Daily Archives: 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.

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More on those cartoon wars

Is everyone tired of the Mohammed cartoons story? Too bad, because that’s the topic of my newest Boston Globe column.

AS THE DANISH cartoons satirizing Mohammed continue to cause violent protests throughout the Muslim world, and Western newspapers grapple with the issue of whether to publish the offending cartoons, many people are asking what this incident says about the ability of Islam, at least in its current state, to coexist with modern democratic civilization and its cherished freedoms. That is a legitimate question, and we should not be deterred from asking it by either political correctness or intimidation. But the tension between traditional religion and modernity, between piety and freedom, are not limited to Islam alone — though Islamic radicalism today represents a uniquely deadly form of this tension.

In a New York Times column, David Brooks contrasts the Islamic extremists’ attitudes with ours: The West, with its ”legacy of Socrates and the agora” and its ”progressive and rational” mindset, is open to a multiplicity of arguments, perspectives, and ”unpleasant facts,” while radical Muslims cling to ”pre-Enlightenment” dogmatism and shrink from the ”chaos of our conversation.”

Yet Brooks overlooks the fact that a large segment of the population in the West, and especially in the United States, rejects the progressive, rational mindset and embraces pre-Enlightenment values as well. Fundamentalist Christians, traditionalist Catholics and ultra-Orthodox Jews do not, with very few exceptions, call for violence in response to heresy; that is a key distinction. But they too often equate criticism (let alone mockery) of their beliefs with ”religious bigotry” or ”hate speech.” And they, too, often seek not simply to protest but to shut down offensive speech.

In 1998, when a Broadway theater announced the production of Terrence McNally’s play ”Corpus Christi,” depicting a gay Jesus-like character, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights launched a letter-writing campaign against it. There were also threats of violence and arson, which at one point swayed the theater to cancel the play. The Catholic League reacted with jubilation, and while formally deploring the threats it also warned that if another theater picked up ”Corpus Christi,” it would ”wage a war that no one will forget.” (The theater eventually revived the production.)

Interestingly, the head of the Catholic League, William Donohue, recently applauded the decision of most American newspapers not to publish the Mohammed cartoons and lamented only that his group’s protests against offensive material have been less successful. Many of the same newspapers that decided — quite wrongly, in my view — not to reproduce the cartoons even as part of a news story about the reaction to them have run photos of controversial works of art considered sacrilegious by Christians, and defended the display of those works in tax-funded museums.

Donohue makes an important point when he says that this double standard reflects fear of violence by Islamic extremists, and that caving in to such intimidation is a deplorable message to send. But he, too, agrees that freedom of the press should take a back seat to respect for what is sacred to believers. Respect is of course a fine thing, but where does one draw the line between insult and criticism or questioning? A few years ago, the charge of ”Christian bashing” was leveled at the ABC show ”Nothing Sacred,” which questioned Catholic doctrine on birth control and priestly celibacy.

Others from the Christian right, such as Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition, have echoed the notion that the media should show the same deference to conservative Christians that they show to Muslims. And a few have openly voiced sympathy even with violent manifestations of Islamic extremism. Pat Buchanan recently wrote:

”When Bush speaks of freedom as God’s gift to humanity, does he mean the First Amendment freedom . . . of Salman Rushdie to publish ‘The Satanic Verses,’ a book considered blasphemous to the Islamic faith? If the Islamic world rejects this notion of freedom . . . why are they wrong?”

The truth is that modernity with its ”chaos of conversation,” its chaos of lifestyles, its attitude that there is nothing more sacred than freedom of expression, is profoundly threatening to many religious traditionalists of different faiths. (Last year, quite a few American conservatives applauded Pope Benedict XVI’s assault on ”the dictatorship of relativism.”) At the present moment, for a variety of historical and cultural reasons, radical fundamentalism holds a particular sway in the Muslim world, where it is wedded to political violence in ways that have no parallel in other religions. To ignore this difference and this danger would be foolish. But it is also unwise to ignore the religious backlash against modernity right here in the West, and its own tensions with individual freedom.


I am not, as some have implicitly or explicitly done, equating the Taliban or the Al Qaeda with the Christian Coalition or the American Family Association. They don’t have similar goals or similar means. (The Christian Reconstructionists who do have a Talibanesque theocreatic agenda don’t wield any political influence to speak of.) But I do think that it’s ludicrous to deny that ther are forces in the West, in America in particular — and, sadly, in David Brooks’s own political camp — that do represent a traditionalist backlash against the Enlightenment. (The left, of course, has its own anti-Enlightenment faction, but that’s not the point here.) To equate Jerry Falwell and Osama Bin Laden would be an absurd exercise in moral equivalency; but Brooks goes to the other extreme of exaggerated Western self-congratulation.

I agree, too, that many of the people lamenting the offensiveness of the Mohammed cartoons have had little to say not only about the steady stream of Nazi-style Jew-baiting cartoons in the Arab world, but even about anti-Israel cartoons in the European press that have had a clearly anti-Semitic tint. At the same time, there is no denying that some of the response to the cartoon controversy has had an anti-Muslim (not just anti-extremist) tint. For a good response, see this column by Steve Chapman.

Writes Chapman:

To assume that Muslims in Europe universally aspire to rule by ayatollahs is like assuming that Christians in the United States would all love to see Pat Robertson elected president.

It’s true that vicious extremism does occasionally emerge — as when a Dutch filmmaker who publicly disparaged Islam was murdered by a radical Muslim in 2004. But the killer is hardly typical of his co-religionists on the continent.

In Denmark, local Muslims responded to the cartoons in law-abiding ways — gathering petitions, talking to the newspaper editor, filing a criminal complaint, marching peacefully in Copenhagen. Only when the issue got attention in the Middle East did mayhem erupt. Even then, it occurred in only a few places, not all across the Muslim world.

There is no reason to believe that Muslims in Europe favor the torching of embassies. The head of one of Germany’s biggest Islamic groups denounced what he called “an incensed and thoughtless mob,” and said, “We abhor such actions.”

There is no doubt, though, that Europe has a Muslim problem, stemming from its reluctance to embrace immigrants as full citizens. …

If Europe wants to remain a free and tolerant place, the answer is not to treat Muslims as a dangerous alien presence. It’s to get busy turning them into Europeans.

Oh, and that criminal complaint filed by Danish Muslims against the cartoons? As Chapman notes, the law that enabled them to do that was not passed in deference to Muslim sensibilities:

Well, it turns out that some parts of Europe already ban the sort of blasphemy at issue here — under laws written to protect Christian sensibilities. Denmark, as it happens, provides up to four months in jail for anyone “who publicly offends or insults a religion.” In Germany, reports the broadcast outlet Deutsche Welle, one magazine has been sued eight times under an anti-blasphemy law enacted in 1871.

The danger, I gather, is that Europe’s Muslims will be just as intolerant of criticism of their faith as Europe’s Christians used to be of theirs. That would certainly be a bad thing. But to assume that more Muslims will inevitably turn France or Germany into a turbaned theocracy brings to mind the bumper sticker that says, “I get all the exercise I need jumping to conclusions.”

A popular exercise, that.

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