Caitlin Flanagan’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Monica” (January/February Atlantic) grossly misrepresents Planned Parenthood’s Web site teenwire .com, an online resource dedicated to providing medically accurate, nonjudgmental information about sexuality for teens. Flanagan wrongly claims that the site teaches teens how to have oral and other kinds of sex. Teenwire.com does not promote any type of sexual activity. We provide teens with medically accurate, age-appropriate information to help them make responsible decisions about whether or when to have sex and how to protect themselves if they choose to be sexually active.
Sexual expression is a lifelong part of human development. Planned Parenthood’s mission, which we further through teenwire.com and resources and services for parents, teens, and adults, is to ensure that people have the information and health-care services they need to make responsible, healthy decisions.
Karen Pearl Interim President
Planned Parenthood Federation of America
New York, N.Y.
As a psychiatrist working in the area of sexuality, I share Caitlin Flanagan’s concern for “America’s girls.” However, her assertion that her sons are less likely to be emotionally wounded by intense, casual early sexual experience than someone else’s daughters is wishful thinking. America’s boys are growing up in a hypersexualized culture with unprecedented access to both real and virtual sexual experiences. The astounding array of sexual material available on the Internet tends to make abnormal behaviors appear normal. Intense sexual experiences at a young age can reinforce behavior that can become entrenched in adulthood. What could be the outcome for “America’s boys”? It is troubling to imagine how the themes of sadism, voyeurism, and exhibitionism inherent in the oral-sex craze could develop into the basis for their adult sexuality. It is even more troubling to consider how this might affect the future of relationships, marriage, and the family.
Dr. Kristine Campbell
Far from being an indictment of feminism’s success, a teenage blowjob explosion would point to the distance we still have to travel—as parents, as communities, as a culture—in ensuring that adolescents and adults develop healthy emotional and physical relationships with themselves and with others, in which girls view their own sexual gratification as a priority on par with that of their partners.
But I think Caitlin Flanagan isn’t actually all that worried about the particulars of the pseudo-epidemic—not the subordination of female desire or pleasure, the risk (though comparatively minimal) of disease, or anything else. Her objection, really, seems to be to the immodesty of casual sexual encounters in general. Flanagan creates these imaginary school-supply-closet trysts—rendering them in lurid detail—in order to set up a false choice: if it’s being treated like glass or treated like dirt, most of us would choose glass. But both deny women and girls full personhood, and so neither is an acceptable option. In the end, Flanagan misses a very basic feminist insight: the continuing fight for gender equality is about refusing to dwell on pedestals or on our knees. All it’s about is existence, for all of us, at eye level.
Caitlin Flanagan replies:
My mother was a lifelong, passionate supporter of Planned Parenthood, and the one time—very long ago—that I had need to visit one of the organization’s clinics, I was treated with surpassing kindness. Until very recently, I sent the occasional small check to the New York headquarters, my mother’s name written on the memo line. It does not come easily to me to stand against Planned Parenthood in any way.
But one of the reasons the organization was founded was to protect children, to ensure that they were born into families in which they could be amply provided for and nurtured. Margaret Sanger cared about the quality of children’s lives, and so do I. What Planned Parenthood’s new president finds “age-appropriate” I find morally repugnant. Whoever is writing the copy for teenwire.com clearly has an abiding and vivid interest in the sex play of minors. The site instructs kids on anal and oral sex; it tells boys that they can reduce nocturnal emissions by engaging in sex play with a partner; it includes a glossary of slang terms, which I have no desire to repeat here. Children are welcome to address questions to the teenwire.com experts. One had been asked to engage in cyber sex, but didn’t know what it was or how to do it. Teenwire.com helpfully gave her the 411. A fifteen-year-old girl seeking to initiate a sexual relationship with a twenty-year-old man was told that some states have “double standards” about this sort of thing, and that she should “Call the office of the attorney general in [her] state to find out what the laws are there” to learn if the liaison is legal. Clearly, the organization has developed a new mission, one that includes participating in the increasing sexualization of our nation’s youth and performing a role best described as “sexual advocacy.”
“Against the State, against the Church, against the silence of the medical profession,” Margaret Sanger wrote, “the woman today arises.” What the Planned Parenthood of my youth offered to me and to millions of other young women wasn’t just contraception; it was something more along the lines of human dignity. An organization that receives 32 percent of its funding from the federal government, whose Web site advises teenyboppers to try chocolate condoms to make oral sex more fun, doesn’t give us or our children dignity, or anything like it. It reduces the noblest of causes to something squalid—or worse, something shameful.
“The Border” (January/February Atlantic), by Ross Douthat and Jenny Woodson, included this statement: “And securing the border may not be feasible no matter what the public wants—at least absent a heavy military presence and the sorts of barriers used in Cold War Berlin and the Korean DMZ.”
Nonsense. Remember how intractable the problems of crime, squeegee guys, and graffiti were in New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s? As long as the bad guys were convinced that no enforcement would take place, they were emboldened. But as soon as the political will appeared, the fix wasn’t that hard.
In the case of illegal immigration, there’s actually proof that enforcement wouldn’t be that difficult. In the spring and summer of 2004, the Temecula Border Patrol station formed a special Mobile Patrol Group that conducted a series of illegal-alien sweeps in Norco, Corona, and Escondido, California. The twelve-man group made more than 450 arrests as a result of the roundups. After complaints from illegal aliens and their lobbyists, the program was scrapped. But if that could be accomplished by twelve agents in a month or two, imagine what a scaled-up version would look like. A few thousand agents doing interior enforcement, combined with mandatory workplace employment verification using the payroll records of the Social Security Administration, would cause millions to self-deport.
San Ramon, Calif.
I was struck—as I’m sure many were—by the acute irony of Garrison Keillor’s “Anthem” (January/February Atlantic). The idea of well-established, nationally recognized poets writing our national anthem seems absurd, bemusing. But why? After all, Australia’s leading poet, Les Murray, was commissioned recently to rewrite the country’s national pledge of allegiance. If we look to Australia, then, we see an amalgamation of two spheres—high art and high politics—that are, in the United States, typically regarded as polar opposites.
“The Star-Spangled Banner,” to its credit, is a lovely song about the strength of our nation. But it is a lovely song written by a lawyer, and it is representative of an 1812 America. That is, when we sing it, we salute a nation that is, even with our young history, archaic; we sing to a nation of white-male decision-makers, and we sing to a union that was not yet composed of all her states.
I understand that “The Star-Spangled Banner” speaks to a kind of sustainability and longevity, and that we cannot very well go changing our national anthem with each whim or passion that might afflict us; we would appear too malleable in our convictions. But even so, in light of some of the monumental national changes we have experienced over the past 194 years, perhaps a new anthem should be devised.
Garrison Keillor replies:
It’s a bold idea, dear reader, to suggest that someone write a new national anthem, but there’s nobody who could do it, and only a fool would try. Think about the poems written for inaugurations: they all got decent burials, and nobody will ever read them again. Francis Scott Key’s magnificent poem isn’t about national power and triumph; it’s about survival, and that is its brilliance as a national anthem—so much is left unsaid. The song has been abused by aging divas and faded pop stars and every soloist who ever sang it, but when it’s put in the people’s key and sung by a crowd, it’s thrilling. People think they don’t know the words, but they do. You come to “land of the free” and the sopranos rise up like angels, and the “home of the brave” is majestic, and everybody feels great at the end.
I only understood the underwhelming nature of Alex Beam’s piece on Nova Scotia (“Nova Scotia, Mon Amour,” January/February Atlantic) when I reached the end, where he admits that “it is a treasure I would prefer to keep to myself.” He cleverly attempts to thwart arrival by land when he, no doubt deliberately, mixes Saint John, New Brunswick, and St. John’s, Newfoundland, to give us St. John, New Brunswick. He is right that it is a more cumbersome option to take the ferry from there, but he neglects to mention that one can simply bypass Saint John and drive two hours to Nova Scotia without ever getting on a boat or staying over. Or, you could fly.
So we’re not that inaccessible, but that’ll be our secret, Alex.
Halifax, Nova Scotia
I couldn’t get beyond the first page of Christopher Hitchens’s book review (“What’s Left?” March Atlantic) without first turning back eighty pages to the item in Primary Sources (“Strunk and White’s Revenge”) about thesaurus overuse by “insecure writers.” It gave me a chuckle. “Polymathic,” “meretricious,” “etiolated”?! Does Hitchens use a thesaurus? Is Hitchens a thesaurus?
I was glad to see my first and most recent books—The World of Henry Orient and Coast to Coast—mentioned together in Sally Singer’s piece “Mommies Dearest” (January/February Atlantic).
But for fans of Henry Orient, book or movie, it’s time to come clean. The narrator (me) of Coast is one and the same as the narrator of Henry, Marian (also me). Val fell in love with Henry, but she never went to Hollywood.
Bruce McCall—along with about a thousand writers, editors, and proofreaders—confuses “shinny” with “shimmy” (“Not Conspicuously Intelligent Design,” March Atlantic). To “shin” or “shinny” up a tree or pole is to pull oneself up with the arms while supporting oneself with the shins. A “shimmy” is a violent back-and-forth vibration, dangerous in a car’s steering mechanism but allegedly attractive in “my sister Kate,” according to the song.
Las Vegas, Nev.