Are You There God? It's Me, Monica

How nice girls got so casual about oral sex

The Rainbow Party has the feeling of true pornography. In particular, it has the feeling of homosexual-male pornography. The school is called Harding High, and the prose takes a quickening, vivid leap forward when two boys, Hunter and Perry, duck into the school bathroom, where Perry services his pal and then wonders if they might be gay. Otherwise the book is inert, obscene without being erotic, its slim narrative structure insufficient for the gimmickry of its premise. The party is eventually undermined by a series of debacles, leaving Gin and her pal Sandy alone to service the crowd—and then the boys can't even be bothered to show up. This is clearly a high school humiliation of an entirely new and apocalyptic order. What if you gave a blowjob party but nobody came? Injury to insult, Gin gets the clap, victim and catalyst of a school-wide gonorrhea outbreak.

The book's sole effective literary technique is achieved unintentionally: The Rainbow Party is so leaden and formulaic, so completely deadened to any of the possibilities of fiction, that it mirrors the way girls are said to feel about fellatio—jaded and shockproof. (It's not just Hunter and Perry's high jinks in the restroom that put one in mind of bathhouse culture. Almost everything about the current blowjob craze—the randomness of the sexual encounters; the fact that they're apparently devoid of meaning beyond the immediate gratification of male desire, that neither party is inclined to say "no," that little consideration is given to female desire, or even female anatomy—suggests a strain of gay male sex more than it does traditional male-female relationships.) It is hard to imagine that a person could read a novel like that and feel genuine emotion of any kind. In this way it is the exact opposite of the novel that was for me, and many of my high school friends, the most powerful book of our young lives. Not since Uncle Tom's Cabin has a single novel by an American woman prompted so many readers into such radical action. I speak, of course, about Judy Blume's Forever.

Judy Blume, who has sold more than 75 million books, been awarded the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and been called one of the most banned writers in America, began writing for children in the 1960s. She married young, established housekeeping in suburban New Jersey, and promptly had two children. She loved the kids but loathed the housewifery, and as a creative outlet took a class in children's literature.

Blume describes her childhood as one in which she was "dying with curiosity" about sex, but there was nowhere in the 1940s and 1950s for a nice girl to get any information. The memory of that burning curiosity led her to write a novel about a twelve-year-old waiting to get her period, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Before the publication of this seminal work, a bookish girl interested in the emotions and practicalities surrounding menstruation would be nudged by a sympathetic teacher toward the diary of Anne Frank, which sure enough addresses the subject with candor, but the general mood of the book—what with the Holocaust and all—did not generate much enthusiasm for the menses. The dearest book of my childhood, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, includes Francie's first period, but again, the novel's no upper: shortly after first blood Francie is assaulted by a pervert in a tenement hallway. I was in seventh grade when The Exorcist was released. No one my age was allowed anywhere near it, but we were well versed in the plot (the implications of which were clear, if unspoken, to all of my friends): a prepubescent girl—a girl our age, on the cusp of the same event we were—was overtaken body and soul not by the Kotex cartel but by the devil himself. At twelve I knew a few basic facts about menstruation—it somehow involved babies and shedding a lining and blood everywhere—and was possessed by an unholy fear of it.

And then I went to Naomi Zimmerman's birthday party, and while the other girls slumbered through the night, I stayed up and read one of the presents, a brand-new copy of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. By dawn I was a new girl. Here was a character on the brink of getting her first period, but she wasn't being hunted by sex fiends or Nazis or Beelzebub. She wasn't frightened by what was about to happen—she couldn't wait. And her wonderful family couldn't wait either.

Reading Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret for the first time in thirty years meant realizing anew that the world of my childhood is as distant and unrecoverable as that of the Etruscans. Margaret and I were young during a time when little girls dreamed of getting the courage to ask their mothers for training bras, attended carefully supervised dances, eagerly wore clothes that the modern preteen would sooner die than put on. ("Should I wear my velvet?" Margaret asks her mother when she learns she's been invited to a boy-girl supper party. "It's your best," her mother replies.) In Margaret's world the boys can't be counted on to maintain a grown-up demeanor for these events: they disappoint the girls by stomping on their toes during a PTA-sponsored square dance; at the supper party they throw their sports coats in a pile and shoot mustard at the ceiling through drinking straws. But it is also the boys who are responsible for introducing the first glimmerings of sex to the group. When a boy suggests that they turn off the light and play Guess Who—"the boys line up on one side and the girls on the other and then when I yell Go the boys run to the girls' side and try to guess who's who by the way they feel"—the girls put on the brakes immediately. ("'No, thank you,' Gretchen said. 'That's disgusting!'") The girls agree to a game of Spin the Bottle, however, and that night Margaret gets her first thrilling, fleeting kiss. The novel ends in triumph: three drops of blood on Margaret's underpants, discovered the day of the sixth-grade farewell party, mean that she has left childhood behind.

Through all of these events Margaret's parents are by her side, helping her to negotiate her excitement and her fears, congratulating her on each of the steps she makes toward womanhood. And if they give her plenty of support when she gets her first period, by the time she's ready—at age seventeen—to have her first sexual experience, they practically stand by the bed and take photographs to put in the family scrapbook. For despite the fact that the protagonist in Forever is named Katherine, she is really Margaret a few years older, still living in suburban New Jersey, still a good girl with good parents. Forever is the first mainstream novel written for American teenage girls that is not only sexually explicit but also intentionally erotic, and that gives them the exact information—practical as well as emotional—to initiate a satisfying sex life.

Again, consider what had come before. As a teenage girl in the early 1970s who was as desperately curious about sex as Judy Blume had been in the fifties, I read everything I could lay my hands on. I turned to novels for information about sex not because I'm a reader but because when I was young they were among the few places a nice girl could find any. (Love, American Style was risqué, but it was hardly explicit.) To my parents' dismay I read Valley of the Dolls more times than I could count, but Jacqueline Susann's attitude toward human sexuality was of a piece with her prose: whorish and dirty. Goodbye, Columbus commanded my attention, but you don't turn to Philip Roth if you want to learn how to go all the way with a really nice boyfriend.

Adults were quick to stick you with The Bell Jar, which you were supposed to lap up with zesty gratitude because of its racy subject matter, but I smelled a rat from the get-go. Even at sixteen I could tell that the book was overpraised, a stealth weapon of grownups eager to appear progressive in their literary suggestions for teenagers but secretly dying for you to get an eyeful of Esther's first sexual experience: recovering from a suicide attempt, on furlough from a psychiatric ward, she does the deed with an older man and almost hemorrhages to death.

The only books I'd seen that placed sex where I wanted to find it—in the middle of a committed relationship, with the boy treating the girl as if she were a fragile piece of glass, and their love so powerful that it threatened to blot them both out—were the pregnancy-scare books that had been passed from hand to hand among the girls at my Catholic junior high. Written in the 1960s, they invariably involved a supersmart girl (family: respectable, middle-class) and a really neat, ambitious boy (his people would be working-class; their great dream would be for their son to become a college boy). Always they would make a terrible mistake one night; always it would turn out to have been one shot with a bullet: dead rabbit and hell to pay. They would grapple with the most serious kinds of decision-making, and always (this is why we devoured these books and dreamed about them) the couple ended up married at sixteen, living in garage apartments or guesthouses. Books like Too Bad About the Haines Girl and Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones were supposed to frighten us away from sex, lest we become tragic girls ourselves. But they were so clearly built upon a commonly accepted and deeply stirring code of male honor—an almost chivalric set of principles, handed down through the centuries, and still in practice in the American suburbs of the 1960s—that we were dazzled by them, and regarded them as the greatest love stories ever told. Which, in a sense, they were.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  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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