Are You There God? It's Me, Monica

How nice girls got so casual about oral sex

Four months after the Frontline documentary aired, Talk magazine published an essay called "The Sex Lives of Your Children." Its author, Lucinda Franks, described an upper-middle-class white world in which oral sex began at age twelve, and said—in perhaps the first published use of the term—that train parties abounded. For the sake of journalistic accuracy she reported a twelve-year-old girl's description of the taste of sperm, and during an NPR radio interview about her essay she referred to the Conyers incident in the wildly inaccurate way in which the episode had quickly passed into the national consciousness: in Rockdale County, Georgia, "a whole town—the kids came down with syphilis."

Two years later Oprah invited Dr. Phil to her television show to address the topic. "There's an oral-sex epidemic," Oprah told the audience point-blank. Teary mothers related their horrifying stories: "A year or two ago she was playing with Barbies and collecting Beanie Babies. And then now all of a sudden she's into casual oral sex!" Wide-eyed young girls spilled the beans on their slutty classmates, and intimated that they themselves weren't so different. That the entire subject is ugly and fraught was underscored when Dr. Phil decided to confront a young blowjobber about the error of her ways. She was sitting in the front row next to her mother, who was apparently hoping that public humiliation on a global scale might reform her daughter.

Dr. Phil, who has the vast, impenetrable physique of a pachyderm and the calculated folksiness of a country-music promoter, employs a psychotherapeutic cloak of respectability to legitimize his many prurient obsessions. "When you're saying 'It's just friends,' let me tell you," he raged at the poor girl, "a friend doesn't ask you to go in the bathroom, get on your knees in a urine-splattered tile floor, and stick their penis in your mouth. That's not what I call a friend." (Poor Howard Stern has spent years alternately outraged and heartbroken about the FCC's refusal to sanction women's talk shows the way it does his morning show, and episodes like this make you realize he has a point.)

As the audience roared its approval (whether for chastity or obscenity was unclear), the girl looked stricken and angry. "That's not what happened to me," she whispered audibly to her mother, who whispered back, "Tell him." But the girl was understandably cowed by the specter of Dr. Phil on one of his verbal stampedes, and she said nothing, leaving him clueless about a major aspect of the oral-sex craze. No boy had forced the girl anywhere. In all likelihood she herself had been the initiator, the location scout, the one who had decided that this was indeed an activity that could take place between two "friends." (The oral-sex hysteria has attributed to American boys not only superhuman virility but also wanton emotional cruelty. The one is laughable; the other in the main is just not the case. Like the medical dodge, the demonization of boys oversimplifies the problem and spares one the arguably sadder truth.)

In 2003 Oprah addressed the topic again: in an article in O magazine that she also featured on her television show. "Parents, brace yourselves," Oprah said. Teenagers are leading "double lives"—and we all need to get hip to the code words they use. The journalist who wrote the article got right to the point: A "tossed salad," for example, was "oral sex to the anus." A "dirty" girl was a diseased one. And a "rainbow party" was a blowjob party where the girls wore different-colored lipstick.

Apparently taking a break from her toil in the vineyard of belles lettres—relaxing, in fact, by watching Oprah—was Bethany Buck, a Simon & Schuster editrix who smelled a winner. She contacted Ruditis (one of whose previous books was The Brady Bunch Guide to Life); they created characters and an outline; and he was sent off to type the thing up.

The oral-sex craze—and in particular girls' insistence that blowjobs "aren't sex"—has often been blamed on Bill Clinton and his semantic calisthenics during the Kenneth Starr investigation. But even if teen girls were looking to the White House for personal guidance, was it really Bubba they were trying to emulate? Girls' private lives are always much more influenced by First Daughters, or even First Ladies, than they are by any pasty politico. Furthermore, and more damning to the blame-Clinton argument, the events chronicled in "The Lost Children of Rockdale County" occurred two years before it was revealed that Monica Lewinsky (hardly an aspirational figure to the young girls of America, who wanted neither to fellate middle-aged men nor to wear beastly Gap suit-dresses) had flashed her XXL thong at him and got out her "presidential kneepads." And anyway, what culture had Monica emerged from that she was eager merely to give the great man a blowjob—that her highest sexual ambition was not to become his Mrs. Bo Jo Jones but simply (read the federally funded Starr report, if you must) to have him ejaculate in her mouth? Indeed, to hear Monica tell it, the meanest thing Bill did to her wasn't to refuse her phone calls and give her a dorky book of poems. No, in Monica's world Bill was a big creep because at the critical moment he withdrew the presidential organ and jacked off over the sink—a sexual decision that might once have been considered sort of thoughtful (remember the three biggest lies, anyone?) but in the new order is somehow a mark of disrespect.

Blowjob nation has also been blamed on "abstinence only" sex-education programs. In this line of thinking the evil Republicans have made such a fetish of the intact hymen that teenagers—parsing the term "sexual abstinence" with Jesuitical precision—have decided to substitute oral sex for intercourse, thereby preserving their technical virginity. I'm no fan of these programs. In light of advances in birth control and the economic advisability of delaying marriage until after the college years, sexual purity seems a goal best advanced by those religions that advocate it, not by our public schools. But even if "abstinence" is at stake, why would girls voluntarily turn to giving blowjobs? Whatever happened to the hand job? Whither the dry hump? Why do girls prefer the far more debasing, uncomfortable, and messy blowjob? And why are they apparently giving them out so indiscriminately? These are questions that none of the usual suspects can answer.

Wherever there's a girl gone wild, there's a gender-studies professor not far behind, eager to blame her actions on the patriarchy. One of these is NYU's Julian Carter, who says that oral sex among young teen girls is part of a complex power dynamic, one that is familiar to people who know how Carol Gilligan's influential book In a Different Voice has dominated feminist thinking. Says Carter: "It's precisely at this age of early adolescence that … girls' sense of self-worth changes dramatically … this is when they are finding out they have less power within a patriarchal system …" According to Carter's theory, the girls are apparently suffering from a severe form of Stockholm syndrome, and have reacted by performing oral sex on their wily captors.

The problem with this idea is that surely the patriarchy was far stronger and more oppressive in the 1950s. But you don't find Betty—or even Veronica—cravenly servicing Archie and Jughead. Indeed, during the very years that the patriarchy has been most seriously eroded, we have seen a cult of mortification of the flesh take root among teenage girls. The anorexia and bulimia that swept the teen population in the eighties, the "cutting" fad of the nineties, and now this strange new preference for unreciprocated oral sex all evolved as the patriarchy was being crippled, as new and untested roles were being offered to the country's girls.

One might expect that Planned Parenthood would have nothing to say on this subject; oral sex may have many risks, but parenthood isn't one of them. When I recently logged on, I learned a lot. The organization—which receives 32 percent of its funding from the federal government—had on its home page a lengthy description of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito's "Strategy to Gut Roe," but I quickly drilled past that, straight down to the Teen Wire department, where the "experts" have helpfully answered all sorts of teen questions, from "Can I lose my virginity if my boyfriend fingers me?" to whether the insertion of "objects" during masturbation is recommended. (The experts said it was all in good fun, but as a nervous mom I couldn't help wondering what kind of objects.) Leaving behind reproductive matters entirely, the site also indulged in unabashed sexual advocacy, offering a 411 on oral sex. For example: "Oral sex—using one's mouth on a partner's sex organs—feels good to many people. There's nothing wrong or nasty about having oral sex whether a person is receiving or giving it. Both girls and guys may want to perform oral sex on their partners because they enjoy giving it." And "Some people enjoy giving oral sex whether or not they are being stimulated at the same time. Some people can only enjoy giving oral sex when they are being stimulated at the same time. And some people [frigid cranky Mormons? Laura Bush? Total losers?] do not enjoy providing or receiving oral sex at all."

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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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