Emerging into sexual adulthood is a fraught time for everyone (not that anyone bothers to write much about boys’ side of it). And there is indeed something oppressive about our hypersexualized culture, with its trashy winks and nudges, the breasts that seem to bounce endlessly by on HBO, the “upsetting” rape scenes that secretly titillate. It’s hard to be a teenager who’s told to be an organization kid and a girl gone wild at the same time. Yet it’s not obvious that adolescent sexuality is more fraught today just because there’s more porn and sex talk than ever before. In fact—though conservatives rarely mention this—teen-sex rates have declined since 1991.
One waits in vain for Flanagan to get to the most interesting fact about the sex lives of teenage girls: that sexual vulnerability goes hand in hand with their own burgeoning desire—and the means to act on it. Instead, she informs us that “obviously” most adolescent girls would never type the word “porn” into a search engine (has she actually ever met a teenage girl?) and suggests that one reason girls can be so voluble is that they’re afraid of male attention.
But is there any reason to think that girls don’t feel the same electric sexual charges—the same careless, intoxicated desire—boys do? What’s most disheartening about all this alarmist rhetoric about girls is also what’s most predictable: It continues to define them as the objects of their erotic experience rather than as the agents of it.
And it’s this, as much as their new sexual vulnerability, that girls struggle with: They are endowed with powerful desire that is rarely acknowledged outside their own inner lives—or is viewed as frightening. We’ve traded a coercive system of sexual repression for a faux-permissive one that encourages and channels sexual expression but also cries out against it. No wonder some girls are the sexual equivalents of binge eaters, turning on one another, making themselves too readily available as a way of pretending that they are in control. This is a problem, but asking girls to turn back into Sandra Dee is not the solution.
Perhaps it goes without saying that Flanagan never touches on the issues of how class and race affect teen sexuality, perhaps because the problems are most pressing among kids who occupy an almost entirely different sexual and romantic culture than the one Flanagan is focused on. One of the most notable things about teen sexuality is how variable it is across demographics. According to one study, for instance, African-American girls are more than twice as likely as white girls to have sex before they are 13, when they are barely pubescent—a statistic that many can agree is worrying. From this perspective, the fuss over the sexual coming of age among affluent teenagers can seem as much a matter of status anxiety among the well-to-do as one of genuine concern for the well-being of young girls. If your daughter is a relatively engaged teenager with an active academic life, worrying over whether she has sex at 16 or 19 is not unlike fretting over whether the kindergarten serves anything sugary at snack time.
To write a true map of today’s girl land, you need to see not just the vulnerability of girlhood but its performative audacity, the ways that wounds, even sexual ones, can add up to more than pain. Spending too much time in your frilly room hoping to be courted makes you either a creature of fear or a monster of entitlement. In the most carelessly generalizing parts of her work, Flanagan comes across as a little of each, and a bit of a fantasist: The real girl land is far more complex than hers. When I was 15, my mother, obviously worried by the fact that I was dating an older boy, awkwardly pulled me aside. “Sex is beautiful, and it should make you feel good,” she said. It was corny, and I squirmed in discomfort. But it turned out those words were worth much more than any warning.