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Teen Sexuality: Sex as Sport and Girls as Game

Posted: 06/22/10 02:00 PM ET

As reported recently in the Washington Post, yet another "boys treating girls really badly" scandal has erupted, this latest one involving rising ninth graders at a prestigious boys' school near DC.

A year ago, apparently, the students in question concocted a crude and disgusting new version of fantasy sports, in which the "draftees" were not prime athletes but unsuspecting eighth grade girls, and where the competition was based on how "far" the boys could get the girls to go sexually. The games were set to begin last Labor Day weekend, until the mother of one of the girls discovered the "rosters" the boys had posted online and foiled the plot.

As a sexuality educator working with schools, teens, pre-teens, and parents around the country, one of the things that caught my attention was the glaring irony of a quote in the New York Times from the outraged father of one of the "drafted" girls. "They evidently got points for first, second and third base," he said about the boys. "They were going to have parties and tally up the points, and money was going to be exchanged at the end of the season."

Here he was, this distraught dad, unwittingly using the archetypal sports metaphor to describe another sports metaphor gone terribly wrong!

You remember this one, right? The national pastime where the batter (the boy) stares down the pitcher, with a determined look on his face that says, "Throw me anything -- slow ball, fast ball, curve, slider, no matter -- "I'm ready (for sex) at any time!" He gets to "score" by trampling all over the "bases" (in order: the girl's mouth, breasts, and genitals) and then sliding into "home" (her vagina!), while his fellow team members cheer wildly on the sidelines. He only gets a point, however, for going "all the way," so the other bases -- including oral or even anal sex in today's newer version -- don't "count" nearly as much. If he strikes out and can't even get to first base, he's, well, a real loser, so he'll probably do or say anything to get there and maintain his bragging rights. Or he'll just lie and say he did it anyway.

There you have it, the meaning of sex all laid out in a package even a third grader can understand, and practically any adult can relate to. Here's the problem, of course: one team in the game of sexual baseball -- boys -- is always playing offense and the other, girls, only ever get to play defense. Truthfully, the girl in the game really isn't playing at all, since she's the infield the game is played on. Her only recourse is to pretend to herself that she's actually in the game and try to cut her losses, which she can do by not letting him go so far that she's likely to be called a "slut" but just far enough that she isn't called a "prude," "tease," "baby" or "bitch." Pick your poison.

If you're under 30 and reading this, you may be shaking your head and thinking I've got it all wrong. Things are different now, I am told: The game has become more egalitarian, since the bases these days are identified often as parts on the boy's body as well. Not only that, but there are uncomplimentary names for boys, too, today -- like "man whore," used to describe boys when they're behaving badly sexually.

I'll counter, however, that talking about sex in terms of any kind of competitive game, where somebody stands to win and somebody stands to lose, ultimately invites harmful exploitation and essentially precludes an alternative understanding of sex as a form of human intimacy based on trust. Just because some girls might be playing "offense" now doesn't necessarily prove anybody has been liberated from anything. As for the handle "man whore," which supposedly makes things better and more equal, I remain unconvinced, since the referent is still a female: A "man whore" is simply a man who's behaving so badly that he's behaving like a woman when she's behaving really badly!

As long as baseball doubles as a stand-in metaphor for sex -- and a pretty efficient model for teaching successive generations to embrace everything that's wrong with American sexual attitudes -- we're in for plenty more eruptions like the one at Landon. Think about the assumptions of the baseball metaphor: boys are sexual athletes and predators callously out for only one thing; girls are mere objects, literally, to be manipulated for enjoyment, amusement, and social status in the eyes of other boys; sex for girls is a no win, but it's the only game in town, so you've got to play. Sounds like the perfect set up to me, if not a surefire self-fulfilling prophesy.

In the aftermath of these sorts of episodes, people always say, "We need to teach these boys to have more respect for girls and women." No, I say, we need to teach boys to have more respect for themselves. What kind of self-respecting person deliberately uses another person in harmful ways for personal gain, and then jokes and brags about it to others? And what kind of person listens and finds it all so amusing?

Not all boys by any means think, feel, or behave in these ways, although they may remain silent when others do. Almost all boys are good people who understand the importance of kindness, respect and honesty. The problem is that these nearly universal and tacitly accepted cultural attitudes encourage boys -- even give them support and permission -- to take a pass on these values when it comes to girls and sex. How often do adults ever take boys (or girls) aside to explain that the rules of sexual baseball violate every single value they want them to hold dear? Indeed, how many adults even recognize this model as problematic for children -- and society -- in the first place? Mostly, I find, they think it's "cute" or "funny" ... until they're asked to think it through.

As for girls, most of whom also use the baseball metaphor freely and with little or no awareness of its implications, why do so many readily buy into a game that's over for them before it starts? Just as our warped cultural notions about sex and masculinity can take a toll on a boy's capacity for self-respect and his ownership of personal responsibility, they can just as easily rob a girl of self-esteem. If the stereotype of boys is that they are sexual athletes -- ready at any time for any kind of sex with anybody who will let them -- that puts girls squarely in the role of sexual "gatekeeper." If sex happens, the decision (and any consequent judgment or name calling) will be on her.

What's wrong with this picture -- he's entitled, but she's to blame? If that isn't the definition of a second-class citizen, I don't know what is. Many girls I know have simply learned to settle for disrespectful treatment as their lot; some gradually stop recognizing it even as it happens.

We have to do more than call attention to these very old ways of thinking that are still at the core of what seem to be "new" sexual mores. We have to explicitly replace them in our conversations with children and adolescents with new models and metaphors, based on the values we truly want our children to hold. While I'm clearly not enamored of competitive sports metaphors -- why not pick a gorgeous ballet or ice dance between two partners who are entwined and appear totally in sync with one another physically and emotionally -- if I had to pick the game with the right kind of rules, it would definitely be basketball. For one thing, in a well-matched game, everybody on a basketball court is potentially in play all the time, and everybody plays offense and defense.

The rules in basketball are also constantly in play. They apply to everybody equally, and practically every one of them is about showing respect for boundaries -- in regard to fellow players, the referee, the ball, the shots, the net, the time-outs, the fouls, the penalties, the scoring, even the lines on the court. Everybody playing know the rules and agrees that they are absolutely necessary -- without them, for example, it wouldn't be basketball anymore -- because they make the game work smoothly and help guarantee that the interchange among the players stays fair, fun, mutual, respectful and safe. How are those for stand-in sexual values?

Another easy thing we could all do is absolutely refuse to use the word "slut" except to explain or denounce it. The concept behind this vicious stereotype dates back to a time when girls and women were considered property. It was used against them to exert near total control over their sexuality/fertility -- and thereby insure that a man's babies were his babies, so that another man's son wouldn't inherit his property and wealth. The ploy was to convince girls and women that virtually the only way to maintain their worth in the family and community was to follow the very rules that served to keep them oppressed. In its most violent forms, it is used in many parts of the world today to justify the shaming, banishing, whipping, stoning and even "honor" killing of girls and women who break the sexual rules, even if there's only the suspicion of a violation and sometimes even if the "transgression" occurred during a proven rape.

In the US, the word "slut" serves as the lynch pin of the sexual double standard. Eliminate that, and the game of sexual baseball is called off for good. The message to boys and girls will be that there's a single high standard for how we are to treat others and for how they are expected to treat us, which applies to everyone. The more I talk to kids, the more I am convinced they are fully capable and desirous of expectations that bring out the best in who they are, not the worst. We just have to remind them that there are no exceptions, especially not when it comes to sex or gender.

I do see hope, but things won't really change until parents and teachers step up to the plate, so to speak.

Recently a thoughtful high school senior shared with me that he was hopping mad. He had spent some time at his girlfriend's house in her room while they studied together (for real). After he left, his girlfriend's mother called her "a slut" because they had closed the door. What made him even angrier, though, was that she hadn't called him anything. "What?" he said. "She thinks that because I'm a boy, bad behavior is just expected, so what's the use in calling me a name?"

Now there's a young man who deeply gets self-respect. And I have to believe an adult in his life helped him get it.