I wanted to have sex when I was 15, and you probably did too.
My own teenage years are pressed into the back of my mind, and from a certain angle, in a particularly rosy light, they are nostalgic rather than shameful and full of bad decisions. I sometimes pull out an anecdote or two, but they remain firmly rooted in a time that happened long ago and isn’t really worth remembering.
Or so I thought.
I just finished watching “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” starring Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård (watch him in drag for the opening) and Kristen Wiig set in a very ’70s San Francisco. The main character is Mimi, who is 15 and wondering if anyone loves her. She’s sure that she’s ugly so when an opportunity arises to have sex with her mother’s boyfriend she doesn’t say no, “It might be my only chance” she remarks in the film.
The film follows her as her sexuality explodes and she illustrates (she is a burgeoning cartoonist) her finest and worst moments in her sketchbook. As I watched Mimi take risks, do stupid things to dampen the pain that she was experiencing, hungering for sex, and wanting love, I saw something I rarely see in cinema: a truthful portrayal of what sexuality can be like for (some) teenage girls.
We tell teenage girls they should be sexually appealing—Mimi’s mother tells her that she should wear more makeup and use what she’s got while she’s young. But we all know what happens when we see THAT girl wearing too much makeup or the tiny skirt on a cold day: We think, or even say, slut.
We might not be sure if she’s even had sex, but we know that her physical appearance is sexual, therefore she must be looking for sex. It’s like we are angry at them for doing what they were told: look sexy. The cherry on top of this slutty cake is the idea that they might be enjoying the sex they went and out and got all by themselves. You can’t look like you want sex and actively go and look for it, no. That makes you the worst kind of slut.
Mimi enjoys sex, so much so that her teenage class mate is intimidated by her sexual “intensity,” as he puts it. Don’t be too into it, don’t know more than me—I’m the guy, the one who is supposed to be in control of this whole thing. Just want it, but not too much, OK? Don’t be sexual, just sexy.
I never judged Mimi for being sexual, in fact it made me think back to my own experiences with a less judgmental eye, softening my shame into something more like acceptance. My teenage years were a time of yearning for experience, I wanted to have sex. Most of friends wanted to as well and most of us did. But the vibes we got from the adults around us were that either “SEX WILL GIVE YOU THE DISEASES” (check out this video, which is what I was shown in high school sex ed, thanks Catholic school) or it was seen as something that was going to happen eventually so it’s best to just let it occur naturally without interfering. So you’re left to contend with the two sides simultaneously saying you’ve gotta be sexy but don’t have sex too much, or don’t have it all, or maybe just half-have it so you can tell everyone you’re definitely not a slut.
Does that make sense to you? Me neither.
Teenage girls shame each other, too. We shame the one who has had too much sex, the one who hasn’t; we shame each other for trying too hard or not trying at all. We are all aiming for the perfect level of sexy without actually being sexual. If we are passive, if we say no sometimes then it’s OK. If we want it and we want it bad like Mimi does then that’s not OK.
Teenage girls will probably have sex. They will also probably take risks.
We have to cut the bullshit and stop pretending that it isn’t happening. Instead of ignoring it or judging harshly, we should try to remove some of the shame around being sexual—especially for teenage girls.
Maybe you could say something like this instead:
SEX IS OK YOU CAN HAVE IT PLEASE GO AND DO IT SAFELY WITH SOMEONE YOU LIKE BUT YOU DON’T HAVE TO LOVE THEM IT’S OK JUST ENJOY YOURSELF AND IT’S COOL IF YOU LIKE SHOWING YOUR BOOBIES IT’S YOUR BODY YOU’RE GREAT AND AWESOME.
Why don’t we tell this to our kids? Why isn’t this the basis of sex education?
Sadly shame stops us from talking about it; it stops teenagers from asking adults, it makes us angry about something that is supposed to be enjoyable.
So, just like Mimi I wanted to have sex when I was 15, and you probably did too.
There’s nothing wrong with that.
Tessa Moxey is currently living in Japan’s frozen north and blogging about feminism, education and all things that make her excited or full of rage. This was cross posted on her blog “I don’t wakaru.” She is studying towards a Masters in Applied Linguistics and probably swears too much.