Coming of age is a complicated, humbling process for everyone. But there are certain experiences specific to being a female today that make the transition from girlhood to young woman particularly unsettling. The fact is that, during adolescence and early adulthood, women endure a series of perspective changing scenarios completely foreign to our penis wielding friends.
1. Catching a man masturbating in public.
At a certain point around age ten, every girl is introduced to the concept of male masturbation through sex-ed class, or, more likely, recess chatter. We giggle when we hear phrases like “jerking off,” “rubbing one out,” or “pumping the mighty flesh python” whispered on the playground, but we don’t understand what we’re laughing about, or why.
It’s not until our innocent eyes are assaulted by the sight of a stranger aggressively yanking his dick in public that we begin to grasp what actually goes on. To date, I’ve caught men masturbating on sparsely populated trains, on the streets of New York City in broad daylight, and in countless cars adjacent to the one I’m in along various highways. At some point, it seems, every young girl is bound to face an unsolicited jerk-off tutorial. For those of us lacking external genitalia, it’s tough to imagine the logistical ease of whipping it out for a tug. Equally confounding is the notion that anyone feels shameless and entitled enough to do so in plain view of others.
2. Witnessing your mom be objectified.
As kids, we’re reluctant to view our moms as living, breathing humans with actual feelings, let alone as sexual beings. But it’s impossible to ignore the reality that the person who gave birth to you has a vagina (which she might even still use on occasion!) once you notice that men of all ages are objectifying her regularly. Whether it’s a colleague, a repairman, or a friend’s father, many males are programmed to look at women as prospective penis homes, and the laws of probability dictate that you’re bound to spot mom interacting with a few of them. Whether she’s offended, or handles each inappropriate “Sweetie” in stride, witnessing these encounters makes a deep impression.
3. Being checked out and/or cat-called for the first time.
Once you hit puberty, it’s your turn to start fielding attention from random guys. At sixteen, I was walking through town with my mom wearing a short floral skirt and a three-quarter length, v-neck top when I first became aware of the male gaze. I wasn’t a mature looking teenager, but that didn’t stop a series of men from elevator-eying me—from flat chest to scrawny chicken legs—that afternoon.
Of course, the attention was validating on some level. When one guy shouted, “I’d like a piece of that!” from behind us, I secretly hoped the “compliment” was directed at me. I wanted to look nice—sexy, even—to attract the opposite sex. Isn’t it natural to delight in such affirmation from men? Certainly, I couldn’t blame them. And yet, the incident was simultaneously rattling, too clear a signal of what life would be like as a full grown woman.
4. Developing a vagina complex.
I was about twelve when I first used a hand mirror to check out my private parts. What I saw shocked and terrified me, and I know I’m not alone in this. So many of us have no idea what our lady parts are “supposed to” look like, partly because the spectrum of possibilities is so wide (though no one bothers to tell us this). The tragedy is that a staggering percentage of women report feeling insecure about their vagina once they’re privy to what it looks like.
There are many targets worthy of blame for our collective vagina complex: inaccurate anatomy charts, insufficient sex-ed programs, magazines images, and the proliferation of pornography starring incredibly trim labia nestled within immaculately manicured pubic regions. It’s tough to pinpoint why so few of us are raised to appreciate vaginal diversity. What’s clear is that it’s an ongoing problem.
5. Realizing the Madonna-Whore complex is alive and well.
In spite of how progressive her parents, teachers, and role models are, every young woman is inevitably confronted by the truth that society has yet to shake its Madonna-Whore problem. We have a knack for clumping females into one of two categories: prude or promiscuous, salty or slutty, cold or hot, DTF or not. We can barely talk about a young adult woman without guessing which end of the willingness-to-spread-her-legs spectrum she falls on, as if there were only two options. The gal who wants to have sex as a high schooler can typically earn herself serious popularity points—but only until she’s branded a whore unworthy of respect by someone. The saddest part of it all is that women aren’t immune to the trappings of this dichotomy. Too often, we’re just as likely to disrespect each other as men are. Comprehending that may be the rudest awakening of all.