Authors: Kerry Cohen
Copyright © 2011 by Kerry Cohen
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Dirty little secrets : breaking the silence on teenage girls and promiscuity /by Kerry Cohen.
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Teenage girls—Sexual behavior. 2. Promiscuity. I. Title.
Printed and bound in the United States of America.
VP 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To the young women who generously shared their stories, and to those whose stories still ache to be told
hanks to my tireless and supportive agent Ethan Ellenberg, to Sara Appino for seeing the potential for this book, and to my editor Shana Drehs for enthusiastically believing in the book, even when I struggled to. I’m still amazed, Shana, that you got me to the end. Thanks also to Deirdre Burgess, Regan Fisher, and Katherine Faydash for their thoughtful contributions and edits. Tremendous gratitude to April Sirianni and Heather Moore for their impressive work getting the book heard.
My writing group—Michael Guerra, Ken Olsen, Gigi Rosenberg, Katherine Schneider, Jeffrey Selin, and Ellen Urbani—helped me formulate the project and clarify the direction. My family has always been supportive—especially Michael and my two beautiful sons who accommodated my disappearance to work. Thanks to James Bernard Frost, who whisked me away to get writing done, even when we didn’t.
For research help, thank you to Tiffany Kalahui and Helen Delutz.
Finally, but most of all, endless thanks to the thousands of women—young and old—and men who have sent me their stories over the years, and especially those who shared their stories for this project. Had it not been for them, for their honesty and conviction, this book couldn’t exist.
Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language—this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable.
LETTER TO MY TEENAGE SELF
see you. It’s summer, that salty, hazy time when the sun’s heat on your skin feels like the promise of something. When light breezes feel like soft kisses on your face. You’re tan, sun kissed, highlighted. You’re pretty, but you don’t think you’re pretty enough, not enough to make you worth loving.
A boy thinks you’re pretty, too. You know that. I see you, the way you throw him glances, shy smiles, the way he looks back, eager. I see you, the stirring inside, the way you perk up. You’re thinking,
Maybe this one will save me
. Your father is unaware. Your mother is one thousand miles away. So you go with the boy, because he’s there with you. You go off into the long beach grass, behind storage sheds, into the bedroom of the rented beach house when your dad is gone. Your hands are always on him, and when they’re not, your mind remains on him. Every kiss, every touch, makes you want more, more, more, and soon nothing is enough, nothing feels good enough, nothing fills you. Just like always. And you start to push for more. You start to push even though you know you shouldn’t, even though you know you’ll push too hard. You always do. And sure enough, the moment comes. You say, “Stay with me. Want only me. Make me better, worth something.” And so you’ve sent him away.
I see you two nights later, as well, all the color gone from your face. You watch him, want him to look, but he never does. His friend, though—his friend looks. He smiles, leans in, and whispers in the first boy’s ear. For the first time, the boy you still want glances at you and looks away. Your stomach is in knots. It’s all you want, for him to come to you. So when his friend does instead, you think,
This is close enough
You look back, twice, three times, at the boy you like as you go, but he still doesn’t turn to see. This new boy, the friend, doesn’t see you looking away, or he doesn’t care. He pulls you by the hand. You can’t remember his name, but you know it’s too late to ask. He ducks into a laundry room. I see you, your blank expression, the way you acquiesce, the way you let him take off your underwear, do what he wants, the way you turn your head, waiting for it to be over. Your father is somewhere. Your mother is nowhere. I can almost hear your thoughts:
It doesn’t matter. It’s just one more boy
Afterward, you walk back to the beach house. I see you. I do. I see the way you let your hair fall over your face. You walk quickly, eyes on the ground. “I’m sorry,” I want to tell you. “You’re loved. You’re worthwhile. You don’t have to be anything for anyone else.” But you wouldn’t hear me, because you’re there and I’m all the way over here. You’ll have to keep walking, keep hurting, and someday you’ll reach a point where you say, “Enough of this.” You’ll think it’s possible that you deserve better. You’ll turn to head down another road, also difficult, but worth it. A road you will question often, wondering,
Is this really any better?
Many times, you will change directions again. Many times, you will think,
I’m not worth this
. But then you’ll realize again that you are. It will be a long, tiresome road, but eventually you’ll come to know what I know. For now, I see you. For now, I think,
If only someone else had seen you, too.
GIRLS LIKE US
ou see them everywhere. They walk along busy highways in low-slung jeans and tank tops, peering into every car that passes. They sit with their friends in diners and coffee shops, searching, their thoughts clearly on who is looking at them. They catch the eyes of the boys they pass. They smile and flip their hair. They post photos of themselves in bikinis on Facebook. They are just girls. They are your sister, your daughter, your friend, your niece. They are not remarkable, really, in any way. They are almost every girl you see. They believe in their hearts that they are worth nothing, that they have little to offer. They believe boys will pull them out of their ordinariness and finally,
transform them into someone better than who they are.
They have sex too early and for the wrong reasons. They get STDs, and they get pregnant too young. They are “friends with benefits,” but with no benefit to themselves. They give out blow jobs like kisses and hope for love in return. They are ignored. They don’t get called. They get dumped again and again. They lie alone in their beds and hate themselves for being so unlovable, for being so needy, for not being like every other girl, for not being able to just have fun. But they aren’t sex addicts or even love addicts. What they crave is the attention, that moment when a boy looks at them and they can believe that they are worth something to someone. They can believe that they matter.