Professor discusses sexuality, youth

Clinical psychologist Sharon Lamb, professor of psychology, spoke last Thursday at PSU about female sexual aggression and guilt. Lamb teaches at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont and is author of “The Secret Lives of Girls: Sex, Aggression and Guilt.”

Lamb spoke about a study she conducted in preparation for “Secret Lives” in which she interviewed 125 women of various ages, ranging from about six to 80, in 38 states including Oregon. Interviewing each woman multiple times, Lamb collected stories of sexual development from all socioeconomic strata.

The games that children play and the victimization that occurs during childhood, in Lamb’s view, give insight into the grown woman’s relationships and self-image.

Lamb didn’t qualify large or small victimization in the study. “Many women and girls in our culture have experienced victimization,” said Lamb. “When you wipe out those minor incidents you undermine sister-to-sister solidarity.”

Dr. Lamb’s research revealed a side of childhood that is often hidden, “What I found was that girls play sexual games, but feel guilty about them,” said Lamb of her findings.

Some games were innocent enough, such as playing “doctor” or acting out sexually with dolls. Others involved more extravagant fantasies or contact.

The dilemma, it seems to Lamb, isn’t so much participating in the games, but liking the games, being thrilled by the experience.

One girl said of her guilt for participating in chase and kiss games, “I feel like I’m a bad girl, like I don’t deserve to be a girl.”

Such guilt was common among those Lamb interviewed, along with a fear that the subjects were abnormal. The women would want some sort of validation from Lamb, asking if they were normal. “I don’t believe in a “normal”, but I would tell them that it isn’t unusual [to play sexual games],” Lamb explained.

Lamb explained there is generally two roles to play in these early games of childhood, being an object or being a subject. This dichotomy is best exemplified in captor/captive games, where one girl would pretend to be the damsel in distress, perhaps being tied up or naked while the other played the kidnapper.

Another game involved one girl dressing up like a girl from the cover of a detective novel, then playing dead. The other participants in the game would enter the room to investigate her supposed murder. In the course of the investigation, the live participants would comment on how beautiful the “dead” girl looked. Lamb also discussed how sexual play differed between middle-class girls and lower income girls. Generally, middle-class girls tended to play sexual games with other girls, while lower income girls would tend to play more with boys.

In addition to guilt and social status, Lamb’s study looked at race and how it can correlate with certain social norms. According to Lamb, verbal aggression is seen as more aggressive by white girls than black girls. Lamb attributes this in part to the black girl’s more equal relationship with their mothers. Lamb said that black mothers in the study would tend to toughen up their daughters by being honest and direct, where white mothers tended to pamper their daughters more.

These data elicited an upset response from the audience during the question and answer period. Some audience members felt that Dr. Lamb, who is white, shouldn’t discuss what minority mothers and daughters do. Lamb admitted that in her discussions of minorities she felt some trepidation, but to exclude them from the book would have been worse, she felt.

Likewise, she defended her research saying she would often call on a friend of the same ethnic background as the woman she wanted to interview in order to ease tension and alleviate the feeling that Lamb was “judging” the woman.

Lamb’s lecture was sponsored by the PSU Department of Psychology, School of Education, Women’s Studies Program and the Associated Students of PSU Speakers Board.