"Freaks" dressed in all black. "Easy" white girls who date the "wrong" guys. "Good girls" who’d rather pray than date.
Puerto Rican "wannabes," and Christians are all seen as "odd," as
"freaks," or as "posers." Outsiders think they wear the "wrong"
clothes, have the "wrong" emotions, and–perhaps most alarmingly–make
the "wrong" sexual choices.
But young people in these groups
are not so different from us, anyone who has ever wanted to improve
their appearance, have fun, be noticed, or be seen as authentic rather
than fake. Like us, these teens are all engaged in efforts to remake
their identities in ways that help them feel good about themselves.
Although goths, wannabes, and Christians each have a distinct approach
to sex and sexuality, sexuality is central to identity-making in each
group. In various ways, goth, wannabe, and Christian sexualities
challenge expectations for young women (and men, though they aren’t the
focus of this piece), but each subculture also valorizes romance in
manners that offer both payoffs and costs.
the Sanctuary, a weekly dance night in the Northeast, Goths (who, in
this group, are predominantly white, middle-class, and college-aged)
get together for a night of dancing, hanging out, and forming "cuddle
circles." Proud of their freaky personas and dark style, they wear
fetish wear, leather and PVC, dog collars, and leashes. A man walks
through in chaps and a thong. Other men "gender blend" in make-up and
skirts, but the women are dressed in sexy, clearly feminine outfits. On
the sidelines, pairs and groups of people kiss, caress, suck on each
At the Sanctuary, they tell me, the rules are
different: People are free to kiss who they want, even if they are in
relationships with other people. And women are the sexual aggressors.
Men are "ostracized," *Hyacinth says, if they hit on women too overtly.
Goths value these rules, describing the "meat market" scene of hip-hop
clubs as "repulsive."
"I really, really liked it [about the Sanctuary]," Hyacinth explains, "that nobody tried to grab my butt."
few towns south, one of those hip-hop clubs is in full swing. Much more
racially diverse, Black and Latino men dominate the edges of the dance
floor, while women dance in the center. *Jaclyn, a young white woman,
works the place like she owns it. She rarely dances but instead cases
the club, looking for a Black or Latino man worth flirting with.
Jaclyn, as usual, is dressed to the nines in a tight hip-hop inspired
catsuit, her hair dyed black and gelled back in a style worn by local
Puerto Rican girls. She is labeled a "Puerto Rican wannabe" by other
young people, who call her a "hootchie" and complain that her adoption
of a style associated with young Puerto Rican women and her interest in
Black and Puerto Rican men means she "doesn’t act like who she really
is." Jaclyn scoffs at this label, arguing that she "dates interracially
as a lifestyle" because, raised in a poor family in a middle-class
community, she has more in common with Black and Latino men.
a university-sponsored group of evangelical Christians get together for
a weekly meeting in which they sing, pray, and listen to talks about
Christian life. Dressed in conservative college gear, they scorn both
the sexy Thursday night partying attire worn by most of their female
peers and the drunken hooking up they associate with the party scene.
After the meeting, they go to a local diner and hang out.
one of the student leaders, tells me that she "used to be, like, boy
crazy, which is something I’ve been trying to get under God’s control
’cause I don’t want to be that way." To that end, she is not only
sexually abstinent but also "romantically abstinent." Like her
Christian peers, Molly doesn’t date at all.
In the 2008 hit movie Juno,
Juno’s father tells his teenage daughter, who has just disclosed that
she is pregnant, "I didn’t know you were that kind of girl," to which
Juno replies, "I don’t know what kind of girl I am." Like Juno,
contemporary girls and young women know that "what kind of girl" they
are has a lot to do with sex, but the sexual rules are much less clear.
Gone are the days when good girls "don’t" and bad girls "do."
Now good girls might, sometimes, depending on their feelings for the
guy and who the guy is. Good girls, according to current cultural
norms, should be concerned with how they look and express interest in
boys, and they probably shouldn’t be too uptight about sex. And aren’t
girls supposed to want to get their needs met, at least a little, too?
rules, murky as they are, can also backfire. Girls can end up pregnant
like Juno (or Bristol Palin), they can inadvertently cross the slippery
boundary between "hot" and "slutty," or they can be victimized and
subsequently blamed for it. And though for girls, figuring out how to
follow the rules can bring respect, status, and protection from peers
and adults, it also means that their own sexual desires and priorities
take a backburner to the desires and perspectives of boys and/or
adults. How can girls and young women identify and make their own
sexual choices while also being the "kinds of girls" they want to be?
Each subculture offers young women a different solution to these dilemmas.
women value sexual agency, pursuing sexual and romantic relations with
multiple partners, both men and women, and experimenting with "freaky"
sex. They describe their sexuality as empowering, arguing that they are
in control of their sexual choices, that they are free from the
objectification that occurs in other clubs, and that they are able to
be sexually and emotionally authentic without stigma.
*Siobhan, a Catholic high school graduate, found the Goth scene, she
recalls, she felt that "maybe [there was] already a part of me that was
Goth–the open sexuality and confidence being sexual openly. . . . It’s
very liberating to be around that kind of thing coming from a repressed
Wannabes don’t embrace the sexual
openness of the Goths. Instead they go after the "wrong" guys–Black or
Latino men, rather than the presumably safe white boys they’re expected
to date–and do so in the "wrong" ways: by adopting the dress and
grooming styles of local, low-income Puerto Rican girls, as Jaclyn
does. That the "wannabe" behavior is perceived as scandalous is
evidenced by the label itself and by the alarm and disgust of their
white peers, who claim wannabes are "too sexual" and date the wrong
In contrast, the Christian women embrace the "good girl."
They use the sexual double standard to opt out of both sexuality and
dating, explaining that they are "saving themselves" for their
husbands. On the other hand, for most white college women getting and
keeping a man, or at least establishing their heterosexual
desirability, are powerful expectations and opting out of heterosexual
gaming is odd indeed. In this way, Christian women are too
good. By not dating at all, Christian women are able to concentrate
instead on academic and leadership skills and on building close
friendships with other Christian women. They are also able to sidestep
the risks of social rejection and unwanted sexual experiences.
different ways goth, wannabe, and Christian women challenge the demands
of the young adult sexual marketplace. Goth women explode the
behavioral constraints of feminine sexuality by claiming desire,
experimental sexuality, and the right to have multiple partners.
Wannabes reject expectations about what kinds of boys are appropriate
for white girls by going after guys of color. And Christian women claim
the right to be more interested in God, themselves, and their women
friends than in getting men.
These responses are all powerful
and distinct assertions of young women’s right to define their own
sexual choices: to decide with whom, how, or when they will be sexually
engaged. But they are also each imperfect solutions.
Goth, wannabe, and Christian strategies come with similar costs.
Despite their challenges to some of the limitations on feminine
sexuality, sexual double standards are alive and well. As much as goths
and wannabes experiment with being "bad," they, too, don’t want to
irrevocably tarnish their sexual reputations-at the least they want to
think of themselves as different from girls who are really, really bad.
women explain that being sexually open does not make them slutty. For
example, *Beth explains that being goth means being able "to dress in a
way that’s sexy without people assuming that [they’re] there to get
laid." And goths routinely distinguish "true" polyamory (simultaneous
involvement in more than one intimate relationship, which many of them
practice) from "just sleeping around." They explain that "in its purest
form, it’s not about sex, it’s about love" and that they "don’t want to
be associated with people who are irresponsible."
also distance themselves from girls and women they see as really bad.
Jaclyn says that she is "not easy" and angrily tells me "there’s a lot
of white girls [who] give some white girls a bad name, and it’s true.
Because Black men think that white girls are easy."
claim sexual agency in different ways, both groups of young women run
head-on into old cultural scripts that devalue women as sluts.
women more obviously rely on sexual double standards. Indeed, they use
the trope of the good girl to buy their (short-term) independence. For
many of these women, trading sexual freedom for other kinds of autonomy
is a grand solution–they don’t want sex anyway, at least right now. But
it is a solution with both personal and collective costs, as it not
only limits their sexual options if they change their minds but also
shores up the idea that women deserve respect and social recognition
only if they’re sexually pure.
Despite their different sexual
styles, the women I interviewed all valorize romance. Goths and
Christians explain that their sexual choices are better paths
to romantic intimacy. For goths, polyamory forces them to develop
better communication skills, to be more honest, and to trust each other
in new ways. All this creates better, more authentic relationships,
Christians use a logic that assumes that wasting
romance on a relationship that doesn’t end in marriage means that there
will be less romance left over for the marriage itself. For them,
delaying dating and sexuality ensures unparalleled intimacy with their
(anticipated) future husbands.
A bit differently, wannabes
explain that they aren’t just having sex with Black or Latino men
because they’re cool, but because they truly, deeply love them–and they
work hard to create enduring romantic relationships rather than sexual
ones. For them, romantic relationships are the key to securing
community membership, while purely sexual relationships mean that they
will be dismissed as "easy white girls."
This emphasis on romance comes with costs.
or because of, their challenges to sexual rules, none of these groups
of women challenge the inequities in cultural scripts of romance. For
example, *Zoe, a goth woman, notes that "there seems to be a double
standard–girls in heterosexual relationships can date other women but
not other men," while the men are free to date whomever they want.
*Lili, who is in one of those relationships, is less inclined to see
this as a problem. She explains that she doesn’t see other men, but her
boyfriend of seven years, Sean, sees other women because he feels more
threatened than she does. Although Lili has more sexual options than
most other women, her unequal responsibilities to her relationship mean
that she still has fewer sexual options than her male partner.
both goths and wannabes maintain their dependence on men for their
identities and self-worth. In this way, the Christian strategy is in
some ways, and unexpectedly, powerful, as it at least pushes back the
pull of romance altogether. But the emphasis on early marriage among
evangelical Christians means that this pushback is temporary. By
investing in romance, these very different young women limit their
attempts to carve out sexual space.
Although our focus is
often on girls and young women’s sexuality, the problems they face are
not limited to their sexual behavior but are also shaped by the ways in
which sexuality intersects with other cultural scripts-scripts that
continue to value romantic relationships over sexual ones, treat
romance as more important to girls’ identities than to boys’
identities, and keep the burden for making romantic relationships work
on girls. We must examine these other constraints if we are to help
women increase their chances of creating not only greater independence
but also, ironically, greater sexually agency.
This post was first published at the National Sexuality Resource Center.