So, Ada, we had a great interview today with Dr. Elizabeth Keenan, who is working on a book about 90s nostalgia. One of our favorite topics! We ended up talking a lot about sex. One of our other favorite topics!
On that tip, I finally forced myself to read the Caitlin Flanagan article that neither of us could initially bear. It’s mainly about the dangers of today’s hookup culture, a subject that has really already been covered ad nauseam. One of my problems with this piece is that much of it is based on adult paranoia, rather than what is really going on with teenagers. (This is something I wrote about for you once, back when Oprah was losing her mind over so-called “rainbow parties.”)
My even bigger problem with the piece is that Flanagan assumes that teenage girls don’t really experience sexual desire. Instead, they are natural romantics who have been “forced into a sexual knowingness.” She also says that: “Unlike the girls of my era, who looked forward to sex, not as a physical pleasure (although it would—eventually—become that for most of us), but as a way of becoming ever closer to our boyfriends, these girls are preparing themselves for acts and experiences that are frightening, embarrassing, uncomfortable at best, painful at worst. These girls aren’t embracing sex, all evidence to the contrary. They’re terrified of it.”
To all of this I say: speak for yourself, lady.
I remember finding my best friend’s father’s Playboys and Joy of Sex when I was seven and we spent years sneaking them out of his closet and looking at them and practicing with each other. By the time I was 12, I was regularly making out—and, actually, more—with a guy in various empty classrooms and corners and school buses. And this was at Catholic school, which was definitely not forcing any sexual knowingness on me. My mom wouldn’t even let me watch MTV. I figured out that I was interested in sex all on my own, maybe with a little help from Madonna (glad I had some friends with more permissive parents).
That said, I did, want this guy—definitely the smartest and best looking of the 8 or so boys in my class—to be my boyfriend, which he was, sometimes, in between some really dark incidents that are straight out of 1990s favorites Welcome to the Dollhouse and Precious Things. And I definitely remember saying no to some things not because I didn’t physically want to do them, but because I was conflicted, and these incidents did not always end well. It was hot, wrong, demoralizing, interesting, fun, destructive, complicated.
And so I hate Flanagan’s insinuation that girls’ interest in boys is all dreams of roses and milkshakes. The idea that girls of any era have had sex primarily to get closer to their boyfriends seems like it’s leaving out an important point: the reason they probably were dating these guys in the first place was because they were attracted to them.
And of course I can’t stand her ominous invocation of “frightening, embarrassing, uncomfortable, painful” sex acts. She’s talking about things like group sex and anal sex and I by no means think girls, or women, should be engaging in any kind of sex acts that they don’t want to be engaging in. At the same time, 90s feminism wasn’t all about No Means No. It was also about Yes Means Yes. The idea that only guys want sex that isn’t, like, missionary style is so ridiculously and obviously untrue, not to mention crazy heteronormative, that I don’t even want to do more here than note it.
Okay, but: I think Flanagan gets one thing right and it’s something we’ve noted various times on this blog: the curious place of romance in the sex lives of girls and women since the 90s. We’ve noted that even the most explicit songs by 90swomen—“You Oughta Know” or “Fuck and Run”—expressed a longing for both sex and romance. (Interesting to note that there is nothing romantic in the Christina Aguilera/Nicki Minaj song I posted yesterday. And yet: this might be part of why that song makes me happier to hear. No wistfulness.) We’ve noted the same with guys of our generation, as when we talked about Katie Roiphe’s shots fired at Gen X’s sad young literary men. I feel like there is lots about this romance/sex thing that we have yet to untangle.
I would ask you some questions, but I’ll hold off for my next post. Which actually makes sense, since that post is on abstinence.