Are You There God? It's Me, Monica
How nice girls got so casual about oral sex
The first time I heard a mother of girls talk about the teenage oral-sex craze, I made her cry. The story she told me—about a bar mitzvah dinner dance on the North Shore of Chicago, where the girls serviced all the boys on the chartered bus from the temple to the reception hall—was so preposterous that I burst out laughing. The thought of thirteen-year-old girls in party dresses performing a sex act once considered the province of prostitutes (we are talking here about the on-your-knees variety given to a series of near strangers) was so ludicrous that all I could do was giggle.
It was as though I had taken lightly the news that a pedophile had moved into my friend's neighborhood. It was as though I had laughed about a leukemia cluster or a lethal stretch of freeway. I apologized profusely; I told her I hadn't known.
The moms in my set are convinced—they're certain; they know for a fact—that all over the city, in the very best schools, in the nicest families, in the leafiest neighborhoods, twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls are performing oral sex on as many boys as they can. They're ducking into janitors' closets between classes to do it; they're doing it on school buses, and in bathrooms, libraries, and stairwells. They're making bar mitzvah presents of the act, and performing it at "train parties": boys lined up on one side of the room, girls working their way down the row. The circle jerk of old—shivering Boy Scouts huddled together in the forest primeval, desperately trying to spank out the first few drops of their own manhood—has apparently moved indoors, and now (death knell of the Eagle Scout?) there's a bevy of willing girls to do the work.
When I first began hearing these stories, I was convinced that we were in the grips of a nationwide urban legend, and the prevalence of stories centered on bar mitzvahs seemed to me suspicious, possibly even anti-Semitic in origin. But sure enough, in 2003 a feminist Jewish quarterly called Lilith addressed the story—not to debunk it but to come to terms with it as a recognized problem within the Jewish community: "No one is suggesting, even for a moment, that Jewish teens are leading the oral sex revolution. But they may have earlier and more frequent opportunities for sexual contact in a supercharged social milieu than their non-Jewish peers." The authors observe that the oral sex is "almost always unilateral (girls on boys)."
In talking with people, I found only one verifiable account of a girl servicing more than one boy at a party. But the army of school administrators and teachers and parents and girls I spoke with convincingly reported an astonishing change in the sexual behavior of middle- and upper-middle-class girls. Fellatio, which was once a part of the sexual repertoire only of experienced women, is now commonly performed by very young girls outside of romantic relationships, casually and without any expectation of reciprocation. It used to be that a hopeful recipient of fellatio had a lot of talking to do—to persuade, and very often to instruct, his partner. (The Sensuous Woman, published in 1969, was shocking for a number of reasons, but most of all because it gave to its audience of middle-class woman explicit instructions on how to perform oral sex. "Now don't turn up your nose and make that ugly face!" says the anonymous author, "J." Oral sex is the "preferred way with many movie stars, artists, titled Europeans and jet setters.")
Nowadays girls don't consider oral sex in the least exotic—nor do they even consider it to be sex. It's just "something to do." A friend who attended a leadership conference for girls from some of the country's top schools told me, "Friendships haven't changed a bit since our day. But sex has changed a lot." One of the teachers, from an eastern boarding school, told the students that when she was young, in the 1960s, oral sex was considered far more intimate than intercourse. The kids hooted at the notion. "It's like licking a lollipop," one pretty girl from a prestigious girls' school said, flipping her hair in the ancient gesture of teenage certainty. "It's no big deal."
Somehow these girls have developed the indifferent attitude toward performing oral sex that one would associate with bitter, long-married women or streetwalkers. But they think of themselves as normal teenagers, version 2005. For a while, whenever I passed groups of young girls, I looked at them anew. Were these nice kids—the ones playing AYSO soccer and doing their homework and shopping with their moms—behaving like little whores whenever they got the chance? It was like some weird search for communists—was the sweet, well-spoken daughter of a friend actually a blowjobber? I looked at the small girls in my children's schoolyard—as cosseted and protected and beloved a group of children as you will find anywhere on the planet—and tried to convince myself that in a matter of five or six years they would be performing oral sex on virtual strangers.
It was crazy! It simply couldn't be true.
Last spring there were glimmers of hope. Ruth Padawer, a senior writer for The (Bergen, New Jersey) Record, wrote an editorial that was widely syndicated because of its balm of good news. Apparently there was word around town that eighth-graders were having oral sex behind the dugout during recess. (One thing to note about the oral-sex panic is the insistently wholesome locations in which the sex is said to occur.) But readers should dismiss the gossip: "According to several well-respected national surveys, the chatter apparently far surpasses action among young adolescents." A month later David Brooks wrote a very reasonable New York Times editorial about teen sex, called "Public Hedonism and Private Restraint," in which he said, "Reports of an epidemic of teenage oral sex are … greatly exaggerated. There's very little evidence to suggest it is really happening."
However, the axe came down in September. A huge report was issued by the National Center for Health Statistics. It covered the topic of teenage oral sex more extensively than any previous study, and the news was devastating: A quarter of girls aged fifteen had engaged in it, and more than half aged seventeen. Obviously, there was no previous data to compare this with, but millions of suburban dads were quite adamant that they had been born too soon.
The moms were traumatized anew. "It's like there's a bogeyman in the next room, and we keep praying for him to go away," a friend who has a seventh-grade daughter told me. "But he won't."
The conviction that nice girls are engaging in no-strings-attached, semi-anonymous fellatio is based on a genuine and puzzling change in teen sexual behavior. It is manifested in a group hysteria in which terrified adults have projected onto their children superhuman sexual capabilities and technical prowess. And it is reflective of the fact that the dominant culture in this country—one forged by the apparently opposed forces of male sexual desire and female empowerment—has abandoned girls in every possible respect. These three factors worked their way into literature this summer with a book that historians may someday regard as the single biggest clue to the cultural anxieties surrounding the American teenage girl circa 2005: The Rainbow Party, by Paul Ruditis.
The Rainbow Party, an offering from Simon Pulse, a young-adult division of Simon & Schuster, takes place on a single day, in which a tough little sophomore named Gin issues invitations to a party at which she and five of her friends will perform oral sex on the lucky guests, a group of popular boys. The girls will each wear a different color of lipstick, so that when a boy has completed the circuit, his penis will bear the colors of the rainbow. The party is to take place after school, to last about an hour and a half—including time for chitchat—and to conclude before Gin's father returns home from work.
In addition to the predictable, outraged criticism that this vile book has received, there is a question of veracity: as many readers have noted, wouldn't the different colors of lipstick smear together, destroying the desired rainbow effect? Not once, however, has another question been posed: How many boys could successfully receive seven blowjobs in an hour? Surely even the adolescent male at the peak of his sexual prime needs at least a few minutes to reload. One would assume that the first transaction would be completed at light speed, that the second might take a bit longer—and that by the fourth or fifth even the horniest tenth-grader might display some real staying power. But asking questions like these will automatically preclude you from entering the current oral-sex hysteria, which presupposes not only that a limitless number of young American girls have taken on the sexual practices of porn queens but also that American boys are capable of having an infinite number of sexual experiences in rapid succession. It requires believing that a boy could be serviced at the school-bus train party—receiving oral sex from ten or fifteen girls, one after another—and then zip his fly and head off to homeroom, first stopping in the stairwell for a quickie to tide him over until math.
The Rainbow Party has the feeling of true pornography. In particular, it has the feeling of homosexual-male pornography. The school is called Harding High, and the prose takes a quickening, vivid leap forward when two boys, Hunter and Perry, duck into the school bathroom, where Perry services his pal and then wonders if they might be gay. Otherwise the book is inert, obscene without being erotic, its slim narrative structure insufficient for the gimmickry of its premise. The party is eventually undermined by a series of debacles, leaving Gin and her pal Sandy alone to service the crowd—and then the boys can't even be bothered to show up. This is clearly a high school humiliation of an entirely new and apocalyptic order. What if you gave a blowjob party but nobody came? Injury to insult, Gin gets the clap, victim and catalyst of a school-wide gonorrhea outbreak.
The book's sole effective literary technique is achieved unintentionally: The Rainbow Party is so leaden and formulaic, so completely deadened to any of the possibilities of fiction, that it mirrors the way girls are said to feel about fellatio—jaded and shockproof. (It's not just Hunter and Perry's high jinks in the restroom that put one in mind of bathhouse culture. Almost everything about the current blowjob craze—the randomness of the sexual encounters; the fact that they're apparently devoid of meaning beyond the immediate gratification of male desire, that neither party is inclined to say "no," that little consideration is given to female desire, or even female anatomy—suggests a strain of gay male sex more than it does traditional male-female relationships.) It is hard to imagine that a person could read a novel like that and feel genuine emotion of any kind. In this way it is the exact opposite of the novel that was for me, and many of my high school friends, the most powerful book of our young lives. Not since Uncle Tom's Cabin has a single novel by an American woman prompted so many readers into such radical action. I speak, of course, about Judy Blume's Forever.
Judy Blume, who has sold more than 75 million books, been awarded the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and been called one of the most banned writers in America, began writing for children in the 1960s. She married young, established housekeeping in suburban New Jersey, and promptly had two children. She loved the kids but loathed the housewifery, and as a creative outlet took a class in children's literature.
Blume describes her childhood as one in which she was "dying with curiosity" about sex, but there was nowhere in the 1940s and 1950s for a nice girl to get any information. The memory of that burning curiosity led her to write a novel about a twelve-year-old waiting to get her period, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Before the publication of this seminal work, a bookish girl interested in the emotions and practicalities surrounding menstruation would be nudged by a sympathetic teacher toward the diary of Anne Frank, which sure enough addresses the subject with candor, but the general mood of the book—what with the Holocaust and all—did not generate much enthusiasm for the menses. The dearest book of my childhood, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, includes Francie's first period, but again, the novel's no upper: shortly after first blood Francie is assaulted by a pervert in a tenement hallway. I was in seventh grade when The Exorcist was released. No one my age was allowed anywhere near it, but we were well versed in the plot (the implications of which were clear, if unspoken, to all of my friends): a prepubescent girl—a girl our age, on the cusp of the same event we were—was overtaken body and soul not by the Kotex cartel but by the devil himself. At twelve I knew a few basic facts about menstruation—it somehow involved babies and shedding a lining and blood everywhere—and was possessed by an unholy fear of it.
And then I went to Naomi Zimmerman's birthday party, and while the other girls slumbered through the night, I stayed up and read one of the presents, a brand-new copy of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. By dawn I was a new girl. Here was a character on the brink of getting her first period, but she wasn't being hunted by sex fiends or Nazis or Beelzebub. She wasn't frightened by what was about to happen—she couldn't wait. And her wonderful family couldn't wait either.
Reading Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret for the first time in thirty years meant realizing anew that the world of my childhood is as distant and unrecoverable as that of the Etruscans. Margaret and I were young during a time when little girls dreamed of getting the courage to ask their mothers for training bras, attended carefully supervised dances, eagerly wore clothes that the modern preteen would sooner die than put on. ("Should I wear my velvet?" Margaret asks her mother when she learns she's been invited to a boy-girl supper party. "It's your best," her mother replies.) In Margaret's world the boys can't be counted on to maintain a grown-up demeanor for these events: they disappoint the girls by stomping on their toes during a PTA-sponsored square dance; at the supper party they throw their sports coats in a pile and shoot mustard at the ceiling through drinking straws. But it is also the boys who are responsible for introducing the first glimmerings of sex to the group. When a boy suggests that they turn off the light and play Guess Who—"the boys line up on one side and the girls on the other and then when I yell Go the boys run to the girls' side and try to guess who's who by the way they feel"—the girls put on the brakes immediately. ("'No, thank you,' Gretchen said. 'That's disgusting!'") The girls agree to a game of Spin the Bottle, however, and that night Margaret gets her first thrilling, fleeting kiss. The novel ends in triumph: three drops of blood on Margaret's underpants, discovered the day of the sixth-grade farewell party, mean that she has left childhood behind.
Through all of these events Margaret's parents are by her side, helping her to negotiate her excitement and her fears, congratulating her on each of the steps she makes toward womanhood. And if they give her plenty of support when she gets her first period, by the time she's ready—at age seventeen—to have her first sexual experience, they practically stand by the bed and take photographs to put in the family scrapbook. For despite the fact that the protagonist in Forever is named Katherine, she is really Margaret a few years older, still living in suburban New Jersey, still a good girl with good parents. Forever is the first mainstream novel written for American teenage girls that is not only sexually explicit but also intentionally erotic, and that gives them the exact information—practical as well as emotional—to initiate a satisfying sex life.
Again, consider what had come before. As a teenage girl in the early 1970s who was as desperately curious about sex as Judy Blume had been in the fifties, I read everything I could lay my hands on. I turned to novels for information about sex not because I'm a reader but because when I was young they were among the few places a nice girl could find any. (Love, American Style was risqué, but it was hardly explicit.) To my parents' dismay I read Valley of the Dolls more times than I could count, but Jacqueline Susann's attitude toward human sexuality was of a piece with her prose: whorish and dirty. Goodbye, Columbus commanded my attention, but you don't turn to Philip Roth if you want to learn how to go all the way with a really nice boyfriend.
Adults were quick to stick you with The Bell Jar, which you were supposed to lap up with zesty gratitude because of its racy subject matter, but I smelled a rat from the get-go. Even at sixteen I could tell that the book was overpraised, a stealth weapon of grownups eager to appear progressive in their literary suggestions for teenagers but secretly dying for you to get an eyeful of Esther's first sexual experience: recovering from a suicide attempt, on furlough from a psychiatric ward, she does the deed with an older man and almost hemorrhages to death.
The only books I'd seen that placed sex where I wanted to find it—in the middle of a committed relationship, with the boy treating the girl as if she were a fragile piece of glass, and their love so powerful that it threatened to blot them both out—were the pregnancy-scare books that had been passed from hand to hand among the girls at my Catholic junior high. Written in the 1960s, they invariably involved a supersmart girl (family: respectable, middle-class) and a really neat, ambitious boy (his people would be working-class; their great dream would be for their son to become a college boy). Always they would make a terrible mistake one night; always it would turn out to have been one shot with a bullet: dead rabbit and hell to pay. They would grapple with the most serious kinds of decision-making, and always (this is why we devoured these books and dreamed about them) the couple ended up married at sixteen, living in garage apartments or guesthouses. Books like Too Bad About the Haines Girl and Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones were supposed to frighten us away from sex, lest we become tragic girls ourselves. But they were so clearly built upon a commonly accepted and deeply stirring code of male honor—an almost chivalric set of principles, handed down through the centuries, and still in practice in the American suburbs of the 1960s—that we were dazzled by them, and regarded them as the greatest love stories ever told. Which, in a sense, they were.
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.
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."
Parents could click on a helpful report from Rutgers University's "Oral Sex Lady," Nora Gelperin. She digs her job, which involves providing teenagers with information about oral sex, an activity for which she's sort of a booster. She does offer some tips for those who want to curb the oral-sex trend: they should have bull sessions with groups of kids to "illuminate the variety of teens' opinions about oral sex," in order to "more accurately reflect the range of opinions instead of continuing to propagate the stereotype that 'all teens are having oral sex.'" In other words, instead of the adult instructing kids in what is right and wrong and telling them what is expected of them, the kids themselves should seek direction from each other. A mother concerned that her daughter has turned to performing oral sex on strangers at age twelve should bear this in mind: "We must not forget that the desire of early adolescents to feel sexual pleasure is normal and natural and should be celebrated, not censored." (DAD: Geez I had a rough day at the office. MOM: Put it out of your mind, honey. Trudy just told me that we have something very special to celebrate!)
For me, the most shocking moment in "The Lost Children of Rockdale County"—more shocking even than "the sandwich"—involves three giggly blonde best friends forever who give an extensive, girly interview while sitting in one of their bedrooms, surrounded by stuffed animals. At a certain point one of the producers asks them what kind of music they like, and they all squeal, "Rap!" "Give me an example," the coaxing producer says to them. The girls decide to sing for her, and their sweet, piping voices flow easily over the lyrics, which they all know by heart—three teenyboppers sitting in a suburban bedroom, singing their favorite song, "Love in Ya Mouth":
I take 3 little bitches and I put 'em
in a line
I take 4, 5, 6 and blow 'dem hos
It'll take 1 more before I go for
7 bitches get fucked at the same
She eats me, sun she, she can suck
a ding dong
All day all night all evenin long
She said she neva done it, she said
she neva tried
Shes sittin there tellin a motha-
Now, how many licks does it take to
make my dick split
Well, not many licks if the bitch is
a good trick
Now, any nigga can talk to a bitch
and get the bitch to fuck
But how many niggaz can talk to a
bitch and get they dick sucked
Like me a pimp that you neva saw
Now how do you say "manger et
trois" [uh, sic]
One of the most astonishing things to happen during the 1990s was that rap music that included some of the most violent, sexually explicit, and misogynistic lyrics ever recorded slipped seamlessly and virtually unnoticed into the households of so many apparently responsible American families. Boomer parents, remembering their own struggles with their square parents over rock-and-roll, were lenient about their kids' music. Tipper Gore's heroic campaign to get explicit music rated and labeled was born after she decided to do something few parents had even attempted: actually listen to the albums her kids had bought. She was ridiculed by many factions, including those forces on the American left who cry censorship whenever anyone attempts to protect the public, including children, from smut (and in the case of rap, smut emanating from a source the left valorizes: black urban America). In the summer of 2004 Bill Cosby brought down a hail of criticism when he lambasted the hip-hop culture as a shameful squandering of the civil-rights gains that his generation had fought for and won.
But the protests of white senators' wives and African-American senior citizens have not had much effect on music sales, and have not prevented a large number of poor and middle-class kids alike from becoming saturated by the world of spoken-word, hard-core pornography that is rap music. Add to this the countless other products of our increasingly sexualized teen culture, in which male sexual fantasy of the type once reserved for prison-yard posturing has been adopted and championed by very young girls who stand only to be brutalized by it—emotionally, if not physically.
Ironically, many of the objectives stated in rap lyrics are the same as those of contemporary American feminism: to encourage girls not to be shackled by the double standard and to abandon modesty as a goal, to erode patriarchal notions of how men ought to treat women, and to champion aggressiveness in girls. It was very possible for a girl in the nineties to have her well-intentioned parents buy her a CD in which she was urged to suck dick and get fucked, and to have a well-intentioned teacher (I was one such) tell her to be as intellectually and verbally aggressive as she could—that aggression for its own sake was a good thing, because it leveled the playing field in a male-dominated world.
At the same time, actual pornography—once the province of the most marginalized and criminally suspect performers and businessmen; once a slice of illicit commerce entirely beyond the purview of decent society—was entering the mainstream. It became possible to find porn star Jenna Jameson discussing her trade with the likes of Anderson Cooper on CNN. It was possible, furthermore, to discover that she was being interviewed not as a fallen woman but as a successful businessperson. Simultaneously, feminists were turning themselves into pretzels trying to get together a coherent policy on pornography. Obviously it was exploitative—unless it wasn't. Because if it was explicit sexual material made for the arousal of women, then it was somehow … empowering? And how to deal with the Jenna Jamesons of the world, who were proving themselves to be feminist powerhouses, keeping the government out of private decisions about their own bodies (thank you, abortion rhetoric!) and profiting handsomely from the results?
W hen I was in eleventh grade, I invited a new boyfriend to come to my house after school one day. My mother was outside gardening, or maybe she was on the telephone, or reading—she was around, but through a glass. The boy and I made Top Ramen at the stove, and afterward I invited him to come up to my bedroom. I had never been told not to do such a thing; I seemed then to be lacking a lot of clear information about what I could and could not do. My parents were preoccupied at the time with other things. I was the youngest girl in a daughter-raising project that they appeared to think had gone terribly wrong. They were no longer giving the enterprise their full oomph.
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.
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.
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