It's been a while since we've heard from strident "stay-at-home mom" Caitlin Flanagan. But, brace yourselves: She's back with a screeching sermon on teen pregnancy! I wasn't the only one who did a whiplash-inducing double take when I saw Flanagan's byline appear this weekend on the New York Time's Op-Ed page under the headline "Sex and the Teenage Girl." Of course it was only a matter of time before she once again unloaded her traditionalist hand-wringing on the public stage -- but, really, back so soon?
Despite my less-than-enthusiastic reaction to Flanagan's return, I found myself nodding my head along with the first few paragraphs of her essay. Yes, yes -- giving a child up for adoption can come with "a steep and lifelong cost." On the other hand, abortion can indeed be "an invasive and frightening procedure" and can be that much more difficult for young girls "whose moral and emotional universe is just taking shape." And, why yes, choosing to raise a child can rob "a teenager of her girlhood." I thought: Could it be that a short vacation from Flanagan's writing has numbed me to her unique brand of happy hypocrisy? Then I read on.
The problem with this essay is Flanagan's final conclusion, rather than her asserted evidence -- without question, I believe that all of the points mentioned above are true. But, rather than inspire Flanagan to call for stronger sex education or support and counseling for pregnant teens, those troublesome truths remind her of why girls used to be "so carefully guarded and protected." She recalls the commitment the Victorians -- yes, the Victorians! -- showed for girls and seems to shake her head at our well-meaning but damaging focus "not on protecting their chastity, but on supporting their ability to compete with boys, to be free."
Of course, it's true that pregnancy, abortion and adoption are physically real for girls in a way they simply aren't for boys. But I don't think it's wrong that our current commitment to girls means fostering their independence and strength in the same way we have for boys for some time now; it also isn't regrettable that some girls are allowed the sexual responsibility and autonomy long enjoyed by boys. As Flanagan notes, pregnancy is "the occasional result of even safe sex" -- but that is true whether we focus on protecting girls' chastity or protecting their personhood. Teen sex is inevitable, and so are unwanted pregnancies. In defending girls' independence and "their ability to compete with boys, to be free," we're also, in the best cases, teaching them honestly about the inherent risks of sexual independence and how to deal with the potential consequences.