship on feminist perspectives on female and male adolescent development and adolescent sexuality, as well as social psychological perspectives on gender, adolescence and sexuality. As a doctoral student, I worked with Dr. Carol Gilligan, a prominent developmental psychologist whose work on reframing morality to include care as well as justice concerns, brought girls’ experiences to the attention of psychology. I was part of the team that developed a new way to analyze narrative interviews that focuses on preserving the actual words and expressions of how participants convey their experiences and how they use “discourses,” socially condoned practices, expressions and thoughts and feelings, to convey and understand their experiences. I have adapted this method of interviewing and analysis specifically for sexuality research. I have a Masters’ degree in sexuality education from the University of Pennsylvania and an AB degree from Harvard College.