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Report Examines Girls' Struggles With Sexuality, Peer Pressure, and Body Image

October 15, 1999

"Voices of a Generation; Teenage Girls on Sex, School, and Self," a new report released by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation (AAUW), examines girls' struggles with sexuality, peer pressure, and body image.

AAUW hosted more than 150 "Sister to Sister Summits" in 38 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico between November 1997 and July 1999. An average of 55 girls between the ages of 11 and 17 participated in each day-long discussion session.

While the report is based on a close reading and analysis of the responses from roughly 2,100 girls nationwide, the statistics reflect analysis of responses given by 730 participants whose applications were systematically coded.

Findings include:

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Pregnancy

  • 43% of participants named pregnancy, teen parenting, or "having babies" as the "major issue or struggle" in their lives.

  • African-American and Hispanic girls described pregnancy as a "choice" while White and Asian-American girls described it as an "accident" and cautioned against the "risk" and "danger" of sexual activity.

  • Among African-American and Hispanic girls, concerns about pregnancy were more likely to be expressed by those aged 11, 12, or 13. In contrast, concerns about pregnancy among White and Asian-American girls were more frequent at ages 14, 15, and 16.


Pressure to Engage in Sexual Activty

  • 52% of respondents referred to "sex" and/or "boys" as major issues. No one racial or ethnic group provided this answer dramatically more than any other.

  • Of all age groups, only 11-year-olds did not mention "pressure to have sex" as an issue at all.

  • Asked what they would like to learn from their peers, 16% of participants wanted advice on how to handle sexual situations.

  • Asked to offer advice to peers, 11% of participants recommended that their female peers wait to "have sex."


Sexual Harassment/Coercion

  • 17% of participants identified some form of sexual coercion, such as sexual harassment/teasing or date rape, as a major issue.

  • When asked what they would change about their schools, 10% of the participants wished that sexual harassment would stop or that female/male relations would improve.


Body Image

  • 19% of participants described concerns about "image and appearance," sometimes related to media ideals, as the most important issue/struggle facing girls, 7% named low self-esteem, and 5% named concerns about weight and staying thin.

  • 25% of participants recalled being ridiculed for their weight, looks, body type, or personal style and appearance.


HIV/AIDS and Other STDs

  • Of the 2,100 summit participants, only 32 (fewer than 2%) named HIV/AIDS or STDs as a major concern.

  • Over half of the participants who mentioned HIV/AIDS were African-American. The authors suggest that girls in this community may be more likely to see the effects of HIV/AIDS than their peers.

The authors feel that the wide range of responses has implications for school policy. "A 'one size fits all' approach to teen pregnancy prevention in schools is not likely to meet all girls' needs because girls' views of pregnancy and sexual risk vary according to social and cultural contexts," they said.

The findings suggest that the optimal timing of sexuality education and pregnancy prevention programs may differ by race, ethnicity, or other social background variables. In addition, conversations about violence and sexual standards may need to be initiated at pre-adolescent ages.

Participants offered their own recommendations regarding sexuality education including: "Make sex education more realistic, graphic, and honest"; "Initiate classes and programs on sex, pregnancy, and harassment at earlier grade levels"; and "Demonstrate the effects of teen parenting and pregnancy in realistic terms."

"Voices of a Generation" includes many direct quotations from participants in the "Sister to Sister Summits." These girls, ages 11-17, had a great deal to say about fitting in, sexuality, and what it is like to grow up in today's society. They also offer advice to peers, parents, and schools about how these things could improve.


Fitting In

  • "We try to wear the right clothes, be slim, and not say the wrong thing. Most girls would do anything to get a boyfriend. Girls also don't stay true to themselves. While trying to fit in, they becomes clones of each other."

  • "I believe girls should know that we shouldn't have to change to fit what other people want."

  • "Girls tear each other down all the time, slashing one another's reputation when they should be coming together."


Growing Up

  • "I want to know how to live in an adult world, yet still be a child."

  • "Let me find out who I am before you tell me. Be supportive of my decisions no matter what. Understand that we are a different generation with different issues."


Sexuality

  • "Educate everyone that there are other ways of showing affection besides sex."

  • "I would like to see different approaches to sex -- rather than critical pressures to or not to have sex. I would like to see girls educating and giving practical and objective advice to one another."

  • "I wish that every girl who enjoys her sexuality was not considered slutty and dirty.

  • "I want to know how to say no without seeming like you're rude."


School

  • "We want more information about real world experiences, for example, sexuality education, how to make decisions, how to initiate open communication, how to fight stereotypes."

  • "Schools need to stop telling us that we should just be good and not think about what we believe good is. I think they try to get us to all act alike so that they can deal with us all in the same way. When we stop using our own judgment, these problems [sexual harassment, body image, sexual activity] start to come into play."

For more information:

AAUW Education Foundation
1111 16th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20036
Phone: 202/728-7602
Fax: 202/872-1425
Web site: http://www.aauw.org
E-mail: foundation@aauw.org 


Resources

"No Excuses: Sexual Harassment," a video and program by Human Relations Media, discusses sexual harassment in the school environment for grades 7-12. This program presents a range of examples from indirect forms of harassment (propositions, rumors spreading, and name-calling) to blatant kinds of physical blocking or touching. Real teenagers express their opinion about the fictional scenarios presented. A "Teacher's Resource Book" offers fact sheets, worksheets, discussion ideas, activities, and a list of additional resources. The program costs $189.

For more information:

Human Relations Media
41 Kensico Drive
Mt. Kisco, NY 10549
Phone: 800/431-2050
Fax: 914/244-0485
Web site: http://www.hrmvideo.com
E-mail: service@hrmvideo.com



  
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This article was provided by Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. It is a part of the publication SHOP Talk: School Health Opportunities and Progress Bulletin.
 
See Also
More Statistics on Young People and HIV/AIDS in the U.S.

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