Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Bitterly Unfair Truth of Sexuality

Caitlin Flannigan has an op-ed in the New York Times that uses the movie Juno as a starting point to discuss female sexuality. Specifically, she talks about the fairy tale nature of the film (don't read the op-ed if you've not seen the film and don't want the ending completely spoiled), and highlights what she calls
the bitterly unfair truth of sexuality: female desire can bring with it a form of punishment no man can begin to imagine, and so it is one appetite women and girls must always regard with caution.
She goes on to make some very interesting points: that abortion, adoption, or even keeping a child is not an easy decision for a single woman, let alone a single teenage girl, and that very few woman escape from any of these decisions unscathed and able to return to who they were beforehand. (A sentiment I strongly agree with. While I don't buy into the supposed grief and regret that wracks any and every woman who's had an abortion, I do strongly agree that the experience forces significant change in a woman.)

Flannigan continues,
Even the much-discussed pregnancy of 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears reveals the rudely unfair toll that a few minutes of pleasure can exact on a girl. The very fact that the gossip magazines are still debating the identity of the father proves again that the burden of sex is the woman’s to bear. He has a chance to maintain his privacy, but if she becomes pregnant by mistake, soon all the world will know.

Pregnancy robs a teenager of her girlhood. This stark fact is one reason girls used to be so carefully guarded and protected — in a system that at once limited their horizons and safeguarded them from devastating consequences. The feminist historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg has written that “however prudish and ‘uptight’ the Victorians were, our ancestors had a deep commitment to girls.”
And again, she makes a good point with a contemporary illustration - Jamie Lynn faces the burden of the pregnancy, the gossip, the everything. A guy can impregnant and run, emotionally distant if he so chooses - a girl doesn't have that option, no matter what choice she makes regarding her pregnancy.

It's hard to argue with the idea that pregnancy robs a teenager of her girlhood. Pregnancy forces a girl to start making decisions that affect her life, short and long term - and also to make decisions that will impact others (or at least potential others). Adolescence is the period of moving from a world revolving around self to a world of interacting with others, and anyone who's spent any amount of time around a teenager can tell you how rapidly they oscillate between the two. Pregnancy forces the hand; wild oscillations have to stop in the face of reality (at least, one hopes).

What then, is the answer, if any? As Flannigan also so rightly notes, it's not as though we have no deep commitment to our teenage girls. Unlike the Victorians, we place our emphasis on commitment elsewhere, not on safeguarding but empowering. We don't look at focusing on their chastity, but instead on empowering girls to believe that they can compete with boys, be better than boys, and don't need to be dependent on anyone but themselves. But to repeat Flannigan's question,
we have to ask ourselves this question: Does the full enfranchisement of girls depend on their being sexually liberated? And if it does, can we somehow change or diminish among the very young the trauma of pregnancy, the occasional result of even safe sex?
I don't know that there is a neat answer to this, at least not when the country itself is divided, in so many ways, about teen pregnancy. And maybe, ultimately, the answer lies not in how we empower or protect the girls themselves, but how we treat those whose values and opinions differ than our own. Maybe the ultimate solution is to move further away from the Victorians, who protected that chastity with shame, and forget the entire concept of shame and sex.'s either that or find some way to subject teenage fathers to the same ostracization and stigmatization that pregnant teens are subjected to, and that seems like a much more difficult proposition.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While there is no doubt females bear a heavy burden in unwanted pregnancy, it isn't as one sided as it may seem on the surface. I knew a young man who dated the same girl for several years. When she became pregnant, he was completly shut out of any of the decision on what to do. When she decided to abort the child, he and his family begged for her to have the child and let them have the child. She and her family alone made the decision to terminate the pregnancy. I do not propose to say this is wrong. however, if such decision is the sole right of the female it is only natural to assume she will then have a greater role in the pregnancy, The physical aspects are obviously one sided and nothing can be done about it. Likewise, the male should be just as responsible for the child brought into this world by the two of them. The fact still remains, if one would assume society would hold both parties responsible emotionally and morally in equal proportions, one would have to reconcile to some degree the same in choosing how to address the pregnancy to start start the process we need to find some way to instill the same sense of responsiblity from the begining vs one of double standard