Four Brooklyn girls, ages 12 and 13, are gathered around the kitchen table having an afternoon snack. These randomly selected, middle-class girls are my unscientific focus group -- the same age as the provocative Lolitas who made the cover of last week's Newsweek. Because Newsweek tells me that "tweens" like these are growing up too fast and having sex too soon, I am asking the girls about puberty and sex. These girls in the kitchen are a mixture of giggling nervousness and confidence, trying on big words and big ideas, lacing their opinions with tangled tangents about what their parents think and what their classmates think and what the other girls at camp think.
"So, about the rush to puberty and sex," I begin.
But I'm interrupted. Between sex and puberty, there is no contest. Boobs and periods and boys, oh my! -- these are compelling topics. But intercourse? Totally abstract. Totally dull. Totally distant.
"When I say puberty what words come to mind?"
An avalanche is loosed: "Maturing." "Fickle." ("What's that mean?") "Cooties no longer being a big deal." "Becoming a woman." "Periods." "Moodiness." "Butt-headedness, like my sister, since I'm not allowed to say the other B-word."
The girls debate whether or not growing up will transform them, make them different people. They have a handle on the physical changes but are ambivalent about the implications of these changes.
"I have a feeling I won't be going through puberty for a while," says 13-year-old Juliet, who is bone-thin with a hint of breast. "I've talked with my mom about how the other kids are more developed."
"It's not a race," interrupts Eponine, who is also 13 and talks with her mouth full of muffin. Eponine, who like all the girls, chose her own pseudonym (Eponine being her favorite character from "Les Miserables"), shakes her head sagely from the plumper, more developed side of young womanhood. "What's the big deal with breasts?" says Ep. " I mean, they're just two lumps of flesh."
Juliet struggles for the right words. "I don't feel like I'm ready for puberty. I guess there's lots of benefits, but also unbenefits. When I was little I used to be able to hide in small spots. Sometimes I just want to stay small."
Of all the implications these girls consider as they contemplate their changing bodies, sex, for now, is not on the list.
"Sex?" "I feel like I would never -- I mean, I like boys and everything but not that much!" Juliet says indignantly. A self-proclaimed product of postpone-sex PSAs, her vehemence reflects a familiar sex-equals-pregnancy dogma. "All throughout my life I've had high goals for myself," she says. "I've wanted to be a zoologist. Or a ballerina. Or a storm-chaser. So I wouldn't want to have sex when I could do so much more with my life."
When does she think she'll be ready?
"When I'm 25 or 26," she says with aplomb.
Not that they haven't noticed that their attitude toward boys is changing. Abigail describes it this way: "It used to be, 'Oh, Hi, Michael.' Now it's like, 'Hi, Michael.'" Eyes wide and curious. Giggles all around.Then the conversation wends its way back to boobs.
"I remember at camp this summer one girl had a C bra size. And the guys didn't really like her but they would stare at her in her bathing suit," says 13-year-old Abigail.
Juliet does her one better. "There was a girl at my camp who had a double-D."
"Holy Frijoles!" Miaka says.
Abigail is blasi: "You can do surgery to remove that, you know."
"She didn't feel bad that she had big boobs," Juliet explains. "But others thought she was conceited, like, 'Oh God, she's so full of herself.'"
"Guys like it, I guess," says Abigail.
"What is it with the boobs?" Miaka, genuinely perplexed, stares down into her paper cup of apple juice.
Eponine has an insight. "I have this friend that has really big boobs," she says. "Now, I don't know if this is just a coincidence, but she's gone farther and has a lot of friends who are boys ... and she's like a lot more experienced."
"One of my really good friends has big breasts," Abigail says. She launches into a breathless monologue: "One of the guys she liked at camp went around saying he could get to third base with her on the first date, and just because of her breasts they thought she was easy, so she'd try to hide her breasts, which is hard in the summer because you don't want to pack on so many clothes. And her bed was just by mine and at night we'd lay there hugging and she'd be crying because she wasn't treated fairly just because she was developed, and she didn't have super-big boobs or anything either, just like, maybe someone who was a little bit older, but because she had breasts she felt like she was doomed and cursed."
Off on their boob-tangent, the girls echo the adult experts: Are girls who get boobs early inherently loose, or are the girls assumed to be loose simply because they've got big boobs?
Although grownups have no problem devoting a cover story to talking about sex and tweens, it seems that they are less willing to talk to tweens about sex. Though my gaggle of eighth-grade girls was supposed to get a sex-ed unit last year, they complained that they never actually got to the puberty chapter in their health class.
Nonetheless, the girls assure me, they are pretty well-informed about these matters. Then Miaka admits she was really worried when she got these two little bumps on her chest: "Finally I went to my mom and asked her about them because I thought I was getting cancer."
They mention a gym teacher who took the girls aside one day during a running exercise to point out that some of them had boobs that were jiggling and suggested that they get better bras. Her tactlessness and disrespect engenders uniform disdain from the girls.
"Like she's the big boob expert!" Miaka sniffs.
Buried in these girls' bravado is the sense that they'd like a foundation of information, please, but a lot of elbow room to experiment with how they answer the question "What can I do with this new body and how will it mesh with my old self?"
Although they are forthright about their ambivalence, and their desire to stay just as they are -- kids -- they are also proud of their new appearance and their budding sexuality.
Even in the throes of puberty, the girls seem to have a calmer view of their changing bodies than the adults who are penning articles on puberty and sex.
The subtext of their comments goes something like this: Can't we just play with -- and display -- our looks and our bodies without folks assuming we're after intercourse? The actual text goes like this:
"Somebody whistled at me once, recently." Abigail smiles as she says this.
"Ugh," Miaka says, crinkling her nose.
"No," Abigail corrects, "I actually liked it. It was like, I dunno, like he saw me."
The girls nod their heads. And later, when Abigail confesses that she's had "vivid dreams" about guys, they nod again. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to have sex with them." Agreement all around.
"I like the idea of romance better than sex," Miaka says. "I guess I don't know what it feels like to be ready for sex, but I know what it's like not to feel ready." She shrugs. "And that's how I feel now."