Atlantic Alumni: Flanagan's Confused on Hookup Culture

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It looked like the furor over Caitlin Flanagan's latest Atlantic piece had died down. The Wire already covered the preliminary round of responses to the essay, which was somewhere between an exploration and polemic on "how girls reluctantly endure the hookup culture."

But two new objections have now come in, and from a somewhat unlikely pair: two of Flanagan's former Atlantic colleagues. Liberal blogger Matt Yglesias of Think Progress has taken issue with Flanagan's empirical evidence--or, as he argues, lack thereof--for her argument, while conservative Ross Douthat, now of The New York Times, thinks Flanagan is pining for a perfect past that never existed. Douthat's reaction in particular can hardly be described as knee-jerk or ideological in origin; he famously made his own controversial and socially conservative argument in The Atlantic, arguing that watching pornography was much closer to adultery than users might like to admit.

Douthat's response takes off from Yglesias's. Yglesias notes that, though Flanagan suggests today's women are much more sexually experienced than their mothers, data indicates that between 1991 and 2007, "the prevalence of sexual experience decreased 12% overall." Meanwhile, the shift away from virginity occurred not "recently," as she would have it, but rather in the 1970s. In other words, he concludes, Flanagan is responding to "an imaginary trend toward promiscuity."

Douthat takes it from there, thoughtfully arguing both that Flanagan's reaction is legitimate and her argument somewhat confused:

what Flanagan tends to elide--and what Yglesias's data highlights--is the extent to which this jadedness and coarseness is arguably a reaction, not to old-fashioned puritanism, but to the negative consequences of the newly-liberated world that she remembers through a haze of nostalgia.

Flanagan, in other words, has "a nostalgia for 1960s social liberalism, with its vision of a cultural landscape in which premarital sex would be largely destigmatized, perfectly safe, and intensely romantic all at once." The problem, Douthat explains, is that it didn't work that way: unintended pregnancies and STDs rose, and emotional complexity--presumably--along with them.

Many of the trends that Flanagan laments, from the rise of oral sex ... to the ubiquity of pornography to the culture of casual hook-ups (which, especially in high school, don't necessarily involve intercourse), emerged in part as paths to safety--as ways to navigate the post-sexual revolution landscape without experiencing as many dangers ... This doesn't make these trends good ... I think Flanagan is right to see something toxic and inhuman about the way modern youth culture approaches sexuality. But it's important to understand the context, instead of pretending that there was a moment ... when a certain amount of teenage sexual license coexisted easily with modesty and idealism, responsibility and romance.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.