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Girls on the Edge
Why So Many Girls Are Anxious, Wired, and Obsessed--And What Parents Can Do
By Leonard Sax
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In Girls on the Edge, psychologist and physician Leonard Sax argues that many girls today have a brittle sense of self-they may look confident and strong on the outside, but they’re fragile within. Sax offers the tools we need to help them become independent and confident women, and provides parents with practical tips on everything from helping their daughter limit her time on social media, to choosing a sport, to nurturing her spirit through female-centered activities.
Compelling and inspiring, Girls on the Edge points the way to a new future for today’s girls and young women.
first factor: sexual identity / sexualization
We are gradually penetrating the highest levels of the work force. We get to go to college and play sports and be secretary of state. But to look around, you’d think all any of us [girls] want to do is rip off our clothes and shake it.
A teenager who pretends to be an adult is still a teenager. If you imagine that getting high at a party and sleeping around is going to propel you into a state of full adulthood, that’s like thinking that dressing up as an Indian is going to make you an Indian.… It’s a really weird way of looking at life to want to become an adult by imitating everything that is most catastrophic about adulthood.
Girls are getting sexier earlier. That’s not a good thing.
Kathy has a fond memory of one particular Halloween from her childhood. “My grandmother came to America from Bavaria as a young girl. So one year when I was a little girl myself, trying to decide what I should be for Halloween, she suggested that I should dress up like a Bavarian immigrant girl. She spent a month sewing a genuine Bavarian dirndl for me. She taught me how to wear it. My mom helped. Looking back, I can see that it was a chance for three generations—me, my mom, and her mom—to do something together. Grandma even taught me how to say ‘ee be a bairishe maydl’—‘I’m a Bavarian girl.’ I was so proud.
“When my daughter was ten, I told her that we could have a dirndl made for her Halloween costume just like the one I had worn. She looked at me like I was crazy. ‘I know what I’m going as, Mom,’ she said in this how-could-you-be-so-stupid tone of voice. She’d already picked out her costume at the party store. It was a French maid outfit, with fishnet pantyhose and a frilly miniskirt. This was an outfit marketed to ten-year-old girls. They even had it in smaller sizes, for even younger girls! Unbelievable. I told my daughter, ‘No way.’ She threw a fit. So we compromised on a cheerleader outfit.
“And here’s what’s weird,” Kathy continued. “The boys’ costumes haven’t changed that much from what boys wore when I was little. When I was a girl, boys would dress up as Darth Vader or a Jedi knight or a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. And they still do. But so many of the girls today, nine- and ten- and eleven-year-old girls, seem to feel as though they have to dress up in something really skanky. How come? I’ve never heard of a boy who wanted to dress up like a Chippendale’s dancer.”
It’s not just Halloween. In many ways, our popular culture now pushes elementary school girls to dress and act today in ways that would have been pushing the envelope for middle school girls twenty years ago. Skintight leggings, camisoles, and midriff tops are now common dress for girls in third grade.
Girls who are dressing in camisoles and tight leggings prior to the onset of puberty are not expressing their sexuality. Prepubescent children do not have, and should not have, a sexual agenda to express. Dressing sexually in the absence of sexual desire is simply conformism. And it may create long-term problems. As Berkeley professor of psychology Stephen Hinshaw observes, “If girls pretend to be sexual before they really are sexual, they’re going to find it much, much harder to connect to their own sexual feelings.”3
There’s been a big change in what’s expected and what’s acceptable. If a girl in 1995 came to school wearing skintight leggings, no skirt, and a midriff-baring top, she probably would have been told to go home and put on something decent. But girls today are bombarded with the notion that revealing your body is a valid means of self-expression, even a manifestation of girl power. As parents, we must reject the notion that girls have to reveal their bodies in order to empower themselves. Boys don’t have to take off their clothes to empower themselves. Girls shouldn’t either.
Sexuality is good, but sexualization is bad. Sexuality is about your identity as a woman or a man, about feeling sexual. That’s a healthy part of being human, a healthy part of becoming an adult. But sexualization is about being an object for the pleasure of others, about being on display for others. Sexuality is about who you are. Sexualization is about how you look.
The American Psychological Association published a monograph about the sexualization of American girls.4 The authors concluded that girls today are being pushed to wear “sexy” clothes at age nine and ten—well before these girls have any adult sexuality to express. The authors of the monograph observed that in our contemporary culture, “girls are encouraged to look sexy, yet they know little about what it means to be sexual, to have sexual desires, and to make rational and responsible decisions about pleasure and risk within intimate relationships that acknowledge their own desires.”5
underage girls dancing in lingerie?
The video went viral in a hurry. According to The Early Show, one online version of the video received 2 million hits within a few days, and multiple versions were soon streaming from dozens of websites, although the copyright owner kept shutting them down as fast as they sprang up on YouTube.6 The videos show five girls performing at a dance competition in Pomona, California. The girls are dancing a choreographed routine to Beyoncé’s song “Single Ladies,” wearing nothing but bras, hot pants, and knee-high stockings with black boots. They gyrate their hips, they kick their legs high, they do pelvic thrusting in unison.
But these girls are seven, eight, and nine years old.
Well, what’s wrong with that?
Apparently nothing, according to some. The parents of two of the five girls went on national television to defend the dance. Melissa Presch, the mother of one of the Pomona Five, told Inside Edition that she was “shocked” that anybody would object to the routine.7 Inside Edition’s Jim Moret asked Cory Miller, the father of another of the girls, whether the routine might perhaps be “overly sexualized.” Mr. Miller said no, it’s just “really high energy.”
Pretending to be sexual when you’re seven years old makes you an object on display for others. It’s not who you really are. It’s not healthy. As we will see, it sets up girls for depression, anxiety, and an unsatisfying sex life later. “Dare to bare!” is a common exhortation on Pinterest pages targeting girls and young women.8 Where did this crazy idea come from, anyhow?
the mixed-up legacy of germaine greer
In 1970, the feminist writer Germaine Greer published her influential book The Female Eunuch. Greer’s best seller dissected sexual roles from ancient times to the 1960s. She made a good case that throughout most of recorded history, in a wide variety of cultures all around the world, “good girls” have been portrayed as sexually naïve and lacking in sexual desire. In most of these traditional cultures, men are expected to be the experienced agents and initiators of sex, while women are supposed to be inexperienced and reluctant. In almost all of these cultures, girls are sheltered from the sexual attentions of boys until the girls are of marriageable age. Supposed exceptions to this rule, such as Margaret Mead’s famous Samoan Islanders, turn out to be not so exceptional after all.9
A cultural anthropologist writing on this topic might reasonably ask, “If we see this pattern in so many cultures, then perhaps it has some adaptive value. Maybe it’s there for some good reason. What value might such a cultural paradigm have?” But Greer, writing with the airy self-confidence that characterized so many writers (both female and male) in the 1960s and 1970s, disparages the notion that previous cultures might have anything worthwhile to teach us. Just because most cultures have done it this way doesn’t mean that there might be any value in doing things that way. “The new assumption [should be] that everything that we may observe could be otherwise,” she wrote.10
Greer’s book was published five decades ago. Her main assertion—that female modesty is a consequence and manifestation of the patriarchy—has achieved the status of established fact in contemporary gender studies. The corollary—that female immodesty is a sign of liberation—is now widely accepted. Girls today are coming of age in a culture in which teenage girls strip off their clothes at the beach or compete in wet T-shirt contests for the amusement of teenage boys, or to win more followers on social media. What’s especially weird about those competitions is that both the girls and the boys seem to believe that the girls’ parading their unveiled bodies is somehow modern, hip, and contemporary.11
By chastising feminine modesty as a symptom of patriarchal oppression, Greer provided support to the idea that pole dancers are truly liberated women. Her argument became so intrinsic to contemporary feminism that many people today don’t even know where it came from. If you hint at an objection to Girls Gone Wild, you may find yourself labeled as a reactionary who favors the patriarchy.
To be fair, there was a moment in second-wave feminism when card-carrying feminists dared to question whether liberated women should wear stiletto heels and skintight leggings. Gail Collins, a regular columnist for the New York Times, remembers that moment: “There was one minute back in the late 1960s when the women’s movement tried to convince everyone that being liberated involved wearing sensible shoes. It was not a success,” she writes.12 Germaine Greer’s vision of feminism triumphed.
But that vision is out of sync with reality, because women’s sexuality is simply different from men’s. Many teenage boys can be sexually aroused just by looking at a picture of a naked woman whom they have never met. A photograph of a woman’s genitals or breasts, omitting the face, can be exciting for some teenage boys. But very few teenage girls will be sexually aroused by a picture of the penis of a man whom they will never meet. A photograph of an erect penis is actually a turnoff for some girls.13
For boys and young men, sexuality is often the driving force behind a relationship. But for most girls and young women, it’s usually the other way around: the relationship has to drive the sex—otherwise the sex won’t be any good. The most fulfilling sexual experience for most teenage girls, and for most young women, is physical intimacy with someone with whom they have a meaningful and ongoing relationship. Those differences were not constructed by the patriarchy. The origins go much deeper than that.14
“dress like what?”
Ask an American girl wearing a midriff top with skintight leggings whether she really wants to dress like that. “Dress like what?” is the most common answer I have received. That’s just how the cool girls dress. It’s just how normal girls dress. After dozens of conversations like this, I realized that no other perspective seems real to them. Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, recently wrote about “the armies of young women tottering around the nightclub district of any American city in camisoles and stilettos every weekend night of the year even in the dead of winter (aren’t they freezing?) because that’s what sexiness looks like onscreen.”15 Choosing to wear an ankle-length skirt with matching blouse and cardigan, for example, is simply inconceivable. Exercising such a choice would open them to charges of being a prude, or simply being an alien visitor from another planet.
The same mentality applies to sexual intimacy itself. After a sixteen-year-old girl told me that she has provided oral sex for “maybe a dozen” guys, I asked her whether she enjoyed doing it.
“I don’t know. It’s OK, I guess. It’s really no big deal,” she said.
I’m not the only person who has heard girls talk like this. Dr. Stephen Hinshaw, former chair of the department of psychology at the University of California–Berkeley, describes a similar experience interviewing a young woman. He kept asking a girl named Randi whether she enjoys this kind of impersonal sexual activity, specifically providing oral sex to boys she doesn’t know very well. “Randi seems more and more puzzled. It’s almost as though I were asking her whether she enjoyed any of the individual drinks she had at the party. It’s fun to drink, it’s fun to get drunk, it’s fun to hook up—or if it isn’t… [if there is] a sense of, well, boredom, so what? Hooking up is what you do.” Dr. Hinshaw concludes that many young women today are “likely to view sex as relatively joyless and impersonal, something that’s part of frantic, drunken social activity rather than a source of pleasure, intimacy, or fulfillment.”16
“it’s no big deal”
Remember Avery, the girl I mentioned in the introduction, the girl who was obsessed with being slender and hot? Many girls like Avery are faking it. They don’t even know that they’re faking it, because they started faking it before they were old enough ever to have experienced from the inside the sexuality they are pretending to manifest. They are dressing to look hot, but most of the tween and teen girls who are wearing skintight leggings are not actually trying to lure boys into sex. Like most young people, they want attention. They want to feel special. They have figured out that one sure way to accomplish that is to look good in the eyes of the boys. The boys rush to compete for the favors of the pretty girl. The other girls notice that, so the status of the pretty girl goes up in the eyes of the other girls.
As a result, the girl wearing the skintight leggings can easily confuse her desire for attention with her desire for sex. She wears the sexy outfit and enjoys the attention she gets from the boys. Or she wears a T-shirt that says “yes, but not with u” or “Behind Every Great Girl… Is a Guy Checkin’ Her Out.” That’s the image many tween and teen girls want to present: I’m sexy, I’m potentially sexually available, but I’m not a slut.
The mixed message here can create problems. Girls who dress in sexy outfits may eventually have to perform sexually or risk being labeled a tease or a prude. But they often don’t feel the desire for intercourse. Hence the popularity of oral sex, with the girl servicing the boy. I have been stunned by the detached tone in which some girls describe oral sex. “It’s no big deal” is the recurring refrain. A girl who knows how to give “good” oral sex can raise her status in the eyes of the boys, without risking pregnancy or even making eye contact.
I have talked with many girls and young women whose main sexual experience, from age fourteen onward, has been providing oral sex. One woman, age twenty, told me, “To be honest, I wouldn’t mind if I never see another [penis] as long as I live.” Many of these girls seem to believe that sex is a commodity that girls provide to boys. Some of them regard sexual intimacy—and especially giving oral sex to boys—as a chore, something you do more because you have to than because you really enjoy it.
In my book Why Gender Matters, I devoted a full chapter to research on why girls and boys engage in sexual intimacy. Researchers find that girls and boys approach sexual activity with different motivations. For teenage boys and young men, sex is often about obtaining relief from an urge that can be overwhelming. “It’s just something I have to do sometimes. When I need sex, I can’t think about anything else until I get it,” one boy told me. Only a few teenage girls feel that kind of overwhelming need for a sexual outlet. Instead, providing a boy with a sexual outlet may give a girl the feeling of being wanted, desired, and somehow in control.
Even girls who insist that they enjoy sexual intimacy for its own sake often want the intimacy more than the sex. In a classic paper entitled “The Need or Wish to Be Held,” Dr. Marc Hollender described how even young women who labeled themselves as sexually voracious actually craved the closeness—being held, being hugged. The sexual act was their way of getting that closeness.17
This is a fundamental difference between female sexuality and male sexuality. For many boys and young men, sex is primarily about achieving a sexual climax and release. For most girls and women, satisfying sex is about intimacy, being desired by someone you like, feeling loved. Orgasm is great, but for most girls and women, it’s best when it comes in the context of closeness with a caring person. “Second-wave feminism accomplished sweeping, grand social change,” writes Courtney Martin. Nevertheless, she observes, “we still can’t be authentically sexual—only raunchy like our brothers or asexual like our mothers.”18 More than five decades after the sexual revolution of the 1960s, young women are still struggling to figure out what it means to be female and sexual in their own frame of reference.
Ignoring these gender differences doesn’t help girls; it disadvantages them. I discussed this problem with Dr. Laura Irwin, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Medical College of Georgia. She told me about young women in their mid-to-late twenties who have come to see her, all with the same kind of question: “I’m twenty-seven years old,” one woman told Dr. Irwin. “I’ve had sex with lots of different guys. But I’ve never had an orgasm. At least, I don’t think I have. I would know if I had an orgasm, right? Is there something wrong with me?”
Dr. Irwin then proceeds to do a thorough evaluation. In each case, Dr. Irwin told me, she found nothing wrong with the woman’s anatomy. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” she told this particular woman. “It’s the men you’ve been with. They have no idea that ‘sexual intercourse’ is supposed to be intercourse between two individuals. These young men are basically using your body as an aid to masturbation. They do their business and then they’re done. They don’t have a clue about what you or other young women want or need.”
beauty products for tweens… and younger
Once upon a time, it was unusual for nine-year-old girls to go to a beauty spa for a full facial, manicure, and pedicure. Not anymore. As Jessica Bennett wrote for Newsweek, “This, my friends, is the new normal: a generation that primps and dyes and pulls and shapes, younger and with more vigor. [Some] girls today are salon vets before they enter elementary school.” As recently as 2005, the average age for first use of beauty products was age seventeen.19 No longer. In the past fifteen years, a new market sector has emerged: salons and spas targeting girls between the ages of five and twelve. There’s Sweet & Sassy, Girlz Time Boutique, Little Princess Spa, Sassy Princess Spa, Toadly Kool Me, the Seriously Spoiled Spa, the Klumsy Moose Girls Spa. According to the New York Times, 25 percent of the country’s roughly twenty thousand spas now offer services for “young children.”20
Birthdays are big business. Sweet & Sassy invites you to book “a fashionista runway party you’ll never forget”—for your five-year-old.21 Anna Solomon, a social worker, told Bennett that her eight-year-old daughter is “so into this stuff it’s unbelievable. From the clothes to the hair to the nails, school is like number ten on [her] list of priorities.”
In one study, researchers asked girls six to twelve years of age to draw pictures of girls who owned makeup and girls who did not, and then to describe their pictures. Girls who owned makeup were described as being more attractive, happier, and more popular than girls who did not own makeup. Or to put it more simply: Beauty = Good. Quoting Tolstoy, the authors wrote: “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.”22
When I speak to parents on this topic and I advise them not to allow their nine-year-olds to go to the spa or to use makeup, I sometimes get pushback. “Why so much fuss?” one parent asked. “What’s the harm in letting nine-year-old girls go to a spa?” Here’s the harm: allowing a nine-year-old to spend half a day at a spa, worrying about which kind of makeup is best for her face, is another kind of self-objectification, another way of communicating to girls that what really matters most is how they look instead of who they are.
“will you love me forever?”
Fifty years ago, the lines were clearly drawn. “Good girls” didn’t have sex before marriage—well, not until just a few months before marriage, perhaps. In the 1950s, the average age at first intercourse for young women was nineteen years, and the average age of marriage for young women was twenty.23 Today a girl may commonly have her first sexual experience (including oral sex), at thirteen, fourteen, or fifteen years of age,24 but she may not marry until her late twenties, if she marries at all. That means she may have a decade or more where she is a sexual agent outside of the context of a lifelong commitment. “Getting married to a guy without having sex with him first would be like buying a dress without trying it on first,” a college woman told me. There has never previously been a culture in which young women have had so many years of unconstrained sexuality. In the long perspective of the past four thousand years of recorded human history, this is unprecedented.25
Whether you view this development as good or bad depends on your personal values. What’s clear is that girls today have more freedom and more choices, but less guidance from adults, than any generation of girls in history. Most girls are not getting the guidance they need to navigate this uncharted territory. Many don’t have any applicable moral compass.
It’s no longer clear to girls today what it means to be a “good girl” or even whether a girl would want to be “good.” Consider one of the most basic questions of teenage behavior: Have you ever had sex?
Figure 1 shows how teenage girls and boys answered that question, from 1950 through 1999. Back in 1950, nearly two-thirds of boys reported having had sex, but fewer than one girl in six had had sex. The teenage boys were having sex either with the few “bad girls” their age or with older women, some of whom may have been paid sex workers. The proportion of boys getting some action actually declined slightly between 1950 and 1999. The proportion of girls roughly quadrupled.26
But the changes go even deeper than these numbers might suggest. Fifty years ago, girls were the gatekeepers for sexual activity. The boys had to at least pretend they liked the girl in order to get physical. Today, girls often engage in sexual activity with boys, particularly oral sex, without any promise of relationship.27 Being hip, being cool, means not insisting on a romantic commitment prior to sexual intimacy. Being hip means being a guy as far as sex is concerned: sex with no strings attached. As Ariel Levy put it, with regard to female sexuality, “We are all Tarzan now, or at least we are all pretending to be.”28
Fifty years ago, the dividing line between good girls and bad girls was clear. Good girls didn’t have sex before marriage. Bad girls did. In that era, it was good to be a good girl and bad to be a bad girl. Today, Bad is the new Good. An issue of Cosmopolitan magazine had a banner on the cover, in large type: “Bad Girl Issue—For Sexy Bitches Only.”29
The culture of fifty years ago encouraged romance without sex. Today’s culture encourages sex without romance. For many girls, the result is profoundly depressing, literally. Pediatrician Meg Meeker, whom I mentioned in the introduction, has suggested that girls who engage in sex in their early teenage years are at higher risk for depression compared with girls in their peer group who don’t. Dr. Meeker has gone so far as to assert that depression in teenage girls may often be a “sexually transmitted disease,” by which she means that having sex may cause some girls to become depressed.30 Researchers at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill have reported evidence that supports her idea. They found that girls who engage in sex are indeed more likely subsequently to become depressed. That’s not true for boys.31 Most boys aren’t wracked with regret if they lose their virginity to the wrong person. But your daughter may be.
As journalist and author Laura Sessions Stepp observed, for girls, “losing your virginity is closing the door on childhood and stepping into adulthood. If you’re not ready for it and do it anyway, it can feel ‘like death,’ as one young woman put it. You just want to put it behind you, except that you can’t.” Stepp has also observed that today’s hook-up culture, free of commitment, is “gravy for guys.” So, she asks, how much have women really won?32
There’s the irony. In an era that preaches gender equity, young men today can have sex not merely without marriage but without any sort of romantic relationship. Most cultures in most times and most places have frowned on premarital intercourse. Our culture now expects it. Indeed, teenage girls today are often ashamed to admit that they are virgins, in much the same way that girls fifty years ago would have been ashamed to admit that they were not virgins.
This change has taken place with remarkable speed. When I was a teenager myself, forty-some years ago, Meat Loaf had a popular song titled “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” The song describes a teenage girl and boy getting hot and heavy in the front seat of a car. They are on the verge of vaginal intercourse, when the girl interrupts the action, saying:
Stop right there!
I gotta know right now!
Before we go any further!
Do you love me?
Will you love me forever?
Do you need me?
Will you never leave me?
Will you make me so happy for the rest of my life?
Will you take me away, will you make me your wife?
I have played this song for teenagers all across the United States and Canada. They giggle when they hear the questions being asked in the song. But their giggles hide their underlying confusion. “It’s obviously just a hook-up,” one girl said. “Why is she making such a big deal about it? If she doesn’t want to have sex, fine, no big deal. Why would she want the guy to marry her, I mean, that’s really weird.”
- The best book about the current state of girls and young women in America.—Caitlin Flanagan, The Atlantic
- Packed with advice and concrete suggestions for parents, Girls on the Edge is a treasure trove of rarely seen research on girls, offering families guidance on some of the most pressing issues facing girls today. Dr. Sax's commitment to girls' success comes through on every page.—Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out,The Curse of the Good Girl, and Enough As She Is
- Crucial. . . . Parents of tween and teen girls would do well to check this book.—The Chronicle of Higher Education
- Dr. Sax once again combines years of experience with compelling research and common sense to intelligently challenge the status quo of what it means to raise a healthy daughter. Girls on the Edge offers skills parents can incorporate to feel more competent with our girls and young women.—Florence Hilliard, director of the Gender Studies Project, University of Wisconsin-Madison
- The world is way different from what it was a couple of years ago; this is essential reading for parents and teachers, and one of the most thought-provoking books on teen development available.—Library Journal
- Fortunately, [Leonard] Sax is up to more here than pronouncing young women irrevocably doomed. . . . Girls on the Edge doesn't dramatize the self-destructive behavior it describes . . . [and it] speaks exclusively to parents and offers concrete ways to help their daughters cultivate stronger personal identities.—Slate.com/Double X
- Turn off your cell phones and computers and read this book! You will connect with your daughter in new ways, and she will thank you.—Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, author ofGod's Paintbrush and In God's Name
- Leonard Sax brings together a rare combination of psychoanalytic training with a deep empathy for girls and their stories in this important book. His argument that girls are struggling to find their centers will resonate and his recommendations for how to locate them will inspire.—Courtney E. Martin, author ofPerfect Girls, Starving Daughters
- Dr. Sax's deep commitment to girls developing a positive 'sense of self' is woven into the fabric of this book. Girls on the Edge is a must-read for every parent of a girl as well as for every adult who teaches girls.—Dr. Mary Seppala, head of school,Agnes Irwin School, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
- Leonard Sax sounds a crucial warning to parents of teenage girls. No matter how attentive and savvy you are, the lives of girls today are like nothing you ever knew. The obsessions are worse, nastiness is rampant (especially on the web), drinking is up, and sexuality keeps creeping down the age ladder. 'Girls need girl-specific interventions,' Sax insists, and Girls on the Edge explains why-and also how to do it.—Mark Bauerlein, PhD, professor, Emory University
- On Sale
- Aug 25, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Basic Books