Monday, February 18, 2019

Under Pressure (Part 2): Interview with Lisa Damour, Ph.D.

[Episode 123] Today's episode of the Social Work Podcast is the second of a two part-series about Dr. Lisa Damour’s 2019 text Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. In today’s episode we talk about rape culture; the problem with the word "consent"; and how society's criticisms of the way girls speak is really just another way of criticizing girls. In Part 1, Lisa and I talk about the difference between stress, anxiety and trauma; what “good” and “bad” pressure look like; and how schools, parents, and providers can think about pressure.

Download MP3 [27:46]


Lisa Damour, Ph.D. is a psychologist, author, teacher, speaker, and consultant. Dr. Damour writes the monthly Adolescence column for the Well Family section of the New York Times and is a regular contributor at CBS News. She serves as a Senior Advisor to the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University and is also the Executive Director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls. Dr. Damour wrote the award-winning New York Times best seller Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood and her 2019 book, Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls

Link to Dr. Damour’s articles:




Hey there podcast listeners, Jonathan here. Today’s episode is the second of a two-part conversation with Dr. Lisa Damour, author of the 2019 book Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. In today’s episode we talk about rape culture; the problem with the word “consent”; and how society’s criticisms of the way girls speak is really just another way of criticizing girls. If you haven’t heard Part 1, please check it out. Lisa and I talk about the difference between stress, anxiety and trauma; what “good” and “bad” pressure look like; and how schools, parents, and providers can think about pressure. Now, you don’t have to listen to Part 1 to enjoy today’s episode. But we do talk about some of these foundational concepts that if you’re not familiar with sort of creep into today’s conversation.

Lisa is a psychologist, author, teacher, speaker, and consultant. Dr. Damour writes the monthly Adolescence column for the Well Family section of the New York Times and is a regular contributor at CBS News. She serves as a Senior Advisor to the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University and is also the Executive Director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls.

Before we get to the interview, I want to give a big shout out to Fatima Lee, a BSW student of Douglas College in British Columbia, Canada for transcribing episode 122 and Alisa Tobin online MSW student at Widener University who lives in Salem, OR for transcribing episode 123. Which is THIS EPISODE. That’s right. She transcribed the episode before it even came out! Podcast transcripts are invaluable for lots of reasons and I couldn’t do it without listeners like Fatima and Alisa who volunteered their time and energy to transcribe episodes. If you want to donate a transcript, please send me an email at jonathan.b.singer at

And now, without further ado, on to episode 123 of the Social Work Podcast: Under Pressure (Part 2): Interview with Lisa Damour, Ph.D.


Jonathan Singer: Lisa, thank you so much for being here, again, on the Social Work Podcast to talk to us, this time about your book Under Pressure.

Lisa Damour: Thank you so much for having me. I love being on with you.

Jonathan Singer: Now there are some things that, that you talk about in the book that I think are really important in terms of what is going on culturally. You talk about rape culture. [Lisa Damour: Mmm hmmm] You have this great thing in your book, and that you’ve talked about. I know in the New York Times you have this great article talking about this idea of consent. [Lisa Damour: Mmm hmmm] And how it doesn’t cut it. And I was wondering if you could talk about that.

Lisa Damour: Sure, sure. You know, it’s interesting because you say, “rape culture” and I agree with you that there is such a thing and I don’t know why I don’t, but I don’t think I ever use that term in the book. It’s funny because I think I talk a lot about that phenomenon without using that term but I’m just reflecting now that I don’t know why I didn’t, but I’m just mindful that I didn’t.

Jonathan Singer: Yes, no and you’re right. That was my term that I put, so yeah.

Lisa Damour: Yeah, I have no problem with the term I’m just sort of thinking how come that didn’t come up in that way, but you know, I think what we have to own as adults, and this is very uncomfortable for us, is that with the best intentions, we often talk with young people in a way that continues to promote a framework that we should be challenging. And what I mean is that the framework that exists in the culture is that when it comes to gendered sexuality, the guys play offense and the girls play defense. And this is a really problematic framework that has been around for a long, long time. And then, well-meaning adults do all sorts of things to actually keep it going, so, one of the things that I talk about a little in the book and one of the things I’ve written about for the Times is you know, we make rules like “don’t send nude pictures,” right, using your text, by cell phone, and now if you actually look at this phenomenon, it’s overwhelmingly the girls doing the sending, and it’s overwhelmingly the girls doing the sending in response to requests, but must more often flat out harassment from boys to do so. And so, I am on a tear on the fact that, fine, we can have rules that say, “don’t send” but you also have to have a rule saying, “don’t ask.”

Jonathan Singer: Right

Lisa Damour: Right, and the fact that we have not, we’ve been all over the rule about “don’t send” and I have yet to hear anyone but me propose like, “yeah that’s fine but you have to have a don’t ask” to me speaks to that, that we sort of assume that the boys will ask. We’re not going to try to regulate that, we’re leaving it to the girls to say no. And then similarly, though I have no conceptual problem with the idea of focusing on consent, that you know, if there is going to be a sexual interaction, it should definitely be consensual. I have discovered, and kind of to my own surprise that I really think it’s the wrong word to use with kids and teenagers when we’re talking about their romantic lives because it sets such a low bar. Right? It sets this ridiculously low bar and so often, you know, sort of sex ed is focused on this idea of consent. Like, you must have consent to proceed. Okay, so how does this actually play off in real life? You know, I quote some stuff on this in the piece I wrote for the Times. You know, what it means is guys will badger girls until they say yes. Right?  I mean, they got consent right? And so, I just feel like well, this is completely wrong right? Like so, you know, and I think that what we got stuck on is a legal term right? And we’re using a legal term as a stand in for a conversation that should be much more nuanced and humane than that. And so, I don’t know if this is exactly the right term but one place I suggest we start is why don’t you go for “enthusiastic agreement” right? We’re talking about your love life here. Giving in should not be adequate, right? Or “okay, fine” should not cut it. And that’s fine. You can have consent to a root canal. Right? That’s, I have no problem with people consenting to root canals. But you know, in your romantic life? It just doesn’t even begin to make sense. And so, you know I really try to sort of chip away in that chapter about girls among boys. And all of these things that really well-meaning adults do that are on the right side of this trying to make it better and then just because we are so embedded in the culture, we turn around and make rules or give advice that really just reinforces this idea that boys will have their foot on the gas and girls must put their foot on the brakes, and this is how it’s gonna unfold.

Jonathan Singer: Hmm… I appreciate you talking through that. I think that this, for me, this idea of stress and anxiety and trauma really is wrapped up in what I think of as rape culture on a very daily basis in high school. And I think it’s an incredible source of stress. [Lisa Damour: Yeah.] Obviously for the objects of the harassment - traditionally girls and sexual and gender minority youth. And it doesn’t need to be said but for these kids it becomes more than stress, it rises to the level of anxiety and can be traumatizing. And I used the term rape culture because culture affects everyone, victims, perpetrators. And in the USA the perpetrators of gender-based violence are overwhelmingly boys and men. If we think about boys, there is constant pressure from peers, media, adults, to um… be aggressive, to touch, to take. As you said, play offense. There is pressure on a daily basis that this is how they should act. And it is wrong.  And so this is a long way of saying that I really love the phrase that you suggested instead of the legal term consent. And actually such a long of saying it that… What was the phrase that you suggested?

Lisa Damour: I think it’s enthusiastic agreement, right? That you should really, like this should really be the expectation. But you’re also bringing up something that I have to say, I was a little embarrassed to discover how much I had missed the boat on this. Which is that the day to day in middle and high schools is a very harassment-oriented place. And I talk about this in the beginning of the chapter, about girls among boys, where I was meeting with a bunch of girls and it was right after the whole Harvey Weinstein thing had broken. And I feel so na├»ve in retrospect, but I said, you know, “Do you want to talk about the #MeToo stuff?” And I was truly thinking, “so that when you are in the workplace and you encounter this harassment, I will have equipped you. And luckily the girls just, you know, educated me really quickly about how much of this was already part of their day to day. And this happened to be in an all-girls school environment. So, they were talking about just what, you know for them, luckily I guess, limited to their out of school interactions. And I was floored. You know, and the things they were describing, and the things I’ve heard since, where you know, if there’s a group picture that a bunch of teenagers take with each other, the boys feel, either as if they have a right to, or obliged to just put their hands-on girls’ butts. You know, and if a girl pushes back, you know, she can really be ostracized for that. And I just feel like I am only beginning to wrap my head around the power imbalance among teenagers when it comes to gender. And I truly, and I haven’t said these words out loud, but I think we are gonna have to reckon with the fact that the power imbalance is much more off balance among teenagers than it is among adults. [Jonathan Singer: Hmmm] And that we have not really reckoned with that. Harassing boys have a lot of social cache.

Jonathan Singer: Yeah they do.

Lisa Damour: And a lot of power in school dynamics. And I don’t even really think we’ve really looked at that straight on. And I don’t even know if I do it, I won’t even say that I did it fully at all in Under Pressure. I think it’s something I’m still coming to terms with and don’t want to see.

Jonathan Singer: Yes, well and I think the, you know, the Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo [movement] has shined a light on culture change and shifting things down the line. It means that we absolutely have to think about this for adolescents and of course thinking about it before kids become adolescents. And one of things that you do mention in the book, it’s actually in your chapter about girls in the culture. You have this great section on language. When I read it, it sort of seemed like this academic throwdown between Naomi Wolf and Deborah Cameron

Lisa Damour: [laughing] Yeah, yeah.

Jonathan Singer: ... About criticizing the way girls speak. And you quote Cameron, who said “People may claim that their judgments are purely about the speech. But really they’re judgements of the speaker.” And you’re talking about criticizing the way girls speak. And then you describe this verbal toolkit. But could you talk us through what you were saying in this section about this idea about how we criticize the way girls speak?

Lisa Damour: Yeah, ok so this gets, like, this is both for me some of the most intellectually exciting stuff, and it’s also the knottiest, right? And not naughty like inappropriate but knotty like k-n-o-t-t-y, you know, like this stuff is really complicated but I love it. Ok so again, you know, another well meaning thing that adults do with girls is give them instructions on how they are supposed to speak, right? And we say, you know, you shouldn’t say I’m sorry so much and you shouldn’t hedge so much, you know hedging being like “would you mind” or “would it be ok if” or “I’m not sure if this is the right answer” you know, those kinds of linguistic gestures that soften what comes next. And we, and by we I often mean like in a feminist, you know, a really well-meaning effort to empower girls, have suggested that, and Naomi Wolf is the one who I particularly cite in this chapter, you know, go on record and say, “Hey, you know you’re undermining your own power.” [Jonathan Singer: Hmmm] You know, these feminine ways of speaking, you know, are contributing to your own disempowerment and you need to speak boldly, and you need to be strong and you need to speak, you know and basically the message is more like men. You know, if you speak more like men you’ll have more of their power. Ok, so this is one of these assumptions that sort of travels around. And people have not questioned it all that much unless you happen to be an academic linguist, right? So, the only reason, ok I have to give credit here. So, one of my dearest friends for years and years is a woman named Anne Curzan, who is an academic linguist, and so, and we’ve co-authored teaching books together. And so, this is the only reason I have any real awareness of the amazing things happening on the academic linguistic side.

But so, what I play, kind of articulate in this section of the book is this rebuttal from Deborah Cameron who is an academic linguist. She’s at Oxford. No one’s heard of her unless you happen to be on the academic side. She’s not someone who has a large... I mean people have heard of her, but she doesn’t have a large linguistic following in the popular culture.

Jonathan Singer: She doesn’t have like a ten-million view Ted talk.

Lisa Damour: No, exactly. And she’s also not known like Naomi Wolf is known. And so, so Deborah Cameron retorts to a piece that Naomi Wolf wrote saying, you know, stop giving away your power with your, you know, the way you speak. And she was basically like, look, Naomi, first of all, men and women, girls and boys don’t speak that differently. You know, look at the data, you know, they’re saying all the same things. And so, this idea that girls are doing this, and guys are not, that actually doesn’t hold up to the light of day. The other is, this is an old game. You go after a disempowered group by going after the way they speak. And this is how we have consistently done it, you know with minority cultures, African American dialect. You know, it is an old game to say, listen to the way they speak, the way they speak is wrong, ok. I could go on a rant about this but if you actually look at a lot of African American dialect, you know, the declension of the verb is a lot more regular than the declension of verbs in standard English. So, from a linguistic standpoint there’s not a wrong here, right, this is already a disempowered group, and then going after how they speak becomes just a new stick to beat them with. Um, and so, you know, what Deborah Cameron retorts to Naomi is like, look if you want to really support girls, go after the structures that go after how they speak, right? Don’t go after the girls themselves. So that’s one way in which we have to revisit it. The other thing we do have to recon with is even if guys are bolder in their speech,, more direct, less cautious, less concerned about the feelings of the person on the other side, there are allowed to get away with it more in our culture in a way that girls are not. So, I’m not saying we shouldn’t tell girls to be bold in their speech, but we shouldn’t do it with the promise that this is going to work for you the way it works for guys because in our culture it doesn’t. So, they need to go in with clear eyes about the choices they’re making. The other thing is why should guys be allowed to do that? And I don’t get into this in the book, but it was really compelling to me as I was trying to sort through this argument. One of my friends is a federal prosecutor and he is in charge of a large number of younger lawyers who come to him for questions all day long. And we were discussing this, and he said, “You know, women come in my office and say do you have minute, I have a question. The guys walk in and they just start talking.” And he said, “I’m embarrassed to realize I probably answer more of those questions because I will say to the women actually no I’m in the middle of something.” He’s like but why are the guys coming in and just starting talking? Right? Like that shouldn’t be okay. So, you know, if, once you pull this thread, a lot unravels. Here is where I land: everybody, and girls, needs a linguistic toolkit, you know, a verbal toolkit. We need a repertoire that we can use, that covers a wide range of contexts. Right? Because if there’s anything that is context driven its human communication, right? So, what I say is like, yes every girl should have a hammer in her toolbox, right? You know, if she’s in a bar and somebody touches her, she should be prepared if she feels safe to really give it to that person with both barrels. That should be in her toolbox. Everyone also probably needs a tweezer. “Do you have a moment?” “I’m so sorry to bother you, but I do have this pressing need” You know, that is actually how we are civil as humans having to share space and time. And the idea that I think we want to get away from is that this is simple and that you can give a one size fits all answer to things like how to communicate, which is so subtle and complicated. And I also think we want to be really really cautious. There is a real logical fallacy to the idea that men do this, it works for them, if women do this it will work for them the way it works for men.

Jonathan Singer: Well, thank you for unpacking the academic linguistic side of things. It isn’t something I’m really familiar with. [Lisa laughs] You know, for me, this conversation about criticizing how girls talk really gets to the heart of how we use language to reinforce a gender binary. [Lisa: “uh huh”] And it highlights the social construction of what is normal. I heard a talk by a transwoman who said that people reacted totally differently to her when she used phrases or used a tone of voice as a woman, um that she had when she lived as a man. As a man she could point out a mistake and people would thank her, or at least do what she said, but when she did the same thing as a woman people would get offended or argue with her. And so, I think this is a really important point about how as a provider - as a clinician, what are the ways we are reinforcing these linguistic gender stereotypes and why are we doing it? Because I think your point is really important. We don’t want to take away the things that make interactions respectful and polite and connecting. And we also don’t want to say that, “you have to speak totally differently if you want to have respect in this culture.” Because that is a cultural construction.

Lisa Damour: Right, and that feels like we would never want to blame the victim. Like, I don’t know. We wanna be careful of that. I do think we can say things like “young women, if you want to speak boldly, do it. Be ready for some blowback. Like know that blowback is coming. And you may want that blowback and you may be prepared to deal with that blowback, and you may be wanting to have that fight that day. And that is a worthy fight to have.”

Jonathan Singer: Mhm

Lisa Damour: You know, and I think that’s what we owe young people. What I worry right now is that the advice seems to suggest that this is going to work.

Jonathan Singer: Right

Lisa Damour: And that’s not how it goes. But here’s something I’ve thought about a lot, and I wonder if there’s a way to study it. I wonder if you look at you know, the CEOs, the really successful in business environments, which are very male. You know, if you really look at people who by some, who knows what measure have been most successful, do they in fact have the broadest repertoires? You know, are we looking at men who really know how to say “excuse me that’s my seat” when they need to and who also have it well within their capacity to say “I am so sorry, I think there may have been a mix-up on this, I think you might be sitting in A and I think I should be…” You know, do they have, like are these the people who really actually end up navigating most successfully? Regardless of gender. You know, and I don’t know if there’s a way to really look at that, but I’ve wondered that a lot.

Jonathan Singer: Sounds like it’s time to set up coffee with your academic linguist friend.

Lisa Damour: I know, I’ve gotta get goin’ on that. Exactly!

Jonathan Singer: Well, you know, Lisa I could talk to you all day,

Lisa Damour: Ditto!

Jonathan Singer: Not that you have time for that or that the folks listening to this have all day. But certainly, if they want to learn more they should get your book Under Pressure. I have one last question. Has your work on Under Pressure, the research you’ve done, the things you’ve been thinking about it, has it changed any of the advice you gave in your previous book Untangled, which was about sort of raising teenage girls?

Lisa Damour: I honestly don’t think it has. Which I’m sort of surprised to say. And relieved, I guess, to say, you know, that there’s nothing that looking at Untangled that I’m like, oh, I wish I could take that back. To my surprise, they take up very different content. Which I’m sort of surprised, given that they come out three years apart, and they’re both on teenage girls. But I feel like in Untangled, it’s so much of an unpacking of the inner world of girls, you know, just like development. Like the normal course of development and what I want parents to know about this. And I feel like Under Pressure is a lot more about the world surrounding girls, you know, their families, their schools, stuff like that. I would say probably the one thing where I feel like my thinking did develop is I feel a little more optimistic in Under Pressure than I did in Untangled about helping young people deal with conflict. You know the seventh grade is just such a tough time, and I feel like in Untangled I just was like, "I don’t know what to tell ya, like this is just going to be a rough year." And in Under Pressure I do kind of learn more about conflict and helping other people deal with conflict. That said, I still am finding there is just this juncture in seventh and a little bit in eighth, that even though kids get it and they know they’re being turkeys and they know they shouldn’t, they’re still doing it at the same rates. And right know, the thing that’s just killing me, you know, eighth graders who cannot stop themselves who cannot stop themselves from posting on Instagram anytime they’re with other kids in social settings, right? And you know, they are just tortured to see this when they themselves look at an Instagram and they see all the things that they weren’t invited to, and yet when they’re finally there with their friends, they cannot stop themselves from, you know, needing to telegraph that to the entire world. And broadcast that out. And so, I do, I think I’ve made some headway in understanding conflict and how to talk to kids about conflict, but I don’t want to make any promises that Under Pressure now solves, you know, cures seventh and eighth grade. You know, like,

Jonathan Singer: Man, if you could do that!

Lisa Damour: That would be over-selling.

Jonathan Singer: Well and like based on what you said in the very beginning of our conversation, like we shouldn’t be curing seventh and eighth grade, because those are experiences, not all of them, but some of those experiences, that’s, you know, for a lot of kids, that’s the first time that they get into weight training, you know, that they’re doing the heavy lifting. And I do think that there is, some people go to one extreme – both parents and clinicians – you know, where they say “we’re gonna make this okay for you.” And then the other extreme is “I’m basically gonna ignore you for the next two years because it sucks and that’s just the way it has to be no matter what.” And what I hear you saying is that there’s a middle ground, and we have to understand when pressure is helpful and when we recognize it as being problematic.

Lisa Damour: Yup, exactly. And even when it’s problematic, there are things we can do to help.

Jonathan Singer: That’s like the best end to a podcast ever. To those of you listening, we did not script that. It was spontaneous. Alright. Well Lisa, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us again, this time about your book Under Pressure.

Lisa Damour: Thank you so much. It’s a total delight to talk with you.

Transcription generously donated by Alisa Tobin; online MSW student at Widener University from Salem, OR

APA (6th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Producer). (2019, February 19). #123 - Under Pressure (Part 2): Interview with Lisa Damour, Ph.D. [Audio Podcast]. Social Work Podcast. Retrieved from

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