When Leonard Sax, doctor, psychologist and promoter of single sex education, wrote his second book, Boys Adrift, in 2005 he tapped into a widespread concern that boys were doing badly in education and social development. The girls are fine, people said, pointing to their superior academic performance, but the boys were in trouble.
After 15 years in family practice Sax knew that was not true. Sure, the girls were hardworking and achieving, but those traits often had an obsessive character that was the flip side of the boys’ retreat into their bedrooms with World of Warcraft and a bit of porn on the side.
Increasingly, girls he dealt with in his practice were fixated on some ideal — to be the top student, the top athlete, the girl who’s really thin — to the point where failure could bring on a major existential crisis, if not psychological collapse.
Beyond his office, observation, research and lots of contact with girls’ schools showed that an increasing proportion of girls were locked in a cyberbubble. When not honing their image on Facebook they were texting non-stop, keeping the cellphone under their pillow at night and under the desk at school, so that they could receive messages (“OMG, I thought you were Jason’s girlfriend but I just found out that…”) 24/7, and picking up a double-shot espresso coffee on their way to school to stay awake.
More fundamental, and in a way driving other trends, was the wholesale sexualisation of girls that has been increasing in momentum over the past 50 years, causing an identity crisis. With even pre-pubescent girls dressing as though they had a sexual agenda, in their hot pants and midriff-baring tops, sexual confusion reigned.
Something else, not so obvious, was bothering the doctor: environmental toxins (leaching out of plastic food packaging, for example) that contribute to the early onset of puberty, depriving girls of part of their childhood and exposing them to higher risks of depression, eating disorders and delinquency, not to mention cardiovascular problems and breast cancer in the long run.
Sexual identity, the cyberbubble, obsessions, environmental toxins: these are the four factors driving the current crisis for girls that Sax describes in his latest book, Girls On The Edge. It could just as easily have been called Girls On The Surface, because that is the cumulative effect of the risks he is concerned about: girls focused on how they look, on performance, on what they do rather than who they are; girls insatiable for the next bit of gossip or the next A grade, and inconsolable when they meet with setbacks and failures.
That grim scenario represents only half the book, however; the other half is about solutions, and what those solutions have in common is the importance of gender — one of the most fraught issues of our age, and one on which Sax definitively took a stand when he helped found the National Association for Single Sex Education back in 2002.
Some people think Sax is obsessed with gender — his first book was Why Gender Matters — but that is because the dominant gender narrative in recent decades has ignored or tried to obliterate the roots of gender in masculinity and femininity, concepts which he takes seriously, if not in quite the way some of us might want (more on this later). In his new book he says:
Most enduring cultures of which we have any record have taken this process — the process of transition to a gendered adulthood — very seriously. We ignore it. Indeed American parents seldom speak to their children at all about the meaning of womanhood or manhood (as opposed to generic, un-gendered adulthood). Most parents today don’t know what to say.
But girls still want to know, What does it mean to be a woman? Boys still want to know, What does it mean to be a man? We don’t tell them. As a result, the marketplace fills the vacuum, providing “the ready-made masculine and the ready-made feminine” which are caricatures of the real thing; but young people don’t recognize them as caricatures, because they have received no guidance. (page 185)
In a conversation with MercatorNet when he was passing through Auckland (on his most recent speaking tour of schools in New Zealand and Australia) Dr Sax said he has never had a “gender agenda” as such. He simply had to confront its importance in his work as a family doctor — in much the same way that he was faced with the greater need for general practitioners when he entered medical school to become a neurosurgeon.
“In the course of my 22 years of medical practice I dealt with children who I felt had issues that were gender issues and yet, not only the parents but also the consultants didn’t seem to be aware of the importance of gender, and that’s what led me to start writing about it.”
But there was also a very personal motive for writing Girls On The Edge. Extracting some photos from his bag, an obviously proud father spoke about his four-year-old daughter Sarah.
“I would never, ever have written the third book if were not for the birth of our daughter. My wife and I were infertile for the first 15 years of our marriage. Then my wife, Katie, gave birth to our one and only child.” Baby Sarah provided a new incentive to think about girls’ issues and to identify the keys to success in bringing up a daughter. These keys he treats in his book in chapters headed “mind”, “body” and “spirit”.
“Mind” is largely about the education of girls and the advantages of single sex schooling, both in the way traditionally non-girl subjects such as physics are (or can be) taught and in the community of “women who bridge the generations” that girls schools provide. Sax is strong on the importance of girls learning from older women what it means to be a woman — something much more difficult to learn in the sexually precocious and distracting environment of a co-ed school.
(It is worth noting here that Sax has visited more than 300 schools — not only in the US but in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK during the last 10 years to conduct workshops for professionals and speak to parents. )
The single-sex advantage also applies to athletics and sports, which are treated in the chapter, “body”. Not only sexually but in other ways the bodies of boys and girls are different, and this needs to be taken into account. Contrary to what is often supposed, the single-sex format can have a broadening effect, and co-ed a narrowing and homogenising effect on girls sporting choices and achievements.
But it is when he deals with the “spirit” that Sax gets particularly interesting and, he hints, controversial with crusading secularists. Some parents, too, are uncomfortable when he tells them that the core of their daughter’s identity is “about the spiritual journey”. But since parents are “the greatest single influence on children’s spiritual development” he urges them to put aside their own hang-ups from the past and encourage the interest in spiritual questions which often arise after puberty. He writes:
If you fail to nurture your daughter’s budding spirituality, it may be extinguished. And if that happens, your daughter will be at risk for the all-too-common substitution of sexuality in place of spirituality. The spiritual and the sexual are often tightly linked, especially for teenagers and young adults. Some girls will try to find the deepest meaning of their lives in a romantic or sexual relationship. They will be disappointed, because no young man (or woman) can fill the niche in the heart that belongs only to the spirit. But those girls don’t know that. In the first thrill of sexual awakening, they may plunge into sex and romance with the zeal of a new convert.
This may involve giving boyfriends a kind of authority that belongs to God, with disastrous results.
The protective effects of religion for adolescents are well documented in research. Sax cites a study of 3000 American teenagers which shows, for example, that only 3 per cent of religiously devoted teens think it’s OK to have sex “when you’re ready for it emotionally” compared with 56 per cent of disengaged teens. Religious teens are also less likely to smoke, drink alcohol and be unhappy with their body image — something that is a major source of malaise for many girls.
Sax talks about girls who discovered their spiritual centre — who they are — in quite different ways, though all with the assistance of single-sex educational communities. But the need for inter-generational communities of women extends beyond schooling; Sax recommends it in place of co-ed church youth groups. His ideas on these things seem very sound to me.
If there is one thing I disagree with him about it is his acceptance of the idea that gender is mainly a personal “construction” and not mainly a given. Relying — rather too much — on the work of philosopher Robert Bly and psychoanalyst Marion Woodman, he writes of the transition to womanhood in terms of finding one’s personal balance of feminine and masculine traits.
While it is true that masculine and feminine are not simple opposites, and that women can have masculine qualities and act in masculine ways, it is going too far to say, as Sax does, “Any individual may be very feminine; or very masculine; or both feminine and masculine, androgynous; or neither feminine nor masculine, undifferentiated.” This seems to me to separate the psyche and behaviour, which are shaped by circumstances, from the fact of the body, from one’s given sex and what it tells us about who we are.
But girls still want to know, What does it mean to be a woman? Boys still want to know, What does it mean to be a man?
When we discussed these words of his during our conversation he made it clear that he was not referring to anything like “the essential” feminine or masculine — the idea that sexuality means something different for men and for women and that this fundamental to the question of identity. “I don’t think sexuality has one meaning, but rather a diversity of meanings,” he said.
It is a conversation I would like to pursue with Dr Sax because it seems to me so important for the success of his project on behalf of young people. And because everything else he says on the subject of girls and boys makes such a lot of sense.
Dr Sax’s website: leonardsax.com
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.