Sugar and Vice
“Get her father involved in her dating life.” When I came upon this recommendation (tip number three for getting daughters safely through adolescence) in Caitlin Flanagan’s book Girl Land, I had to laugh. Could it really be that an author needs to state something so obvious? How many readers do not already know that, as Flanagan explains, “punks” can’t stand “coming under the authority and scrutiny of a powerful adult male?”
Perhaps more than one would think. Reading the rest of Flanagan’s light but informative jaunt through the history and current sad state of American female adolescence, I began to wonder whether I had been overestimating American parents. There is her account of today’s after-prom party ritual. Schools do not want to be held liable for any problematic behavior on their watch, so the proms themselves are closely guarded events, free of alcohol and sexual activity. Even suggestive dancing is banned in “contracts” that students must sign prior to attending. But the after-party, often held at a chaperone-free home, has become a freak show. Girls at the prestigious prep school near Flanagan’s home shed their pricey dresses and don lingerie sets to attend “P&H,” shorthand for the gathering whose theme every year is “Pimps and Ho’s.” When they get off the party bus, they are “regarded with surprised delight by whatever men happen to be there—homeless guys, street thugs, the club’s bouncers, wanderers—who had not expected to get an eyeful of very young, upper-middle-class girls dressed in panties and boots.”
The dean of students at another school tells Flanagan: “The number one thing that amazes all of us year after year…is the way the parents will let them do anything on prom night. They will not—I mean will not—stop their kids from doing any stupid, dangerous thing they want.” One year, a concerned mother complained to the dean. But instead of forbidding the girl from attending, she drove to the party herself and sat parked outside the “abandoned warehouse” where it took place so she could reassure herself of her daughter’s security.
Indeed, if there is one conclusion a reader should reach after finishing Girl Land, it is that most parents have lost any semblance of common sense. For several years now, Flanagan’s regular essays in the Atlantic, some of which formed the basis for this book, have been a welcome antidote to this problem. If only they were more widely read, surely we’d be in better shape. In Girl Land, Flanagan tries to provide a coherent chronology to the cultural collapse that she has observed. The road is a little windy at times, but her prose makes that easier to overlook.
At the vanguard of this collapse, as Flanagan describes it, were people like Robert and Melanie Bellah—the Harvard professor and his Stanford-educated wife—who raised four daughters in Cambridge and then in Berkeley in the late 1960s and 70s. The children’s “early girlhood found expression in a hundred ways,” Flanagan reports. They played Fairyland and Queen of the May and Cinderella. They went to ballet and kept diaries detailing their every romantic flight of fancy. “The Bellahs were permissive parents,” Flanagan writes, “a phrase that to the contemporary reader sounds like a criticism, but in those days was considered the sign of involvement and thoughtfulness.” Permissiveness regarding imaginary play might be wonderful, but when their daughter Tammy hit adolescence, things took a turn for the worse.
Based on diary entries that her mother found and wrote about after Tammy’s suicide at the age of 19, it is easy to see the confused girl’s romantic side. She falls for boy after boy and starts sleeping with them at a rapid clip, chronicling each experience in heart-fluttering detail. The relationships grow increasingly abusive, and yet Tammy’s writing is always heavy with adolescent emotion. Writes Flanagan: “Her true desire, we sense quickly, wasn’t exactly—or certainly not only—sexual….She wanted desperately to love and be loved.”
In the case of a better known child of this era, Patty Hearst, Flanagan tries to explain how in the midst of her captivity, she became the “girlfriend” of SLA leader Willie Wolfe. In her memoir, Hearst even describes the small, carved monkey Wolfe gave her as his “most treasured possession.” Flanagan writes, “It was a particularly feminine thing to do, to try against all odds to place one’s sex life within the context of romance and affection.”
Which is what most adolescent girls want to do. To acknowledge this, Flanagan insists, is no crime. Yet parents continue to ignore their girls’ persistent conflation of sexuality and affection. They are more and more reluctant to tell their daughters that boys do not always want the same thing girls do. Instead, once parents have taken care to make sure that their children don’t get pregnant and are protected from venereal disease, they seem to run out of reasons to discourage early sexualization.
Caitlin Flanagan is not a prude. And she is fortunately not gullible enough to believe every horror story she hears about teenage girls. When a mother told her a few years ago about a bar mitzvah dinner dance on the North side of Chicago “where the girls serviced all the boys on the bus from the temple to the reception hall,” Flanagan found the story “so preposterous” that she “burst out laughing.” After several other mothers reported similar stories to her, she traced this not-quite-urban-myth—let’s call it an urban exaggeration—to an episode of the PBS investigative show Frontline called “The Lost Children of Rockdale County.” The show, which aired in 1999, suggested that an epidemic of orgies had led to widespread syphilis in a particular community in Georgia. In fact, Flanagan notes, the kind of sexual deviance described in the documentary was horrifying but was actually pretty limited in scope.
The show’s interviewers found some adolescents who were not involved in the reported orgies. Theirs was a different problem, though. Flanagan explains: “These were kids—girls especially—who had developed a dull, curiously passionless relationship to their sexuality, which they gave of freely. The girls seemed sad that their easily granted sexual favors (including oral sex) had not earned them boyfriends, and they were completely unaware of how they could have negotiated the transactions differently.”
But how did we get to a point where girls are so helplessly ignorant on such matters? The broader culture is in no small part to blame. Flanagan offers all sorts of artifacts from Judy Blume books to women’s magazines to rap lyrics, suggesting that women’s approach to sex is or should be exactly like men’s.
But again and again Flanagan returns to parents. Her own mother and father at least made some attempt to explain the differences between boys and girls and why the latter shouldn’t trust the good will of the former. Her mother scolded her after finding she had invited a boy to her bedroom, suggesting that he would tell his friends that he knew the color of the comforter on her bed. What a quaint notion. Many young girls today would probably greet such a comment with bafflement. Why shouldn’t everyone know such a thing? There are probably pictures of her bed on her Facebook page, if not a YouTube video with it in the background.
Today’s world is a lonely one for sensible parents. As Flanagan points out, the whole “it takes a village” philosophy “is a joke, because the village is so polluted and so desolate of commonly held, child-appropriate moral values that my job as a mother is not to rely on the village but to protect my children from it.” (One of her other useful, but head-smackingly obvious, “recommendations” is to prohibit an Internet connection in the child’s bedroom.)
So is Flanagan terrified that her own children will engage in sex outside of a romantic context? Would she think she had failed catastrophically as a mother? No, she writes. “Because I don’t have daughters. I have sons.”