Teen-age girls really want to say no to sex, drugs and all the other bad stuff. But not many know how.
That's the message in another report released this week by the American Association of University Women, which has been studying adolescent girls for the past several years.
The pressures exerted on young people precariously poised on the shifting border between childhood and the adult world are not new to this generation, but today's youths are getting bombarded by conflicting images at earlier, more vulnerable ages.
Indeed, in the current report, "Voices of a Generation: Teen-age Girls on Sex, School, and Self," 11-year-olds were the only age group relatively free of sexual pressures.
The report grew out of a series of 150 Sister-to-Sister Summits held by AAUW in 1997 and 1998 in cities across the country, including Buffalo. During the summits 2,100 girls, ages 11 to 17, responded to detailed questions, providing the materials for this report compiled by the AAUW Educational Foundation staff.
One conclusion: Teen-age sexuality is too complicated for the schools' simplistic sex education programs.
For example, the report suggests that there may be a need to start pregnancy prevention programs earlier with Hispanic and African-American girls, who report sexual pressures beginning at age 11, than for other racial and ethnic groups, which generally do not encounter pressure until age 14.
Girls' differing experiences are reflected in the words of a Montana girl who wrote, "Schools need to stop telling us that we should just be good and not think about what we believe good is. I think they try to get us to all act alike so that they can deal with us all in the same way."
The girls also want more comprehensive sexuality education. They "need the tools to learn how to say no and how to negotiate emotionally charged relationships," according to this study, in which one respondent said schools "should educate everyone that there are other ways of showing affection besides sex."
Girls say they are looking for affection and intimacy without intercourse, relationships without maternity. They want a safe environment, not safe sex, and they want boys held as accountable as they are.
Often confused by the mixed messages about their roles and identities, the girls seek guidance on "how to say no" as they confront their own desires and the "spectrum of coercive, violent, social, cultural and peer pressures to be sexual and to engage in sexual activity."
Responses showed peer pressure to be strongest among Hispanic and black girls, while white and Asian American girls were more able to resist it.
But "getting alienated from or 'abandoned' by peers does not appear a realistic option for many girls," the report concludes. Some schools have fostered "positive" peer pressure and "uncompetitive friendship" but cliques and gangs are more typical.
Pressure also comes from the media and advertisers obsessed with attracting an ever-younger audience. Their ideal girl is skinny, seductive, bold and in great demand, a narrow and restrictive image that leaves millions of young women wondering, "What is wrong with me?"
Despite gender equity efforts, girls still report a bias against them in some classrooms. A 14-year-old Massachusetts girl said girls were quiet in her classes "because the boys are loud and prevent the girls from learning and girls won't say anything."
And sexual harassment has not disappeared from the hallways. But girls appeared confused by the issue. Some seventh-grade girls who complained to school officials about boys who relegated them to a "flat chest club" were ridiculed by other girls. So much for sisterhood.
The whole issue of femininity remains a conundrum. The ideal varies from school to culture to parents to the media.
The journey through adolescence is the process of forging one's identity, and the comments of these girls suggest we may not be doing such a great job in helping this generation invent itself.
In the thrust to "reform" our educational system, the AAUW report warns that we should not ignore the emotional needs of students.
"Education reformers who focus on standards, school accountability, testing and other formal mechanisms for stimulating greater school achievement may find that these reforms fail if the human, social and cultural aspects of school life -- which shape students' identity and experiences in school -- are not transformed, in some way, at the same time."