Ready or Not . . . ?

Teen Sexuality and the Troubling Discourse of Readiness
CATHERINE ASHCRAFT University of Colorado, Boulder In this article, I explore how talk about being “ready” or “not ready” for sex shapes teen and adult understandings of sexuality. I argue that this “discourse of readiness” poses serious threats to teens’ identity development, sexual decision making, and educators efforts to help them through these processes. To illustrate, I draw from my nine-month ethnography, examining how participants used readiness discourses to make sense of their sexualities. I suggest implications for educators, policy makers, and researchers in anthropology and education. [sexuality, virginity, schooling, youth identity, equity]
And I think definitely don’t have sex until you’re ready, I know everybody says that, but don’t have sex until you know when you don’t have to ask yourself, oh, am I ready to have sex? Where you’re just like, yeah, I’m ready to have sex, you know? —Peer educator, ESPERANZA sex-education program

When it comes to sexuality, adults and youth alike frequently talk about being “ready” or “not ready” for sex. As the above peer educator notes, “everybody says it.” And everyone else pretends to know what it means. I suggest, however, that this unexamined discourse of “readiness” hinders teens’ abilities to make sense of their sexual experiences and prevents adolescents and adults from having meaningful conversations about sexuality. In unfolding this argument, this article extends previous research in anthropology and cultural studies that illustrates how other dominant discourses of sexuality (e.g., romance or virginity) shape youth identities in ways that reinforce social inequities.1 Taken together, this research has illustrated how sexuality influences students’ schooling, economic choices, and social relationships, often in nuanced ways that differently marginalize youth of color, workingclass youth, and female youth. These are not seamless processes of reproduction nor are teens merely unwitting dupes of these dominant discourses. Indeed, youth frequently resist or challenge these forces, producing revised cultural expressions. Because schooling is one arena that significantly shapes and is shaped by sexuality, it also possesses powerful potential for intervening in the production of teen sexualities. As such, a number of recent scholars urge schools to help adolescents interrogate these discourses and to develop their sexualities in more liberating ways (e.g., Connell 1996; Epstein and Johnson 1998; Trudell 1993). Indeed, the need to address these issues with adolescents grows more urgent in an era of increased anxiety over teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV/AIDS.

Anthropology and Education Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 4, pp. 328–346, ISSN 0161-7761, online ISSN 1548-1492. © 2006 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. Direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions website, www.ucpress.edu/journals/rights.htm.

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This article, then, enhances this research illustrating how the unexamined discourse of “readiness” hampers educators’ efforts to help teens negotiate more liberating sexualities. I argue that it does so in at least three ways. First, it can shut down educators’ well-intentioned attempts to address the relational dynamics that shape teens’ sexual identities and decision making. Although it appears to respect individual decision making, the taken-for-granted notion that “only you can decide when you are ready” silences conversations about these aspects of sexuality, maintaining a focus on the biological. Second, this discourse fosters unrealistic expectations for sexual encounters and prevents teens from asking important questions when these expectations are not met—questions that might lead them to interrogate patterns of inequity. Finally, although these problems can affect male and female teens, the readiness discourse intersects with romance and virginity discourses in ways that produce nuanced challenges for white female teens and female teens of color. To make this argument, I first situate this study within previous research in sexuality, schooling, and youth identity. Sexuality and Youth Identity Scholars in anthropology have long recognized how individual subjects draw from cultural and linguistic resources to construct their identities and how these identities contribute to the reproduction or transformation of the social order (e.g., Holland and Eisenhart 1990; McRobbie 1978; Willis 1977). In particular, recent feminist, critical race, and cultural studies scholars argue that sexuality plays a pivotal role in structuring these inequitable social relations (e.g., Epstein and Johnson 1998; Fine 1992; Hurtado 2003; Valenzuela 1999). For example, many of these studies have documented the pervasive silences around female desire. Although girls are given frequent instructions on how to say “no,” the information is rather sparse when it comes to what to do if they wish to say “yes” (Fine 1992). This lack of information reinforces dichotomies between “bad” girls who want “it” and “good” girls who do not. With little positive acknowledgment of the ways in which they might enjoy sex or their sexuality, girls are left to decipher these feelings on their own, wondering if they are the only ones who have them. Discourses of romance and virginity further bolster these dichotomies between “good” and “bad” girls. Girls who allow intimacy without receiving “good treatment” are labeled “bad” girls (Holland and Eisenhart 1990). Likewise, virginity discourses promise sexual and emotional safety to “good” girls who wait to “give it up” until they find “true love” or at least a “special someone” who cares about them. These dominant narratives also position males and females as adversaries in a sexual game, in which boys endlessly pursue “it” while girls fight to keep from giving “it” away (Sapon-Shevin and Goodman 1992). Faced with these complex social scripts, girls “spend enormous amounts of time trying to ‘save it,’ ‘lose it,’ convince others that they have lost or saved it, or trying to be ‘discreet’ instead of focusing their energies in ways that are sexually autonomous, responsible and pleasurable” (Fine 1992:39). The dilemmas these scripts create are also complicated by discourses of race and class.2 For example, researchers have shown how the “goodness” of white women has historically rested on the equation of sexuality with black women or other women of color (Collins 1991; Tolman 1996). This dichotomy simultaneously erases white women’s desire and positions women of color as immoral or promiscuous.

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Along these lines, Rolon-Dow (2004) illustrates how teachers and other authority figures are more likely to perceive the behaviors of Puerto Rican girls as “oozing with sexuality” even though white girls often engage in similar behavior. Other researchers have documented additional negative perceptions when other girls of color do not conform to white images of “appropriate” femininities (Fisherkeller 1997; Lei 2003; White 1999). Similarly, societal discourses about the “urban girl” construct her as a promiscuous girl of color who “bears the brunt of society’s collective anxiety” regarding adolescent sexuality (Tolman 1996:260). These “controlling images” (Collins 1991) place pressures on “real” urban girls who feel they have to distance themselves from such images or “vigilantly watch” how others perceive them (Taylor 1996; Tolman 1996). Such pressures significantly complicate these girls’ ability to make sexual choices or to express sexual desire. Girls of color also face other cultural and familial pressures that shape their sexuality in unique ways. For example, researchers have illustrated how some Latinas face religious and cultural discourses that stress—in ways both similar to and different from white discourses—idealized versions of womanhood, the importance of virginity, Madonna-whore dichotomies, and culturally specific versions of traditional gender roles (e.g., Gonzalez-Lopez 2004; Hurtado 2003; Zavella 2003). Other researchers also note how some Latinas (particularly recent immigrants) encounter familial discourses that encourage them to distance themselves from more “Americanized” Latinas or white girls who are characterized as more sexually “loose” (Hurtado 2003; Valenzuela 1999). These girls then face unique tensions between expressing sexual desire and maintaining their cultural identities and familial networks. While recognizing these influences is important, it is equally important to recognize that an “overemphasis on these categories of analysis may promote inaccurate images of Latinas and Latinos” (Gonzalez-Lopez 2004:1128). Indeed, these narratives operate as permeable “cultural templates” that are subject to revision as women see both the regressive elements and the places for resistance (e.g., Hurtado 2003; Zavella 2003). In addition to these dynamics, many researchers have noted how romance discourses also function to make some girls content with lower academic or career achievement in the hopes of finding fulfillment in marriage or relationships (e.g., Holland and Eisenhart 1990; McRobbie 1978). In contrast, Valenzuela (1999) documents how romantic relationships often increase some Latinas proschool orientation. Indeed, these relationships sometimes provide a sense of support or solidarity, making an otherwise alienating school environment somewhat palatable. In doing so, these relationships sometimes increase girls’ interest and attention to academics; however, this usually happens in ways that benefit their boyfriends’ academic achievement at the expense of their own. In other studies, some girls of color and working-class girls recognize inconsistencies between the discourse of romance and their life expectations (Cowie and Lees 1981; White 1999). Although they hope for love in their relationships, they do not expect that marriage guarantees this. In contrast to many middle-class white girls, then, romance does not lead them into marriage; rather, they turn to romance when the financial difficulties they face make marriage necessary (Cowie and Lees 1981; Lichenstein 2000; Stone and McKee 2000). Interestingly, discourses of virginity have taken what appears to be a more “gender equitable” turn since the early 1990s. The advent of HIV/AIDS has sparked a frenzy of public rhetoric around a renewed “cult of virginity” that frames chastity as

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a health virtue for both males and females (Lichtenstein 2000). Although some still promote this “new” virginity primarily on religious or moral grounds, health professionals promote it as a matter of health and safety. In addition to framing virginity as desirable for both genders, this revised virginity discourse stresses self-control and personal choice. In exercising these choices, the newer virgin is seen as strong and assertive in matters of sexuality as opposed to the more passive, naive virgins of old. Although this version of virginity might be more equitable in some ways, it ignores how socioeconomic conditions and discourses of race, class, or gender shape one’s “choices,” as well as the ability to be “assertive” in exercising such choices (Lichtenstein 2000; White 1999). Sexuality and Schooling These complicated discourses of sexuality profoundly shape teens’ developing identities, as well as their experiences with and performance in schools. At the same time, schooling significantly shapes adolescent sexualities, drawing from and reproducing the above discourses of sexuality (e.g., Connell 1996; Epstein and Johnson 1998). As such, schooling can also intervene in the production of oppressive sexualities (Connell 1996). Currently, however, schools and educators see sexuality as a distraction to student learning—a distraction that is best ignored or relegated to peripheral sex-education programs (Rolon-Dow 2004; Trudell 1993). These programs focus almost exclusively on biological, clinical information in an effort to accomplish utilitarian goals, such as reducing teen pregnancy, STDs, and HIV/AIDS (Luttrell 2003; Trudell 1993). Such a focus frames teen sexuality only as a “problem” to be solved. And to “solve” it, teens are offered universal rules about how to say no, how to have safe sex, when to have sex, and when not to have sex (Morris 1997; Trudell 1993). These sorts of rigid rules ignore teens’ inner experiences and do not account for how these experiences are shaped by a subject’s location among intersecting discourses of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and youth (Ward and Taylor 1992). To remedy this state of affairs, educators and other adults need to develop curriculum and practices that incorporate these missing conversations about the relational and power-laden dynamics that shape sexuality (Fine 1992; Rolon-Dow 2004; Trudell 1993). Although some sites have attempted to do so, to date, these sites are rare. As such, we know little about what happens when adults and teens attempt to navigate these complex issues of sexuality. The purpose of the larger study from which this analysis is drawn was to extend our understanding in this area, exploring how one such site, ESPERANZA, attempted to challenge traditional ways of talking about teen sexuality. Indeed, in many ways, ESPERANZA offered a rare and rich resource for investigating how we might work toward these possibilities.3 First, it consciously attempted to address some of the problems identified in existing sexeducation programs. Second, as a peer-education program, it employed youth culture to make its messages more relevant. Third, it targeted Latino/a youth and other youth of color and involved them in efforts to promote social justice. In conducting the larger study, then, I was interested in the following questions: (1) In what ways do the participants in ESPERANZA disrupt dominant sexuality discourses or traditional ways of talking about sexuality with teens? (2) In what ways are these challenges limited or involved in reproducing other discourses? (3) How do teens make sense of these challenges and what are the implications for their sexual identities?

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(4) What are the implications for developing more transformative schooling practices to address teen sexuality? Elsewhere, I explore how ESPERANZA often succeeded in engaging teens in powerful conversations that challenged traditional ways of talking about sexuality with teens (Ashcraft 2006). During this study, however, I became interested in the participants’ use of talk about being “ready for sex” and how this talk often seemed to limit the transformative potential of these conversations. In what follows, then, I focus on the second and third research questions as I look at how the “discourse of readiness” sometimes derailed complex discussions of sexuality. Methods: Research Context and Participants and Data Sources and Analysis Research Context and Participants Located in a large western city, ESPERANZA is an STD, HIV/AIDS, and teen pregnancy prevention program that employs teen educators who provide workshops, prevention theater, and street outreach to urban youth. Founded in 1987, ESPERANZA is one of several programs offered by a nonprofit organization that aims to “advance self-sufficiency for primarily low-income Latinas and youth” (organization’s literature). The larger organization was founded by eight Latina mothers who “sought a supportive place” where women could complete their education . . . and where their children could get help in school. ESPERANZA is one of two programs that are run by and for youth (with the help of adult facilitators). Although ESPERANZA retains a focus on Latino/a teens, it also aims to include a range of diverse urban teens. The program participants during the course of my study included a Latino program director, a Latino project specialist, a white female project specialist, and 14 Peer Educators (PEs) ages 16–21. The PEs comprised five Latinos, five Latinas, two African American females, one white male, and one white female. The teens came from a range of class backgrounds, a majority of them from lower-income households. Two of the peer educators identified as gay. Approximately one-third of the PEs reported receiving above-average grades while in school. Another third described themselves as being average or as having some difficulties with school. The final third experienced one or more criteria that would place them in traditionally labeled “at-risk” categories (e.g., significantly below grade level in literacy, spent time in detention centers, or first in family to finish high school). Many of the PEs had also experienced other circumstances that complicate chances for future academic or economic success (e.g., teen pregnancy or first in family to attend college). Interestingly, these PEs described themselves as relatively apathetic about sexuality education when first arriving at ESPERANZA. In fact, exactly half of the PEs I interviewed did not even know the program was about sex before signing up to audition. Instead, they describe finding out about the program in haphazard ways (e.g., riding home with a friend who was auditioning, hearing there was a theater component, or looking for a job). Only three of the PEs reported joining because of a personal or familial experience with sex, pregnancy, or STDs. To become peer educators, teens audition in small groups with a team of current PEs and an adult facilitator. The group is asked to respond to a few open-ended questions regarding a wide range of general topics (e.g., who is your favorite hero and why). This is followed by a “take a stand” activity where candidates discuss whether they agree or disagree with a few statements more specifically about sexuality (e.g., a

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mother should not be able to get an abortion if the father objects). The interview concludes with candidates being assigned a scenario that they are to improvise or role play. During these interviews, the team makes it clear that they are not looking for “correct” answers but rather the ability to justify one’s view and an ability to listen to others’ views. Indeed, they explicitly tell candidates that it is acceptable to hold different opinions on abortion, for example, as long as they do not allow this to limit the factual information, referrals, or other services they offer to students (see Ashcraft n.d. for more detail). Once hired, the PEs receive approximately 20 hours of training in anatomy and reproduction, STDs and HIV/AIDS, prevention methods, pregnancy, self-esteem, and healthy relationships. The training is similar to the presentations that the PEs ultimately will be asked to deliver. Data Sources and Analysis I collected the ethnographic data for this study from August 2001–May 2002, during which time, I spent 160 hours in observations and interviews. I observed presentations and performances given in local public schools and other community organizations, weekly PE meetings, trainings, and more informal occasions such as rehearsals, script revisions, and social events. I also collected the curriculum and other documents distributed by ESPERANZA. In addition, I interviewed the two adult facilitators, the program director, and the 14 PEs. Interviews lasted from 60–90 minutes and were audio-taped and transcribed. Data were then analyzed using a combination of ethnographic and discourse analytic methods (Mechling and Mechling 1999; Spradley 1980). Field notes and other documents were read and initial codes were determined to identify common categories or themes (e.g., “representations of femininity,” “talk about readiness” (Spradley 1980; Strauss 1987). Interview transcripts were also analyzed, categorizing segments of talk according to the identified codes. I then more closely analyzed specific segments of talk to better understand how speakers drew on broader societal discourses. In doing so, I looked for the following elements common in discourse analysis (Mechling and Mechling 1999): (1) how speakers draw on “common sense” understandings from the wider sociocultural context; (2) speakers’ language choices and how these construct particular meanings, excluding others; (3) how speakers link certain meanings; (4) which meanings speakers challenge, how they do so, and to what effects; and (5) what is left unsaid. This was followed by a period of collecting contrast data to test and refine initial codes and assertions. I then used a variety of componential analyses (Spradley 1980) to juxtapose different codes and the contexts in which they occurred (e.g., “talk about readiness” in formal presentations, informal interviews). Representational Concerns Many critical and poststructuralist scholars have drawn attention to important concerns about the representation of participants in ethnographic research (e.g., Code 1993; Roman 1992). The primary concern is that in attempting to tell participants’ stories, researchers appropriate these voices and unwittingly reproduce power imbalances. As such, it is important to consider my own subject position and how this influenced my relationships with participants and the process of data collection and analysis. As a former public school teacher, I became interested in studying teen

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sexuality as I witnessed its pervasive influence in teens’ lives. This seemed an important topic to address, but I often felt ill-prepared to do so. To better understand these issues, I went to work for a battered women’s shelter and began implementing datingviolence programs in local urban schools. This experience and my earlier teaching experience served me well in building relationships with the teens in this study. Likewise, the PEs were accustomed to interacting with adults. Our past experiences with talking about sexuality probably made all of us more at ease discussing such topics. The semistructured nature of many of the program’s events also allowed time for bantering and informal conversation. As a result, all of the participants seemed relatively comfortable with me by the time I conducted individual interviews. Still, as a white, middle-class woman in her mid-thirties, I differed from a majority of the participants, especially in terms of race and class. This certainly made me an “outsider” to their life experiences. At the same time, there were also some points of intersection with participants in terms of gender and class. Likewise, I grew up in a conservative religious culture that often paralleled the influence of Catholicism in some of the participants’ lives, particularly in terms of views on sex, virginity, and women’s roles (Hurtado 2003). These points of difference and intersection certainly predispose me to understand some experiences more than others and prevent me from fully understanding the lived experiences of any of the participants. In offering the following analyses, then, I first present the conversations as they occurred, followed by my analysis using the tools of critical discourse analysis. I have chosen this approach because uncritically privileging participants’ voices can overlook the material conditions in which these voices emerge and the ways they may be complicit with oppressive practices (e.g., Roman 1992). However, maintaining a deep respect for participants’ intellectual and political capacities is also important (Roman 1992). I actively maintain this dual perspective, exploring how teens creatively navigate sexuality in complex ways. To do so, I also conducted “member checks,” sharing my analysis with participants and receiving feedback. Even so, I do not claim that this is the only interpretation of these conversations. Neither do I claim that this study is representative of teen perspectives on readiness. Indeed, I would encourage future research to explore a wider array of teens’ understandings of readiness. Ready or Not? Examining the Discourse Shutting Down the Conversation Roughly 20 high school students file into the public school health classroom. Amid the bustle, three ESPERANZA PEs and an adult facilitator quickly finish some lastminute preparations for the Prevention Methods Presentation. After a few moments, they begin the presentation, introducing themselves casually to the curious audience. One of the PEs explains the purpose of the presentation as follows:
I mean, we’re not here to tell you to have sex . . . but we’re not here to tell you not to. And we’re just here to let you make sure that when you do have sex and when you’re ready to have sex—no matter when that is—that you’re safe and that you know what’s out there. [emphasis mine]

In these remarks, the PE reassures the audience that it is up to them to decide when they are ready for sex and that ESPERANZA is simply there to help them when they decide—”no matter when that is.” On the one hand, this initial disclaimer, frequently

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offered at the beginning of ESPERANZA presentations, functions to value teen decision making and to assure the audience that the presenters are not going to prescribe appropriate behaviors. On the other hand, acknowledging “no matter when that is” begs the rather crucial question, “And exactly when is that?” How can one tell when he or she is ready? What does being ready mean? Brief comments made by PEs and adults during the remainder of the presentations provide some guidance on this matter—at least in terms of what readiness is not. For example, adult facilitators and PEs frequently make quick observations such as “just because you start becoming a sexual being doesn’t mean you’re ready” or “simply having a condom doesn’t mean you’re ready to have sex.” Likewise, in interviews, when I explicitly asked PEs to elaborate on readiness, a general sense of what it is not also dominated the explanations. One PE’s comments succinctly summarized these explanations: “I think that people mean like, don’t let other people define it for you, or don’t let your boyfriend say, ‘oh yeah, we’re ready, duh,’ or ‘it’s not because it’s been six months,’ like it’s not a time period.” Although helpful, the emphasis on what readiness is not still leaves open the question of what it is. This was never discussed in detail in the presentations I observed. Interestingly, one PE’s interview comments offered a potential explanation for this lack of discussion:
Peer Educator: Author: PE: I think that people trying to figure out . . . when they’re ready and who they’re going to be ready with and is that person ready and I mean like there’s just so many things to consider that like being able to offer them just a little bit of help is really important . . . So how do you help with that kind of, all that stuff that you just mentioned, all those complicated things? Well, I mean, they kind of have to decide that on their own, and I think that once they make those decisions . . . then there’s a whole other group of more technical things they have to consider . . . like getting tested, using a condom, using birth control. . . . And I think those are like the more technical, kind of more tangible things that they have to deal with once they make the decisions that only they can make themselves. [emphasis mine]

Although she also does not elaborate on what “readiness” is, she certainly captures the complexity of deciding whether or not one is “ready,” noting that people have to figure out “when they’re ready, who they’re going to be ready with” and so on. Arguably, one might conclude that teens could benefit from assistance in navigating such complex decisions. Instead, however, the conclusion is that, because this decision is so complicated, no one else can help; everyone must simply decide for themselves. As she notes, ESPERANZA can help with “the more technical, kind of more tangible things” that teens need to know “once they make the decisions that only they can make themselves.” In this case, then, the assumption—that “only you can determine readiness” ironically shuts down exploration of what being ready means, making one of the most difficult decisions of all virtually undiscussable. As such, invoking the readiness discourse in this manner can effectively silence talk about the more relational aspects of sexuality. Certainly a number of other sociopolitical barriers (e.g., funding or time constraints, parental objections) also contribute to the lack of such discussion. Although addressing these barriers is beyond the scope of this article, it is certainly important to do so if educators are to attend to the more relational aspects of sexuality (for more

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discussion of these barriers, see Ashcraft in press; Epstein and Johnson 1998; Trudell 1993). My point here, however, is that by relegating the relational dynamics of sexuality to the realm of private, individual decision making, the discourse of readiness actually provides a rationale for not even attempting to address these larger sociopolitical barriers. In other words, the insidious assumption that individuals must decide “readiness” on their own can make it seem only natural—even preferable—that educators focus on the “technical and tangible” aspects, letting individuals “decide for themselves” when it comes to the relational realm of sexuality. Although it appears to respect individual decision making, then, this taken-for-granted assumption buttresses the disturbing but dominant societal notion that “teens’ genitals are a matter of public concern but their souls are none of our business” (Bernstein and Kirby 1995:47). Expecting the Unattainable I am not suggesting, however, that discussing or defining “readiness” would necessarily be the appropriate remedy. In fact, a second, more fundamental problem arises in the assumption that it is even possible to know whether one is “ready” or not. Suggesting that this is possible can foster unrealistic expectations for sex and reproduce social inequities by limiting the ways one makes sense of their sexual experiences. Consider the following comments made by a white male PE during an interview, “The second you have sex with them, if you’re not ready, it’s going to send all kinds of shit through your head. . . . I was like, ‘Did I do it right?’ ‘Am I not good enough?’ And I think definitely don’t have sex until you’re ready.” Of course, one might argue that even if you are “ready,” “all kinds of shit” will still go “through your head.” Other PEs also offer similar warnings during presentations noting, “Sex is not just physical; there can be mental consequences if you are not ready.” But certainly, there can “be mental consequences” even if you are “ready” or, perhaps more accurately, there are always mental consequences. By implying otherwise, however, this discourse presumes a formula that fosters unrealistic expectations for sexual encounters. In addition, rather than helping people before they have sex, this formula encourages people to retroactively “diagnose” their readiness. Consider the following exchange in my interview with a Latina PE as she explains why she is glad she did not have sex:
PE: I think it would have been a really bad decision on my part because I would have felt like I gave him something that I couldn’t take back . . . like I almost consider virginity as one of the few things you have that’s yours . . . so I think that it’s really important to be able to decide for yourself when you’re ready . . . And so what, what would it look like then in your imagination if you were to have sex and it not be a mistake . . . ? It not being a mistake would be where you really cared about that person and they really cared about you . . . and it wasn’t just them getting laid, it wasn’t something that they could tell their friends and be like, “hell yeah, man.” You know, like it’s something that they really appreciated [emphasis added]

A: PE:

In these remarks, this PE comes closer to clarifying what one example of readiness might be—waiting to have sex with “someone who really cared about you,” If, however, he ends up telling his friends and being “like, hell yeah, man,” then you have made a

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mistake—you were not ready. Unfortunately, if this is the definition of “readiness” or “mistake” then determining your “readiness” is actually based on someone else’s actions after the fact. In practice, then, “readiness” turns out to have little to do with you, your state of mind, or your desires and everything to do with the other person’s behavior—something you can not possibly know ahead of time. Furthermore, the “natural” remedy becomes “trying harder” next time to figure out if “you are ready.” This, however, precludes one from considering that, perhaps, he or she is attempting to do something that is, in fact, impossible. Finally, this formula can prevent one from considering other explanations for why a particular encounter might have gone awry. Without easy access to the explanation “I was not ready,” individuals might entertain other explanations. For example, perhaps it went awry because of problematic ideas about gender roles, sex, or relationships. As such, defaulting to the readiness formula can prevent people from asking important questions about how scripts of masculinity, femininity, race, class, and sexual orientation might contribute to these interactions—questions that might ultimately challenge these reproductive processes. Exploring complexities: At the Intersection of Readiness, Romance, and Virginity Discourses Certainly both females and males may confront the above problems, particularly in light of the newer “cult of virginity” that encourages both sexes to wait until they are “ready.” As the above PE comments suggest, however, “readiness” is complicated by virginity and romance discourses, and by the ways these discourses differ in terms of race and class. These intersections pose a range of nuanced difficulties for white female teens and for female teens of color. Some of these difficulties poignantly manifested in an interview with another Latina PE as she recalled some of the questions she considered after her first sexual experience. Although it is important not to overgeneralize from her experience, many recent Chicana scholars have also highlighted the importance of learning from young Latinas’ creativity and cultural intuition in negotiating these competing cultural scripts (Delgado-Bernal 2002, Hurtado 2003; Zavella 2003). This PE’s account, then, demonstrates how one Latina artfully negotiates these complex and contradictory experiences. She began with the following recollection of the first time she had sex:
PE: A: PE: A: PE: It was how I planned it. I knew it was with somebody very, very special. We’re not together anymore and that’s been something really, really hard for me to accept, but now I also understand the emotional side of doing something like that. So you plan now to wait? (she had mentioned this earlier) Yeah, it was, I go back to my original plan, you know? People learn the hard way. Is that because of your experience? Yeah, it was, see I don’t regret that I did it. I don’t regret that, I just regret the situation I’m in now, which is that we’re not together and I always thought that the person who I would share that with or give to . . . I knew they’d appreciate it every second and I’m not so sure he does appreciate it. . . . I mean, I think at the moment and at the time I did [think he appreciated it], but I might have been blinded by feelings . . . but now I . . . I can’t really consider it a mistake because it was with somebody that I really, really loved . . . and it was what I wanted . . .

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Because the relationship did not end well, the readiness formula encourages her to interpret her decision as a mistake—as an example of what happens when you are not ready. Dominant virginity and romance discourses reinforce this interpretation, promising “true love” to those who wait for someone special. She draws on these discourses when she notes that maybe this was a mistake she had to “learn the hard way.” At the same time, however, she attempts to forge an alternative explanation, noting “but I can’t really consider it a mistake.” Interestingly, she justifies this decision as “not a mistake” in two ways. First, she notes that it was with someone “really, really special,” which at least partially fulfills virginity discourses. However, she goes on to assert “and it was what I wanted,” highlighting her desire. In so doing, she challenges the readiness formula by evaluating the worth of this encounter in terms of what she wanted, rather than in terms of his behavior after the fact. She goes on to explain her conflicted feelings in more depth:
PE: . . . like the girl in me wants to be like, “Oh a typical guy.” But then the real me wants to be like, “You understand how he feels and you shouldn’t listen to anything else because you know.” . . . We got to that level. I would have to say he’s the only boyfriend I ever had that actually knew me . . . like everything could be going wrong and I’ll have a smile on my face and he’d be like, “What’s wrong?”. . . My best friends wouldn’t know and he would . . . so part of me just wants to be like, “You know he appreciated it, maybe he just wasn’t ready. You know how much it meant for him,” but another sense of me just needs to know, like I need to hear that.

In these poignant reflections, the readiness discourse is bolstered by dominant representations of male sexuality as predatory and female sexuality as naive. On the one hand, she feels pulled toward this interpretation when she notes “the girl in me wants to be like, ‘Oh, a typical guy.’ “ On the other hand, she resists this reading insisting “the real me wants to be like, ‘You understood how he feels and you shouldn’t listen to anything else.’ “ The readiness discourse, however, in tandem with romance and virginity discourses, make it difficult for this alternative interpretation to “stick”—even in her own mind. In the end, she admits that although she knows “how much it meant to him, another sense of me just needs to know.” If she knew that it meant something to him she could validate her experience within these discourses rather than facing the ominous task of inventing new language. Without these discourses, however, these would not even be necessary questions to ask. That these discourses shake her faith in the validity of this relationship may also have consequences in terms of her cultural experiences in school. In her study of Latino/a youth experiences with schooling, Valenzuela (1999) notes how romantic relationships often provide Latinas important social support in an otherwise alienating school environment. And, indeed, this PE often expressed feeling culturally isolated and misunderstood at school. In addition, in the above remarks, she notes that, unlike even her best friends, her boyfriend “actually knew” her and could tell when “everything could be going wrong.” This then may be another factor driving her “need to know.” To the extent that readiness discourses shake her faith regarding the validity of the relationship, they may also increase her sense of alienation in school. And these excruciating questions become more complicated as other people hold her accountable to these discourses. She went on to describe her friends’ reactions:

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A: PE:

So it’s kind of like I’ve lost something, and I also think a lot, it’s like you interchange it for a lot more things and stuff they [her friends] wouldn’t understand. . . . Yeah, some of my friends . . . [one] he’s like, “You lost a lot of things. You lost your virginity and what do you have to show for it?” I was all, “Shut up. I was like I have a lot to show for it.” Did you tell him specific things that you have to show for it? No. . . . I can’t really pinpoint it. It’s like you think, I have knowledge, I have, I don’t know, it’s not things you can pinpoint, but it’s just like a certain level of intelligence that you gain and maturity and in a way, self-respect and it’s weird . . .

Although she partially plays within readiness and virginity discourses, acknowledging that she “has lost something,” she also adamantly resists her friend’s claim that she “has nothing to show for it.” Indeed, she insists that you “interchange it for a lot more things” and even attempts to describe some of these things (e.g., “knowledge,” “a certain level of intelligence”). On the one hand, then, she partially accepts the narrative that virginity should be “exchanged” for something valuable; on the other hand, she simultaneously attempts to redefine what counts as a valuable “exchange.” Without a more developed alternative language, however, she finds this difficult to explain to others or to “pinpoint” even for herself. She concludes by identifying an additional problem she faces in her romantic relationships now that she is no longer “a virgin.”
PE: . . . it’s like before . . . I’d be like, “I’m a virgin, that’s all that matters.” Now it’s more like guys might not believe that I’ve only had one partner . . . when you’re not [a virgin]. . . . Like you could say “Okay, yeah, I’ve only had one partner” . . . but then they think that just because you have, you’re going to do it . . . So before you could just call up the sort of virgin thing as a defense? Yeah, [before] it’s like “I’m a virgin.” . . . and then now, it’s like you’ve shared that you’re not with them. . . . And so in a sense, you have to show even more self-respect so they can pick that up from you. And how do you do that? Well, it’s hard. But it’s just a lot, I think because of the fact that I still have the mentality of a virgin, you know what I mean? I mean I haven’t experienced it that much. . . . It’s funny how you have to change. You’re like, oh, I’m not [a virgin] . . . but on the same hand, no, it’s like yeah, it’s like I am . . .

A: PE: A: PE:

In these remarks, she describes how being positioned as “not a virgin” alters others’ expectations of who she is or how she will behave sexually. Although she was once able to summon the “virgin defense” to effectively shut down propositions for sex, the societal dichotomy between “virgin” and “not a virgin” now denies her access to that defense. Ironically, then, the very discourse that demands she regulate the sexual progression of the relationship strips her of an effective resource for doing so. This can also complicate some girls of color or working-class girls’ attempts to distance themselves from other “controlling images.” As one Hispanic teen in Taylor’s (1996) study explained, “People think of [Hispanic girls] as a girl who gets pregnant easy and who doesn’t care. . . . There’s one thing [Hispanic girls] have to watch is not to let people think they’re like that.” In the face of these dominant narratives, then, losing the virgin defense can make it more difficult for this PE to distance herself from these images and to “make guys respect” her. Interestingly, she attempts to deal with this problem by implicitly challenging the “virgin–not a virgin” dichotomy. Indeed, she begins to carve out a different subject

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position, noting “I still have the mentality of a virgin.” Of course, at least part of her reason for doing so is to regain access to the “virgin defense.” Without the discourse of virginity, however, she would have little need for this defense. However, in a material world where the aforementioned “controlling images” continue to shape how others perceive her, regaining the “virgin defense” might be an important temporary strategy for distancing herself from these images and remaining celibate if she so chooses. In fact, regaining this “defense” might be particularly important for a range of women of color and working-class women who face nuanced social circumstances, material conditions, and controlling images that can complicate their efforts to remain a traditional “virgin” (Lichenstein 2000). These complexities, then, highlight the importance of engaging in what might otherwise seem to be contradictory and paradoxical projects—questioning virginity even while attempting to regain access to it. Considering Implications and Possibilities for Future Study Talk about “readiness for sex” pervades current conversations about teen sexuality. As such, we can no longer afford to ignore how this discourse limits teens’ ability to make sense of their sexual experiences. The above analysis reveals at least three such limitations. First, in asserting that readiness is a mysterious state known only to oneself, the discourse can shut down talk about the relational or power-laden dynamics around sexuality. Indeed, this assumption can make it seem only natural that we focus on the “technical and tangible” aspects and “let individuals decide for themselves” when it comes to this relational realm. Second, the underlying formula that all will go well if one “waits until ready” fosters unrealistic expectations for sex and encourages self-blame if these expectations are not met. Likewise, this formula prevents individuals from considering more systemic patterns for the “failure” of a relationship. Finally, intersections between readiness and virginity discourses present a range of nuanced difficulties for different women, often inhibiting their ability to act in sexually autonomous ways. In light of these limitations, we would do well to interrogate this discourse and to invent new alternatives. To begin this effort, I now look at implications for classroom practice and future anthropological research. I also acknowledge that significant barriers can make implementing some of these suggestions difficult and will briefly address these concerns at the end of the next section. Implications for Classroom Practice and Curriculum Development In terms of classroom practice, educators in health or sex education might look for ways that they (or their students) unwittingly use the discourse of readiness to maintain a focus on the more “technical, tangible” aspects of sexuality, simultaneously shutting down potentially powerful conversations about the more relational aspects. In her study of a ninth-grade sex-education classroom, Trudell (1993) observes how teachers sometimes used “defensive teaching strategies” that simplify the content, bridle student energy, and avoid controversial topics. Along these lines, teachers might look for similar ways the discourse of readiness might function as another sort of “defensive teaching strategy.” Teachers and counselors also need to consider how they use the discourse of readiness in informal conversations with youth. Rather than offering teens platitudes about “waiting until you are ready,” adults need to explore what they mean by these comments and how this shapes the advice they give youth.

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Furthermore, as one way of sparking these missing discussions, educators might engage students in explicit discussion of readiness (and virginity) discourses. Students could interrogate how they draw on these discourses to make sense of their sexual experiences and to what effects. Such discussions would actively encourage the more personally reflexive approach to sex education that Luttrell (2003:141) suggests—an approach where young women and men ask themselves questions such as, “How do I know what I want or desire sexually?” and “In what contexts can I act on my own feelings?” For example, students and teachers could ask, “Why do we talk in terms of readiness and virginity? What are the pros and cons of this language? Is it possible to know if you are ready? What if there were no such terms as ‘virgin’?” Asking questions about how conceptions of romance, virginity, and readiness vary by race, class, and sexual orientation would also be important. Likewise, as Taylor (1996) notes, encouraging such questioning may lead to hurtful conflicts between teens and families, particularly between girls of color and their mothers. A key responsibility for educators, then, is to recognize this and to allow students to discuss ways of negotiating these conflicts. In addition to critiquing these discourses, educators could encourage student efforts to devise new ways of talking. Clearly youth are capable of this; clearly they already do so—as the PE in the above analysis illustrates with her invention of “virgin mentality.” Without a more developed, alternative language, however, she sometimes found it difficult to express herself in a persuasive way. Teachers and students could further develop these alternative languages and explore how this alters these seemingly “natural” or inevitable dilemmas. Addressing these complex dynamics of sexuality should not be the job of health and sex education alone, however. Sexuality saturates adolescent lives, and a number of educational sites already implicitly and explicitly teach messages about femininity, masculinity, and sexuality (e.g., Connell 1996; Epstein and Johnson 1998; Rolon-Dow 2004). As such, these sites need to help teens make sense of this dizzying array of information. For example, many texts and topics traditionally studied in literacy and social studies classrooms already deal implicitly with themes of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality (see Connell 1996; Epstein and Johnson 1998; Moje and MuQaribu 2003). Talk about readiness and broader issues of what it means to be male and female and how these expectations differ in terms of race and class could be interwoven into discussion of these topics and texts. Similarly, students could discuss shifting meanings for masculinity, femininity, and what was considered “readiness for marriage” in different cultures or historical moments. This would help demonstrate the fluid nature of sexualities and unmask the “naturalness” of current conceptions. Likewise, because sexuality is of interest to teens, critical discussions of it also hold potential for increasing student engagement and academic success (see Ashcraft 2006 for more discussion). Indeed, I suggest that “mainstream” academic teachers would do well to frame teen interest in sexuality as a “vehicle for” rather than a “threat to” academic success. Again, I acknowledge that barriers such as time constraints, standardized testing, and parental objections make implementing some of the above suggestions difficult. This points to a larger need to question how we educate our children and how we might confront such barriers—a discussion well beyond the scope of this article (see Ashcraft 2006 and n.d. for more discussion). Much can be done, however, even within existing models of education and sex education. For example, although the PEs often felt pressed for time in their Prevention Methods Presentations, they expressed concerns about having to “stretch” activities to fill the time in the “less scientific” presentations

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(e.g., healthy–unhealthy relationships). As such, these presentations might be especially conducive sites for incorporating the above conversations. In addition, recent program evaluations of sex education contend that, contrary to earlier speculation, broader youth development programs are effective in reducing rates of pregnancy. They recommend “taking a broader approach to sexuality education”—one that helps students examine “cultural norms and values” (e.g., Kirby 2001). As such, we can justify the above conversations in sex education even in terms of existing, utilitarian definitions of “effectiveness.” Furthermore, it is precisely conversations about broader sexuality issues such as relationships, respect, and “readiness,” that might be addressed more easily in some conservative communities. Although such discussions might also cause controversy, they are generally less controversial than overt discussions about condoms or safe sex. However, even if these conversations ultimately prove impossible in certain contexts, this does not justify leaving the rest of our youth all alone to struggle with these complex questions. Instead, we must redouble our efforts to create, wherever we can, pedagogical spaces in which teens can interrogate dominant representations of sexuality and negotiate more liberating alternatives. Implications for Anthropological Research into Schooling, Sexuality, and Youth Identity This analysis begins to illustrate how discourses of readiness reinforce virginity and romance discourses. We would to do well to further research how teens draw from discourses of readiness, how these intersect with virginity and romance discourses, and to what effects. Researchers also need to further investigate how these dynamics vary in terms of race and class, exploring how these intersections shape these dilemmas in nuanced ways. Furthermore, they might examine how scripts of masculinity interact with readiness discourses. This research is particularly important in unmasking the neutrality of newer “gender-blind” virginity discourses that presume that remaining a virgin is a simple matter of choice equally available to all. In addition to identifying the more limiting functions of these discourses, however, we also need to complicate our understanding of their complex and contradictory nature. For example, in most existing feminist theories, virginity discourses tend to be seen as primarily oppressive (and understandably so). However, the above female PE’s attempt to reclaim the “virgin defense” may be one example of an important strategy young women might be using to negotiate safer relationships, particularly in an era of anxiety over HIV/AIDS. In a similar vein, Weis (2000) observed how, in her study of an abstinence-based sex-education program, some of the girls positioned themselves against other “loose” girls in the community. She suggests that although this delimited a more structural analysis or any political alliance with these other women, it was perhaps a necessary temporary move to save the girls from what they feared was their fate. Attempting to regain access to the “virgin defense” might function as a similar temporary strategy for negotiating safer relationships. At the same time, providing additional scripts is also important so that girls are not limited to the virgin defense but might also draw on scripts that ultimately might make this defense less necessary (Lichtenstein 2000). To multiply these scripts, then, researchers need to explore more of the creative ways young women (and men) are attempting to deal with these dilemmas. Indeed,

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we would do well to vigilantly look for “cultural forms and expressions that seem to suggest new or emergent ‘structures of feeling’ in sections of the young population” (McRobbie 1994:172). In particular, we need to seek the perspectives of teens of color and other marginalized teens, drawing on their “cultural intuition” or multiple subjectivities (Delgado-Bernal 2002; Hurtado 2003) as resources for theorizing more liberating sexual scripts. Finally, this analysis also points to important implications for anthropological research in public debate and policy regarding teen sexuality. For example, this analysis hints at one way we might complicate the heated public debate around “abstinence-only” versus “comprehensive” sex education.4 We would do well to challenge the assertion that the only programs that promote abstinence are those that tell youth to “just say no.” Indeed, some do argue that comprehensive programs also promote abstinence (often labeling them abstinence based). To date, however, this is often a difficult sell, partially owing to the readiness discourse. To the extent that this discourse can glamorize sex and lull teens into believing that all will go well if only they wait until they are “ready,” it poses a threat (or at least a perceived threat) to abstinence efforts. Critically examining whether or not “being ready” actually equates to “perfect” sex or relationships, however, might arguably deglamorize sex and actually encourage abstinence or delayed first sex. Indeed, the ESPERANZA PEs often noted that more, not less, talk about “what really happens” during sex would be a more convincing way of encouraging abstinence (rather than using scare tactics). The discourse of readiness, however, can get in the way of talking about “what really happens” during sex. As such, we need to recognize how the readiness discourse might blind us to more innovative ways of talking about abstinence. Ultimately, though, we still need to question the fundamental assumptions on which the entire abstinence-comprehensive debate is founded. Recent researchers (e.g., Trudell 1993) stress the need to move beyond a traditional language of effectiveness— whether this be in terms of abstinence or safe sex. Few people ask whether there are needs underlying teens’ “at-risk” behaviors—needs that call for our attention more urgently than the rates of teen pregnancy and disease transmission (Bernstein and Kirby 1995). Certainly, many obstacles make it difficult to move the debate in this direction. This study, however, highlights how the discourse of readiness might prevent us from even trying to address those obstacles. By subtly suggesting that the more relational realm is best left to each individual’s consideration, the discourse provides an all-too-effective way to justify the pervasive neglect of this arena. In offering this seemingly respectful, even pseudodemocratic, plea that we respect youth’s individual decisions, we simultaneously leave these youth all alone to wrestle with complex questions about sexuality. Policy makers, parents, and the general public need to recognize how this pervasive, taken-for-granted discourse subtly shuts down these important conversations. To foster these discussions, we need to explore new ways of talking about sexual decision making—ways that allow youth and adults to challenge dominant representations, to build on the insights they already have, and to explore new possibilities.

Catherine Ashcraft is a research scientist for the National Center for Women and Information Technology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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Notes
Acknowledgment. I would like to thank the teens and adults in ESPERANZA for letting me share in their program and for offering their invaluable insights and perspectives. 1. In this sense, discourses are comprised of representations, narratives and practices that establish the dominant categories of knowledge. Although, they appear natural, these discourses are historical and contingent; therefore, they are subject to reconstruction. 2. Because ESPERANZA was a predominantly Latino program, I highlight Lat/Crit research focusing on the sexuality of Latinas. Because the program included a range of diverse youth, however, I also include additional critical race research on sexuality. 3. For confidentiality, ESPERANZA is a pseudonym chosen by the PEs and myself because its meaning (“hope”) is similar to the Spanish word that is the program’s real name. 4. Comprehensive programs, also called abstinence-based, are those that discuss both abstinence and protection methods. Abstinence-only programs, as the name implies, only discuss abstinence as a valid means of preventing pregnancy and disease.

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