Reviewed by France Winddance Twine
As public policy wars over morality rage unabated, the bodies of teenage girls and young women remain the battleground, making this book an urgent read. In Sexual Reckonings, historian Susan Cahn examines how black and white teenage girls threw off patriarchal sexual standards and negotiated new freedoms in the early-20th-century South, and how that negotiation remade Southern society. "To 'reckon' with teenage sexuality in the South of the 1920s through the 1950s was indeed to come face to face with the fundamental fault lines of race, class and gender on which Southern society rested," she writes.
In the '20s, young women migrated in droves from the rural South to nearby cities, where jobs in factories, textile mills and private homes provided autonomy. Girls began to use commercial products, leisure spaces, fashion and narratives from film and dime novels to establish a sense of self as "modern girls" -- impulsive, frank, sexual, savvy and enterprising. Meanwhile, in the bestselling novels and award-winning films of the era, images of the flapper were helping to fuel a moral panic over urban culture, particularly music and dance. Adolescent sexuality soon became the center of debates over race relations and the South's regional decline.
"Assertive sexual behavior among African American and white teenage girls formed a lightning rod for anxieties about a perceived threat to a 'Southern way of life,'" writes Cahn. In seizing control of their sexuality, African American girls thwarted community expectations of "racial uplift through chaste respectability," while white girls rejected the role of the unsullied Southern belle, a supposed vessel of "racial purity."
Cahn weaves the experiences and voices of girls from all classes and both black and white communities to show how girls used economic, social and cultural capital to redefine Victorian moral codes and pursue sexual experiences once viewed as the preserve of men. Describing training schools for the "sexual delinquent," she illustrates just how blurred the lines became between sexually active middle-class white girls and rebellious girls from black, poor or working-class white families.
Cahn's beautifully written book reminds us that teenage girls' sexuality remains central to public policy. Politicians, evangelical preachers and public-health officials nationwide still try to establish lines between "good" and "bad" girls. In many of today's Southern communities, premarital virginity pledges are promoted as a badge of honor and evidence of respectability. Texas parent's-rights groups recently fought mandatory HPV vaccinations on the grounds that HPV immunity might provoke promiscuity in adolescent girls. Meanwhile, scholars estimate that the number of girls in juvenile detention for crimes of poverty and sex nearly doubled in the 1990s. The historical continuities between these teens and the working-class and poor girls sentenced to training schools in the Jim Crow South for engaging in premarital sex demonstrate that teenage girls continue to be potent symbols for the nation.
France Winddance Twine is a professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-editor of Feminism and Antiracism: International Struggles for Justice.
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