The double-irony of the Atlantic Monthly’s April 2006 letters page replies to Caitlin Flanagan’s take on the alleged “oral sex epidemic” among America’s teenagers was pretty intense when I got around to reading it this week. I didn’t comment directly on the Flanagan piece when it first came out, but the letters brought it all back to me.
Flanagan is always a good provocative read, in part because she simultaneously brightly skewers the pretentions and assumptions of many other writers and organizations on domesticity and gender and infuriates with her own unacknowledged contradictions and Delphic pronouncements. David Brooks at his best has some of the same character in his writing, the conflation of keen observational writing with confident announcements of sociological truth pulled immaculately from the ether. They’re both great at poking the soft underbelly of suburban life, of teasing out the hypocrisies of others. If only they’d just stick to that.
Both of them in particular have an especially strong tendency towards the classic kung-fu maneuver of most American cultural critics, to take the public and pop cultural self-representation of 1950s American life as the eternal and largely generic norm from which we have steadily descended into a moral and social abyss. All fables of declension in the United States since the 1970s, whether liberal or conservative, have steered by this same star. They may not consciously name the 1950s as the lost moment now despoiled some new rough social beast who has taken up slouching upon the national furniture, but once you tease out the attributes of that misty past moment, it can’t be anything but the (fantasy) 1950s.
I saw a lot of this sort of thing when writing about the history of children’s television. In Flanagan’s oral sex piece, it materializes in her invocation of some past moment where nice girls didn’t, when blow jobs were “once considered the province of prostitutes”. Interestingly in both the original article and her reply to the letters, she squeezes that past moment together with a later touchstone, a first-wave feminist moment where enlightened women allegedly were committed to getting mutual satisfaction, empowerment and respect from sex.
Flanagan is appropriately wary of the moral panic of others: concerned parents trading in rumors, new books for teenagers that depict “rainbow parties” where girls with colored lipsticks leave rings on numerous male members, pious organizations and news programs documenting an epidemic of teenage oral sex on the flimsiest of evidence. The letters about Flanagan’s piece in the April issue are almost hilarious in their overwrought contradictions: one letter-writer says with utter confidence that today’s kids are unprecedented in their immorality, another asserts with certainty almost the exact opposite. What people hear from their neighbors, see in a bad made-for-TV film on Lifetime, imagine from glances and whispers, extrapolate from one spectacular case, becomes sociological truth proclaimed as Moses proclaimed the Ten Commandments. In her reply to these letters, you can almost hear Flanagan’s glee: she could scarcely ask for a better confirmation of her jibes at middle-class anxieties and suburban pretentions.
Flanagan is as thorough as any writer I’ve seen at exempting herself from the same skepticism. I keep wondering if she’s read about the same 1950s and 1960s I have, or lived in the same 1970s that I did as a teenager. The phrase “town pump” is an old one. Oral sex was not invented in 1998, nor was it the exclusive province of hardened prostitutes for time immemorial until the last decade. The idea that nice girls don’t and bad girls do is old. It’s also never gone away and is as much a part of teenage sexual culture now as it was in 1970 or 1955. Boys in the 1970s proclaimed with bravado sexual adventures that never happened, or shared in the common perception that everyone but them was having sex. I can remember in high school in the late 1970s the female teacher that both boys and girls were certain was a sex maniac, which I think was largely a consequence of her assignment of a literary work that had a modest and short sexual scene in it. (None of the students, in contrast, talked about the sex life of a male teacher who later was caught having sex with a female student.)
Flanagan talks about the belief of many parents that most contemporary teenage girls are indifferently, casually going down on crowds of boys, listening to the anxious undercurrent of moral panic among parents and teachers, the same seething domain that brought us certainty that Satanic child abuse was rife in American day care, that teenage delinquency was sending leather-jacketed motorcyclists into every town across the nation, that Elvis was deflowering the nation’s maidenhood with every gyration of his hips.
A smart observer can look at those anxieties and use them as a diagnostic, as a window into the midde-class zeitgeist of that moment. You don’t look at the Satanic panic and wonder whether or not Lucifer was indeed on a rampage among the toddlers in the 1980s. You can look at it and think that the rumors and fears said a lot about underlying anxieties and unease among middle-class parents, especially women, about the progressive normalization of day care in the 1980s. You could reinforce that observation with a lot of solid data confirming that normalization.
Look back at Flanagan’s piece: she cites a National Center for Health Statistics study showing that a quarter to a half of teenage girls have engaged in oral sex and buys that finding wholesale. She even notes the key qualifier: that there is no previous data set with which to compare that finding. In terms of making the claim that teenage girls now give blow jobs with cheerful abandon when once they did not, that study is not terribly useful. You could compare it to a slightly earlier study by the National Center for Health Statistics that showed lower numbers, and that might indeed mean there’s something of a trend. It’s still pretty difficult to stand solidly behind a historical claim that once this was rare and now it is common. You certainly can’t come to any solid conclusions about what the teenagers engaging in the behavior are thinking or feeling about it, particularly not from cultural representations of the trend that largely come from people well outside of the demographic itself.
Reading Flanagan on this and other subjects is like watching someone superbly speed-assemble about three-quarters of a complicated puzzle and then getting stuck trying to hammer a piece that doesn’t fit into place. She gets the concept of a moral panic, she gets the skepticism, she gets the need for good sociological data, she even gets that what adults in the grip of a moral panic say girls feel isn’t necessarily what girls feel. Yet somehow by alchemical magic at the end of the article pornography, rap music, feminism, Flanagan’s inept mother who invariably appears at some point in everything she writes, the nasty urges and sexual confidence of dirty boys, and sex advice in mainstream media, all are responsible for causing an epidemic that Flanagan previously viewed skeptically.
Along the way she more or less forgets to show much interest in what actual teenagers think or say, save when their speech is being reported within outbreaks of moral panic. She neglects to actually talk proportionally about the history and meaning of women giving men oral sex: for her it is either the admittedly annoying clinical and de-mystified take of much mainstream feminist and medical advice, or it’s rappers and porn. If Flanagan is willing to talk about her mom, her nanny, her kid, her friends, I’m not sure it would kill her to go on and figure her sex life into this piece. Otherwise, I’m not sure that she even knows that within the kinds of mutually respectful and companionate sexual relationships that she bemoans as the lost heritage of modern American womanhood, women happily go down on men (and vice-versa). She forgets that even if we take the reported numbers of teenagers having oral sex as significant, the others who do not are also an important social fact. For Flanagan, just as all the wild-eyed captives of anecdote who write back to her at the Atlantic, the greatest magic trick is turning a large plurality of teenaged girls who may have a wide variety of understandings about their sexual experiences into uncounted legions of zombified oral sex crazed teenagers who are pulling off the simultaneous betrayal of first-wave feminism and the demure womanhood of the 1950s.
To me, the amazing thing about moral panic is its stability as a cultural structure in modernity, its cyclical recurrence, its narrative consistency from time to time. In Flanagan’s case, you can also see its irresistable pull: even an observer with skepticism and smarts can get drawn into the frame of the panic.