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Boys vs. girls: name-calling's nasty turn

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 22, 1999


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 Flushed-face jokes about body parts have been replaced by crude requests for sex.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.

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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.