Friday, May 14, 2010

Teenage Girls

Everyone is worried about teenage girls. They are something like a barometer of the nation's moral pressure. Thus, their behavior matters, for all of us.

It is fair to say that the mindset of teenage girls in not my strong suit. To me their culture is an alien territory. Beyond the one time that I saw a Taylor Swift video I am thoroughly ignorant of what matters to them.

Which is, I suppose, as it should be.

That does not mean that I or anyone else should simply sit back and ignore the experience of a group of young people that represent America's future. One of the reasons that these young people are at a cultural impasse is precisely that too many older people have systematically abrogated their responsibility to provide them with guidance and counsel.

I am persuaded that when people tell pollsters that they are worried about America's moral decline they are talking, primarily, about the behavior of teenage girls. Adults are most often anguished to see these are come of age by being exposed to pornography, by participating in sexting, by hooking up, or by starring in Girls Gone Wild.

Surely, this has an ethical dimension, but perhaps not as you might guess. As Caitlyn Flanagan says, that: "the wishes of girls, you have to remember, have always been among the most powerful motivators in the lives of young men. They still are." Link to Flanagan's article, "Love, Actually" here.

If girls are induced to make hooking up their most predominant mode of relating to boys, then they will be giving their sexual favors to a certain type of guy, one who is called a pick up artist.

But what happens to another young man, the one who works hard at his studies, who is preparing himself for success in the world, who does not spend his weekend taking a course on how to pick up girls? Isn't he going to be overlooked, and thus, devalued, by young women who are settling for hookups.

The hookup culture thus undermines a work ethic.

And if the model of the modern relationship is something called friends with benefits, what does that say about the values of commitment, loyalty, and fidelity.

Clearly, many young people have been induced to act as though these values do not matter, because they have learned the amoral lesson that it is alright for two people to exploit each other if they have agreed that they are not exploiting each other.

Using people, even when mutually agreed upon, is not the royal road to good character.

Meantime, Flanagan offers a useful analysis of how the hookup culture started, and how it took hold with the unintended connivance of mothers.

It began in the late 1970s with a generation of feminist mothers who had decided, quite consciously, to bring up their daughters differently.

In Flanagan's words: "... a large number of modern mothers were committed to helping their daughters incorporate sexual lives within a normal teenage girlhood, one in which sex did not instantly and permanently cleave a girl from her home and her family."

It might seem dated by now, but these mothers took it for granted that their daughters would experience their sexual awakening within the context of a relationship, with a boyfriend.

In her words: "This set wasn't in the business of providing girls and young women the necessary information and services to allow boys and men to discard them sexually. Their reaction to the kinds of sexual experiences that so many American girls are now having would have been horror and indignation."

What started out as a permission slip for teenage girls to have sex with their boyfriends morphed into the hookup culture.

Unintentionally, so.

We are dealing with unintended consequences. Feminists decided that the double standard was unjust. Mothers everywhere bought this idea and taught their daughters that they had as much of a right to sexual pleasure as any boy did. If the unintended result was the hookup culture, then surely they bear some responsibility.

It may well be that they have now learned why there is a double standard and why feminine sexuality should never be confused with masculine sexuality.

As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Especially when you try to impose your ideals on reality.

But how did the hookup culture take hold? Flanagan lays a goodly part of the blame on parental inattention. Speaking for the mothers of teenage girls, she offers her perspective: "[Today's girls] ... just spent the better part of a decade being hectored-- via the post-porn Internet-driven world-- toward a self-concept centering on the expectation that the very most they could or should expect from a boy is a hookup. We didn't in particular stand in the way of that culture; we left girls along with it, sat idly by while they pulled it into their brains through their ubiquitous ear-buds and their endless Facebook photo albums and text messages. We said more or less: 'Do your best.'"

As you know, I make every effort to avoid blaming it all on Steve Jobs. Between the late 1970s and the aught years, we had a president whose decadent behavior became public knowledge. Keep in mind that even before the advent of internet porn many children grew up wondering what a semen-stained dress was. And remember that people rushed forth to defend Bill Clinton's behavior. And whose defenses went above and beyond the issues of the impeachment.

And why not mention that hooking up became standard sexual practice at a time when the nation became so drunk with optimism and cheap money that it came to believe that the good times would roll on forever. Hooking up makes more sense when everyone is flush with cash. And when people have lost the sense that they have to work for what they have.

Now, however, people are more likely to restrain their spending habits, to value frugality over profligacy, to prefer monetary abstinence over bulging credit card balances.

After all, the message of the financial crisis, as it is the current lesson of the European sovereign debt crisis, is to live within your means. Hooking up would be living beyond your means.

This afternoon I was reading David Rosenberg's opinion that while the economic recession looks to have ended, the economic depression has not. If Rosenberg is correct, perhaps it is a stealth depression that has brought young people to their senses and has begun to put an end to the hookup culture.

Of course, there is a psychological component to hooking up. Flanagan describes girls hooking up as engaging in what would have to be called counterphobic behavior.

Addressing the issue of why girls feel the need to become drunk before hooking up, Flanagan writes: "Unlike the girls of my era these girls are preparing themselves for acts and experiences that are frightening, embarrassing, uncomfortable at best, painful at worst. These girls are not embracing sex, all evidence to the contrary. They're terrified of it."

If they are engaging in acts that terrify them, they must believe that not hooking up is even more terrifying. What could be more terrifying than hooking up? Perhaps it is the thought that you are abnormal if you are not sexually active; that you are neurotic if you are not actively exploring your sexuality.

The hookup culture notwithstanding, Flanagan still believes that girls want we will call the boyfriend experience. If they do not have it in reality, if it is becoming increasingly elusive in their everyday lives, it continues to exist in fiction. She cites the example of Anita Shreve's book, Testimony, and girls love for movies like High School Musical and singers like Taylor Swift.

She concludes that these girls are beginning to see that hooking up is not at all what they want out of life, that it is not bringing them closer to their goals. Now, it seems that they are asserting their own character and embracing abstinence. For Flanagan this gesture will be a crucial part of American moral renewal.

In her words: "And now the girls have had enough. We've sunk pretty low, culturally speaking, when we've left it to the 14 and 15 year old girls of the nation to make one of the last, great stands for human dignity. But they're making it, by God."

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