Dr. Leonard Sax is a family physician and founder of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, who lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and daughter. The author of two previous books concerning the effects of gender differences on learning, Sax argues in his new book, Girls on the Edge, that today’s teens and tweens look confident on the outside but have a dangerously fragile sense of self.
Q: When we spoke two years ago, it was about how poorly boys are doing relative to girls in terms of both motivation and academic achievement. You said boys tend to be lazy while girls tend to be hard-working, driven. So aren’t girls, overall, actually in pretty good shape?
A: On paper, yes. In Canada, about 61 per cent of university undergraduates are women. If you look just at test scores and grades, you get the notion that girls are doing great and boys are struggling. But if you look at the literature, you see that more than one in five girls is cutting herself and/or burning herself with matches. More than one in four high-school girls is binge drinking. Today, one in eight females in the U.S. takes anti-depressants. There’s been an enormous escalation in anxiety and depression among girls and young women.
Q: How do you know girls are actually becoming more anxious, as opposed to simply more likely to seek help?
A: The Hamilton anxiety rating scale is the most frequently used inventory of anxiety, and it was published back in 1959, so for about 50 years psychologists like myself—I’m both a Ph.D. psychologist and a medical doctor—have been asking teenagers the same questions. Jean Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University, compared how kids from roughly the same demographic have answered those questions over time, and she found that 40 years ago, it was rare for teenage girls to answer yes to questions like “Are you ever so anxious you can’t concentrate or focus?” and “Do you ever find yourself waking up in the middle of the night?” Today, it’s very common for girls to say yes. In fact, she found that the average teenage girl today is more anxious than the average girl admitted to a psychiatric unit for in-patient treatment 50 years ago. In 1966, a popular show in the U.S. was Gidget, about a giggly teenage girl. Today it just wouldn’t resonate. Now girls watch Gossip Girl, which is about anxious teens trying to present a sexual persona, who have all kinds of obsessions and neuroses. A whole lot of girls find solace in the notion that anxiety is now the norm.
Q: Boys aren’t anxious?
A: No, not like girls. When you actually sit down and talk to a girl, as I have done in many venues across Canada and the U.S., she will tell you she’s waking up at two in the morning upset about the pizza she ate for supper, and thinks she’s fat even though she’s not, and is frantic about whether she’s going to get into the university she wants to go to. Meanwhile her brother the goofball is enjoying life: eats a whole pizza for supper and doesn’t bat an eye, sleeps in late, and is perfectly content with his online games and pornography, hanging out with two other guys who are just like him. He’s happy! But his sister, who looks so good on paper, is not.
Q: You believe girls’ anxiety is connected to new issues, one of which is “self-objectification.” What do you mean by that?
A: Forty years ago, if you went into a department store and looked at clothes for seven-year-olds, they’d be quite different than the clothes on sale for 17-year-olds. Today there’s no longer any distinction; the same short skirts are sold to girls in Grade 2 and girls in Grade 12. T-shirts that say, “Yes, but not with you” are now sold to eight-year-olds.
Girls understand what these T-shirts are about: pretending to be sexually aware. We have girls who are now putting on a pretense of adult sexuality that they couldn’t possibly feel, and the danger of putting on a show is that you lose touch with your own sexuality. You’re wearing a mask, and when you take off the mask, there’s not a face there. Another thing that’s happening is the acceleration of the onset of puberty. Girls are losing what psychologists used to call middle childhood: eight to 12 years of age, which is the age of Pippi Longstocking and Harriet the Spy, the time for girls to have adventures and develop a sense of who they are as people without worrying about whether they’re hot.
Q: Consequently, are more kids sexually active than 20 years ago?
A Not really, seems to be the answer, though only a handful of studies have addressed that in any quantitative way. But kids may be sexually intimate—the term as I use it includes both oral sex and intercourse—a little earlier and certainly they are much more likely to be having oral sex than they were 20 years ago. There are some troubling new issues. You find a lot of 12- and 13-year-old girls who are providing sexual favours to 16- and 17-year-old boys. In the ’70s and ’80s, sex was about intimacy, trying to give each other pleasure. Today, so many teenage girls I’ve spoken to across Canada and the U.S. regard sex as a commodity that girls provide to boys. Increasingly, unfortunately, that is the case. For many, many girls, the most common form of sexual intimacy is oral sex, with the girl servicing a boy. And neither the girls or the boys see anything wrong with this.