What Good Girls Really Do: Sex Play, Aggression, and Their Guilt

If "boys will be boys," what will girls be? Before the sexual revolution, girls were raised to be soft-spoken, gentle, nurturing creatures. Girls were supposedly cleaner, neater, and more sensitive. Our modern, more feminist society is teaching girls to be more aggressive, confident. Today we have professional womens' athletics, female CEOs, and empowered young ladies who aren't afraid to stay single and explore their options independently. But underneath this reformed surface runs a current of traditionalism: most feminists still perpetuate, even celebrate, the notion that girls are the more caring, sensitive sex--the sweethearts of interpersonal communication.

Psychologist Sharon Lamb set out to explore the sociological impact that the good girl image had on women of all ages, races, and socioeconomic status. She discovered that, like herself, most women had led a sort of double life, sweet and innocent in public and aggressive, bad, in private. These double lives, ironically, were all the more encouraged by societal expectations of women. The adage that men want ladies by their sides but whores in their beds and the Madonna / Whore complex, for example, perpetuate this behavior.

Lamb documented the childhood memories of 122 women, all of whom had identified themselves as "good girls." They recounted stories of same-sex play, domination, sexual coercion, aggression, bullying, objectification, and the guilt that came with these activities. One of the women, discussing childhood games of "playing doctor" and same-sex exploration admitted that, "If somebody saw us doing this, they would think it was very, very wrong." Would these acts be wrong? Nakedness is an act of sexuality which, among girls, is strictly forbidden. Boys, however, are expected to be sexually aggressive. When boys explore, they're just being boys. Yet girls are expected to mask these behaviors, to be ashamed of them in ways boys are not.

Early games of doctor aren't about sex at all. Just as for boys, girls use the play as a means to discover gender differences and sexual truths. More and more parents are becoming accepting of this fact; in a society where nudity is not commonplace, it is natural for boys and girls to "solve the mystery" independent of adult supervision.

In many women's memories, it was shocking and fun to expose oneself. In fact, the joy was more about exposing oneself rather than about being looked at, an important distinction to make when looking at the relation between girls and power. It might be too easy to call these girls' acts a form of becoming passive objects for boys' gaze, when their true experience of the event may be more akin to the rebel or sexual provocateur.

Most girls can remember at least one occasion, at a slumber party or other get-together, where they played Truth or Dare. Ultimately someone would be dared to run naked outside, flash her panties at another person, or lift her top. These dares seem random, but they're actually a vital part of the sexual process among girls. In a small way, girls play such games instinctively to rebel against the idea that they should be modest and demure, that their parts are private.

As our girls grow older, the trouble with being good manifests itself in different ways. Both passive-aggressive and bullying behaviors become commonplace by early adolescence. Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out, described girls hurting each other in subtle ways: alienating each other through silent acts of aggression, internalization of feelings, and forming ever-shifting alliances. Interestingly enough, she chose the same language as Sharon Lamb, documenting the aggressive actions of these young ladies as their "secret lives."

Girls learn early on that physically or vocally expressing conflict is wrong for them to do. They learn to channel anger and frustration into instigation, rumor-spreading, and other less immediate aggressions like note-writing and hurtful comments presented as jokes. "In a world that socializes girls to prize relationships and care above all else, the fear of isolation and loss casts a long shadow over girls’ decisions around conflicts, driving them away from direct confrontation."

This brings up the old question of repression. If these girls are bottling their emotions, only releasing in exacted ways, aren't they likely to explode? Girls told Simmons about how their unexpressed anger and hurt led them to abusing animals and siblings, becoming depressed, and overwhelming guilt.

The surface of a girl fight can be silent and smooth as a marble. You know that if you’ve ever been the last person to find out someone’s mad at you. Many girls use double doses of distance and silence to announce their anger, leaving defendants clueless about what they’ve done. Beneath the surface, of course, is another story.

Girls approach the rituals of fighting and peacemaking with an eerie rigidity. For many, the shared knowledge that they are “in a fight” is much easier than actually going to the trouble of having one.

Popularity, being the most-liked or the nicest or the best girl, becomes a way to win conflict. If a girl has more friends, more alliances, she is surrounded by a stronger network and in a situation of power, though she can't employ that power directly. Again, girls use their "niceness" as a vehicle for aggression. "A study confirmed that the guilt girls experience during aggressive acts decreases significantly when responsibility can be shared with other people."

Girls quickly learn the power of their sexuality, though they can only exert this power indirectly. Teens absorb the message of pop icons like Britney Spears who projects an image of wholesome goodness, while hinting about how she's "not that innocent." Revealing midriff tops, short skirts and low-rise jeans give young women an opportunity to look and feel sexy in newly-transformed bodies they're not quite ready to share physically. It's a more acceptable form of the games they played as children: publicizing what's private for the sake of rebellion.

Being perceived as a good girl is very important among adolescent girls. Sex for the sake of sex is bad, they're taught, so any sexual attractions or urges they feel are declared "true love." Frequently, girls develop crushes on males that are unattainable, for one reason or another. By developing a romantic attachment to a movie star, or the popular boy who would never like them, girls can experience infatuation without responsibility or consequence. Crushes, then, become another way for girls to surrender power for the sake of goodness.

By adulthood, the virtues of being obedient, passive, altruistic and soft-spoken are firmly in place. Behind the good girl's public appearance is a secret world of fantasy, primal sexual urges, and selfishness. In the 2002 movie, The Good Girl, Jennifer Anniston plays a woman who has lived a straight and utterly boring life. A clerk and wife in a small town, Anniston smiles when she has to and secretly longs for something more. A good girl who, when given the chance, begins an adulterous romance with a younger man. After experiencing waves of passion, freedom, and self-expression, Anniston returns to her normal, good girl life, ultimately defeated.

"When women are sexual, men become afraid. Societies become afraid." Fill a room with adult men and women and take this poll: who masturbates? Approximately 90% of men will admit that they either regularly, or have at one time, masturbated privately. Women? Less than 45%. Men are equated with rogue, primal beasts who are controlled by their sexual urges, women as seraphim who have no sexuality of which to speak.

In discussions of rape, molestation, and sexual harassment, women are rarely--if ever--mentioned as the aggressors. A woman who is aggressive in the workplace is considered a bitch, a title becoming less and less offensive. A woman who is sexually aggressive, however, is considered a slut. This fear of scandal or shame is enough to keep most women from exploring their bodies as adults. A frightful number of women have never achieved orgasm, either alone or with a partner. Many have no idea what their vaginas even look like. Women are expected to mask their sexual needs in ways that would seem ridiculous for men. "Playing dead in bed is one way of having sex without responsibility--a self-defeating strategy." Things are changing, albeit slowly, for good girls everywhere.

What should we want for ourselves? Sexual fulfillment, confidence, and assertive behavior would be a great start. Sharon Lamb suggests that parents should encourage same-sex play and teach their girls how vital self-exploration really is, while teaching them about the difference between consent and coercion. She believes women can skirt negative aggression by fostering verbal communication and problem-solving skills.

Some feminists stand firm against Lamb's assertions; they don't think girls should be raised any differently. Look, they say, at the percentage of crimes committed by men. We don't want our daughters heading in that direction. Such claims bring the discussion to a sort of verbal flexing contest. Who's less good, boys or girls? As if such a debate leads anywhere. Of most importance: the age-old notions that boys are made of snips and snails, girls of sugar and spice, are ridiculous. Behind that "everything nice" is a secret world of aggression, sexuality, and guilt. The fact that girls can not only survive but succeed in spite of such a society is a testament to their strength and resilience, says Lamb.

Thinking back to my own childhood, I find most of Lamb's discoveries to be true for myself, as well. Without politicizing the results of her interviews too much, I can accept Sharon Lamb's case studies as shared experiences and common events among women. After all, girls will be girls.

Lamb, Sharon. The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do--Sex Play, Aggression, and Their Guilt. 2002.
Simmons, Rachel. Odd Girl Out. 2002.
The Good Girl. Miguel Artata, Mike White. 2002.

This write-up submitted in partial fulfillment of the Everything Noder Pageant 2003.
That being said, I am a good girl. A really, really, good girl. Promise.