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Hookups, Sex Ed, And Sparklevamps: Freaking Out About Teens

Illustration for article titled Hookups, Sex Ed, And Sparklevamps: Freaking Out About Teens

Caitlin Flanagan claims adult indifference to hookup culture has driven sad, boyfriendless teens into the arms of sparkly vampires. Amid the weirdness, however, is one good point: teen girls do need a different kind of sex ed.

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As soon as we declared hookup hysteria a thing of the past, Flanagan arrived to fan the flames — by claiming that adults didn't get hysterical enough in the first place. She writes,

What might we expect as the next thing for today's girls? They 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 particularly stand in the way of that culture; we left the girls alone with it, sat idly by while they pulled it into their brains through their ubiquitous earbuds and their endless Facebook photo albums and text messages.

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I could have sworn that grownups — at least those with public platforms like Flanagan's — had been loudly freaking out about (supposed) hookup culture and its attendant earbuds, Facebook photos, and texts for at least ten years now. But apparently their silence has led not just to the popularity of Twilight and Glee — reactions, says Flanagan, to the unchecked promiscuity and lovelessness of teens a few years ago — but also to a bunch of really sad girls. These girls are "as much designed for closely held, romantic relationships as were the girls of every other era," but "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."

So what's the solution for these frustrated, allegedly relationship-designed girls? Certainly not actually talking to them. Flanagan scorns the authors of a book on a teen sex party who "centered their attention almost entirely on the perspectives of the students, as though by plumbing the narcissistic reaches of the pubescent mind, one might discover anything beyond the faintest echo of the larger forces that shape adolescent behavior." Instead, she recommends Testimony, a novel about teen sex by 63-year-old Anita Shreve ("a bona fide grown-up"). "I would encourage every parent of a teenage girl to give her a copy of Testimony," Flanagan writes — because there's nothing teenagers like better than older people telling them how they feel.

In the midst of her strange assertions, though, Flanagan makes a valid point — teenagers do need sex ed that goes beyond the "clinical." When I was a teenager, in the nineties, I received a strange mix of abstinence-focused and comprehensive sex ed, in which I learned both that I should wait for marriage and how to put a condom on a banana. I learned about IUDs and STDs, but I didn't learn how to actually talk to a partner about contraception or getting tested. I didn't learn how to discuss painful sex with a partner; I didn't learn that painful sex existed. I didn't learn how to decide when I was ready for sex based on anything but standards imposed from the outside. And I definitely didn't learn how to assert myself by talking about what I wanted and didn't want sexually, because everything was about what I should and shouldn't do, never about what I wanted. Flanagan's right about one thing: teenagers today deserve better.

Love, Actually [Atlantic]

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DISCUSSION

When I took sex ed in school, it was taught by my male gym teacher (who gives them this task?!) who was afraid to say the word "vagina". I am not kidding. It was basically a rundown of all the diseases you could get from having sex, and how curable/uncurable they all respectively are, and how to say "no" if a boy was pressuring you to have sex. I remember talking to my friend after a class once, and we both wanted to ask: "what if I want to say yes?"

Luckily, I was also a member of a gay/straight alliance, which had a special after-school sex ed with health professionals, an alumni volunteer telling amusing stories ("don't have sex drunk. You can't even get it up, let alone put a condom on it!"), and a casual, question-friendly atmosphere. It's just a shame that a student had to identify as gay/lesbian or an ally to get that kind of useful knowledge, because every teen needs it.

One of the things that was stressed, in the useful sex ed, was not to have sex just because you think it will bring you closer to your boyfriend, because choosing to have sex should be more about your own needs and wants and not his or the sake of the relationship. I think it was good advice. Someone should have told Ms. Flanagan.