Forty years ago, the sexual revolution broke through the last barricades of Victorian propriety. A whole generation drifted toward moral anarchy in its fitful pursuit of sexual liberation. At the end of the day, the casualties of this revolution surround us—AIDS patients, aborted children, and single mothers. But only recently have the intellectual elite come to recognize a new class of walking wounded: America’s teenage girls.
Near-epidemic levels of teen pregnancy, abortion, suicide, eating disorders, and self-mutilation among American girls, supply overwhelming evidence that something has gone seriously wrong. But what or who is to blame? Could there really be a connection between the Age of Aquarius and the sad facts of life for girls today?
Adolescence and the Academy
Catholic leaders foresaw the danger of recreational sex even before The Pill arrived on college campuses. The warnings escalated during the papacy of John Paul II, who continued to speak out on the emotional wounds that result from sex outside of marriage. According to John Paul, one consequence of removing human sexuality from the context of married love is the depersonalization of the human body. The body becomes nothing more than an object for use, while the broader and deeper requirements of human dignity and happiness are ignored.
These words of warning have largely gone unnoticed in elite universities and in public schools alike. Yet, even in the academy, the disturbing symptoms of adolescent malaise have forced those in deepest denial to pay attention. Contemporary social research from Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan and best-selling books like Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia convincingly portray modern adolescence as a time of insecurity and danger for girls.
Up to a point, educators hope to incorporate researchers’ insights into middle and high school curricula. Yet one key stumbling block remains: There is no consensus on the nature of the crisis, nor on the most effective solutions for easing the plight of American girls. More likely, the issue will be hijacked by interest groups wedded to conventional liberal ideas about teenage sexual freedom and contraceptive use.
Will the “cure,” then, accelerate or reverse the downward spiral of teenage girls? Absent any effective resistance, the future is already here, and it can be found in books like Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls and Naomi Wolf’s Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood. Filled with statistics and anecdotal evidence on the symptoms of the crisis, such books serve as a wake-up call for parents and educators. Yet, readers should pause before embracing the authors’ solutions that reflect a feminist obsession with political and professional achievement as the path to self-respect for girls. This message deserves scrutiny, for it suggests that the hidden world of virtue is far less important than an adolescent’s participation in the great march for gender equality.
The new research on girls remains compelling because it presents a mountain of evidence to show that key elements of the progressive agenda have made matters worse. Catholics can use this research to explain what has gone wrong, but the Church should not expect support from most of the self-appointed activists on this issue. Even when they are ready to acknowledge the limitations of feminist politics and the dangers of non-marital sex, many experts evade hard questions by burying themselves in the cocoon of ambivalence—a new variant of moral relativism that drives most of the entire discussion on adolescent girls.
Once viewed as a symptom of weak judgment, ambivalence has gained a certain cachet. A willingness to disclose paralyzing doubt is now a mark of sophistication, while a “rush to judgement”—especially when the reaction might be obvious by common sense standards—is deemed extreme, or, even, “right-wing.” Thus, a researcher like Brumberg may document the connection between relaxed moral standards and soaring illegitimacy rates, but one waits in vain for any endorsement of abstinence programs. At a time when tolerance—defined as a refusal to insist on objective truth—is the dominant virtue on most campuses we should not be surprised by this development, often heralded as a new phase of ideological feminism. Carol Gilligan, perhaps the most influential expert on the emotional development of girls, urges young women to listen to their “voices”—not the single, unsettling voice of conscience, but the many voices of the broader community, reflecting multiple perspectives on truth and virtue. It is important to understand this modern embrace of ambivalence, because it undermines any effort from the academy to provide an effective response to the crisis. At a time when girls’ problems are bad enough to force a retreat from the progressive utopia, ambivalence allows the troops to carry on as before.
The State of Affairs
But how bad is bad? One way to gauge our falling expectations for young women is to consider how things used to be during the much derided Victorian era, a time when parents and single-sex institutions encouraged girls to engage in moral reflection and the practice of virtue. Dr. Brumberg’s The Body Project offers fragments of girls’ diaries from that time as a prism through which to view our path to the present. In the Victorian diaries, we witness the youthful writers’ earnest struggles to overcome selfishness and vanity. There isn’t the least trace of cynicism or therapeutic jargon.
Yet, as the 20th century advanced, the national consensus regarding girls’ development began to fray, and the focus of girls’ self-improvement schemes slowly shifted. The cult of beauty and glamour celebrated in magazines and movies drew teenagers to their looking glasses; later still, the romantic, stylish images in mass culture gave way to the graphic use of women’s bodies as objects for manipulation. Today, a degraded adolescent girl injects a ho-hum MTV video with the requisite jolt of sadomasochism. Teen magazines answer girls’ questions about the technical requirements of sexual appeal and performance. The eroticized female form is used to increase market share for alcohol and jeans. Fashion ads alternately glorify and reject feminine allure. These ads mirror a teenager’s own conflicted pursuit of “body projects” designed to present a more perfect self to a world unconcerned with inner virtue or intellectual values.
The shift in sensibility proceeded slowly, at first. But by the late ’60s, the abandonment of girls by their mothers and other responsible adults intensified the power of mass media on impressionable minds. Family breakdown, the pill, and a neo-Enlightenment belief in the natural goodness of children weakened parental resolve to transmit moral values. At the time, of course, the discarding of tired old rules seemed deeply creative. Today, however, perceptive social commentators have no difficulty presenting the destructive consequences of this taboo-shattering cultural drift. In The Ice Storm, Ang Lee’s cinematic portrait of affluent suburbanites at the dawn of the 70s, we witness both young and old embarking on parallel journeys of sexual exploration with no blueprint in hand. At one point, an adulterous mother encourages her son’s girlfriend to consider Samoan coming of age rites before engaging in further promiscuous behavior. The would-be mentor then turns away, missing the girl’s uncomprehending look. The audience observes another lost opportunity to impart wisdom to the next generation. However, Ang has the benefit of hindsight, while swinging couples of that era stubbornly refused to consider the lessons of the past.
Yet distracted parents have not been entirely to blame for the confusing messages that bombard girls. Legal challenges to parental authority also have played a crucial role, shooting down traditional obstacles to imprudent adolescent behavior. In 1972, a landmark court decision allowed minors to obtain contraceptives without parental consent, often through school-based counselors and health clinics. Designed to protect female students from unplanned pregnancies, these “enlightened” policies have actually intensified the coercive role of peer pressure, isolating girls who resist sexual activity.
The woman’s movement has made sexual harassment a major issue in its battle for equal rights. But activists do not see that their political demands also have fueled the present crisis: Preoccupied with the goal of absolute gender equality, organizations like NOW successfully lobbied to dismantle cultural and institutional barriers protecting girls from premature sexual involvement. Feminist leaders have opposed parental notification for abortion and contraceptive referrals, and have lobbied against curfew efforts. Best-sellers like Our Bodies, Our Selves helped to popularize radical feminist thinking on sexual preference, contraception, and sexual freedom that rejected the wisdom of traditional morality.
Activists defended legal changes that increased adolescent autonomy by insisting that parental involvement would only drive teen sex underground. Of course, in progressive circles, the “pragmatic” position on teen sex is utterly compatible with the utopian position on gender differences—social constructs suitable for conversion. But whatever the justification for these crucial changes, the relaxation of social controls for girls arrived at the worst possible time, just as the average age for the onset of menarche dropped to age eleven. Increasingly unsupervised, young girls confronted a host of dangers: By the 1990s, adult males would be responsible for more than half of all teenage pregnancies.
Woman and Naomi Wolf
One expert witness for this tortured era is Naomi Wolf, the child of liberal academics residing near The Haight in San Francisco. Wolf’s memories of raising herself while her parents frolicked in Arcadia offer painful details of what happened during the ’60s, when the slate was wiped clean and Americans took off on a long romantic journey into the self. Wolf’s book, Promiscuities, begins humorously enough with Mom discarding her white gloves and Dad tending to his creeping sideburns. But then a somber tone surfaces, as the author recalls the seedy practices of her unstable parents and the neighborhood forest where kids sought refuge from chaotic homes.
The overgrown forest, in contrast to a carefully cultivated garden, was a proper setting for the huge cultural shift taking place across the country. Nature, Wolf observes, had become “the final arbiter, taking over the role of organizing principles that Law and Custom, increasingly derided, slowly had to relinquish.”
In the neighborhood forest, Wolf and her friends huddle together amid the trees and bushes to anesthetize their troubled souls. The haunting scene takes on an apocalyptic dimension, like the desolate set of a Mad Max film. Hearth and home, as these children knew it, have collapsed; the security of childhood is left in the rubble of another age. Later, as a young woman chasing the phantom of sexual fulfillment, Wolf returns to the forest scene, searching for “a symbol for female lust that was not derided and caricatured by the images that populate our world.” Here the forest represents her belief that the realization of pure female sexual desire, untainted by cultural conditioning or vulgar commercialism, is a goal worth pursing, maybe worth dying for.
Like many liberal young women of her generation, Wolf’s personal philosophy could be described as moral relativism distinguished by a deep empathy for the victims of moral relativism. Wolf flees from sexual predators, experiments with various partners, worries about contracting AIDS, and rages at society for its refusal to permit her complete sexual fulfillment. Although ready to admit a few mistakes, she discounts the very possibility of repentance, instead celebrating “bad girls” as members of a new vanguard to be applauded, not ostracized for their promiscuity.
This argument ignores the unpleasant fact that most “bad girls” are not revolutionaries, but needy children and joyless conformists. Wolf admits as much when she describes the sad effect of divorce on her old teenage friends, girls who accepted “sexualized love from father figures to take the place of fatherly love.” When needy girls are both sexual prey and predators, we are reminded of the connection between parental absence and a precocious sexuality among modern girls.
Contrary to Wolf’s dreams of erotic bliss, the evidence suggests that modern rules of teenage courtship are more likely to be enforced by dominant boys than passionate girls. In this uneven playing field, male aggression has replaced the code of chivalry. Girls must now contend with an isolated and brutal adolescent world that operates with almost complete independence from adult authority. Why be surprised, then, to learn that a recent survey disclosed that most adolescent girls, isolated from any more hopeful vision, accept coercive sex as their boyfriends’ due. And as their sense of worthlessness deepens, girls punish their bodies, using them as scapegoats for their conflicted feelings. The emotional turbulence helps to feed the cycle of repeat abortions, coercive sex, pregnancy, and self-mutilation.
In large measure, this is what the Holy Father has called the culture of death. American girls cannot flee from such a culture without turning their backs on the liberationist ideals of the ’60s. Typically, while progressives in the academy may agree that the dream of democratized sexual relations has not yet materialized, they remain transfixed by the radiant vision of their youth. Swinging between pessimism and optimism, they look for some way to reinvent the wheel through the creation of new rituals and ethical codes, sometimes partially borrowed from exotic non-Western cultures. Wolf, for example, has argued that post-abortion trauma could be smoothed over with Buddhist purification rites. What activists like Wolf cannot do is reconsider the hated beliefs and practices of the past. Thus, school health classes present “sexual gradualism” as a way to avoid pregnancy and AIDS, but abstinence programs are summarily judged to be impractical.
In this post-Christian world, American girls are offered a utilitarian brand of “sexual ethics” designed to minimize further damage and to promote “safety, reciprocity, and responsibility” in all types of sexual relationships. Those who dispense such advice do not explain how unprotected girls can negotiate the terms of sexual engagement. No matter—teens who despair are advised that political activism and career gains will fill the void in their lives.
The Hope of Virtue
The ambivalence that pervades most feminist examinations of the present crisis underscores a tendency in Western social history to shift between wildly divergent views of human freedom, especially in the sexual realm. This century shows us that the collapse of social experiments, distinguished by a naïve celebration of unrestrained desire, can provoke a backlash that yields a darker view of the body as a distinct source of evil. Hatred of the body reflects a fear of man and his awful freedom to commit evil. Today, this phenomenon helps explain the often brutal treatment of the female body in American youth culture. Tomorrow, it may explain an effort to curtail human freedom itself.
While feminist authors search for solutions in an arid land blighted by selfishness and despair, they bypass the verdant garden of human love nourished by Christian virtue and truth. In this garden, the female body is not an object for manipulation, but an expression of a person and her deepest beliefs. When teenage girls practice sexual abstinence, saving the gift of their bodies for their future spouse, they teach boys how to accept all the rich values that constitute their lives as growing women.
Catholics should be on the cutting edge of the national conversation on the status of girls, proposing solutions that could effectively halt the depersonalization of the female body. Social researchers have given us enough information on the symptoms of the crisis. We can apply our own solutions culled from two millennia of moral teaching. While many insist that it is too late to change, our faith makes us confident that redemption is possible. But who will do what needs to be done?
A lack of nerve undermines so many Catholic efforts in this country to save young people from a toxic culture. Why don’t we make our schools safe for girls—or start new schools that will provide an oasis from demeaning treatment and present women’s unique role in the transmission of basic values? Why do we hesitate to show teenagers that chastity is not hostile to human sexuality, but actually deepens its meaning and enriches its possibilities? The Church offers a path for redemption of the human body, even for adolescents who have endured the steady violation of their innocence. Still, many Catholic educators and parents are strangely silent, leaving girls in the hands of ambivalent women still in the thrall of a vision that can never be fulfilled.
This essay originally appeared in the September 1998 issue of Crisis Magazine.