Are You There God? It's Me, Monica

How nice girls got so casual about oral sex

In the bedroom the atmosphere was charged. I remember that he sat on my Pier 1 wicker chair, and that I showed him my wall calendar, which had a different, adorable kitten for each month. And then, abruptly, I said that we should go back downstairs, and he stood—immediately—and followed me. At the foot of the stairs we found my mother, looking as though she had been close to charging up.

"Never bring a boy to your bedroom," she told me afterward.

"Why not?"

There was a fumbling for words, and then an answer: "Because he might go to school and tell other boys what your comforter looks like."

It was a white Dior comforter with yellow rosebuds and matching sheets. The bed was a Sears four-poster princess bed, a little-girl's bed, but we had taken off the canopy and added the Dior linens to dress it up for a teenager. I had wanted pink roses, but the pink had not unexpectedly gone on sale at the El Cerrito Capwell's. The yellow had.

"That's so stupid," I yelled at my mother. "Just so completely stupid!" She sighed wearily—the raising-girls sigh, the sigh of bottomless despair. Why hadn't she thrown herself off the Golden Gate Bridge at last opportunity? Why had she ever been so foolish as to think it was good news each time the obstetrician told her she had been delivered of a girl?

But even in my teenage snit I understood what she was talking about: not the comforter but my reputation. Not the boy himself (who was a very nice person—anyone could tell it just from meeting him) but the immutable truth about boys: They want most what we keep private. When it's known, it's lessened.

At the time of my adolescence my mother was too distracted to give me everything I needed to turn out well. But 20 percent of her attention was enough, because the whole culture was supporting her. The notion that a girl should not give her sexuality away too freely was so solidly built into the national consciousness that my mother didn't have to snap out of her depression and give me a comprehensive lecture on boys for me to understand what she meant. It was a period when artists and entertainers and commercial America in general did not have untrammeled access to the country's youth. Television shows were heavily censored, as were radio stations. George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" was hilarious not just for its string of bad words but because of the context in which he invited us to imagine their use: think of turning on the TV and hearing the word "fuck"! Sex ed in those days was a little like driver's ed: a grimly delivered set of facts, copiously illustrated with hideous examples of what could go wrong if you were foolhardy enough to operate the machinery. ("Is there going to be a test?" a girl asked about the contraception unit. "Your life is the test," she was told.) At the time, feminists were distracted by the vast project of American womanhood; they had not yet turned their attention to the country's girls.

As a parent, I am horrified by the changes that have taken place in the common culture over the past thirty years. I believe that we are raising children in a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape in which no forces beyond individual households—individual mothers and fathers—are protecting children from pornography and violent entertainment. The "it takes a village" philosophy is a joke, because the village is now so polluted and so desolate of commonly held, child-appropriate moral values that my job as a mother is not to rely on the village but to protect my children from it.

I'm not, however, terrified by the oral-sex craze. If I were to learn that my children had engaged in oral sex—outside a romantic relationship, and as young adolescents—I would be sad. But I wouldn't think that they had been damaged by the experience; I wouldn't think I had failed catastrophically as a mother, or that they would need therapy. Because I don't have daughters, I have sons.

I am old-fashioned enough to believe that men and boys are not as likely to be wounded, emotionally and spiritually, by early sexual experience, or by sexual experience entered into without romantic commitment, as are women and girls. I think that girls are vulnerable to great damage through the kind of sex in which they are, as individuals, as valueless and unrecognizable as chattel. Society has let its girls down in every possible way. It has refused to assert—or even to acknowledge—that female sexuality is as intricately connected to kindness and trust as it is to gratification and pleasure. It's in the nature of who we are.

But perhaps the girls themselves understand this essential truth.

As myriad forces were combining to reshape our notions of public decency and propriety, to ridicule the concept that privacy and dignity are valuable and allied qualities of character and that exhibitionism as an end in itself might not be beneficial for a young girl, at the exact moment when girls were encouraged to think of themselves as victims of an oppressive patriarchy and to act on an imperative of default aggression—at this very time a significant number of young girls were beginning to form an entirely new code of sexual ethics and expectations. It was a code in which their own physical pleasure was of no consequence—was in fact so entirely beside the point that their preferred mode of sexual activity was performing unrequited oral sex. Deep Throat lingers in the popular imagination because it was one of the few porn movies to trade on an original and inspired premise: what a perfect world it would be if the clitoris were located in a woman's throat. In a world like that a man wouldn't have to cajole a woman to perform fellatio on him; she would be just as eager to get it on as he was. But this was a fantasy; a girl may derive a variety of consequences, intended and otherwise, from servicing boys in this manner, but her own sexual gratification is not one of them. The modern girl's casual willingness to perform oral sex may—as some cool-headed observers of the phenomenon like to propose—be her way of maintaining a post-feminist power in her sexual dealings, by being fully in control of the sexual act and of the pleasure a boy receives from it. Or it may be her desperate attempt to do something that the culture refuses to encourage: to keep her own sexuality—the emotions and the desires, as well as the anatomical real estate itself—private, secret, unviolated. It may not be her technical virginity that she is trying to preserve; it may be her own sexual awakening—which is all she really has left to protect anymore.

We've made a world for our girls in which the pornography industry has become increasingly mainstream, in which Planned Parenthood's response to the oral-sex craze has been to set up a help line, in which the forces of feminism have worked relentlessly to erode the patriarchy—which, despite its manifold evils, held that providing for the sexual safety of young girls was among its primary reasons for existence. And here are America's girls: experienced beyond their years, lacking any clear message from the adult community about the importance of protecting their modesty, adrift in one of the most explicitly sexualized cultures in the history of the world. Here are America's girls: on their knees.

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.
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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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