This month's Atlantic brings us another piece of intellectual sophistry by the feminist contrarian Caitlin Flanagan. Ms. Flanagan considers herself a feminist, and while there is virtually nothing she and I agree upon, I have long argued that feminism is a multi-faceted set of beliefs, not some single-answer test, and thus, if Flanagan wants to call herself a feminist, well, whatever.
This month, in The Atlantic, she argues that teenaged girls have been irreperably harmed by "hook-up" culture (what we used to call one-night stands). Her primary evidence for this is a novel by Anita Shreve. Her secondary evidence comprises various television shows, which are written, as far as I can tell, not by teenaged girls, but but adults, many of them men.
What Flanagan wants to argue is that teenaged girls don't really like sex. They put up with having it, with participating in hook-up culture, in quest of the mighty boyfriend. We know this from watching television and reading novels about how unhappy teenaged girls are to find themselves participating in hook-ups.
As an historian, I must first question her sources. These are not primary intellectual sources. These are not the voices of teenaged girls we are hearing, but rather, women years older than teenaged girls, or men and women writing for television shows who are trying to appease censors, and to send "good, moral" messages to kids. This is what we would call "prescriptive" literature, sort of like reading Bernardino da Siena's sermons from the Fifteenth Century and assuming that all women were witches, or all men were sodomites. It matters who is writing your sources. Anyone who does research knows this, so basing an article upon the sources she has chosen either shows her to be intellectually dishonest or not a very good scholar.
Any article that attempts to generalize about "all girls" is poorly written. (Ask my students--they learn quickly that generalizations are poor excuses for arguments.) And yet, here we have Flanagan talking about today's young women:
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?
(I couldn't help leaving in the Sha Na Na analysis--thought all you Woodstockers might like to know that it represented the most transgressive moment at that event.)
To understand the world of the hook-up party, Flanagan turns to that expert on adolescents, Anita Shreve.
Written by a bona fide grown-up (the author turned 63 last fall), Testimony gives us not just the lurid description of what a teen sex party looks like, but also an exploration of the ways that extremely casual sex can shape and even define an adolescent’s emotional life. One-night stands may be perfectly enjoyable exercises for two consenting adults, but teenagers aren’t adults; in many respects, they are closer to their childhoods than to the adult lives they will eventually lead. Their understanding of affection and friendship, and most of all their innocent belief, so carefully nurtured by parents and teachers, that the world rewards kindness and fairness, that there is always someone in authority to appeal to if you are being treated cruelly or not included in something—all of these forces are very much at play in their minds as they begin their sexual lives.
While I understand that Ms. Shreve has a particular point of view that she has placed in the voices of her characters, unless she has attended these "parties," (many of which are more urban legend than reality), then we are, in effect, reading a fantasy novel. A right-wing fantasy novel where young women realize that the route to true happiness is saving yourself for Mr. Right, and then exploring the gift of sexuality within the confines of marriage.
It goes without saying, although I feel compelled to say it anyway, that nowhere does Ms. Flanagan turn her attention to teenaged boys. While girls are damaged by having sex that is not directly connected to being with the great love of your life, boys can screw with impunity, because, well, boys will be boys and that's the way it's always been.
I've been sexually active since I was 15. While the first couple of times weren't particularly pleasurable, what made them less than orgasmic was that my partner was inexperienced, too, so when my hymen proved too tough, penetrating it was painful. Early sex was physically painful. Not emotionally devastating.
I ask myself a lot what the investment is in keeping young women virgins until marriage. Clearly, part of it is social control. I could quote to you from laws going back hundreds of years that show a consistent pattern that the two threats to social order are unmarried women and young, unmarried men. You take care of unmarried women by marrying them off, and thus making them subject to their husband. You control unmarried men through a number of ways--the military, for one--anything that keeps young people with hormones running amok and ideas running wild from deciding that they know how to run society better than their elders.
But I've also come to believe that the hymen is a fetish object. It has value in this culture. It is a thing of value that is traded between men: a father trades it to someone with whom he is making a business transaction: here is my daughter's hymen for your son's enjoyment. Without the hymen, what is there left to worship?
Anyway. I've written enough already. It would be nice if Flanagan had asked a few hundred college or high school women if they enjoyed sex, if it made them feel good, if it gave them physical pleasure, if it bothered them that the person they had sex with one night was not the man they would eventually marry.
She's not lying when she says that the "boyfriend" myth continues to be perpetuated. Young girls are led to believe that when "Mr. Right" comes along, their lives will be perfect. Sort of like the way alcoholics believe the right combination of liquor in their bloodstream will make the world seem a better place, or the shopper's quest for the ultimate bargain. These stories make our culture go around, because they continue to direct people into the channels our culture is invested in keeping clear, deep, and wide.
But, as young women discover that sex is great and you don't have to love a man to have multiple orgasms with him, my hope is that the boyfriend myth will fade. That way, young women can concentrate on the development of themselves--on what they want to be, what they want to do, what they want to make of themselves, before they settle down with a gold band on their finger and a baby on the way. There's always time for that.
So, Ms. Flanagan, with all due respect to you, and your expert, Ms. Shreve, may I suggest you spend some time teaching college writing and reading what young women have to say? You might find that their descriptions of their lives read nothing like the prescriptions you are so desperate to write for them.