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shameless

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here's a little refreshing back-talk from a recent college grad, giving some badly needed lip to all the recent moralizing over young women's increasingly public sex lives:

Sex-Crazed Co-Eds! - Nerve.com Screening Room

the author, Annsley Chapman, isn't exactly flawless in her logic (young women today are just unashamed of casual sex, and are too busy pursuing the opportunities furnished to them by feminists of yore to focus on establishing more longterm, committed relationships), but it's nice to hear a little dissent from actual college-aged women, over and against the tiresome clamor of older feminist and non-feminists alike (Ariel Levy and Caitlin Flanagan come to mind, and Chapman points to a number of others equally poorly poised to speak for young women).

Chapman's gloss of the current fruits of feminism remains a little thin, though -- i'm not remotely convinced that today's college women are graduating into a world of boundless gender equality and consequence-free casual sex (rates of HPV and HSV are still pretty high last time i looked, a reminder to be attentive to safer sex, not give up on sexual freedom altogether). and she explicitly emphasizes the lives of white, middle-class, straight girls, typically minimizing the visibility of women whose experiences and social positions often place them outside mainstream public debate.

but Chapman is right to call attention to both the tone of recent critics, and their tenuous claims to speak with authority about the lives of young women today. girls and not boys are still being held disproportionately accountable for changing attitudes towards sex, which only reinforces the reality of unequal gender relations that persist in our culture.

hard to swallow: overblown fears of teen oral sex

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there was a piece in the Atlantic Monthly a few months back that was a thoughtful but ultimately disappointing musing on the alleged oral sex craze among teenagers today (Are You There God? It's Me, Monica).

Caitlin Flanagan (about whom I have many reservations, thanks to reading Salon's Broadsheet too frequently) succeeds in resisting the tempting moral outrage over the news that young people are having oral sex, in particular, girls casually performing fellatio on their male acquaintances. but despite Flanagan's willingness to probe the topic of youthful hummers with some measure of sensitivity and introspection (including some meandering through Judy Blume and other young adult novels), she contributes to the distorted media contention that teens today are having disproportionate amounts of oral sex, in which young women have renegged on their own sexual desire in favor of performing a media-inspired, pornified sexuality for their peers.

in particular, Flanagan doesn't appear to have looked closely at the very study which supposedly bolsters the controversy over teen oral sex, writing "[a] huge report was issued by the National Center for Health Statistics. It covered the topic of teenage oral sex more extensively than any previous study, and the news was devastating: A quarter of girls aged fifteen had engaged in it, and more than half aged seventeen." interestingly, what the study actually reports (the pdf from the CDC can be found here) is that a third of all boys 15-17 have had vaginal intercourse, while slightly less (28%) have given oral sex and slightly more (40%) have received it, and of young men 18-19, two-thirds had had vaginal sex, 52% had performed oral sex on a woman, and 66% had received oral sex -- that is, the same percentage of men 18-19 had engaged in vaginal sex as had received oral sex. among teenage girls and young women, over one-third of 15-17 year olds had had vaginal sex (39%), 30% had given oral sex, and 38% had received it -- again, fewer had actually performed oral sex on a male partner than had engaged in vaginal sex, and the same percentage had received oral sex as had had intercourse. for older girls, the study repeats the findings, that as girls get older, most of those who are having vaginal sex are also engaging in oral activities. the study further explains that in each age group, about 10-14% of young men and boys who had had oral sex had not had intercourse, and about 9-11% of young women aged 15-19 had engaged in oral sex only. as the percentage of young men 15-24 increases who have had intercourse, the percent who have only tried oral sex declines to 3%.

these data, shockingly, suggest that sexually active teens who are engaging in vaginal intercourse are also likely to experiment with oral sex (giving and receiving), and that only a small proportion have had oral sex but not intercourse. over time, the majority of sexually active young people will be having intercourse as well as oral sex. and while slightly more men report receiving oral sex than giving it, of the young women surveyed, more actually reported receiving it than giving it (how this adds up remains to be seen).

so what gives? why is the media continuing to promote the myth that girl-on-boy oral sex is rampant amongst youth (in place of good old-fashioned intercourse), when the data indicate that young people begin experimenting with oral sex, but ultimately resort to the heteronormative standby? this report seems consistent with my own recollection of sexual exploration among my peers at that age -- perhaps attitudes toward oral sex have changed in the past 30 years, so that it's now considered an intermediate step between heavy making out and intercourse, but that doesn't remotely support the premise that scads of young women are suddenly going down on their male peers without reservation.

unfortunately, not only does Flanagan accept the media reports in place of reading the statistics for herself, she ultimately reduces female sexuality to women's delicate, emotional nature: "I am old-fashioned enough to believe that men and boys are not as likely to be wounded, emotionally and spiritually, by early sexual experience, or by sexual experience entered into without romantic commitment, as are women and girls." boys, of course, have unlimited sexual appetites whose bases are unquestionably biological and unemotional, whereas women are fragile flowers who need to be loved and cared for to protect them from the dangers of sexual pleasure. not only is this line of thinking offensive and demeaning to women, but it perpetuates the equally damaging idea that men don't bring emotional needs to sexual relationships.

finally, she comes to the sparkling conclusion that "...the forces of feminism have worked relentlessly to erode the patriarchy--which, despite its manifold evils, held that providing for the sexual safety of young girls was among its primary reasons for existence." yes, that's right, the systematic domination of women in Western society actually represents a safety net that protects the delicacy of youthful femininity from the ravages of early sexuality, and has nothing to do with controlling and exploiting female reproductive capacity. i think the prevalance of rape and domestic violence in Western societies offers an excellent testament to the protective role of the Patriarchy (TM). if anyone is going to challenge the media's portrayal of youthful sexual behavior, or investigate how sexual norms are changing and what implicatons that might entail, clearly it's not going to be Ms. Flanagan. parents, the media, and other public voices too often retain this prurient tone in which their fears over female sexual desire overshadow the ways in which teens are actually exploring and experimenting with their sexuality in a decade of abstinence-only education and abundant internet porn. perhaps instead of frothing over "rainbow parties" and other urban legends, we should be thinking through what kinds of positive messages about sexuality we actually want to be transmitting to young people.

the semiotics of sex

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is it porn when college students pose naked for campus magazines with literary intentions, or just ironic, erotic photography? has sex-positivism among young people been twisted into another expression of so-called "raunch" feminism, or does gender diversity shift the power dynamics inherent in consuming images of naked sexuality? the times' magazine last week published a reasonably even-handed piece on the increasing prevalence of campus nude mags, sometimes offered as porn, but often couched in more aspirational terms (Campus Exposure - Alexandra Jacobs - New York Times).

i was in graduate school at the University of Chicago when Vita Excolatur was first published (prompting me to write my own proposal for a more genderqueer magazine called "Cum Laude," but the demands of my thesis prevented anything from coming to, um, fruition). at the time, i was largely unimpressed by the amateur and somewhat pretentious forays into "polyamory" and "sadomasochism," neither of which appeared to have been informed by participants in those sexual subcultures (polyamory was imagined as a typical menage-a-trois, and the S&M surely would've disappointed Foucault).

still, the article alights on a number of themes which have been recurring in the media on the topics of youth, sex, exhibitionism, and social media. author alexandra jacobs repeats the popular notion that young people today are so saturated with "overt sexual imagery" even among the "educated elite" that "maybe it's not so strange that students are confronting their own sex lives so graphically and publicly." our culture, we are reminded, increasingly embraces fetishistic exhibitionism, especially for women, who attract inappropriate sexual attention through suggestive clothing and provocative pictures. jacobs stops short of concluding that young women today are proof that the patriarchy has won, subjecting them to its overarching ideology of female sexual display for masculine consumption.

but neither can jacobs resist the ubiquity of social networking sites in the lives of young people, such as Facebook and MySpace: "to attend college now means to participate in a culture of constant two-dimensional preening" where students can immediately check one another's online profiles, complete with revealing photos. but what, exactly, is so flat and superficial about online profiles? of course, these websites streamline individual interests into predetermined categories, producing identities which revolve around popular media and digital imagery. at the same time, digital spaces often reproduce the kinds of semiotic indicators we all deploy in the three-dimensional world of flesh to communicate social and cultural positions to each other, such as fashion, bodily comportment, brand labels, and consumer products. social networking sites may intensify these tendencies, but they also provide spaces for youth to engage in creative appropriation of popular media, reconfiguring music, words, and images in a semiotic assemblage of individual subject position.

the world of college porn ultimately emerges as too diverse to summarize or criticize easily in a few words, when some of the magazines challenge gender norms, while the editor of Harvards' H-Bomb was quoted as saying "I don't think men and women are equal at all. I think we're different, and what's wrong with that?" clearly, she's never read Donna Haraway or Anne Fausto-Sterling on the social and cultural conditions under which sciences like biology are produced, including the biological construction of sex. but i remain suspicious of how young women today are frequently depicted as conflicted about sexuality, unhappy with the reality of their erotic encounters, and displacing personal desire onto performed sexuality, expressed in the emerging predilection for "slutty" and "sexy" costumes on Halloween (or just out at clubs and parties). without seeking to dismiss these concerns, it strikes me that there may be deeper currents beneath the surface of co-ed porn rags and risque MySpace profiles which deserve greater critical analysis and attention.

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