The Boyfriend Myth



Caitlin Flanagan's most recent piece on teen America has attracted a fairly predictable controversy. Any article that called pop singer Taylor Swift a leader in a "cultural insurrection" would get reactions; however, Flanagan's master stroke was not in casting Swift as a culture warrior, but in her description of the cultural war in question, itself—the movement Flanagan describes as "one of the last, great stands for human dignity." Whereas the women of previous generations fought for the right to vote, the right to work, and the right to choose, today's young woman, as per Flanagan, is fighting a for a new kind of feminist victory: The right to want a boyfriend.

Whether girls of any era have lacked cultural permission to pine over boys, or drippy crush anthems to listen to while pining, is debatable. But Flanagan perceives this pining as a bold stand against casual sex, which she casts as both a recent invention and a slap in the face to feminists of generations past.

"No matter how forward-thinking, no matter how progressive, those long-ago women might seem to us now"—here, Flanagan is describing women of her mother's generation, women who campaigned for birth control and sex education and would have been old enough to have teenaged daughters in the late 1970s; roughly the age, that is, of Gloria Steinem, who turned 40 in 1974—"they shared one unquestioned assumption about girls and sex, a premise that, if expressed today, might cast doubt on one's commitment to girls' sexual liberation: all of them, to a woman, believed in the Boyfriend Story. This set wasn't in the business of providing girls and young women the necessary information and services to allow boys and men to use and discard them sexually."

Yet girls today, Flanagan says, are being "used and discarded" by the hook-up culture; "allowing" themselves to be, in fact. She sees them as more likely to have casual sex than boyfriends, more likely to want boyfriends than casual sex, and more likely to be treated badly by young men as the result of casual sex, since without the obligation of a relationship, men have no reason to care about women or treat them well. It's a grim picture.

It also hinges on some substantial inaccuracies. Whether Gloria Steinem's generation believed "to a woman" in the importance of boyfriends, for example, is a question worth asking. (Short answer: No. Longer answer: Ends with "like a fish needs a bicycle.") And then, there's the issue of whether the 1960s and 1970s—the decades that gave us swinging, free love, and the rise of the Playboy empire—could reasonably be described as averse to casual sex. But Flanagan's biggest error is in suggesting that the Boyfriend Story, or boyfriends in general, are of necessity healthier than hook-ups: safer, kinder, less risky. This isn't an issue of opinion; it is actually, and demonstrably, untrue.

Hooking up may leave girls unsatisfied and lonely. It may include experiences that are, in Flanagan's words, "frightening, embarrassing, uncomfortable at best, painful at worst." But assuming that these experiences are all consensual—I trust Flanagan wouldn't qualify date rape as a "hook-up," however grim her language may be—we can't know that they are "hurting" girls in any measureable way. Here is what we do know to be hurting girls in a measureable way, however: Their boyfriends.

According to a 2005 survey on teen dating abuse, 13 percent of girls who have been in relationships—girls, that is to say, who have had boyfriends—report being "physically hurt or hit." A startling one in four said that their boyfriends had pressured them to have sex they didn't want. Twenty-six percent reported recurring, and severe, verbal abuse in their relationships. And then, there's this, from a no less august source than the U.S. Department of Justice: "Young women between the ages of 16 and 24 in dating relationships experience the highest rate of domestic violence and sexual assault." The highest. What was that about Boyfriend Stories again?

Of course, this doesn't mean that having a boyfriend is bad. There are few things more wonderful than being in a happy relationship. It only means that boys "hurt" girls in relationships and out of them, and that the mere fact of having a boyfriend is not enough to insulate one from disrespect, sexual maltreatment, or abuse. I don't doubt that Flanagan wants girls to be happy, or that she's worried that the current social context encourages young men to disrespect them. I happen to agree with her, on that point; young men receive plenty of messages that they are not to take girls seriously, as people with full inner lives, and they are also instructed that they are to have sex with those girls anyway. (God help the boys who would prefer to have sex with each other.) Sometimes they hit, rape, and emotionally torture girls; sometimes, they disrespect, insult, or pressure them into sexualizing themselves in uncomfortable ways. These are serious problems. And they don't end after you start going steady.

If the facts backed Flanagan up—if withholding sex for boyfriends could actually solve the problem of girls being hurt by sexual partners—I would join the crusade against the hook-up culture tomorrow. But boys aren't treating girls badly because they have sex; they're treating them badly because we live in a culture that encourages disrespect toward girls. A man who dislikes women as a group does not change simply because he becomes intimate with one particular woman, and telling girls that love is the key to ending a man's hurtful behavior plays into many of the most pernicious myths about abuse. If we tell young women that having a boyfriend is the way to stay safe and be respected, what do they do if their boyfriends become unsafe? Most stay. Most believe in the Boyfriend Story long after it starts to hurt.