Heather Horn at The Atlantic with the round-up. Horn:
The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan has a knack for causing eruptions in the left-leaning blogosphere. Last time, Flanagan was castigating public schools for their new focus on vegetable gardens. Back in July, she connected the teenage obsession with vampires to “female romantic awakening.” Now, in the June issue of The Atlantic, she returns to her familiar female (teenage) sexuality beat, setting out to explain “how girls reluctantly endure the hookup culture.”
Her argument is that girls, receiving scant adult guidance and intimidated or turned off by today’s promiscuity, are silently yearning for boyfriends–as evidenced by the current obsession with the Twilight Saga, High School Musical, Taylor Swift, and the TV show Glee. Along the way she offers some personal anecdotes, asserts that girls who used to “[look] forward to sex” are now “terrified” of it, and suggests that drinking is a symptom of that. Though a few bloggers find these ideas “very interesting,” and are pleased to see someone criticize “the 1970s feminist-inspired regime of sexual liberation,” most who have much to say beyond this are highly critical.
Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic:
In case you haven’t noticed, millions of girls are in the midst of a cultural insurrection. Armed with the pocket money that has made them a powerful consumer force since the 1920s, girls have set their communal sights on a particular kind of entertainment, and when they find it, they transform it into a commercial phenomenon that leaves even the creators and marketers of that entertainment dumbfounded. What do these girls—with such different backgrounds and aspirations, foreign to one another in so many respects—demand right now? The old story, the one they were forced to abandon for a while, but will be denied no longer: the Boyfriend Story.
They find it in High School Musical and in the Twilight series; in the music of Taylor Swift, and even in Glee, which goes to the greatest lengths to prove itself a convention-defying, diversity-championing instrument of the Now, but which only proves, episode after episode, that the reason many teenyboppers and gay boys form such fast friendships is that their hearts are in the same place: in the gossamer-wrapped quest for true and perfect love. Rachel may have two daddies, but when she crushes hard on her dreamy chorus teacher and expresses it in a duet of “Endless Love” with him—and when an equally besotted guidance teacher airs her own feelings for the man in the form of “I Could Have Danced All Night”—well, when that happens, we are definitely back in Kansas. Taylor Swift’s songbook, filled with lyrics composed by the enchantingly shy 19-year-old, might have been written for Doris Day. One of her biggest hits is about unreturned love for a boy who has fallen not just for the wrong girl, but for the wrong kind of girl—a Veronica, not a Betty; a Ginger, not a Mary Ann:
She wears high heels, I wear sneakers;
She’s cheer captain, and I’m on the bleachers.
As for High School Musical, you have to chew through four solid hours of the trilogy—and an imagined year and a half of the main players’ secondary education—before the star-crossed lovers even share a kiss. It is supposed to be a modern version of Romeo and Juliet, but in the 400-year-old original, the main characters take only four days (and, theatrically, three and half hours, tops) to fornicate, initiate a murder spree, run away from home, break their parents’ hearts, secretly marry, and then off themselves. Compared with High School Musical, Romeo and Juliet is a Tarantino spectacular.
Why are so many teenage girls so interested in the kind of super-reactionary love stories that would have been perfectly at home during the Eisenhower administration? The answer lies—as does the answer to so much teenage behavior—in the mores and values of the generation (no, of the decade) immediately preceding their own. This tiny unit of time is always at the heart of what adolescents do, because as much as each group imagines itself to be carving new territory out of nothing more than its own inspired creativity, the youngsters don’t have enough experience to make anything new—or even to recognize what might be clichéd. All they know is the world they began to take notice of when they turned 12 or 13; all they can imagine doing to put their mark on that world is to either advance or retreat along the lines that were already drawn for them.
// Even Woodstock is an example of kids getting together to do the next, precisely logical thing based on exactly what came just before them. The most transgressive moment on Yasgar’s farm wasn’t the moment when Country Joe got the kids to scream “Fuck the war” (while the Army choppers bombed them with blankets, water, food, and flowers). It was when Sha Na Na took the stage in gold jumpsuits and confused everyone by playing “At the Hop.” Sha Na Na understood what the freaks didn’t: that they all were already being usurped, that youth is a river that can’t be stopped, and that right in the middle of Woodstock, the next new thing was already struggling to be born. Music is the prow of popular culture, and Hollywood follows as fast as it can. Only four years after the orgy in the New York mud bath, George Lucas gave the next crop of kids American Graffiti, and the youngest once again turned. What else could have followed Woodstock—the total embrace of free love, and everything good and (especially for girls) bad that came with it—other than a full embrace of the supposedly most sexually boring and intellectually repressed time and place of the 20th century, 1950s America?
What might we expect as the next thing for today’s girls? They just spent the better part of a decade being hectored—via the post-porn, Internet-driven world—toward a self-concept centering on the expectation that the very most they could or should expect from a boy is a hookup. We didn’t particularly stand in the way of that culture; we left the girls alone with it, sat idly by while they pulled it into their brains through their ubiquitous earbuds and their endless Facebook photo albums and text messages. We said, more or less, “Do your best.” And then we gave them iTunes gift cards and Wi-Fi connections in their bedrooms, and we warned them about dangerous online trends only after those trends had become so passé that we could learn about them on Dateline. And now the girls have had enough. We’ve sunk pretty low, culturally speaking, when we’ve left it to the 14- and 15-year-old girls of the nation to make one of the last, great stands for human dignity. But they’re making it, by God.
I do have something to add that bugs me, and I hate to sound like a broken record on this, but I have to point this out. These stories rely on a couple of major fallacies. One is the old-fashioned false dichotomy, and one is the assumption that people are static and never-changing. The latter is one of the ones that throws me for a loop. It’s assumed that a 13-year-old girl who has fantasies about ever-loyal vampires from the Twilight series will be a 25-year-old woman who feels the same, when of course a 25-year-old woman might actually see those fantasies as the last thing she could ever want. That in turn implies that learning from experience is automatically a horrible thing. It’s not surprising that a bunch of college freshmen—an age that’s marked by feelings of naivete and insecurity—might report being desperate to be validated by a boyfriend, any boyfriend. But it doesn’t follow that a college senior who is choosing mostly casual hook-ups is deceiving herself. She might have learned a thing or two, and may have realized that it’s better to wait for the right guy to commit instead of clinging to anyone who looks at you twice.
And that leads me to the other fallacy: the false dichotomy. The virgin/whore dilemma is never far away from these discussions, no matter how much any individual writer avoids those terms. The main one in play here is the idea that either you “hook up” (i.e. have casual sex) or you have a boyfriend, but you can’t do both. And sure, perhaps not at any single moment in time, at least not without cheating or polyamory being in play, but in reality many women do both. In fact, I’d say the majority of women who engage in casual sex also have committed relationships, when they meet the right guy. We all know it, but somehow this knowledge never seems to penetrate the skulls of people worrying about the “hook-up culture”.
Of course, when false dichotomies about female behavior are in play, look for an agenda. The notion that women who hook up are a discrete group from those who have boyfriends reminds me of the anti-choice myth that posits that women who have abortions are a separate group from women who have children. In fact, most women who have abortions already have children, and most of the rest will one day. Same story with the hook-up false dichotomy. Whenever it pops up, look out. The person pushing it is trying to imply to women that there is no such thing as a man who can love a woman with sexual experience—and that this can never change, so you have to live with it. Both assertions are wrong.
Sady Doyle at The Atlantic:
Hooking up may leave girls unsatisfied and lonely. It may include experiences that are, in Flanagan’s words, “frightening, embarrassing, uncomfortable at best, painful at worst.” But assuming that these experiences are all consensual—I trust Flanagan wouldn’t qualify date rape as a “hook-up,” however grim her language may be—we can’t know that they are “hurting” girls in any measureable way. Here is what we do know to be hurting girls in a measureable way, however: Their boyfriends.
According to a 2005 survey on teen dating abuse, 13 percent of girls who have been in relationships—girls, that is to say, who have had boyfriends—report being “physically hurt or hit.” A startling one in four said that their boyfriends had pressured them to have sex they didn’t want. Twenty-six percent reported recurring, and severe, verbal abuse in their relationships. And then, there’s this, from a no less august source than the U.S. Department of Justice: “Young women between the ages of 16 and 24 in dating relationships experience the highest rate of domestic violence and sexual assault.” The highest. What was that about Boyfriend Stories again?
Of course, this doesn’t mean that having a boyfriend is bad. There are few things more wonderful than being in a happy relationship. It only means that boys “hurt” girls in relationships and out of them, and that the mere fact of having a boyfriend is not enough to insulate one from disrespect, sexual maltreatment, or abuse. I don’t doubt that Flanagan wants girls to be happy, or that she’s worried that the current social context encourages young men to disrespect them. I happen to agree with her, on that point; young men receive plenty of messages that they are not to take girls seriously, as people with full inner lives, and they are also instructed that they are to have sex with those girls anyway. (God help the boys who would prefer to have sex with each other.) Sometimes they hit, rape, and emotionally torture girls; sometimes, they disrespect, insult, or pressure them into sexualizing themselves in uncomfortable ways. These are serious problems. And they don’t end after you start going steady.
If the facts backed Flanagan up—if withholding sex for boyfriends could actually solve the problem of girls being hurt by sexual partners—I would join the crusade against the hook-up culture tomorrow. But boys aren’t treating girls badly because they have sex; they’re treating them badly because we live in a culture that encourages disrespect toward girls. A man who dislikes women as a group does not change simply because he becomes intimate with one particular woman, and telling girls that love is the key to ending a man’s hurtful behavior plays into many of the most pernicious myths about abuse. If we tell young women that having a boyfriend is the way to stay safe and be respected, what do they do if their boyfriends become unsafe? Most stay. Most believe in the Boyfriend Story long after it starts to hurt.
I’m an admirer of Caitlin Flanagan’s skills as a writer of prose, and I like that she likes to take on topics that others shy away from. But it’s always bothered me that the Atlantic lets her write articles that, under guise of book reviewing or some such, make sweeping statements of social trends without any kind of empirical backing or even recognition of the possibility that assertions can be verified or not through data. Fortunately, for the first time ever this blog has an intern, Ryan McNeely, currently pursuing an MA at Princeton and conversant with research methods and facts in a way that Flanagan isn’t. I asked him to poke around at her latest article which posits that very young teen girls are spearheading a cultural counterrevolution against a burgeoning hookup revolution. Not surprisingly, there seem to be some problems.
Flanagan posits, for example, that the reactions of liberal mothers of women born circa 1961 “to the kinds of sexual experiences that so many American girls are now having would have been horror and indignation.” Of course hypothetical reactions are hard to predict, but here’s CDC data (PDF) on teen sexual health outcomes since the mid-seventies:
And a couple of quotes on trends during the period when today’s teen girls have been growing up:
— “During 1991–2007, the prevalence of sexual experience decreased 12% overall, from 54.1% to 47.8%. Logistic regression analyses indicated a significant linear decrease overall and among female, male, 9th-grade, 10th-grade, 11th-grade, 12th-grade, black, and white students.”
— “During 1991–2007, the prevalence of multiple sex partners decreased 20%, from 18.7% to 14.9%.”
Flanagan also asserts that attitudes have shifted against virginity very recently:
Two divergent cultural tracks regarding girls and sexuality have developed in this country. At one extreme, in not-insignificant numbers, you have evangelical Christians who have decided to demand that their children—and in particular their daughters—remain virgins until marriage. Until very recently, this would not have even needed to be put into words; it was the shared assumption of most Americans, and everything in the culture—from mainstream entertainment to religious doctrine to the most casual remarks passed from mother to daughter—supported it.
According to David Harding and Christopher Jencks “Changing Attitudes Toward Premarital Sex” this change in fact occurred in the 1970s:
In 1969, more than 75 percent of American adults with an opinion on premarital sex said it was wrong. By the 1980s only 33-37 percent of Americans said that premarital sex was either “always” or “almost always” wrong.
Attitudes aside, the CDC’s document “Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, National Survey of Family Growth 2006-2008″ would have provided a wealth of information to Flanagan about actual trends in actual teen conduct, had she been interested in looking it up. For example, during this period of burgeoning hookup culture fewer teens are having sex:
72 percent of teen girls report that they were “going steady” with the first person they had sex with. An additional three percent say they were cohabiting, engaged, or married.
Faced with an imaginary trend toward promiscuity, Flanagan asks rhetorically “Is it any wonder that so many girls are binge-drinking and reporting, quite candidly, that this kind of drinking is a necessary part of their preparation for sexual activity?”
In the real world, however, the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that boys are more likely to binge drink than girls, and although this gap is narrowing, “overall past month consumption among 12- to 17-year old males and females has been declining.” So we have a made-up trend toward hookups explained by a made-up trend toward binge drinking!
So is Flanagan just imagining a post-1970s coarsening of American sexual culture? I don’t think so: Cultural generalizations are always dicey, but it’s hard to escape the impression that we’ve shed a certain amount of idealism on the path from from “The Joy of Sex” to New York Magazine’s online sex diaries, from “make love, not war” to “How To Make Love Like a Porn Star.” Sexual liberation started out as a utopian cause; now it’s an American entitlement, and we’re all pretty jaded about it. (What’s that? Another sex-drenched, blasphemous music video? Yawn …)
But what Flanagan tends to elide — and what Yglesias’s data highlights — is the extent to which this jadedness and coarseness is arguably a reaction, not to old-fashioned puritanism, but to the negative consequences of the newly-liberated world that she remembers through a haze of nostalgia.
Flanagan is an instinctive social conservative, but intellectually she’s torn between these instincts and a nostalgia for 1960s social liberalism, with its vision of a cultural landscape in which premarital sex would be largely destigmatized, perfectly safe, and intensely romantic all at once.
Eventually, somewhere between the AIDS epidemic and “Sex and the City,” youth culture began to adapt, becoming considerably more coarse and cynical about sex than the characters in “Forever,” but somewhat less naive as well. And this is the crucial thing to understand about contemporary mores: Many of the trends that Flanagan laments, from the rise of oral sex (and other alternatives) to the ubiquity of pornography to the culture of casual hook-ups (which, especially in high school, don’t necessarily involve intercourse), emerged in part as paths to safety — as ways to navigate the post-sexual revolution landscape without experiencing as many dangers, physical and emotional, as the young people of the 1970s faced.
This doesn’t make these trends good in any ultimate sense. Indeed, as you might expect, I think Flanagan is right to see something toxic and inhuman about the way modern youth culture approaches sexuality. But it’s important to understand the context, instead of pretending that there was a moment, somewhere in the age of leisure suits and Judy Blume, when a certain amount of teenage sexual license coexisted easily with modesty and idealism, responsibility and romance.
James Poulos at Ricochet:
Ross accuses Flanagan of “pretending that there was a moment, somewhere in the age of leisure suits and Judy Blume, when a certain amount of teenage sexual license coexisted easily with modesty and idealism, responsibility and romance.”
But I don’t think it’s really a milieu or a moment that our ’70s sex nostalgists are pining for. I think it’s something they would describe, if pressed, as a virtue: the virtue of moderate innocence, and of judicious moderation in passing from the extreme innocence of childhood to the extreme knowingness of adulthood. It’s not the modus vivendi of ’70s sexuality that’s worth praising, as the delicate, transient accomplishment of a decentered culture. It’s the idea that a newly centered culture can manage to anchor itself outside an unreasonably artificial innocence on the one hand and outside an unreasonably artificial profanity on the other.
Within that idea, as well, is a hope grounded what I would call a sort of postmodern realism: a recognition that human maturity, including sexual maturity, is a natural process that can’t be mastered by science (“continuous birth control”) or by law (bright-line rulings establishing the magic moment when one goes from a juvenile to an adult). The prospect of locking up one’s children until they must be thrown to the wolves is grim, and the prospects of fully immersing them in the world from the get go, or fully withdrawing them from the world, are worse. The moderate innocence of the ’70s may ultimately be less instructive to us than the conditions that became mainstream in the ’80s which made it so difficult. I’m not convinced that those conditions were the consequence of moderate innocence at all.
UPDATE: More Douthat