Caitlin Flanagan has written a heady, yet heartfelt piece for The Atlantic entitled, “Love Actually: How girls reluctantly endure the hookup culture,” exploring the idea that teenage girls are allowing themselves to be used by their male counterparts. But is this anything new?
She says today’s teens, “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.” She’s concerned, because though “one-night stands may be perfectly enjoyable exercises for two consenting adults, teenagers aren’t adults; in many respects, they are closer to their childhoods than to the adult lives they will eventually lead.”
Flanagan opines about what led us to this bleak place for girls, and uses her relationship with her mother to illustrate how good intentions can go awry when it comes to communicating about sex and a woman’s role in her own sexual life.
“When I was a teenager, in the late 1970s, my mother would announce, ‘Never marry a man because you want to have sex with him. Just have sex with him.'”
Flanagan thinks her mother’s gaffes came from the understanding that “a girl is capable of great sexual desire, and that this desire should not cause her to lose her chance at an education or an independent life.” She says “a huge number of mothers were committed to helping their daughters incorporate sexual lives within a normal teenage girlhood, one in which sex did not cleave the girl instantly and permanently from her home and her family,” despite “the long-entrenched double standard that said a boy could have sex and retain his good reputation, but a girl who went all the way was ruined.”
She says the difference between moms of the 70’s and the mothers of today is that “no matter how progressive those long-ago women might seem to us now, they shared one unquestioned assumption about girls and sex: all of them believed in the Boyfriend Story. This set wasn’t in the business of providing girls and young women the necessary information and services to allow boys and men to use and discard them sexually. Their reaction to the kinds of sexual experiences that so many American girls are now having would have been horror and indignation.”
So is women’s lib to blame for today’s hookup culture? Flanagan never comes right out and asks the question, but she does hint at the answer. Certainly the free love era of the 60’s and the disco culture of the 70’s allowed women to be sexual, as she says, without being stigmatized. But because teenagers aren’t exactly great at processing subtleties, girls end up being seen as objects. (Perhaps they always were?) How do we strike a balance?
Flanagan says, “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…. At the other extreme—with very little middle ground—are girls growing up with scant direction or guidance about their sexual lives, other than the most clinical. 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?”
A few years ago, my aunt, who is a high-school teacher, told me her students flaunted the news that “BJs are the new goodnight kiss.” Those of you who parent teenagers have probably dealt with this in one way or another. I just can’t imagine it. Is it that children are exposed to sexual imagery at a younger age now, since all in all Americans are exposed to more constant imagery via the Internet? (My 4-year-old did watch Lady Gaga’s new video with me the other day. And I cringed as I heard myself say, “Well, a lot of music videos are sexy. Dancers tend to wear clothes that reveal a lot of skin because it makes it easier for them to move.” I couldn’t quite explain why a woman was swallowing rosary beads… apparently during the Nazi occupation of Jazzdanceland.)
Flanagan is nostalgic for a simpler time when she says, “Unlike the girls of my era, who looked forward to sex, not as a physical pleasure, but as a way of becoming ever closer to our boyfriends, these girls are preparing themselves for acts and experiences that are frightening, embarrassing, uncomfortable at best, painful at worst. These girls aren’t embracing sex, all evidence to the contrary. They’re terrified of it.”
Photo: erin MC hammer via Flickr