“As a girl, I was really trained and enjoyed playing a certain range of ‘keys’ – that was being nice, being successful, being a good student. And I think the same is true of how we use our voice in the world – we train girls to use the ‘acceptable’ range of keys. What I would love to see for girls is expanding that range, so that we give them a very strong voice.”
In her book, Get Savvy: Letters to a Teenage Girl About Sex and Love, Kathleen Buckstaff has an important message for high school and college-aged young women: love yourself. “And what does ‘love yourself’ really mean?” she asks. “What does being kind to yourself really mean?” I had the opportunity to find out during a recent chat with Kathleen about her message. For the book, Buckstaff interviewed over 40 women who were recent college graduates, and she asked them what heart-felt advice they would give to their younger sister or another teen girl they care about: What do you wish you had known before college? “I was astounded by their ability to speak about really hard subjects,” she said. “They’re very different from our generation.”
The bulk of her book’s message comes from these wise twenty-somethings, who are not far removed in age and cultural experience from the teens the book is aimed at. Get Savvy is in their language as opposed to what Buckstaff calls “mom language.” The women shared important insights, among them pay attention to priorities and avoid getting caught up in “FOMO,” the fear of missing out: “You don’t have to go to every party,” the young women shared. “You don’t have to do everything with everybody.”
But Buckstaff’s primary message goes much deeper than that; she identifies worrisome cultural trends and instructs young women how to protect themselves from sexual assault, which is sadly part of her own personal narrative.
“I started a series of letters to a teenage girl,” Buckstaff said, “and I just wrote for several months, describing what I went through in high school and then what I went through as a mom in her 40s.” When her own daughter was 15 and a high school sophomore, Buckstaff began struggling with severe health problems: “I got really sick and lost 30 pounds,” she said. “I’ve since come to understand that I had a time bomb in my brain that was set to go off when my daughter reached the age I was when I experienced serious trauma.” Buckstaff had difficulty processing the “passionate mother love” she had for her daughter and the traumatizing events of her own teen years. “The difference between how I had seen things then, and how I saw them as a mother for my own 15-year-old daughter, didn’t fit,” she said. “That’s what broke my heart.”
Girls at Risk
Buckstaff has since come to understand that often young women don’t realize what they have experienced is a sexual assault and often young men don’t think they’ve sexually assaulted someone.
“We need a cultural change in dialogue in terms of how we talk about sexual assault,” Buckstaff said. Many still falsely perceive rape as something that is only perpetrated by a stranger in a dark alleyway. Today, however, nearly all victims know the person who sexually assaulted them: a coach, an older boy in school who’s got a lot of social capital, or someone a girl has a crush on. “We need to reframe how we talk about that with our girls and how we prepare them,” Buckstaff said. “Girls need to know they deserve to be safe in this world.”
The girls at greatest risk are college freshmen, according to Buckstaff. “They’re really vulnerable. They’re away from home […], don’t have their social group, and are maybe drinking heavily for the first time.” In Get Savvy, Buckstaff stresses the importance of establishing a “buddy system” before going out, of having others alongside to watch for red flags. “I haven’t had to say these things,” Buckstaff said. “The girls I’m interviewing are saying these things.” It’s not unlike the cultural shift experienced in the late-1980s with the appointment of “designated drivers,” which has since become a cultural norm. Buckstaff would like to see the same type of shift where we have “Designated Drivers and Defenders.”
For starters, Buckstaff believes that as a culture, we must adopt a mantra of “no drunk sex,” which is not safe for anyone involved. “That’s when you see two drunk people, in high school or in college, going off to a room,” she said. In a situation like that, someone has to intervene and say “Hey, this isn’t a good idea.” Similarly, the current cultural trend of drinking until blackout has got to change. “Right now, it’s cool to be blacked out,” Buckstaff said. “It means that you’ve had so much to drink that you don’t remember the next day what has happened.” High school and college-aged people have made a game of it, posting videos the morning after and laughing about “not remembering.” But Buckstaff said this is particularly dangerous, especially in a world where people are looking for someone who is vulnerable.
While it may sound old-fashioned to some, Buckstaff espouses a return to the practice of dating, much like Boston U. philosophy instructor Kerry Cronin, who in 2014 gave extra credit to anyone in her class who went on a date. Cronin’s reason for the assignment was simple: most of her students didn’t know how to actually “date” someone in a world where “most embrace group activities, punctuated with a periodic hookup, and communicate largely in digital bursts of 140-250 characters instead of in person” (Cicchesse, 2014). Encouraging students to date, said Buckstaff, is helpful in promoting the more positive development of romantic relationships.
Until that day comes, however, girls need to be equipped with key messages, primary among them in Get Savvy is “Leaving early is your best strategy.” It’s critical, said Buckstaff, to “hit the eject button if you’re in a situation where you’re uncomfortable.”
For parents wondering how to address this uncomfortable topic, Buckstaff encourages role-playing situations, even if it feels awkward. She also encourages brainstorming about the different situations that can come up, especially in social settings.
Buckstaff wants girls to understand that a persistent male who’s ignoring their cues is not a safe person to be with. Girls think they’re being misunderstood, but they are not; rather, aggressors are overriding a young woman’s voice. “That’s not somebody you want to date or ever see again,” Buckstaff said.
At its core, Get Savvy seeks to arm girls with practical advice on how to defend themselves and get out of dangerous situations. “It’s about understanding that the whole world isn’t full of people with good intentions,” Buckstaff said. She addresses measures for prevention as well as what the healing journey looks like in the event of an assault. But more than that, Get Savvy aims to help girls understand the importance of valuing themselves. “How do we tip the scales so that girls have a deep sense of what their priorities and goals are?”
Buckstaff’s book, which is targeted to teen girls, will also be helpful to parents, educators, counselors, and others who work with and care about equipping young women with the tools they need to be authentic and safe. I’ve preordered 10 copies myself, not nearly enough for the high school and college women I’ve had the privilege of working with at camp. I encourage you to get online and order one for yourself and the young women in your life. It’s time to Get Savvy!
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