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Beating (off) a Dead Horse


Oh joy. Yet another issue of The Atlantic Monthly lands in my mailbox and yet again – it’s been a year now that I’ve been keeping track – it contains a minimal contribution from women writers.We’ve come to expect this from “serious” political magazines and newspapers but it’s nevertheless annoying.
And this month, in a commission that is breathtakingly insulting on a number of levels, The Atlantic had its marquee female and sometimes feminist writer Caitlin Flanagan discuss one of the more pressing social issues of our time: Teenage girls and fellatio. I am not making this up. In a long, rambling and, in the end, confused piece “Are You There God? It’s Me, Monica” Flanagan goes on at great length about what we old folks think teenagers are doing with themselves and each other.
I so wish I were joking about this. It sounds like a Saturday Night Live skit, doesn’t it? Picture the pipe-smoking Henry Higgins-like editor, scratching his chin: “We’re not stodgy white guys who don’t care about women’s role in society. We denounce the sexual exploitation of women just like the feminists! I know! Let’s write about teenagers and penises! Let’s invoke the name of the nation’s best known shameless hussy we know – that girl who wanted the president to come in her mouth! – to show how hip we are. And let’s have a woman write the, er, piece. No one ever will guess we’re indulging our fantasies and fears about our daughters, step-daughters and their cute, sexy friends just to have a bizarre and one-sided conversation about the sexual habits of hot teenage girls. No one will ever guess!”
Oh, I’m so fooled by this thinking. I always fall for it, like a sack of potatoes off a truck.
That’s not to dismiss the whole effort out of hand. Flanagan’s story on how and why Baby Boomer parents have come to believe that their children are engaged in mindless “anonymous” oral sex (versus what Flanagan quaintly calls “romantic relationships” that involve sex) with their schoolmates is interesting and worthwhile. She does us all a favor in showing that the fears that many parents have are overstated and in tracing the root causes of this weird hysteria. But she doesn’t do a very good job telling us why it’s grown so quickly and become such a firm belief among Boomer parents.
Why? Because Flanagan is, in the end, lost. A smart comment about gay porn and its resemblance to a teen fiction classic about kids and blow jobs is dropped too quickly; Flanagan doesn’t take that insight for what it could be, a chance to talk about gay culture’s sexual openness and its effect on the straight world. Why? Because these Boomer parents don’t have gay kids – do they? Flanagan – whose previous pieces for the magazine include one on how married folks aren’t getting it on they way they did before they had kids (hmmm….think that has anything to do with their fantasies about their children’s sex lives?) and how feminists exploit their nannies and housekeepers – wanders into the same poppy field as every other Feminist Prude who has come into this territory. The sex – it’s over powering, that smell – must lie down…

Like Miss Priss of the Feminist Prudes, Maureen Dowd, Flanagan assumes that while things have changed for men – for boys – they must and should stay the same for girls. Girls are soft and romantic, men are tough and mean. Men have power – the power to exploit women sexually. Women don’t. And can’t. That’s just nature. It’s the way things are.
No, it’s the way things were. This a sad longing for a time when women’s passivity in sexual relations was considered a hallmark of virtuous behavior, and it is simply unrealistic. And it borders, these days, on being dangerous. Our culture is too sexualized. We marry later. We have divorced procreation and sex at the same time that we have given women economic power and influence. So it does these young girls a profound disservice to ignore these social changes – which are part and parcel of our culture now and which have benefitted women like Dowd and Flanagan – and insist that they behave like Catholic school girls. This retro insistence teaches the girls of the 21st Century two dumb lessons. One, that an interest in sex is somehow repulsive or not “true” to their nature as “girls” and two, that actively protecting and shepherding that interest, emotionally and physically, making sure that it’s not exploited – by men or women, peers or older people – is somehow not their responsibility.
No. I don’t think I’m being too harsh. Here’s the graph that stuck out, er, caught my eye.

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 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 experiences or by sexual experiences entered into without romantic commitment as are women and girls.

So we protect “our” girls and teach them about romance. But “our” boys can be – what’s the right word? Serviced? by those “damaged” girls. Are those the “cheap” ones with their tattoos and pieced noses or the “fast” girls whose Mommies haven’t taught them not to let a boy see their bedrooms? Perhaps they’re the girls who come from a different culture or have darker skin? Clearly they’re the girls who really aren’t worthy of the Flanagan boys’ permanent affection and desire, aren’t they?
Now, I’m betting that’s not the message Momma Flanagan means to send. But it’s the one I’m getting. Her “I would be sad” is nothing more than modern day version of “boys will be boys…sigh” a half-boasting, half encouraging lament which we’ve been hearing for eons when it comes to men and their sexuality and our refusal, as women, to make them act responsibly.
This one paragraph – it’s okay for my sons to get a blow job but not for my daughters to give one – so completely undermines Flannigan’s point it’s infuriating in face of her tentative insistence that oral sex outside a “romantic” relationship is exploitive of the female party. You can’t help but wonder if she’s raising the very kind of men we should all be wary of: The selfish jerk whose parents have taught him that the sun shines out his rear-end and who – literally and figuratively – thinks girls (or, if he’s gay, guys) ought to be on their knees before him. Those are the very sorts of boys and men (Bill Clinton is one) who relish the kind of no-strings sexual experience that Flanagan describes as “anonymous” (it can’t be, of course, these kids know each other; they’re in school together). These boys are often, because they have been raised to be selfish, possessed of the charm and manipulative skill to get the kind of servicing Flanagan so deplores.
More annoying, Flanagan, doesn’t talk about one of the things that shrinks and anthropology types call for when they talk about young girls and success: The need to build self-confidence, a belief in control over your world. Creating self-confident girls is why feminist demanded parity in sports funding for schools. It’s why we demand equal pay for equal work and why we want our accomplishments put ahead of our gender. It’s also why women like me remain anxious and insistent on the need for more women’s voices in public discourse, debate and criticism. Girls who see they can do these things – that they can do what they want – are less likely to believe that they must do things with the permission or do things to earn the permission or help of the men they meet.
Publishing more women writers in The Atlantic isn’t going to cut down on their parents’ fantasies about teenage blow jobs. Those hapless perverts are off on their own self-involved fantasies about what they could do if they were teenagers again and knew then what they know now. But adding more women’s voices to The Atlantic might just provide these girls, soon to be, one hopes, smart, well-educated, articulate women, with ways to express themselves in the public sphere. It might demonstrate that women can participate in their society by doing, saying and writing something that doesn’t necessarily serve some repressed editor’s idea of what makes a good, sexy debate.
Editor’s note: This piece wasn’t written as a memorial to feminist theorist Betty Friedan who died on Saturday. But it could – sadly – serve as one. If you have not read The Feminine Mystique – a book that talks about how stereotypical expectations of what women are and can be serves both men and women poorly – I urge you to revisit it. It’s a dated classic but a classic nonetheless.
UPDATE:I’m not the only person who thinks Flanagan – and her belief that oral sex has remained a sleazy, one-way, male-only pleasing event – is just plain nuts. Paul Rodriguez, the smart man who writes The Pop View points me to Poplicks where there’s even more outrage and some nice statistics from the Centers for Disease Control” about teen sex habits pretty much refuting everything Flanagan is saying about teenage girls and their passivity.

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