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July 27, 2006

Caitlin Flanagan Reminds Teenage Girls to Follow The Rules

Warning: this post is about sex.

A few months ago, Caitlin Flanagan published a book review in The Atlantic about the new "epidemic" of oral sex among young teenage girls. She critiques the feminist movement for encouraging young women to act on their sexual desires, and points out that this new rage for oral sex, which young girls are giving but not receiving, doesn't provide them with any kind of fulfilment, and may actually be quite damaging to them on a psychological level, not to mention the disease risks.

This article generated a flurry of letters to the editors, several of which tried to make sense of the tweenage oral sex pehenomenon in ways I found quite convincing. One writer blamed it on the culture of extreme praise from parents, in which "children are regularly priased to the heavens for picking up their dirty laundry or for coming in eleventh place in a spelling bee." As a result, children have to try harder and resort to more extreame measures in order to shock and upset their parents. Another writer suggested that the middle- and upper-middle-class girls Flanagan describes are more willing to get on their knees because they "have been progammed to be pleasers from the day they were required to interview for a coveted spot in the right kindergarten." Flanagan, however, is not interested in the social and cultural factors that produce the behavior she laments. In her response to the letters, she dismisses these two explanations simply because they appear to contradict each other -- one blames a lack of standards, the other blames unattainable standards -- and she thus decides they must both be wrong, rather than trying to understand how they might both be right at the same time.

Instead, Caitlin blames the feminist movement, which she says has encouraged girls to break The Rules. She concludes by reminding girls that:

If you want a boy to invite you to the prom, or to treat you well, or to speak highly of you to his friends, or to spend long hours thinking about how he can work his way into your heart -- if what you want from him is courtship, romance, and respect -- the very last thing you should do is ambush him with a sexual favor. That girls no longer know this to the marrow of their bones -- that this knowledge comes to them in a slow awakening of misery and shame -- is testament to how badly our culture has failed them.

This statement pissed me off to no end. Granted, I'm not going to encourage my teenage sisters to go out and have sex with their male classmates, but Flanagan's screed perpetuates tired myths about gender relations that are insulting to both men and women. First, it dredges up that old virgin/whore duality, suggesting that there are two types of women in the world: those who have sex and those who get married, and that if you have sex before you get married, men will see you as "damaged merchandise" and won't want to marry you. But why would I want to "win the heart" of someone who views me that way anyway? Second, it suggests that men don't have to treat women with respect simply because we are fellow human beings, but rather that we have to earn their respect by living up to standards of chastity that we don't expect men to live up to. This brings me to number three, the double standard: it is fine for men to have sex before marriage, but not for women to do the same thing. Fourth, it gives men all the power in the relationship. We are no longer living in the fifties. Girls can ask guys to prom, and women can propose marriage to their boyfriends. Fifth, the idea that women have to "trick" men into wanting them by playing "hard to get" is insulting and dehumanizing to men, suggesting that they are simply animals who enjoy the chase and get bored if they don't get to go out hunting for their female prey -- if that prey comes to them instead.

Feminism is about equality. The phenomenon Flanagan is describing, in which young girls are getting down on their knees to give unreciprocated oral sex to their male peers, does not sound at all equal. To suggest that this is one of the unintended consequences of the feminist movement simply blames women for the continued inequalities and exploitation we experience in our social and sexual lives.

Posted by eklanche at July 27, 2006 10:07 AM


Flanagan's all about getting a reaction, no matter how ridiculous and blatantly contradictory her statements. Her fascination for the family that never was, of the 50's & 60's - and their mostly mythical moral code - is also very strange.

From what I've read, also, there is little evidence that this epidemic really exists (or where it does, that the oral sex is not reciprocal).

Given the recent brouhaha about blow jobs in the feminist blogosphere (see http://blog.iblamethepatriarchy.com/2006/06/14/judgemental-sex-pedantry/#comments for the beginnings, if you missed it), it is downright funny that Flanagan's blaming this (also possibly mythical, urban legend material) on feminism.

Posted by: sdunavan@verizon.net at July 27, 2006 04:13 PM

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