Monday, February 13, 2006

Flanagan's follies

Caitlin Flanagan, the self-styled "anti-feminist" who first made a name for herself in The Atlantic and later started writing for The New Yorker as well, is a writer who provokes strong feelings. I have found some of her work quite interesting and thought-provoking, whether agreeing or disagreeing with her. Flanagan's 2004 Atlantic essay on Dr. Laura Schlessinger (subscriber-only, I believe) cheers for some of Schlessinger's unpopular tough-love advice (unpopular with the Atlantic set, at least) but also takes her to task for her slippage into anti-gay bigotry and advocacy of rigid gender roles, as well as her hypocrisy. Her first New Yorker essay, about her mother's brief attempt to resume her career (published in July 2004 but not available online), was a subtle and thoughtful piece, refreshingly free of ideological preaching.

Flanagan has had some annoying lapses into what sounded to me like a deliberate effort to bait and to push feminist buttons: take, for instance, her comment in The Atlantic that her husband is "head of household" and her later elaboration to The New York Observer that "if my husband pops a button, I sew it back on" -- contradicting a statement only a year earlier that she had never been asked to replace a popped button in fourteen years of marriage. But still, I was hoping to find in Flanagan an intelligent, non-stereotypical, non-cliché commentator on gender issues.

But in her latest Atlantic essay, I think, Flanagan jumps the shark.

Flanagan's subject is oral sex, specifically an alleged oral sex epidemic among teenagers. To this issue, she devotes a sprawling, overblown (sorry!), nearly 9,000-word-long tract, tied to a review of Paul Ruditis' book The Rainbow Party -- a fictional treatment of the urban legend about parties at which girls wearing different color lipstick take turns fellating a boy.

The essay gets off (pardon the expression) to a promising start, as Flanagan pooh-poohs the notion that nice middle-class American girls have taken to routinely servicing near-strangers and makes light of parental panic on the issue. But then, Flanagan turns around and decides that the blowjob epidemic is real after all:

[T]he axe came down in September. A huge report was issued by the National Center for Health Statistics. It covered the topic of teenage oral sex more extensively than any previous study, and the news was devastating: A quarter of girls aged fifteen had engaged in it, and more than half aged seventeen.

After this, Flanagan embarks on a long Wendy Shalit-style diatribe about how the erosion of traditional protections has left girls vulnerable to predatory sex. Here's a part of the conclusion (after detours into filthy rap lyrics and a teenage memory of Flanagan's mother instructing her to never invite a boy up to her room because "he might go to school and tell other boys what your comforter looks like"):

If I were to learn that my children had engaged in oral sex -- outside a romantic relationship, and as young adolescents -- I would be sad. But I wouldn't think that they had been damaged by the experience; I wouldn't think I had failed catastrophically as a mother, or that they would need therapy. Because I don't have daughters, I have sons.

I am old-fashioned enough to believe that men and boys are not as likely to be wounded, emotionally and spiritually, by early sexual experience, or by sexual experience entered into without romantic commitment, as are women and girls. I think that girls are vulnerable to great damage through the kind of sex in which they are, as individuals, as valueless and unrecognizable as chattel. Society has let its girls down in every possible way. It has refused to assert -- or even to acknowledge -- that female sexuality is as intricately connected to kindness and trust as it is to gratification and pleasure. It's in the nature of who we are.

But perhaps the girls themselves understand this essential truth.

As myriad forces were combining to reshape our notions of public decency and propriety, to ridicule the concept that privacy and dignity are valuable and allied qualities of character and that exhibitionism as an end in itself might not be beneficial for a young girl, at the exact moment when girls were encouraged to think of themselves as victims of an oppressive patriarchy and to act on an imperative of default aggression -- at this very time a significant number of young girls were beginning to form an entirely new code of sexual ethics and expectations. It was a code in which their own physical pleasure was of no consequence -- was in fact so entirely beside the point that their preferred mode of sexual activity was performing unrequited oral sex. ... The modern girl's casual willingness to perform oral sex may -- as some cool-headed observers of the phenomenon like to propose -- be her way of maintaining a post-feminist power in her sexual dealings, by being fully in control of the sexual act and of the pleasure a boy receives from it. Or it may be her desperate attempt to do something that the culture refuses to encourage: to keep her own sexuality -- the emotions and the desires, as well as the anatomical real estate itself -- private, secret, unviolated. It may not be her technical virginity that she is trying to preserve; it may be her own sexual awakening -- which is all she really has left to protect anymore.

We've made a world for our girls in which the pornography industry has become increasingly mainstream, in which Planned Parenthood's response to the oral-sex craze has been to set up a help line, in which the forces of feminism have worked relentlessly to erode the patriarchy -- which, despite its manifold evils, held that providing for the sexual safety of young girls was among its primary reasons for existence. And here are America's girls: experienced beyond their years, lacking any clear message from the adult community about the importance of protecting their modesty, adrift in one of the most explicitly sexualized cultures in the history of the world. Here are America's girls: on their knees.

Before you bring out the violins, here's a minor point to ponder. The NCHS study that Flanagan cites for its supposedly devastasting results actually found that girls are just as likely to receive oral sex as they are to give it. (The full data can be found here, but be warned: this is a large PDF file.) In other words, all of Flanagan's philosophizing is based on a demonstrably false factual premise, and one that she should know to be false. In fact, the study's finding that oral sex among adolescents is quite likely to be reciprocal was widely discussed, precisely because it contradicts a widely held stereotype. As a Washington Post article put it:

"This is a point of major social transition," James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a reproductive health organization, said yesterday. "The data are now coming out and roiling the idea that boys are the hunters and young girls are the prey. It absolutely defies the stereotype."

Of course, the image of teenage girls (and even women) as victims of sex and of predatory male lust is so entrenched that some experts were undeterred. The Post went on to say:

Joe McIllhaney Jr., chairman of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, said the new data confirm trends he has seen as a physician, but he has doubts about some of Wagoner's conclusions. "I question how much girls enjoy" oral sex, he said."I'd like to know a whole lot more about the pressure boys put on girls."

And now here's Flanagan, continuing to peddle the myth and not even acknowledging the evidence that contradicts it -- from a study she herself cites. And all in the service (it's difficult to avoid cringeworthy puns when writing about this, isn't it?) of the well-worn conservative shibboleth that women, and girls in particular, have been victimized by sexual liberation and the loss of patriarchal protections.


strategichamlet said...

"The axe came down"?? 25% and 50% at ages 15 and 17 doesn't provoke much shock or even disapproval in me. Maybe if it were 13 and 15, but if anything only half at age 17 seems a pretty modest number. What was Ms. Flanagan doing at age 17? She even says that she wouldn't care if her kids were having oral sex in a romantic relationship, but correct me if I'm wrong the numbers cited are total, not just those outside of relationships. Did no conservatives have sex in high school or is this a "do as I say, not as I do" kind of policy?

Anonymous said...

Cathy, thanks for getting to the heart of the matter by pointing out the relevant data about reciprocity, which was precisely what I was wondering about as I read.

Apparently, it's nearly impossible for those of older generations to view these developments using any lens other than the one contructed from each generation's values and expectations. No shock there, of course.

What this suggests is that parents/adults/would-be guardians and gatekeepers are most basically appalled about today's women doing things they (if they are women) wouldn't dream of doing, or (if they are men) would tend look down on (there's that dreadful pun problem again) women doing.

Looks like among those young men and women indulging their urges, they are taking turns looking down on one another, as it were. Which is a real problem for the various victimization theses out there, if you ask me.

But I'm not expecting any blinks of acknowledgement to slow down the full-speed-ahead handwringing of parents and other sexual gatekeepers. Parental fears are based on visceral response, those about sex only more so. Opinions not founded on reason are (as you must know) not especially accessible TO reason. It's a problem.

The bottom line is that in their heart of hearts Parents strongly and viscerally wish that their daughters not grow up to be "one of those girls." Such visceral calculus simply does not allow for any model in which a girl might do those things and yet not be one of those girls.


cunninglinguist said...

My wife, who is a teacher, discovered something very interesting recently.

In discussions with kids in her math class, she discovered that a great many of the kids are annoyed by those questions on the standardized testing that ask they their race, so they lie.

Of course, that means, when a significant number of respondents are lying about things on these tests, that we cannot draw any conconclusions about closing the racial gaps etc, with any certainty. Our stats are all bogus.

So, who is to say that the kids responding to the survey asking about their sexual behavior were not pissed off by adults asking them for the info that they did not lie also. You know, boys routinely lie about their conquests. Perhaps the girls were engaging in a healty dose of wishful thinking ...

Lastly, it's a great deal more pleasant after they have had a shower or bath ...

I don't imagine that a lot of teenagers go in for that level of planning ...

Rottin' in Denmark said...

Excellent point, cunninglinguist. At 23, I'm not too old to remember vividly the myriad 'drugs and sex' questionnaires we had to fill out during 'mentorship' (Sort of a daily 'Breakfast Club' goof-off session under the guise of personal attention). We filled out the questionnaires together, out loud, trying to outdo each other. Other than the urban-legendy anecdotal evidence for this, I don't really believe in any 'oral sex epidemic', although common sense would suggest kids are definitely having it more than they were in the '50s, '60s, and '70s.

Anyway, Cathy, what I'm really curious about is what you make of the data that both genders are performing oral sex on each other equally (or lying equally on the questionnaires, as the case may be).

Does this mean that sexually active, monogamous relationships are more prevalent in today's high schools? We certainly live in a relationship-obsessed culture, and it seems like girls who feel like losers because they don't have a boyfriend are getting younger and younger. If the vast majority of the sex that's going on in high schools is between people in relationships (like it was in my high school 5 years ago), shouldn't we be applauding this?

thecobrasnose said...

I'm agnostic on the topic at hand, but way to own those puns, Cathy!

Jim said...

Did anyone else pick up on the insistence that the girls were getting no pleasure from giving oral sex. Heavens no! Not my little princess! Whatever happened to Xaviera Hollander?

Cathy Young said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm not sure why we should assume that girls are lying about their experiences as recipients of oral sex more than boys are. In addition, the survey also looked at boys' and girls' reports of performing oral sex.

And I do think that most of this activity probably takes place within relationships.

As for your point, Jim -- I could comment on that, but my lips are sealed.

(Pun fully intended and owned, Cobra!)

Katherine said...

I graduated from high school a decade ago, but back then, I and everyone I knew engaged in quite a lot of oral sex - giving and receiving. Granted, I ran with the "party crowd", and I guess my group probably had more sex/did more drugs than the average high schooler. But at least in my group, oral sex for both sexes was definitely not considered a big deal. But even way back then, I would NEVER have performed oral sex on a guy who wouldn't also perform it for me - and neither would any of my friends. We used to talk about this quite a lot actually. In fact, I would never do it until AFTER I'd been done first. I don't know why Flanagan thinks girls are such moronic little ninnies. I suppose there are probably some hesitant teenage girls out there that let guys pressure them because they want to feel cool, but I don't think that's the general trend. Most teenagers engage in oral sex for the same reasons adults do - because they're horny, because they want to please their partner, because they want to be reciprocated, and because it feels good.

Cathy Young said...

Thanks for your input, Katherine. Straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak. Argh. Stop me before I pun again.

mythago said...

How convenient that Flanagan can make predictions about the behavior and sexuality of daughters she doesn't have. I guess if she can invent data about teenage sexual behavior, she might as well go whole hog and invent actual teenagers.

cunninglinguist said...

So I asked my 14-yo who is a sophomore at a local highschool and who is on a local swim team ...

She said that she know two guys who claim to have been felated, but she said she didn't believe the girls were getting their fare share.

My take was that the boys were probably telling lies ...

Now, that is only one data point, and it is not clear how clued in my daughter is. After all, she was an intern at ABIGNETWORKINGCOMPANY at 13, so she has other things on her mind and she has a heavy load of AP an Honors classes this year as well.

Of course, I might be guilty of confirmation bias, but it seems to me that there is no epidemic of oral sex going on among teenagers.

colagirl said...

In Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman, she discusses this topic a bit. Basically she claims that the idea that there is an "epidemic" of oral sex is overhyped, and that if/when teen girls do engage in sexual activity, it's usually reciprocal and within the context of a committed relationship that lasts an average of a year.

I certainly wouldn't discount the lie factor either. Nobody I knew took those surveys seriously when I was in high school.

jw said...

The whole thing is interesting.

I wonder if the old rule is gone: ie that males overstate sex and females understate sex? Maybe ...

btw: Xaviera Hollnader years ago was a neigbour of mine ... weird lady, real weird.

gengwall said...

Since we're taking in (ugh) personal anecdotes, I will share what my two daughters have told me. They go to the largest (3,000 students) high school in the third largest school district in MN. Mostly suburban but also some rural and some "outer layer" urban. Culturally and racially somewhat diverse.

In their words, oral sex is "rampant" amongst teens and it is almost exclusively girl giving and boy receiving. Most of it, moreover, is occuring in middle school. Apparently, by the time they reach senior high, most kids have moved on to good old sex. They also have shared that many girls "do it" to multiple guys, i.e. it is not a monogamous within romantic relationship thing. And they have said that the "according to Pres. Clinton it isn't sex" excuse is quite common. And finally, many girls have their first experience pre-15.

It isn't scientific, but it is reality in our world.

Katherine said...

As an aside, I would note that I and most of my old high school friends, all of whom engaged in both actual and oral sex as teenagers, are now perfectly boring, married, middle-class professionals. So while I understand that it's uncomfortable and icky to think about teenagers engaging in sexual activity (especially when they're your own!), I don't know that it's particularly harmful.

Also, my highschool was suburban/rural, like gengwall described. And once I left for college, I found that previous sexual and drug/alcohol experience seemed much more prevalent among those of us who attended suburban/rural, as opposed to urban, high schools. That goes against conventional wisdom, I know. But kids who had nothing to do on weekends but have keggers in the woods apparently got into a lot more trouble than our urban counterparts.

Anonymous said...

I guess if we are going swap anecdotes, I guess I should chime in, too. About 10 years ago, when I was waiting tables, I came out at work (as a lesbian). One result of this was a huge discussion about oral sex (on women) during a particularly slow night. Even the teenage busboy was discussing his technique and asking advice on different ways of performing oral sex on his girlfriend. So, yeah, I'm not surprised the girls are getting it, too. I also would not be surprised if they were much more willing to put that down on an anonymous survey, than admit they or their friends have experimented with it.


mythago said...

gengwall, I don't know your daughters, but I wonder how correct their assessments are. I know what the rumor mill was like when I was a teen, and from the older-and-wiser perspective can see that "everybody knows that..." may not be what's really going on. "I and my friends do X" gets my attention a lot more than "oh, lots of girls do X".

And what they said about suburban high schools. I live in a very affluent suburban county, and we have the worst levels of alcoholism and teen drinking in the state.

Snowe said...

I honestly don't see what's so horrifying about teens and oral sex, as long as there is reciprocity. I never had intercourse with my high school boyfriend, but we both gave orally. I never saw it as being degrading--it was something I wanted to do. I only knew one guy who expressed an aversion to giving oral sex; all of the girls in the room pretty much called him a jerk and said that they wouldn't put up with that from their boyfriends.

Cal said...

"But in her latest Atlantic essay, I think, Flanagan jumps the shark."

Wrong. Flanagan has always been disgusting and dishonest. It just took you longer to notice.

gengwall said...

To briefly answer mythago

Most of what my daughters relate to me regarding teen behavior comes from first hand accounts. They can put together a pretty comprehensive list by name of the people in their circles who are doing what ever, from sex to drugs to alcohol.

Lori Heine said...

Well, I am admittedly old, but my stars, hasn't sex talk become more...CANDID than it was when I was a teenager!

My senior year of high school, a good friend was fooling around (a term we actually used back then) with her boyfriend in the bed of the couple whose child she was babysitting. It got late, Mom and Pop were almost home, and she had to send her sweetie home and make up the bed. Unable to find the incriminating panties, she made the bed with them somewhere amid the sheets.

This is, and I kid you not, the very raciest story I can remember. And half the fun was in speculating what the Missus of the house made of those panties next time she did laundry. I was never able to find out whether the couple stayed married.

To my old-fangled ears, a lot of this super-frank and graphic talk about sex just sounds gross. And I'm a lesbian, so I'm not supposed to say "yuck" about much of anything. One thing I do find encouraging is that if we grownups do manage to make it all sound graphic and puko-disgusto enough, it might just take some of the fascination out of it for kids who would be better off studying harder and screwing around less.

Iguana said...

... well-worn conservative shibboleth that women, and girls in particular, have been victimized by sexual liberation and the loss of patriarchal protections.

Your conclusion is on target. Really, as long as conservatives are classifying girls and women as victims, gender feminists are happy to go along with them. The GF's don't care that what conservatives supposedly worry about is the loss of "patriarchal protection."

If girls are victims of anything in this sex rampage teenagers seem to be on (which was going on when I was a teenager all those years ago as well, with plenty of aggressively sexual girls too, so what's new about any of this?), it's due to the fact that they are being encouraged to question whether they are hetero or homo. Now, for me, either scenario is acceptable, but really this is something I think people know about themselves from a young age. Exploring lesbianism isn't such a good idea for a naturally hetero girl. The reason: it's a turn off for a lot of guys who have learned (and some have even been taught by parents that are catching on to deconstructionist forces at work in society) that its best to stay away from any sort of confusing sexual context with women. E.g., any hint of bisexuality really should be avoided, because it invites heartbreak down the road. So, these girls that are "exploring" may find themselves shunned by many young men, in particular those that they get close enough to that they openly discuss their sexual history. Imagine that - when a woman feels that close to a man, she is likely in love or close to it, and it would be at just that point when she runs the risk of being shunned by the guy she's fallen for.

In the mean time, mutual oral sex at these ages doesn't seem like much of a threat to me. There is nothing new about it and it's natural for both boys and girls to start waking up sexually at that age. We ought to be teaching them to be careful, and if you are religious, perhaps you want to add a moral aspect to the teaching. But, freaking out about it? That's silly.

Now, if this "expert" that wants to know about the pressure boys are putting on girls - he must have just been a very homely teenager or grown up in an extremely oppressed environment. Any normal teenager (or adult) can honestly tell you that girls are as aggressive if not more aggressive than boys are with regard to sex. A "survey" with leading questions might be able to evoke what is left of the idea that women should be more chast about these things and get answers that suggest that most of the sex they have been involved in was initiated by a boy and pushed on girl. But, I seriously doubt that a well designed (thus accurate) survey of teenagers would show that boys are the cause of increasing rates of oral sex.

I, for one, cheer the idea of oral sex being the first line of sexual exploration. Intercourse at that age leads to catastrophies. Oral sex, except for some chance of spreading desease (herpes in particular), has few potential long term consequences.

But, while all of this is being sorted out, let's not forget that your basic premise that we are blaming everything on boys and men was worked into the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The new "date rape" provision of VAWA assumes that boys are the aggressive side of teenage sex. I suspect there will be a witch hunt in your local high school trying to make examples out of teenage boys. There will be plenty of gender feminist propaganda spread in these schools encouraging girls to think of themselves as victims and, worse, to accuse boys of rape when girls decide after consensual sex that they didn't much like the boy (or the sex) afterall.

It's imperitave for those of us that have seen the destruction caused by VAWA so far to get the message out to teenage boys and their parents - BE CAREFUL. Take no risks.

This gives both conservatives and gender feminists pretty much what they want, unfortunately. It leaves girls exploring sexuality with other girls (the GF goal), and leaves boys afraid to have premarital sex (conservative goal). But, sometimes its better to give in to the negative social forces at work in order to protect your son.

Hershele Ostropoler said...

strategichamlet: correct me if I'm wrong the numbers cited are total, not just those outside of relationships.

Everyone knows teenagers don't have relationships.

mythago said...

iguana, if I am understanding you right, what you're saying is that teenage girls should never act on sexual feelings or curiosity about other girls, because it might be a turn-off for a potential boyfriend?
It's just that your conclusion is so bizarre that I'm thinking I must somehow have read you wrong. (And didn't we go through all this in Chasing Amy?)

Anonymous said...


I don't get that either. To my perpetual discomfort, most heterosexual men find female homosexuality to be a turn on, rather than a deterrent.


XWL said...

Flanagan missed a point where she could have emphasized the victimization of poor young girls.

After bringing their male cohorts to satisfaction they are forced to endure the fumblings and 'inarticulateness' of boys when trying to reciprocate.

Rather than ignoring this she should have used it as evidence of double victimization.

Or not.

And why wasn't this the accepted and standard cultural practice when I was in high school?

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