Are You There God? It's Me, Monica

How nice girls got so casual about oral sex

The first time I heard a mother of girls talk about the teenage oral-sex craze, I made her cry. The story she told me—about a bar mitzvah dinner dance on the North Shore of Chicago, where the girls serviced all the boys on the chartered bus from the temple to the reception hall—was so preposterous that I burst out laughing. The thought of thirteen-year-old girls in party dresses performing a sex act once considered the province of prostitutes (we are talking here about the on-your-knees variety given to a series of near strangers) was so ludicrous that all I could do was giggle.

It was as though I had taken lightly the news that a pedophile had moved into my friend's neighborhood. It was as though I had laughed about a leukemia cluster or a lethal stretch of freeway. I apologized profusely; I told her I hadn't known.

The moms in my set are convinced—they're certain; they know for a fact—that all over the city, in the very best schools, in the nicest families, in the leafiest neighborhoods, twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls are performing oral sex on as many boys as they can. They're ducking into janitors' closets between classes to do it; they're doing it on school buses, and in bathrooms, libraries, and stairwells. They're making bar mitzvah presents of the act, and performing it at "train parties": boys lined up on one side of the room, girls working their way down the row. The circle jerk of old—shivering Boy Scouts huddled together in the forest primeval, desperately trying to spank out the first few drops of their own manhood—has apparently moved indoors, and now (death knell of the Eagle Scout?) there's a bevy of willing girls to do the work.

When I first began hearing these stories, I was convinced that we were in the grips of a nationwide urban legend, and the prevalence of stories centered on bar mitzvahs seemed to me suspicious, possibly even anti-Semitic in origin. But sure enough, in 2003 a feminist Jewish quarterly called Lilith addressed the story—not to debunk it but to come to terms with it as a recognized problem within the Jewish community: "No one is suggesting, even for a moment, that Jewish teens are leading the oral sex revolution. But they may have earlier and more frequent opportunities for sexual contact in a supercharged social milieu than their non-Jewish peers." The authors observe that the oral sex is "almost always unilateral (girls on boys)."

In talking with people, I found only one verifiable account of a girl servicing more than one boy at a party. But the army of school administrators and teachers and parents and girls I spoke with convincingly reported an astonishing change in the sexual behavior of middle- and upper-middle-class girls. Fellatio, which was once a part of the sexual repertoire only of experienced women, is now commonly performed by very young girls outside of romantic relationships, casually and without any expectation of reciprocation. It used to be that a hopeful recipient of fellatio had a lot of talking to do—to persuade, and very often to instruct, his partner. (The Sensuous Woman, published in 1969, was shocking for a number of reasons, but most of all because it gave to its audience of middle-class woman explicit instructions on how to perform oral sex. "Now don't turn up your nose and make that ugly face!" says the anonymous author, "J." Oral sex is the "preferred way with many movie stars, artists, titled Europeans and jet setters.")

Nowadays girls don't consider oral sex in the least exotic—nor do they even consider it to be sex. It's just "something to do." A friend who attended a leadership conference for girls from some of the country's top schools told me, "Friendships haven't changed a bit since our day. But sex has changed a lot." One of the teachers, from an eastern boarding school, told the students that when she was young, in the 1960s, oral sex was considered far more intimate than intercourse. The kids hooted at the notion. "It's like licking a lollipop," one pretty girl from a prestigious girls' school said, flipping her hair in the ancient gesture of teenage certainty. "It's no big deal."

Somehow these girls have developed the indifferent attitude toward performing oral sex that one would associate with bitter, long-married women or streetwalkers. But they think of themselves as normal teenagers, version 2005. For a while, whenever I passed groups of young girls, I looked at them anew. Were these nice kids—the ones playing AYSO soccer and doing their homework and shopping with their moms—behaving like little whores whenever they got the chance? It was like some weird search for communists—was the sweet, well-spoken daughter of a friend actually a blowjobber? I looked at the small girls in my children's schoolyard—as cosseted and protected and beloved a group of children as you will find anywhere on the planet—and tried to convince myself that in a matter of five or six years they would be performing oral sex on virtual strangers.

It was crazy! It simply couldn't be true.

Last spring there were glimmers of hope. Ruth Padawer, a senior writer for The (Bergen, New Jersey) Record, wrote an editorial that was widely syndicated because of its balm of good news. Apparently there was word around town that eighth-graders were having oral sex behind the dugout during recess. (One thing to note about the oral-sex panic is the insistently wholesome locations in which the sex is said to occur.) But readers should dismiss the gossip: "According to several well-respected national surveys, the chatter apparently far surpasses action among young adolescents." A month later David Brooks wrote a very reasonable New York Times editorial about teen sex, called "Public Hedonism and Private Restraint," in which he said, "Reports of an epidemic of teenage oral sex are … greatly exaggerated. There's very little evidence to suggest it is really happening."

However, the 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. Obviously, there was no previous data to compare this with, but millions of suburban dads were quite adamant that they had been born too soon.

The moms were traumatized anew. "It's like there's a bogeyman in the next room, and we keep praying for him to go away," a friend who has a seventh-grade daughter told me. "But he won't."

The conviction that nice girls are engaging in no-strings-attached, semi-anonymous fellatio is based on a genuine and puzzling change in teen sexual behavior. It is manifested in a group hysteria in which terrified adults have projected onto their children superhuman sexual capabilities and technical prowess. And it is reflective of the fact that the dominant culture in this country—one forged by the apparently opposed forces of male sexual desire and female empowerment—has abandoned girls in every possible respect. These three factors worked their way into literature this summer with a book that historians may someday regard as the single biggest clue to the cultural anxieties surrounding the American teenage girl circa 2005: The Rainbow Party, by Paul Ruditis.

The Rainbow Party, an offering from Simon Pulse, a young-adult division of Simon & Schuster, takes place on a single day, in which a tough little sophomore named Gin issues invitations to a party at which she and five of her friends will perform oral sex on the lucky guests, a group of popular boys. The girls will each wear a different color of lipstick, so that when a boy has completed the circuit, his penis will bear the colors of the rainbow. The party is to take place after school, to last about an hour and a half—including time for chitchat—and to conclude before Gin's father returns home from work.

In addition to the predictable, outraged criticism that this vile book has received, there is a question of veracity: as many readers have noted, wouldn't the different colors of lipstick smear together, destroying the desired rainbow effect? Not once, however, has another question been posed: How many boys could successfully receive seven blowjobs in an hour? Surely even the adolescent male at the peak of his sexual prime needs at least a few minutes to reload. One would assume that the first transaction would be completed at light speed, that the second might take a bit longer—and that by the fourth or fifth even the horniest tenth-grader might display some real staying power. But asking questions like these will automatically preclude you from entering the current oral-sex hysteria, which presupposes not only that a limitless number of young American girls have taken on the sexual practices of porn queens but also that American boys are capable of having an infinite number of sexual experiences in rapid succession. It requires believing that a boy could be serviced at the school-bus train party—receiving oral sex from ten or fifteen girls, one after another—and then zip his fly and head off to homeroom, first stopping in the stairwell for a quickie to tide him over until math.

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Caitlin Flanagan has contributed to The Atlantic's books section since 2000. She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of an upcoming book, To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife. More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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