This issue of the Atlantic has an article on the Conficker virus. Read it. It’s scary.

But I’m really here to talk about Caitlin Flanagan’s article on the sexuality of teenage girls. And people say that fantasy writers write the same thing over and over.

The jumping off point of the article is a horrendous sexual escapade perpetrated on (and by) a teenage girl at a posh (it can only be posh, right?) private school.

Flanagan’s obsession with the emotional, sexual, and physical vulnerability of teen and tween girls is really creepy. And one of the creepiest things about her take on girls is that she doesn’t allow girls any power in their own lives and outcomes. They are victims of their brains, their hormones, of boys, and of media. And every time she writes on the subject, I end up wondering, does she even know any teenage girls?

My daughter has officially left teendom, but those years are not so far behind us. And I can categorically say that plenty of girls have full agency over their actions and desires. They are artists and athletes, crack students with ambition to go to top schools. They enter fields that were previously closed to them, and it’s annoying how little gratitude they show for the groundbreakers who came before them. My daughter has friends of both genders and traverses these friendships with a forthrightness that is to me, her geeky mother, a little breathtaking.

So who is right? Are girls dreamy hairbrushers who look into their soft-focus futures with wistfulness and trepidation and are buffeted by the fascinating, stronger-willed males among them? Or are they, in fact, fully capable of making decisions about their futures, sometimes calculatingly so, with optimism, hopefulness, and resilience?

The incident in the books, in which a girl gives sexual favors to a bunch of boys in front of an audience, is an anomaly. That girl was screwed up. She was emotionally compromised prior to the act, and it is not something that a healthy teen would do. I also feel the same way about the boys taking part in the act, that it was equally sick and twisted.¬† I don’t think I’ve read anything that Flanagan”s written in which she has talked about the sexual lives of boys. I do hope that she doesn’t think that this is normal for boys, because it’s not.

So taking it as an illustration of the pressures on girls, and the way we are abandoning them to navigate the treacherous shoals of sexuality on their own, is simply misleading. And Flanagan does this again and again. She will take the singular and the deviant and make it the norm, and it isn’t.

I don’t want to brush aside the pressures on girls¬† to succumb to someone else’s decisionmaking regarding their own sexual lives, whether that is to give some guy a blowjob so he’ll say he’s her boyfriend, or let her father put a ring on her finger in a True Love Waits ceremony. Part of growing up is making those decisions, navigating those waters, and for the most part girls have the resilience and the judgment to choose accurately. As for the others, who fall into bad decisionmaking habits, who can’t break destructive patterns, why does Flanagan hold these girls up as the example of what girls suffer and endure? Yes, we can feel compassion for a girl who is so lacking in self knowledge that she gives sexual favors to a group of deviant young men. But that doesn’t mean that we disrespect all girls by saying they are equally at risk of being victims of the same crime.


Dan · May 11, 2010 at 11:44 am


Having raised two teenage daughters (along with 3 sons, I share your evaluation of Caitlin Flanagan’s understanding of their lives.

“And every time she writes on the subject, I end up wondering, does she even know any teenage girls?” I will tell you that when Ms. Flanagan was herself a teenage girl, I had the misfortune to share an high school english class with her. Caitlin, the new girl in town with the famous writer for a father), was arrogant and rude. In this particular class, she was mean and uncooperative to our teacher, which made the class frustrating for those of us that were there to learn. Perhaps she was feeling like she was slumming, as this was a public high school, though in a relatively affluent community.

As a high school girl Caitlin Flanagan carried herself as if she felt superior to all around her; not surprisingly, her adult commentaries reflect that attitude, whether talking about school gardens or teenage girls or any number of subjects. She didn’t make many friends then, and continues to alienate people.

Patrice Sarath · May 11, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Hi Dan,
Funny, but she has never mentioned that about her high school experiences!

What gets me is that her analysis is so wrong about what she’s purporting to write about. The school garden article was particularly choice.

But she brings in readers so the Atlantic will keep her on.

J. Kathleen Cheney · May 12, 2010 at 12:15 pm

But she brings in readers so the Atlantic will keep her on….

Sadly, that’s probably true.

CF · May 13, 2010 at 2:45 pm

Dan, all these years later and you’re still a drip. The person you should have been learning from was me.

Jp · May 13, 2010 at 9:11 pm

Just read flannigan’s Atlantic article and was so disturbed I had to google her name. And thus I came across your blog posting, Patrice. Your reaction to the Atlantic article mirrors mine, and you’ve perfectly expressed how I feel. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this the second Atlantic article in which Flannigan has sounded an alarm about a nation of girls being used and abused as sexual toys, with oral sex parties becoming a defacto rite of passage. I certainly would agree that teen girls are being exposed to unhealthy sexualization (media messaging, etc) more so than in earlier eras, but I see no evidence whatsoever of greater incidence of “hookups” than when I was a kid in the 80s. In fact, i think today’s teen girl is “stronger” than the girls of preceding generations, outliers aside (there will always be exceptions, which Flannigan seems to hold up as the norm). Flannigan needs to start referencing empirical data, because her alarming anecdotes just confuse an important dialogue. I love the Atlantic, but letting this writer essentially repeat her bizarre essay from a few years ago is lazy journalism.

Patrice Sarath · May 13, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Thanks for weighing in. It has been disturbing to read her over the years pounding this same drumbeat without much except for anecdotal evidence to back up her assertions. And as I said, her tone is less enlightening than creepy.

JM · May 13, 2010 at 11:47 pm

As someone who went to high school in the late ’90s and early ’00s, I don’t think Flanagan is so perversely off the mark as this comment section would make it seem. I also think Jp’s summary of Flanagan’s essay (from, I think, ’05? ’06?) about rainbow parties isn’t right–she was, if I remember correctly, dismissing the fearmongering of the rainbow parties meme, while at the same time questioning the emotional support structures available to teenage girls. Some good points are raised here (e.g., about adolescent male sexual psychology, and the representation of teenage girls as largely powerless), but calling Flanagan’s concern about female teenage psychology/life “creepy” feels like a low blow…a way of policing who can be allowed to show interest in such things, and what positions they’re allowed to take, by rendering her dissident interest and position “abnormal”.

Jp · May 14, 2010 at 1:35 am

I also replied to the Atlantic article directly:

Patrice Sarath · May 14, 2010 at 5:42 am

The “creepy” vibe comes in part from the article in which she cyberstalks a teenage girl by first friending her online and then goes to watch her at her school. This shows how easy it is to “get” to a vulnerable girl. While kids these days have the privacy awareness of puppies, the article was part of the way Flanagan hammers over and over at her point. Girls are vulnerable in every aspect of their lives, physically, emotionally, mentally — you name it.

Emilie Rush · May 16, 2010 at 3:19 pm

I *am* a teenage girl, and I just got around to reading Caitlin Flanagan’s “Love Actually” article in my copy of the Atlantic about an hour ago.
After reading it, I was so enraged, that I ranted to my father (the only other person home at the time) about how angry I was. Briefly, I wondered if my anger was uncalled for or if I had misunderstood the overall message of Flanagan’s article. Thus, I went on the Internet immediately to see if anyone had taken a stance similar to mine.
This is how I found your blog posting.
You hit it square on the head, too. The things I have just ranted to my father are stated in this blog.
I somewhat feel that Flanagan believes in this Boyfriend Story/hatred of the hookup culture (or mere tolerance of it until you “find a man”, if you rather), and she is condemning anyone (like me) that does not believe in these things. I do at the very least feel that she has condemned me (and any girl like me) by not giving me a place in my own demographic.
I am the teenage girl, but I do not cry into romance novels and pine over the boy next door while blasting Taylor Swift on my iPod. I am a strong girl, and I will hook up if I decide to do so or I will remain abstinent if I do not believe the other person if worthy; I am not uncomfortable with pornography or my sexuality. Flanagan has apparently never met a girl like me.

– Emilie

(I am sorry if this isn’t very clearly stated; my thoughts are a bit clouded by my rage, still. Hah!)

Patrice Sarath · May 16, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Thank you Emilie! I’m so glad you stopped by to comment. After all, it’s your voice that is the most legitimate in this conversation.

I only hope Caitlin Flanagan stops by to read your comment and that it gives her something to think about.


Patrice Sarath

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