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.