Prudes or caretakers? Enfranchisement or detachment?

I am delighted to be back home and back at work in this New Year.

Thank you so much to Just Another Teen – I hope everyone enjoyed reading your posts as much as I did!

Later in the week, there are several topics I want to cover from my experiences on vacation (chastity belts in Italy and condom ads in Germany are top on the list!), but for today I want to turn everyone’s attention to a thoughtful Op-ed piece in the New York Times from yesterday.

Caitlin Flanagan wrote a piece called Sex and the Teenage Girl. It begins by discussing Juno and Jamie Lynn Spears, and then segues in this:

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.”

We, too, have a deep commitment to girls, and ours centers not on protecting their chastity, but on supporting their ability to compete with boys, to be free — perhaps for the first time in history — from the restraints that kept women from achieving on the same level. Now 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?

Now, I am not so willing to gloss over the restrictive trends of yesteryear as either Brumberg or Flanagan appear to be in that short statement. (And nor do I think either of them are when the statement is taken in greater context.) But it is interesting to contextualize the historical tendency towards prudish, restrictive morals as caretaking. This suggests that our increasing sexual enfranchisement of girls is hurtful to them because it does not provide them with appropriate protection or care. (I don’t think this is true, but it is critical to remember that simple sexual enfranchisement is not our goal, because it distinctly lacks the guidance and decision-making support that teenagers need.)

So on to Flanagan’s questions: Does the full enfranchisement of girls depend on their being sexually liberated?

And my answer: No. The full enfranchisement of girls depends on them being treated sexually the same as boys. It is the double standard that is the primary issue at hand, with the mixed messages that girls receive as a strong second.

Boys are taught that, well, boys will be boys. They are taught that they are not at fault in their response if a girls is dressed a certain way or acts a certain way. The media, social morals, and religion are all relatively clear about this. (There are, of course, good messages about healthy sexuality out there for boys, but this distinctly unhealthy one is the loudest.)

Girls are taught that they should be sexually attractive (through the media), but that they must be the reigns on boys’ unharnessed sexual drives (through social pressures), or they will suffer horrible consequences (through religion, social pressures, and the media all rolled up in one terrifying message).

These uneven and highly mixed messages can wreak havoc on girls’ sexual choices, perceptions of herself and her body, and relationships with boys.

And to Flanagan’s second question: Can we somehow change or diminish among the very young the trauma of pregnancy, the occasional result of even safe sex?

I say: Of course. But we will have to change the media, social morals and pressures, and religion in order to effectively do so. Individuals can also work with trauma treatment for youth services. I’m working on changing the media and social morals myself, and leaving religion to someone more inclined in that direction than myself.

So what do you think? What are your answers to Flanagan’s questions? And how do you think is the best way to go about addressing the problem? (Because I do think that everyone agrees that there is a problem.)

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. “The full enfranchisement of girls depends on them being treated sexually the same as boys.”

    Maybe it depends on girls being treated *equally*, but not necessarily the same. Double standards are not healthy or helpful, but there are still greater potential consequences – pregnancy mainly – for girls than boys.

  2. I agree with you about a single standard for boys and girls being way more important to everyone’s full enfranchisement than sexual liberation. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that the transition from child to adult depends on the ability to sort through mixed messages. The Victorian “commitment” to girls was rooted in messages far less mixed than the ones girls get today, but lots of those messages aren’t ones you or I can get behind! The question I’m asking myself is, what can parents do to teach their kids discernment enough to filter out all the crap that’s being spewed their way?

    I can’t answer for Religion per se, but I do see lots of wonderful religious families where kids are getting the reprouctive facts of life along with valuable lessons in personhood (You Are More Than Your Hotness, Just Because Your Hormones Say Yes Does Not Mean They Are In Charge, Having Sex With Someone Is Not Going To Solve Your Other Problems In Life). Those are stablizing messages for any kid to hear, frankly, religious family or no.

    You’ve probably already read this article about sexuality education and religion, but I’m putting the link here on the off chance that you have not.

  3. This post has disturbed me for days, specifically the quote by Caitlin Flanagan, and its been hard to get a handle on why.

    First off, the problem with teen pregnancy, I think, is that our culture is so hostile to families. If we had a village to raise the children, teen pregnancy needn’t rob anyone of their teen years. If our culture weren’t so consumer-crazy and materialistic, we would all have more time to spend with each other, outside the competitive rat-race too many are trapped in.

    The other piece that I’m reacting to is the idea that our ancestors had a deep commitment to girls. I think, rather, they had a deep commitment to keeping the upper class in power, and keeping girls virginal till marriage so progeny could be counted on. There was no commitment to lower class girls, no need to keep them virginal and pristine.

    The cultural constructs of monogamy and marriage are tools of the patriarchy.

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