By Sharon Lamb Free Press, 2002 Review by Janis S. Bohan, Ph.D. on May 15th 2003
The sub-title of this book provides
a concise summary of its key point:
Even "good" girls engage in sex play and aggression, and they
quite commonly feel guilty for doing so.
Sharon Lamb's aim in the book is to explore this notion, drawing on
interviews with 122 girls and women who talked with the author about their
childhood experiences of sexuality and aggression. Lamb elaborates on these first-person accounts through appeals to
relevant scholarly research, as well as to her own expertise as a teacher,
therapist, and clinical supervisor.
Lamb's novel offering is not
startling new information so much as new frames for exploring that
information. First, while the notion
that even "good" girls engage in sexual and aggressive acts may seem
mundane to professionals in the field, it may be less evident to lay readers. The easy manner in which Lamb (and most of
her participants) discuss these topics might do much to normalize sexual and
aggressive feelings in girls, providing adults in their lives with a healthier
attitude with which to approach the range of girls' experiences. Toward this end, both major sections--sexuality
and aggression--close with advice to those who parent and work with girls about
how to honor the fundamentally healthy motives that underlie their sexual and
aggressive acts and feelings.
Second, Lamb challenges certain
contemporary, extremely popular renditions of girls' experiences. In particular, Lamb encourages us to view
these childhood excursions into sex and aggression as meaningful in their own
right rather than as disguised manifestations of an underlying search for
connection. The argument that girls'
(and women's) behavior is fundamentally relational and that all experience can
be reduced to a relational dimension has been the mainstay of many recent
depictions of female experience. A
popular extension of this position argues that girls' mismatch with society
derives from their recognition that acceptance lies in subverting their own
needs to the formation of relationships.
This relational view of girls' experience is so familiar as to be
unquestioned in some circles; Lamb's challenge to it renders this book an
important stimulus to further conversation.
while the book provides considerable detailed description of girls' acts and
experiences, the point is less that even good girls engage in these behaviors
than that girls and women feel so guilty about them. Lamb repeatedly stresses
the point that girls' behaviors and feelings are typical rather than aberrant,
that they serve potentially important ends rather than foretelling pathological
outcomes, and that these healthy ends depend on their not being encumbered by
undue guilt. Lamb reiterates again and
again the importance of our finding ways to recognize and celebrate girls'
sexuality and aggression and to diminish the guilt they feel--all in the
service of nurturing the healthy outcomes that can stem from these
My single major criticism of the
book has to do with the section on aggression. I was far less persuaded by
Lamb's points in this section than I was by the section dealing with
sexuality. (As an aside, I read this
book in the midst of the movement toward and engagement in the Iraq war, and
the futility and immorality of aggression were much on my mind). There seems (to me) little argument against
our inviting and celebrating girls' efforts at exploring and claiming ownership
of their own sexuality. I am less
certain that we do girls or the world a service by encouraging aggression that
is explicitly intended for no purpose other than to experience one's power. It is late in this section when Lamb makes
the connection between opportunities to engage in guilt-free aggression and
valuable experiences of self-protection, self-assertion, and altruistic
interventions; the absence of a clear exposition of this linkage early in
Lamb's discussion of aggression makes her comments seem less well-grounded than
those about sexuality. Even so, I was far more comfortable with and clear about
Lamb's argument in the domain of aggression when I read the final paragraph of
the book. I close with that paragraph as a summary of key points of the book:
up to be healthy sexual adults, able to have and give pleasure, able to be
women with desires that they are not ashamed of, girls need practice. To grow up to protect themselves against
abuse, feel their physical strength, and use this strength wisely, they need
practice. To be fully empathic and
fight for fairness, they need their anger.
Our girls need to practice these feelings and emotions in spaces where
adults acknowledge them and help shape their development. We diminish girls when we restrain them in
conventional ways, preserve a fake ideal of goodness, and force them to lead
secret lives. We don't want to do that
Janis S. Bohan, Ph.D, is Professor
Emerita (retired) at Metropolitan State College of Denver. She has published widely in the areas of
gender, psychology of sexual orientation, and history of psychology.