Caitlin Flanagan on Young Women, Hookup Culture and Relationships

An Atlantic writer asserts girls today want a boyfriend more than ever

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The Atlantic's Caitlin Flanagan has a knack for causing eruptions in the left-leaning blogosphere. Last time, Flanagan was castigating public schools for their new focus on vegetable gardens. Back in July, she connected the teenage obsession with vampires to "female romantic awakening." Now, in the June issue of The Atlantic, she returns to her familiar female (teenage) sexuality beat, setting out to explain "how girls reluctantly endure the hookup culture."

Her argument is that girls, receiving scant adult guidance and intimidated or turned off by today's promiscuity, are silently yearning for boyfriends--as evidenced by the current obsession with the Twilight Saga, High School Musical, Taylor Swift, and the TV show Glee. Along the way she offers some personal anecdotes, asserts that girls who used to "[look] forward to sex" are now "terrified" of it, and suggests that drinking is a symptom of that. Though a few bloggers find these ideas "very interesting," and are pleased to see someone criticize "the 1970s feminist-inspired regime of sexual liberation," most who have much to say beyond this are highly critical.

  • Virgin/Whore 2.0 This "false dichotomy," argues Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon, "is never far away from these discussions, no matter how much any individual writer avoids those terms." But this "notion that women who hook up are a discrete group from those who have boyfriends" is about as accurate, she argues, as "the anti-choice myth that posits that women who have abortions are a separate group from women who have children." She also thinks Flanagan "went as far as to suggest that young women want boyfriends because they really don't like sex," and is relying on some other odd assumptions as well:
It's not surprising that a bunch of college freshmen---an age that's marked by feelings of naivete and insecurity---might report being desperate to be validated by a boyfriend, any boyfriend. But it doesn't follow that a college senior who is choosing mostly casual hook-ups is deceiving herself. She might have learned a thing or two, and may have realized that it's better to wait for the right guy to commit instead of clinging to anyone who looks at you twice.
  • Remember the Individual   Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory looks at Flanagan's piece in the context of the recent spate of stories about "young women's sex lives." Instead of responding directly to Flanagan--although she does suggest the piece's conclusion is unsurprising, she makes a point about this trend in general: "What's often lost in the never-ending stream of stories about the latest trend in female sexual culture is the nuance and diversity of individual experience."
  • 'The Entire Piece Is Confused,' writes Amber Taylor, blogger of Prettier Than Napoleon. "Flanagan doesn't clearly differentiate between when she's talking about the teens of today and the teens of five to ten years before," and ignores the fact, argues Taylor, that "there never was a time where the 'Boyfriend Story' was not ascendant." In other words: girls have always wanted relationships and happy endings. Taylor concludes:
Flanagan is, as usual, simultaneously soporific and alarmist, waxing eloquent on the perils of modern feminism and then lulling the reader with the idea that all that unnatural liberation stuff will ultimately not prevail.

  • 'Responses to This Article Were More Interesting Than the Article Itself,' writes Robin Wasserman, who also clarifies for readers: "yes, this is from "the same Caitlin Flanagan who thought 'I hate Y.A. novels; they bore me' was a good start to an article offering her thoughts on....YA novels." Calling the thesis "a bit muddled," she nevertheless extracts what she thinks is Flanagan's point, and finds it questionable.
  • 'Amid the Weirdness ... Is One Good Point,' decides Jezebel's Anna North: "teen girls do need a different kind of sex ed." Recalling her own nineties-era sex ed, she says she calls learning "about IUDs and STDs, but [not] ... how to actually talk to a partner about contraception or getting tested. I didn't learn how to discuss painful sex with a partner; I didn't learn that painful sex existed. I didn't learn how to decide when I was ready for sex based on anything but standards imposed from the outside."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.