Child & Adolescent Development: Overview

Review of "The Secret Lives of Girls"

By Sharon Lamb
Free Press, 2002
Review by Janis S. Bohan, Ph.D. on May 15th 2003
The Secret Lives of Girls

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. 

Finally, 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 experiences. 

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:

To grow 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 anymore.

 

© 2003 Janis S. Bohan

 

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. 

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