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by Deborah L. Tolman
Harvard University Press, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Feb 4th 2003

Dilemmas of Desire

In Dilemmas of Desire, Deborah Tolman discusses themes that emerged from her interviews with teenage girls about their experience of sexual desire and agency.  She started her project with the aim to uncover how these girls talked about their sexual desires, because she thought that this component of their experience was missing from contemporary discussions of the sexual behavior of young people.  However, as her research progressed, she realized that young women nearly always found barriers to their experiences of desire.  Tolman argues that their stories show “how a patriarchal society tries to keep girls and women at bay by forcing, or attempting to force, a wedge between their psyches and their bodies and how girls deal with these forces” (p. 24).  Our society gives these girls “a choice between their sexual feelings and their safety” (p. 44), making it very difficult for them to acknowledge their own desires or enjoy themselves as sexual agents.

The fears Tolman’s interviewees have will not surprise most readers.  They are worried about being labeled as sluts, getting pregnant, catching sexually transmitted diseases, and being the victim of assault and rape.  The were 31 girls included in Tolman’s interviews, from ages 15 to 18, and of those, one had been raped, one had experienced attempted rape, and another may have experienced rape.  Another three had experienced physical violence from boyfriends or friends, and six reported childhood sexual abuse or molestation.  While her sample was not necessarily representative of all girls, since it was limited to those who were willing to be interviewed on a somewhat sensitive topic and whose parents would also give permission for their daughters to be interviewed, there have been many other surveys that have shown that physical and sexual abuse is a common experience for girls.  The idea that women in most western societies have to face the choice of being seen as virgins or whores has long been a central feature of feminist analyses of patriarchy. 

Nevertheless, Dilemmas of Desire is an interesting work because of the author’s determination to find out how girls talk about their own sexual desires and actions.  Girls are interested in sex and they are engaging sexual activity, but they often find it hard to talk about.  Each chapter has its own theme, and that theme is illustrated with some of the interviews.  Tolman starts off with an interview with Inez, a 17-year-old young woman at an urban school who says of the first time she had sex “everything just happened.”  She does not describe the event as an outcome of her decision, and she does not discuss her own pleasure or excitement.  Other girls also have great difficulty in identifying their desires and even knowing whether they want to have sex or not, and this leads them to be in sexual situations where, even if it is not rape, it is not clear even to themselves whether they have consented.  Some girls seem to welcome the opportunity to engage in sexual behavior while they are drunk so that they can disclaim responsibility for their actions later on.  This is a high price to pay for the supposed safety of disowning sexual desire.  Other girls who are more able to experience their own desire and to know when they do not want to have sex still live in fear of being used by boys.  Many of the girls would not identify with any feminist agenda, and talk in positive terms about their sexual lives, yet they show clear awareness of the fragility of their status as “good girls” and the danger of their status changing to that of “bad girls.”  Even those who are well aware that a double standard is applied to boys and girls concerning sexual behavior find it very hard to fight against that standard.  Tolman says that the girls who took an explicitly political stance against the ways girls are treated were the most successful at overcoming the dilemmas of desire. 

A few girls in the survey discuss sexual feelings they have towards other girls, but they are keenly aware of the disapproval they risk if they are open in their feelings.  This makes it harder for them to own these desires, and Tolman describes this as part of what Adrienne Rich has termed compulsory heterosexuality.  Rich’s analysis first appeared twenty years ago in 1983, and built on older analyses such as Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex and Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.  Tolman refers somewhat nostalgically to women’s consciousness-raising groups of the 1960s and ‘70s, and she notes that many of the girls she talked with said that they had never discussed their desire with anyone previously.  Often she found that girls felt more in fear of judgment by other girls than they did by boys.  Clearly, Tolman believes that women would do better to unite in their struggle for equality and hopes that work such as her own might start a dialog among women to help them do away with the double standard that creates so many difficulties for girls.

Dilemmas of Desire is a work on feminist scholarship very much in the tradition of Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice.  It does not build a strong empirical case for the author’s claims, but rather sets out a point of view for readers’ consideration and further investigation by researchers.  It aims to make us more aware of the lived experience of teenage girls, and to help us understand how they make their decisions.  Tolman says very little about the experience of boys or how they talk about their sexuality, and one real concern about her approach is that it is radically incomplete without an equally complex investigation of boys.  It may well turn out that boys have difficulty in talking about many aspects of their sexuality, and other recent books have suggested that boys experience uncertainty and vulnerability in ways comparable to girls.  Nevertheless, this is an impressive and fascinating book, written in clear language without jargon, and it deserves a wide readership.


© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.