When I was younger, I spent hours pouring over Seventeen Magazine trying to figure out how to get a boyfriend, because I was led to believe (by my hormones as well as by outside sources) this would establish my self-worth. Much of the advice dispensed by Seventeen way back then was of two sorts: how to dress (which invariably involved much more money than I could obtain) and how to cater to the interests of boys, who obviously were the superior gender.
Even much later and despite years of indoctrination in feminist literature, I still found myself observing those early guidelines learned from Seventeen. On my first date with Jim, for example, in an effort to bring up conversation “interesting to guys,” I asked him how batteries work. He told me. I thought he was the most boring guy I ever met, and he thought I was the weirdest person he ever met. (We were both right.)
I am happy to say that Seventeen has evolved with the times (even if I never did). This “Ultimate Guide to Guys” (a much better title than, say, “Dating for Dummies”) gives you all the low-down, featuring advice from real guys (most of whom are identified as ages 20 or 21) who tell you what they “actually” think about different situations.
Most of the sections cover very basic topics such as how to let a guy know you like him, or figure out if he likes you. There is a lot on kissing expertise, with ideas like putting an ice cube in your mouth first and – more objectionably as far as I’m concerned – using a blindfold. There are great-to-hear quotes from males about things girls stress out about but that don’t bother them as much as you might think, such as how much you eat, or whether or not you wear make-up. There are good ideas for where to go on dates, and guidelines for what to say (and no, not one suggestion to ask guys how batteries work). And there are some bizarre but unfortunately still important-to-girls sections like “Sneaky Ways To Make Him Worship You” (without any discussion of whether or not “worship” is a goal worth pursuing, or why it needs to be done with subterfuge).
But, critically, there is hardly anything about going farther than “French” kissing. Personally I would have liked to see more on the issue of “consent” and the right to say no in spite of huge amounts of pressure. There is, in fact, nothing about any “controversial” issues like sex, sexting, drinking or drugs, or birth control. And yet, in the real world, these are also situations teens will face, and it would be helpful to see some guidance. (There’s a lot of talk about “hooking up” but according to this book, that means kissing.)
According to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, each year there are over 237,000 victims of reported sexual assault (it is estimated that 60% of sexual assaults are not reported to police), and some 44% of the victims are under age 18. Pressure not to report is intense, for reasons ranging from the widespread tendency to blame the victim to social ostracizing to shame. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. And of course, this doesn’t even count instances of “consensual” sex that may result from girls not feeling able to say no, whether because of lack of self-esteem or courage or even just not knowing what to say or how safely to disengage.
As for sexting, it continues to be problematic. In fact, the FBI reports that sexting (defined as an act of sending sexually explicit materials via text, photo, or video through mobile phones) is increasing in frequency:
“A recent study found that 20 percent of high school age teens (22 percent of girls and 18 percent of boys) sent naked or seminude images of themselves or posted them online. Another survey indicated that nearly one in six teens between the ages of 12 and 17 who own cell phones have received naked or nearly nude pictures via text message from someone they know.”
DoSomething.org, a not-for-profit for young people and social change, notes that among 14- to 24-year-olds who admit to sexting, 29 percent send these messages to people they have never met, but “know” from the Internet. And importantly:
“…while nearly 70 percent of teen boys and girls who sext do so with their girlfriend or boyfriend, 61 percent of all sexters who have sent nude images admit that they were pressured to do it at least once.”
This book does not talk about pressure. It does include a few negatives under warnings about boys to avoid: “He doesn’t apologize” “He won’t commit” “He wants an instant hookup” (remember, “hooking up” is defined as “kissing”) but nothing of a more serious nature.
There is also no mention in this book about the portrayal of females in media and other popular culture as sex objects, and the strong expectations that accompany these images, such as the equation of sexual availability with desirability and worth. Seventeen missed a great opportunity here to offer a different message – one which, however, would probably not have gone over well with its advertisers.
Evaluation: I wish there had been books like this when I was at my most hormonally-intense stage in life. It has a lot of advice that is reassuring, and great suggestions about things you might be too embarrassed to ask an adult. It is worthwhile for what it contains. But it omits a lot too that is even more essential to know for the dating process. As author Anne Ursu wrote in her excellent article about the movement to sanitize books for young people, “we’re completely denying the realities of teenager’s lives.” That does no favor to either them or us – not if we really want to help and protect them. In 2013, Desmond Tutu, Jacob Lief, and Sohaila Abdulali wrote about rape:
It seems daunting. But which is more painful: talking sensibly with young people about this issue, the same way we might talk with them about drugs, guns or bullying, or waiting for something terrible to happen so close to home that you have to address it in a time of turmoil?”
Published by Running Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2013
Note: This book is directed to heterosexuals only.