I had a chance to chat with Kerry Cohen about her latest book Dirty Little Secrets: Breaking the Silence on Teenage Girls and Promiscuity, which just came out a few weeks ago. The book discusses the controversial subject of female sexuality, especially as it pertains to teenage girls, and how society has rigidly shaped the discussion into a one-way conversation.
Mika: Dirty Little Secrets just came out a few weeks ago. What kind of response are you seeing so far?
Kerry: It’s still early yet to tell, but largely what I’m seeing is pretty positive, which actually surprised me. I’m so used to having people be angered by my work that I just immediately expect at this point for people to be upset. Mostly what I’m hearing is that people feel it’s an important read, but they don’t agree with everything that’s in it.
Mika: Is it being met with any controversy?
Kerry: It isn’t being met with any controversy yet, but I always have to be so careful about which audience I’m speaking to. For example, I’m going to be on Good Morning America next week, and I know I have to be aware that I have to keep it a little more on the conservative side.
Mika: What was your goal for Dirty Little Secrets?
Kerry: The reason I wrote it was because so many people reacted to Loose Girl by sharing their own stories. It was mostly women and teenage girls, but men shared, too. They felt I was telling their story as well. People felt really alone. They felt like they were the only ones, so it was a relief to read Loose Girl. I really wanted to give a voice to those girls and women.
I also wanted to write it because of how little has been explored [about female sexuality] in a real, honest way. Largely what people were told was, “Don’t do it.” I just thought, “that’s not helpful,” so they needed this kind of book.
Mika: Is it getting the results you had hoped?
Kerry: It’s not getting those results yet because it just came out, but I hope it will. With Loose Girl, it was word-of-mouth that really spread the word about it. Barnes & Noble and Target really helped by where they placed the book, but it was really word-of-mouth that got people interested. I think more will happen after Good Morning America.
Mika: What are some of the key takeaways you hope readers will get from Dirty Little Secrets?
Kerry: In many ways I want the same things as [I did with] Loose Girl: an opening of dialogue, a feeling of not being alone, and people having a better understanding of themselves.
Mika: What steps do you think we can take as a society to start changing the conversation about female sexuality?
Kerry: I think it’s hard to say because in Dirty Little Secrets we’re up against something huge. We’ve come such a long way since the Civil Rights Movement, but this is an area that has not been addressed, and there’s been almost no movement. We really need to start with how we talk to teenage girls about sex. It has to be institutionalized by changing sex education in schools. This includes how we treat our politicians, like how we forced our U.S. surgeon general to resign because she wanted to include masturbation in public education. People were outraged, but that’s the kind of things that need to happen. I think it has to begin with ourselves at home, but ideally in the schools as well. We can start small by changing the way we talk to our daughters.
Mika: In Dirty Little Secrets, you discuss the idea that teenage girls should have the same choices boys do, even if that means they choose to have sex. Has that message been difficult for readers to accept, or have they welcomed the idea?
Kerry: I feel like I haven’t heard enough of how people are responding to that notion. I know that is the most challenging idea in the book, and I did do a blog post on Psychology Today where I basically talked about having sex as an expression. When a teenage girl has sex, it doesn’t always mean there’s something wrong or that she is being harmful to herself, though many of those sexual experiences are, in fact, harmful due to the judgment and condemnation of society. It is a problem when girls have sex, and it’s hard to find the line because we’re shaming them about it, so there’s harm in it.
In general I got a pretty good response [to the blog post]. The main thing people were concerned about is that there’s a big difference between a 13-year-old girl having sex versus a 16-year-old girl. There has to be a lot more guidance around there. We really need to encourage younger girls to not necessarily have sex but to understand there are alternatives to having sex, such as outercourse, and they need to be able to talk about their desire.
Mika: Going back to Loose Girl, how did you muster the courage to lay it all out there in the public eye?
Kerry: Honestly I think I was pretty naïve about it. I was so much more of a writer at that point instead of a therapist or a scholar, and I was just thinking about the writing. I was so in love with how to figure out what my story was that I was just very naïve and gullible. In the end I’m very much the kind of person who likes to be open. I’m not particularly private. I share a lot with people, and I don’t have a lot of discomfort with that. People get frustrated with me sometimes because I’m over-the-top open.
Mika: Criticism is difficult for anyone to deal with, but it seems like it would be particularly difficult to deal with when it comes to such a personal subject. How have you handled the criticism? Do you have any special techniques you use to cope, or does it not bother you at all?
Kerry: Yeah, it bothered me a lot in the beginning. Again I was so naïve and didn’t understand what I was getting myself into. People were really mean. I mean really mean. When you write a memoir it doesn’t matter what your topic is, they’re always looking to tear you down. Add to it you’re a woman writing about your sex life. I was attacked largely by women but also by men. It was tough; I had a really hard time with it. After so many years I’m so used to people hating me. And I think it’s easier to have people hating me because now so many people love what I’ve done and have told me heartfelt stories. So that makes it all ok. It doesn’t effect me anywhere near how it used to. It’s a volatile topic for people, and I am sort of throwing it in your face and forcing you to address it in yourself, so people have been mad at me.
Mika: If you could meet your teenage self, what advice would you give her?
Kerry: The main thing I would want to tell her is that those feelings she has are real, but they’re not about boys, and that belief she has about boys isn’t true and will cause her more pain. Those are the two biggest things, and I would really want her to get a more realistic understanding of how boys are pressured in our culture, too, to act a certain way, and our fantasies about how boys feel about us are so off the mark, especially with what we see in movies and media and magazines.
Mika: For those who would like to do further reading on this topic, are there books you would recommend?
Kerry: There aren’t many books out there that are really accessible to the general public, and what is out there is over-the-top about the dangers of girls having sex and how they’re out of control. The books I can’t live without are more academic and full of jargon. I would say honestly almost anything by Jessica Valenti. Lynn Phillips’ Flirting With Danger is a little feminist jargony, but she understands the culture we live in and the ways in which we perceive women when it comes to their sexuality. It’s similar to what I’ve written, but not quite as accessible. It’s a little outdated now, but I love Naomi Wolf’s Promiscuities. It’s a little bit of a page-turner. I read her book long before I wrote Loose Girl. I made little notes to myself about how it related to my story; it really helped me formulate my story.
About Kerry Cohen
Kerry Cohen is the author of Dirty Little Secrets: Breaking the Silence on Teenage Girls and Promiscuity; Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity; Seeing Ezra, a memoir about her experiences parenting her autistic son; and three young adult novels. Her work has been featured in Psychology Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous anthologies and journals. She will be appearing on Good Morning America on Thursday, September 22. For more information, visit www.kerry-cohen.com.
Be sure to read my review of Dirty Little Secrets.