WASHINGTON — Where there once were immature taunts, there is now verbal abuse. Flushed-face jokes about body parts have been replaced by crude requests for sex. The kind of sexual invective spewing out of the mouths of America's middle- and high-schoolers is coarsening relations between boys and girls - at least in girls' eyes, a new study finds.
Despite decades of feminism and education about the equality of the sexes, many girls say relations have gotten so bad that some wonder if it's actually possible to be friends with a boy without sex getting in the way.
"There have always been insults.... But now the language is much more violent and it springs much more easily to the lips," says Pat Hogeboom, a retired guidance counselor and one of the coordinators of a summit for girls on Long Island, New York, last year.
More than 150 of these Sister-to-Sister summits have been held in rural and urban areas since 1997, giving girls between the ages of 11 and 17 an opportunity to speak frankly about issues that concern them.
What emerged surprised researchers from the Association of American University Women (AAUW), which co-sponsored the summits and published a report last week based on 2,100 participants' written comments.
Discussions at the summits included a wide array of topics, but across every racial and geographic line, the overarching theme was their troubling interactions with boys.
"About 1 in 5 girls did report sexual violence, rape, pressure to have sex, or harassment ... as a major issue or struggle," says Pamela Haag, the author of the study. In addition, when asked to describe a hurtful comment or exchange, 23 percent cited sexual insults.
"This seems to be numbingly repetitive," says Ms. Haag, of the sexually derogatory terms the girls described. These included the kind of graphic language frequently found in R-rated movies and rap albums.
One teenager in Carson City, Nev., describing the insults thrown at her, says, "You always try to pretend that what people say about you doesn't affect you, but it does. You slowly start to believe what's being said about you."
Sexual issues come up earlier today partly because girls are reaching puberty at a younger average age than in the past, says Carol Weston, a longtime advice columnist and the author of several books about girls.
In fact, previous studies have shown that about 80 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys have experienced unwanted sexual attention.
From 'Brady Bunch' to MTV Adding to the pressure is the sexually frank world portrayed in the media. Gone are the days of married couples slipping into twin beds on TV screens across America. Now, a generation of MTV watchers has seen all kinds of sexual fantasies played out to a popular beat.
But the level of dialogue in many homes and schools hasn't quite caught up. To teenagers' ears, it can sound like a skipping record that just keeps repeating, "Just say no!" or "Beware of AIDS." But such simplistic solutions don't take account of the culture surrounding teens, experts say.
"We like to ignore, as adults, that the entire environment around them ... is much nastier, much crueler, and you have to be strong to stand up to it all," says Ms. Hogeboom.
A number of the girls' anecdotes bore that out: "A couple of kids and I were in the back of the school during a break and the subject of sex came up," says a girl who attended a summit in Georgia. When she said she doesn't have sex, a boy "had the nerve to tell me to [leave]. I could not believe that he felt that way about girls."
A crackdown on student-to-student sexual harassment in schools may be shaping up in the wake of last spring's Supreme Court ruling that schools could be held liable for failing to take complaints seriously.
The AAUW report delves beneath the surface to give a glimpse of the complexities through girls' eyes. And their viewpoint is not without hope. Many called for opening better channels of communication with boys rather than being segregated from them in classes or the cafeteria - which a number of schools have tried in response to sexual assaults and harassment.
"Boys as well as the girls need to know what kinds of relationships are out there," says Shanelle Jackson, a high school student who attended a summit in Maryland last year. "Some boys go through the same things girls do but don't talk about it as much," she says.
Taking the girls' recommendations to heart, the AAUW is now working with groups that want to hold brother-to-brother summits or boy-girl gatherings.
Younger teens experimenting "Adults are in such denial," says Patricia Hersch, a Reston, Va.-based author who spent several years documenting the everyday lives of eight teens. Teenagers, even children in middle school, today are routinely involved in sexual experimentation, often in combination with alcohol or drug use, she says. If adults would "get real," teens would listen.
Girls at the summits echoed this idea: They want to be taught, at an earlier age, about the decisionmaking process around issues like sex. "Much, much too soon, it becomes an all-or-nothing proposition. The kids have been robbed of the critically important incremental steps that youngsters must take, and want to take, as they develop interest in the opposite sex," says Ms. Hersch, a mother of three sons.
A number of girls at the summit realized that they themselves are sometimes the ones to inflict hurtful comments and peer pressure. One participant said she would think twice, for instance, about calling other girls sexually derogatory names.
The report also reveals a variety of ways girls attempt to deal with hurtful behavior. Some, particularly white and Asian-American girls, tended to try to ignore insults and harassment, says Haag. African-American girls, on the other hand, "talked about this issue of respect a lot more vividly," and these girls insisted their success in school would be less impeded if the boys learned to respect both girls and school. Boys do need to be included in the dialogue, says Hersch.
And she disputes the popular belief that media images have turned boys into "wild animals that need to be tamed." Abusive behavior is not excusable and can start early on, she says, but it often stems from a lack of any positive models for how to handle relationships.
"There is a totally paradoxical situation that exists out there for kids," Hersch says. "The answer happens to be a lot easier than people think - it's to start really talking to them about these issues in a conversational way which allows them to open up and express their feelings."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society