The Boyfriend Myth

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Caitlin Flanagan's most recent piece on teen America has attracted a fairly predictable controversy. Any article that called pop singer Taylor Swift a leader in a "cultural insurrection" would get reactions; however, Flanagan's master stroke was not in casting Swift as a culture warrior, but in her description of the cultural war in question, itself—the movement Flanagan describes as "one of the last, great stands for human dignity." Whereas the women of previous generations fought for the right to vote, the right to work, and the right to choose, today's young woman, as per Flanagan, is fighting a for a new kind of feminist victory: The right to want a boyfriend.

Whether girls of any era have lacked cultural permission to pine over boys, or drippy crush anthems to listen to while pining, is debatable. But Flanagan perceives this pining as a bold stand against casual sex, which she casts as both a recent invention and a slap in the face to feminists of generations past.

"No matter how forward-thinking, no matter how progressive, those long-ago women might seem to us now"—here, Flanagan is describing women of her mother's generation, women who campaigned for birth control and sex education and would have been old enough to have teenaged daughters in the late 1970s; roughly the age, that is, of Gloria Steinem, who turned 40 in 1974—"they shared one unquestioned assumption about girls and sex, a premise that, if expressed today, might cast doubt on one's commitment to girls' sexual liberation: all of them, to a woman, believed in the Boyfriend Story. This set wasn't in the business of providing girls and young women the necessary information and services to allow boys and men to use and discard them sexually."

Yet girls today, Flanagan says, are being "used and discarded" by the hook-up culture; "allowing" themselves to be, in fact. She sees them as more likely to have casual sex than boyfriends, more likely to want boyfriends than casual sex, and more likely to be treated badly by young men as the result of casual sex, since without the obligation of a relationship, men have no reason to care about women or treat them well. It's a grim picture.

It also hinges on some substantial inaccuracies. Whether Gloria Steinem's generation believed "to a woman" in the importance of boyfriends, for example, is a question worth asking. (Short answer: No. Longer answer: Ends with "like a fish needs a bicycle.") And then, there's the issue of whether the 1960s and 1970s—the decades that gave us swinging, free love, and the rise of the Playboy empire—could reasonably be described as averse to casual sex. But Flanagan's biggest error is in suggesting that the Boyfriend Story, or boyfriends in general, are of necessity healthier than hook-ups: safer, kinder, less risky. This isn't an issue of opinion; it is actually, and demonstrably, untrue.

Hooking up may leave girls unsatisfied and lonely. It may include experiences that are, in Flanagan's words, "frightening, embarrassing, uncomfortable at best, painful at worst." But assuming that these experiences are all consensual—I trust Flanagan wouldn't qualify date rape as a "hook-up," however grim her language may be—we can't know that they are "hurting" girls in any measureable way. Here is what we do know to be hurting girls in a measureable way, however: Their boyfriends.

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Sady Doyle is a freelance writer based in New York City. She blogs at Tiger Beatdown. More

Sady Doyle is a writer living in New York. She has contributed to Salon's Broadsheet, the American Prospect, the Guardian's Comment is Free, and Feministe. She blogs at Tigerbeatdown.com.

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