by Deborah Tolman, Ed.D.
October 1999

Experts, including CRW Senior Research Scientist Deborah Tolman, whowork with teens and families offered their perspectives on a FRONTLINEreport (The Lost Children of Rockdale County), which aired on PBS onOctober 20, 1999. A syphilis outbreak in an affluent community uncoversthe hidden lives of troubled teenagers. Is it Isolated, or Everywhere?


 From my point of view as a developmental psychologist with a particular interest in female adolescence and adolescent sexuality, I want to consider some contributing factors, besides the absence of parental supervision or even parental relationships, that may have been operating in the events that took place in Rockdale County.
I want to place these teenagers' sexual experience in some larger context. While it might have seemed to some of the girls in this report that twelve is the age for first sexual intercourse, twelve is not the average age for girls nationwide; it is hard to know if it is even for the girls of Rockdale County. The most recent statistics indicate that 38.5 percent of 15-17 year old girls have had sexual intercourse; this proportion is unchanged from the 1988 rate. Several studies have shown that by 9th grade, 25% of girls, on average, have had sexual intercourse in this country. Whether they wanted to have this experience, why, and what it meant to them, is data that has never been collected.

Is "The Sandwich" an unusual sexual activity for adolescents? We do not know if teenagers regularly participate in group sex, because we don't ask them these questions. Several years ago, a comprehensive, nationally representative survey of adolescent sexual behavior designed to understand the kinds of sexual risks teenagers take, was proposed by a highly reputable social scientist to a federal agency and won approval for funding by scientific peers. However, this study was denied funding by Congress, the only instance of such political meddling with the scientific peer review process. The study is currently being conducted with private funding. In my own research, I am garnering information about the ways that girls and boys understand their romantic relationships and sexual experiences as they develop through adolescence.

If there had been an epidemic of syphilis discovered among the adolescents of East Harlem, would there be such shock and disbelief? (Not because those adolescents actually have more sex, but because our stereotypes about adolescents who are poor and of color are that they are more sexual.) Even if the epidemic had been found among only the boys of Rockdale County, would it have been so unthinkable? The eyebrow-raiser here is that these teens, in particular the girls, were white and well-off. And that is because we do not think, believe or talk about white, middle-class adolescent girls being sexual as normal or acceptable.

Only the girls in the program discuss their sexual experiences on this program. Is that because we think it's normal for adolescent boys to engage in "wild" sexual activity? Were the boys asked about this aspect of their experience? When the boys do talk about sex in the program, it is to comment on the behavior of the girls, about whom they (as well as the girls themselves) are socialized to observe, judge, talk and treat "disrespectfully" if it is considered deserved, i.e., by girls' flaunting of their sexuality. These boys report male sexual fantasies coming true over and over again in those empty houses. The girls describe the sex as "just happening"-echoing what many other girls have reported to researchers about how they came to have sexual intercourse. And in no single sexual episode in which a girl behaved "counter to expectations" or in a way that defied female sexual norms was the girl sober. Having sex "just happen" or being drunk and therefore somehow not responsible for sexual decisions and actions are what I have called "cover stories"-that is, sanctioned ways that girls can speak about their sexual experiences, in which they are not blameworthy or even active participants. By saying "it just happened" or by being drunk, they have recourse from emotional, social and in some cases physical repercussions within a system that denies them their sexuality.

The sex education program in Rockdale County reflects a widespread national policy of emphasizing abstinence. In fact, current Federal funding guidelines now mandate abstinence-only sex education. However, research has shown repeatedly that, over the long term, comprehensive sex education does not "cause" adolescents to have sex, and that abstinence education does not prevent them from having sex. For those who do have sex, comprehensive sex education is associated with an increased use of contraception and condoms, while students who have had abstinence education who subsequently become sexually active are much less likely to take these precautions.

What is profoundly missing from this emphasis on abstinence in sex education is a badly needed acknowledgment and counterpoint to the prevailing beliefs and myths about adolescent girls' and boys' sexuality: that boys are plagued by uncontrollable raging hormones and that girls are not, that what boys want is just sex, and that what girls want is just to have a relationship--and that both groups are willing to "trade" one for the other.

We do not teach girls that they are entitled to their own sexual desire or sexual pleasure, that "good" and "nice" girls have sexual feelings, too. We teach girls to be the objects of others' sexual longings. We do not teach boys that having a desire to be in a relationship or not wanting to have sexual intercourse does not make them less masculine. We do not teach girls or boys to link sexual feelings with their desires for intimacy; instead, we give sexuality to boys and intimacy to girls. In this vacuum of information, both boys and girls have come to commodify girls' sexuality and their own sexual experience; it is yet another thing to get, to have. Unlike being violent, becoming a sexual person is a normal part of growing up. We do not talk with adolescents about physically and emotionally safe ways to explore their developing sexuality; we just tell them not to "do it."

Deborah Tolman's research program focuses on developing comprehensive models of sexual health for female and male adolescents and investigating the role of femininity and masculinity ideology in their sexual decisions and experiences. She currently is at work on a book, Dilemma of Desire: Portraits of Adolescent Girls' Struggle for/with Sexuality, to be published by Harvard University Press.


  • Tolman, D. (1999). Femininity as a barrier to positive sexual health for girls. Submitted to Journal of the American Medical Women's Association. 54(3), 133-138.
  • Tolman, D. (1994). Doing desire: Adolescent girls' struggles for/with sexuality. Gender and Society, 8(3), 324-342.
  • Tolman, D. (1999). Female adolescent sexuality in relational contexts: Beyond sexual decision making. In N. Johnson, M. Roberts and J. Worell, (Eds.). Beyond appearance: A new look at adolescent girls. (Publication of the APA Presidential Task Force on Adolescent Girls). Washington, DC: APA Publications.
  • Tolman, D. & Higgins, T. (1996). How being a good girl can be bad for girls. In N. Bauer Maglin and D. Perry, (Eds.). Good girls/bad girls: Women, sex, violence and power in the 1990s. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Tolman, D. (1996). Adolescent girls' sexuality: Debunking the myth of The Urban Girl. In B. Leadbetter and N. Way, (Eds.). Urban girls: Resisting stereotypes, creating identities. New York: New York University Press (255-271).
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