Are You There God? It's Me, Monica

How nice girls got so casual about oral sex

And then: Forever. If Hollywood movies of the 1930s taught my parents how to kiss, Forever taught me how to have sex. This was sex the way girls wanted to read about it, the way they wanted to experience it: immersed in romance. Katherine and Michael are college-bound high school seniors from nice families. Katherine's parents are so exquisitely in tune with the physical and emotional progress of her relationship that one wonders if they've planted a wire on her. The grandmother who in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret? sent sweaters with labels that read made expressly for you … by grandma now sends Planned Parenthood brochures with a note reading, "I don't judge, I just advise." Katherine's mother leaves a New York Times article about teen sex on her daughter's pillow one night, and they rap about it the next morning. "A person shouldn't ever feel pushed into sex," Katherine tells her mom. "Or that she has to do it to please someone else …" "I'm glad you feel that way," Mom says approvingly. Was Mom, Katherine asks, a virgin when she got married? No, but she's had sex only with Dad, and she waited until they were engaged.

Where Margaret offered highly specific information about sanitary pads and belts, Forever takes us straight to the birth-control clinic, and it doesn't flinch. ("Then he slipped this cold thing into my vagina and explained, 'This is a vaginal speculum. It holds the walls of the vagina open so that the inside is easily seen. Would you like to see your cervix?'")

Armed with birth-control pills, with a code of sexual ethics that center on a girl's cautious willingness and a boy's patient and full commitment to her, and with a final health clearance (Michael admits that the previous summer he contracted VD from his only other sexual partner, but he's fine now), Katherine and Michael are off to the races. Anyone who rereads Forever and expects to find it much tamer than she remembers is in for a shock: "This time Michael made it last much, much longer and I got so carried away I grabbed his backside with both hands, trying to push him deeper and deeper into me—and I spread my legs as far apart as I could—and I raised my hips off the bed—and I moved with him, again and again and again—and at last I came."

The question is this: How, exactly, in the course of thirty years, did we get from Katherine to Gin? How did we go from a middle-class teenage girl (fictional but broadly accurate) who will have sex only if it's with her boyfriend, and only if her pleasure is equal to his, to a middle-class teenage girl (a gross media caricature reflective of an admittedly disturbing trend) who wants to kneel down and service a series of boys? Katherine and her mother (who still enjoys a pleasurable sex life with her husband) represent two points on a continuum. In the mother's generation sex was contained by marriage; in the daughter's it was contained by love and relationships. The next point on this progression ought to be a girl who feels that nothing save her own desire should control her choice of sexual partners. Instead we see a group of young girls who have in effect turned away from their own desire altogether and have made of their sexuality something that fulfills all sorts of goals, but not the one paramount to Katherine and her mother: that it be sexually gratifying to themselves.

Tracing the story of the writing and publication of The Rainbow Party requires an examination of two forces: the genuine and perplexing rise of oral sex among teenagers—specifically of oral sex performed by young girls on boys—and the media-fueled hysteria of girls' parents, which has prompted tales of orgiastic tween encounters suggesting that every ninth-grade noodlehead is leading an erotic life worthy of the NBA all-stars. The story does not begin with a million moms opening their coat closets as one, only to watch in horror as their pre-teen daughters tumble out alongside tumescent chums from chess club. It begins—is nowhere safe?—with PBS. In 1999 the network broadcast an episode of Frontline that became legendary. Called "The Lost Children of Rockdale County," it centered on a teen syphilis outbreak in Conyers, Georgia, an exurb of Atlanta where vast acres of farmland have been converted into subdivisions of large, handsome houses, and where the three local high schools, flush with tax dollars, are among the best in the state. The show became a sensation, was repeatedly rebroadcast, and was featured on Oprah, where it was called a "must see for all parents."

"The Lost Children of Rockdale County" is a bizarre program that takes isolated teen depravity, anxious adult voyeurism, and an ever important dash of venereal disease and blends them into a vividly yellow piece of public-service journalism—one that typically exaggerates the what, and in so doing just as typically overlooks the why behind a less sensational but far more pervasive concern. The tale is told largely by middle-aged women who are at turns clinically matter-of-fact about and pruriently fascinated by what happened in Conyers. A small group of white girls from stupendously troubled families (the kids are described as "cherubic" for maximum effect) began meeting in one of the girls' houses after school—and sometimes in a motel room—to do drugs and service two groups of rough trade, one of local white boys, the other of African-American boys (a recent prison inmate among them) who commuted from a different part of the county to avail themselves of the girls. Oral sex wasn't the half of it—what these kids allegedly engaged in combined the degeneracy of a satanic cult with the agility of a Cirque du Soleil troupe. We are told that a common after-school activity in Conyers was "the sandwich," in which a girl would be simultaneously penetrated by as many as four boys (the fourth, apparently a Johnny-come-lately, would somehow shoehorn himself into an orifice already occupied by one of his pals). With the kids in Conyers exploiting virtually every known opening for sexual transmission, an outbreak was not unlikely. It spread to seventeen kids, who were treated and who recovered fully.

But the show also contains interviews with kids who had nothing to do with this horrifying and aberrant episode, kids who seem adrift in the increasingly isolating family culture that was being born in the nineties. They speak of family members who have televisions in their own rooms, who never eat dinner together, who live with one another in the sepulchral McMansions of Conyers the way people live together in hotels: nodding politely as they pass on the stairs, aware of one another's schedules and routines but only in a vague, indifferent manner. These are kids—girls especially—who have developed a dull, curiously passionless relationship to their own sexuality, which they give of freely. The girls seem sad that their easily granted sexual favors (including oral sex) have not earned them boyfriends, and completely unaware of how they could have negotiated the transactions differently.

The producers ingeniously and dishonorably encourage the viewer to meld these two different stories together, that of the diseased, freaky girls and their multi-pronged campaign of self-destruction, and that of the sad, sexually precocious normal kids—in short, to link the activities of the latter with the outcomes of the former. And thus the oral-sex hysteria was officially born. The belief that casual oral sex in a middle-class school community was an invitation to a teenage public-health threat of epidemic proportions gave the media license to talk about it endlessly and in the most graphic terms imaginable—following the silence = death formulation created during the height of the American AIDS crisis, which encouraged frank public sexual discourse in the hope of saving lives. It's a no-miss formula: descriptions of young girls performing oral sex that are so luridly specific as to seem pedophilic in the adults' retelling, coupled with stern warnings to parents that their daughters are in harm's way. All of which misses a less alarming but more poignant fact. What's most worrisome about this age of blasé blowjobs isn't what the girls might catch (one can contract an STD through oral sex alone; however, the risk is lower than for most other forms of sexual transmission), it's what the girls are almost certainly losing: a healthy emotional connection to their own sexuality and their own desire. In this context all the unflinching medico-sexual naughty talk is but a cowardly evasion of a more insidious problem—one resistant to penicillin.

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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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