From Turkey Trot to Twitter: Policing Puberty, Purity, and Sex-Positivity


For over one hundred years, American social structures have largely embraced two central principles-the innocence of children and the omniscience of adults. But as we now know from behavioral and development experts, adolescents-neither children nor adults–challenge such simplistic categories. In resisting binaries, adolescents represent a threat to the standard world order. But rather than simply accepting the fluid nature of adolescents and adolescence, American adults continually try to manage, regulate and control teens in ways that deny their agency, encroach upon their personhood, and impede social change.

From outward appearance, to physical presence, to intimate communications and engagements, young people have continually faced familial, community- based, and state-sponsored management of their most basic day-to-day actions and interactions. This obsession with policing puberty has, at times, reached the level of panic. Extreme reactions have manifested themselves not only in behaviors of individual actors, but also in the terms of court orders, local ordinances, and codified laws. This article seeks to examine this recurring phenomenon and suggests that adults might find more productive ways to grapple with the teen identity formation process in this country.

It focuses on one particularly powerful panic-producing intersection ofadolescence with American life-young girls and the big city. It describes reform efforts that took place in emerging urban centers at the turn of the last century, comparing them to policing strategies that are taking place in our newest metropolis–the Internet. In doing so, it analyzes how the state has repeatedly proscribed and prosecuted popular adolescent activities in the name of protecting youth from the dangers of modem life.

Claiming to safeguard girls from sexual exploitation and oppression, reformers have pressed for legal prohibition of everything from doing the Turkey Trot to using Twitter, dancing the Fox Trot to “friending” on Facebook.

But while such interventions may be declared necessary to protect individual girls from individual harms, this article describes a more complicated and paradoxical set of motivations behind our country’s recurring legal love affair with policing the female adolescent process. It is not just a story about thwarting threats to teenage girls, but one about upholding traditional sexual norms, maintaining racial hegemony, and defending dominant culture more generally.

This article argues that supposedly benevolent legal interventions too frequently reflect fears about the breakdown of American society, its borders and boundaries, and the place of adults in its hierarchies. The state has been trying to hold the line around categories by regulating purity, prosecuting female puberty, and punishing sex-positivity-all without engagement with, or input from, youth themselves. Instead of providing a sense of security for young girls, punitive actions often have sent mixed messages about intimacy and sexuality, discounted youthful and female agency, and impeded both the evolution of youthful personhood and modem norms more generally.

This article argues that we should take some lessons from the failed efforts of our Progressive Era past and respond differently to adolescent identity formation today. We should not seek to shape girls’ futures by legally controlling their development in the present. Instead, we should take account ofbehavioral science findings about the normalcy of many teenage tendencies, including sexual and identity exploration, in developing contemporary laws and orders. We should also work with–rather than against–young people who seek to challenge unnecessary limits, boundaries, and binaries in contemporary America.

This article proceeds in five parts. Beginning with a history of the treatment of female puberty, Part Two describes how girls in American cities came to be seen as “a problem” at the start of the twentieth century. It provides an account of the ways in which juvenile behaviors were understood at the beginning of the 1900s and how these interpretations largely reflected Anglo-androcentric norms and fears. For instance, “white” teenage girls were expected to be raised in roomy, safe, and orderly homes. They were to socialize with their own social strata, and ultimately find a worthy husband to father their children to ensure the continuation and strength ofthe Anglo race.

Thus adults wished to control the sexuality of these teenage girls and at the same time have girls exercise power over their sexuality. They further sought to manage and restrict youthful urban expression of alternative identities. White girls in our cities who danced in ethnically diverse spaces, publicly flirted with boys at amusement parks, or openly wore provocative dress were of particular concern to reformers.

Such acts challenged existing social structures, crossed accepted race and class lines, and threatened prevailing notions of proper female personhood. When these girls rejected available alternatives, such as supervised settlement house functions or playgrounds in parks, adults turned to the law. Setting the tone for years to come, individuals, groups, and state actors used prosecution and legal penalties to put a stop to girls’ activities that were not seen as sufficiently “pure” or “innocent.”

Of course, a powerful subtext of this narrative is that while white girls were seen as holding promise for the country’s future, persons of color and other outsiders were feared as a threat to its foundations. They were either completely ignored in legal narratives about youth or included only as agents of destruction. In this way the application of law to uphold Anglo-androcentric, middle-class norms not only had a powerful impact on supposed white girls who failed to obey such standards, but on those whose story did not fall in line with it.

Turning to contemporary practices, Part Three of this article focuses on the most recent round of panic around female pubescence in the urban domain. Itexplores how the phenomenon of criminalizing female adolescence is replaying itself in our newest emerging metropolis: the Internet. This Part explains how descriptions of and concerns about today’s online world present striking similarities to those offered about the emerging unknowns of the industrial city at the turn of the last century.

This article goes on to examine the various ways in which youthful online actions and interactions, like pubescent urban activities from decades before, are being prohibited by emerging laws and orders. As Part Three explains, the Internet, as metropolis, confounds adults and their assumptions about their knowing stance and powers of control. Thus a new moral panic around girls isbeing naturalized through legal proscriptions, practices, and prosecution.

As during the Progressive Era, such efforts have intensified and become perverted over time. They started with claimed concerns about girls becoming victims of sexual abuse by venturing into the cyber-city. Here, too, the movement started with protecting girls from dangerous “others” they might encounter in the modem online world. Yet girls are now targets of policing and punishment for transgressing traditional norms through sexualized online activities. And racial hegemony, it appears, continues to serve as a motivation for such actions-even if it is unstated.

Part Four offers ideas for the days ahead. Instead of continually punishing the process of pubescence, we should take account of behavioral science suggestions about the normalcy of many teenage sexual tendencies. Acknowledging through law reform that teen sexuality is a normal part of growing up, without shrouding it in secrecy and shame, might help to empower all young women to take healthy ownership of their bodies and sexual selves. In addition, following the lead of youth, with their generally greater acceptance of difference and diversity, might improve modem society more generally.

This article goes on to argue that we should do more to meaningfully acknowledge youth as knowledgeable persons in the here-and-now of our real world. By following international norms that call for increased government engagement with youth, we might learn more about their views on privacy, involve them in shaping policies that impact them, and actually tap their impressive technological abilities.

In the end this article concludes with a call to work with all young people–not against them–through respectful civic engagement. in this way we might begin to break through various historic identity binaries and cross long-held divides to arrive at more robust and shared understandings of community values and democracy in twenty-first century on- and off-line America.

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