Sunday, January 13, 2008

"Carefully guarded and protected"

Two things baffle in Caitlin Flanagan's op-ed, "Sex and the Teenage Girl," part of the NYT's new campaign to offer up opinions held outside of one ten-block stretch of the Upper West Side. One, for a social conservative piece, it comes across as altogether anti-baby. She writes of ""the bitterly unfair truth of sexuality: female desire can bring with it a form of punishment no man can begin to imagine, and so it is one appetite women and girls must always regard with caution." She assumes that when teen girls get pregnant, it's always unintentional. Whereas the truth is that a girl or woman dead set on not getting pregnant will take the necessary precautions (and no, this does not have to mean abstinence, but more on that later). Contrary to what other pages in the Times would have you believe, some people feel ready to launch into adulthood before age 30. Whether or not they should is another matter.

Relatedly, her op-ed provides no insights for how to help the girls who inevitably will get pregnant, intentionally or not, no matter what's done to protect them. Flanagan asks for society to prevent our young darlings from getting knocked up, but offers no community- or governmentally-based answer to how we should deal with the babies that do appear unannounced. It's not anti-baby to call teen pregnancy a problem, but this strikes me as overboard from someone clearly not on the Planned Parenthood end of the spectrum. If, as she argues, "[b]iology is destiny," and sex means such different things for men and women, why try to get around this in any one way? Why not force girls and not boys to marry once they get these urges, even if that means the weddings start soon after the bat mitzvahs end?

But back to the biology-destiny conundrum. For some social conservatives, including, it seems, Flanagan, it's as though no one ever came up with the idea of using the Pill or similar plus condoms, or of the difference between premarital sex with one, two, or a thousand partners. Or, that one can simultaneously see nothing in principle wrong with premarital sex and believe that it's best not to sleep with everyone you date. There are ways of being super-careful that did not always exist, but now that they do, responsibility is no longer limited to abstinence. Flanagan speaks of "the rudely unfair toll that a few minutes of pleasure can exact on a girl," as though sex for pleasure bears the same consequences as rape. Biology is unfair, in that the precautions remain geared more protecting one partner than the other. But it is only "destiny" if you believe all this stuff about 80-year human lifespans is hogwash.

But Flanagan insists that every girl is an indulged crush away from triplets. "Pregnancy robs a teenager of her girlhood. This stark fact is one reason girls used to be so carefully guarded and protected — in a system that at once limited their horizons and safeguarded them from devastating consequences." Used to be? When? Where? By whom, and at what cost? The quote that follows refers to Victorian England, which is meant as a broader stand-in for the glorified social-conservative Past, when things weren't bad like they are today. The past might also be the pre-Monica era, the 1950s, or the Middle Ages, depending. Part of this particular fantasy involves not mentioning that there are still places where girls are "carefully guarded" against the pleasure they might otherwise seek. Of all the ingenious ways societies have come up with to prevent girls from getting hurt/shaming their families, teaching them that there are ways around "destiny" remains by far the best.

Tangentially related, but fascinating: Jamie-Lynn's parents are named Jamie and Lynne. I'm starting to think that this, and not "a few minutes of pleasure," is the source of all her problems.

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