Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Of Natalee, Gardasil, Jello shots, hooking up, and the college life. A modern (a)morality play in two acts. The finale.

There's a larger point to this whole Natalee Holloway thing, and it has to do with the recklessly hedonistic way of life now commonplace among young adults. I could pontificate about all this till my blog is blue in its face, but the same points are more succinctly made by quoting two people very familiar with the college scene. One was a boy on a news show I happened to catch a few weeks ago, who had this to say about "hooking up," the campus sexual climate, and young men's unapologetic expectations of today's coeds: "Hey, if they're here [i.e. in college], they know the score. If they don't like it, they should've gone to a Catholic college or they shouldn't drink." The young man made clear that he viewed a girl's attendance at a party, and especially her willingness to consume alcohol, as implied consent to at least some form of sex. (I don't have to be more specific about my use of "at least some form," do I? Think: Bill Clinton.) Occasional contributor acd concurs; not only have girls given in to that mentality and even embraced it for themselves, she says, but both sexes are out of control when it comes to pleasure-seeking, with respect to booze in particular. She drives the point home by way of a half-facetious (but also half-serious) corruption of the familiar Nietzsche line: "Today college students say, if it doesn't kill me...thank God!"

The foregoing is anecdotal, but several factors attest to its accuracy. Binge-drinking at today's colleges is a well-known problem. And if you seek a more scholarly and/or expansive treatment of "hooking up," you might try two recent books that assess the phenomenon: Kathleen Bogle's Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus and/or Amber Madison's Hooking Up: A Girl's All-Out Guide to Sex and Sexuality. For her part, Bogle puts a pragmatic spin on things: Busy young adults nowadays simply don't have time to "date"—as people of my generation understood the concept—so they "fillet" the experience. By arranging sperm-of-the-moment appointments for sex via Facebook, text-messaging and the other real-time tools at their disposal, they cut to the chase—or, a wag might say, they cut out the chase. Theoretically, in these ad hoc sexcapades, there are no winners and losers, no expectations of commitment on other side (though Bogle notes that even many lib-minded girls have trouble with this, and become more emotionally involved in their hook-ups than they like to admit).* Meanwhile, Madison, who's all of 23, writes with the chatty, no-taboos candor that's emblematic of her generation, and accordingly gives parents nightmares. (Publishers Weekly reports that one of the early sections of her book begins, "Vaginas: What the hell?")

Girls who are more circumspect in matters of sex will nonetheless claim for themselves the right to dress, drink and behave however they damn please. They'll tell you that they're fully entitled to (a) show up at a party bra-less and in a see-through halter and micro-skirt, then (b) drink themselves into a stupor, then (c) accompany some boy upstairs to a bedroom—none of which is to be construed as granting the boy license to have sex with them. And of course, they're technically correct. They absolutely have that right. You also have a right to take a midnight stroll through Camden, New Jersey in a Klan hood, fanning a wad of $100 bills. Go ahead, knock yourself out**. Just, before you go, tell me where to send the donation in your memory. And I'll be sure they inscribe your gravestone as follows:

I do need to say that it seems unfair to blame girls for so much of what's going on today, inasmuch as it takes two to tango, and boys have been getting away with this kind of libidinous abandon for centuries, if not millennia. Hell, if male puberty has an anthem, it would be something like get it, get it fast, get it over with, then get it again. It must be validating to young women to finally be able to play in that same sandbox, by the same (non)rules. But I can't help thinking of the late Randy Shilts' canny observation about the endemic cultural factors that predisposed the rampancy of HIV among homosexual men: They may have been gay, but they were still males, and males generally don't turn down sex. In fact, most males actively seek it at every opportunity. In America's gay communities in the early 1980s, you had an entire subculture of people with hardly anyone ever saying No.

You have to wonder: What happens when you have an entire society where hardly anyone says NO?

Which brings us at long last to Gardasil. The injectable drug is the first approved treatment to combat sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, or HPV, the precursor to a number of types of cervical cancer. Though some say we overstate the dangers, HPV is unquestionably epidemic among young Americans—especially women. "In fact," says Planned Parenthood, citing the CDC as its source, "the lifetime risk for contracting HPV is at least 50 percent for all sexually active women and men, and, it is estimated that, by the age of 50, at least 80 percent of women will have acquired sexually transmitted HPV." (Click here for a CDC fact sheet on HPV.)

The Gardasil commercials, which I'm sure by now you've seen (they're about as ubiquitous as Jarvik's Lipitor spots) show girls skateboarding, skipping rope, jumping on trampolines, playing in youth-soccer leagues, etc. Some of the girls depicted in the commercials clearly have several years to go before puberty. And that's the proper message, say Gardasil's defenders, who'll tell you (persuasively) that it makes no sense to wait till girls actually begin having sex before giving them the shot. This is not a revolutionary line of argument; we heard the same logic with regard to sex education generally and birth control in particular: "You gotta start 'em young, otherwise what's the point?" Once they have that first kid (or abortion) at 14, it's too late. Hence, the tag-line of the whole Gardasil campaign: "ONE LESS." If vaccination can prevent even one girl from getting cancer secondarily to contracting HPV, then it's worth it: penetration by one thing to ward off the dangers of penetration by another.

But hence, too, the debate that rages ceaselessly in my head. By fully equipping young women for sex, are we not giving them permission to do exactly what we'd prefer (in an ideal world) that they not do? At least not yet? Are we encouraging sex by planning for it? By reducing one risk, do we incentivize others? (I don't know if Natalee Holloway was on birth control, but you have to wonder if she'd have been on that dark beach with Joran if she knew that neither of them "was prepared.") The counterargument is strong: Look, it's gonna happen anyway, so if we don't plan for it, we're asking for trouble. We're forcing girls to deal with some of life's harsher truths. I see a lot of merit in that. Then I say to myself: There has to be some way that we can condition kids to simply not do it. Is that so naive, so far out of the realm of the possible? Has the pendulum swung that much towards promiscuity that we can't get it back, and we must therefore give in to the malaise and accept it as "real life"? And most important, can I please stop asking rhetorical questions now?

As you can see, I can't quite get a fix on where I come down in this argument. And so I'm left wondering: How do you folks feel?

* A cousin of mine puts it more bluntly, and I apologize to women for the nature of his observation, which is piquant and odious, but also, apparently, isn't far off the mark. My cousin says of women: "When they open their legs, they open their hearts."
** though someone else will probably do it for you, first.


Cal said...

My question is: Is the hooking up phenomenon any different with what happened in the '60s with the Free Love movement? I mean to me Woodstock was just as an orgy of sex via drugs, alcohol.,etc. It just seems to me that the girls nowadays are proud of their sexual conquests. The promiscuous women when I was a young adult didn't seem to play up their activities, though all the guys knew who they were.

As far as stopping them from having sex, I don't believe you can do it. Unless you believe Dr. Laura's admonition that, as humans, we all have a manual override (our brains) that separates us from animals. Only in the last 200 years has the life expectancy increased from 40 years to a much higher level (at least in the developed countries). So you had to get married and have your children young.

I just think it will always be the same. Guys will always try to "get some", while it's up to the girls to see that most guys are trying to get in their pants. It's that simple. If the women feel empowered by acting like guys, it's just more sexual options for men.

Anonymous said...

Here's 2 cents, but I could give a few bucks.

Gardasil = Good.
Its about cancer, and not just warts. Genital warts can also be spread from touching sex, oral sex, rubbing sex, mutual masturbation, etc...highly contagious Cooties,in other words!

and its not just the warts HPV, its the cervical cancer.
So that vaccine needs to go to all the kids BEFORE they start with the sex. The vaccine works, the science is there.

But also young women are being exploited by the BOOZE COMPANIES. They are spending MILLIONS convincing young women that Vodka is COOL. Vodka is not cool. Vodka is DEATH, look at Russia. Its a serious drug, its too strong for men, never mind girls. A couple shots of vodka, and the girl is almost unconcious, mix that with sugar and caffeine, they are in very serious trouble.

My view is kids are now being exploited and brainwashed to such a serious degree from the age of about 5.

Also, there are what are called Post-Feminists who are selling a false view of human sexulality, and they write books about this.
Women and men are NOT the same. They are different, that is Nature.

anyway, its a huge problem and its getting worse.
In the olden days Social Controls came from the family.

Now MTV tells kids what their Values are, and how to behave. They tell kids to be Pimps and Ho's, and guess what? Single parent families, parents working all the time, the kids get brainwashed by TV, and act it out.

sassy sasha said...

hate to tell you, you do sound anti-girl Steve! where were all these arguments when only boys were having the fuN? i'm not defending no morals and total promiscuity as you call it, i'm just saying it's ironic nobody talked about how the country was going to hell until women started demanding a right to express their own sexuality too.

Steve Salerno said...

Sasha, this is the same exact argument that gay activists began screaming from the rooftops when alarmed public-health officials tried to shut down the bathhouses in the early days of the AIDS epidemic (as Shilts describes in such potent detail in his masterful book, And the Band Played On...) Straight society had enjoyed the right to express its sexuality for thousands of years. Now gays finally come out of the closet and society wants to crack down. But look at what happened as a result of gay promiscuity...and to gays themselves!

I don't mean to blame women for wanting to have and enjoy sex. I'm basically noting a phenomenon: that things do seem to have gotten a little out of hand as regards STDs, teen pregnancy, etc. (Nor, I think, should we underplay the importance of questions about whether people of either gender are really "ready for sex," emotionally, at ages like 13 and 14.) Then there's the role of alcohol in catalyzing all this.

And I'm just wondering what to do about it. That's why I ask the question at the end of my post.

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve

I completely empathise with your inability to see a solution here. The teen drink and sex issue is so much worse here in England that the government is grasping at straws to stop kids from misbehaving. The latest I've read in the media is a suggestion to fine parents when their kids drink - really charming.

I'm also conscious of the fact that for a long time it was quite normal for children as young as 12 to get married, have sex and children. Are we being oversensitive?

I guess for me its all about Taboo. If the behaviour is something to be ashamed of rather then be proud of, we would be seeing a lot less of it.


Anonymous said...

Hello all -
As a parent of teenagers, I can tell you that we have discussed the choice they have to be sexually active at their age, and the responsibilities that go with it.
As I put it to them, there is just no acceptable reason for irresponsibility regarding pregnancy or STDs if you are within a certain socioeconomic group in the US today (and our family fits well within that group.) You have options and information available to you. We can talk about them.
My big BUT in this discussion, however, was this:
BUT I hope you make a decision to put off any sexual activity because believe it or not, you're young. We (your parents) believe this is the right decision. It's a decision that involves another person and everything they bring to it emotionally, physically, spiritually. In other words, it's no small thing to develop a sexually intimate relationship and should never be though of as a casual decision. You have a lifetime to be intimate with the right partner and you have time to make that choice about who is "right."
We know "everyone" is doing it. We know the pressure is there to be part of the crowd. We're here to help you choose not to be - and feel good about that decision.
I have no idea if this will resonate long term - but it's an ongoing topic - not constant, but ongoing - in our house.
I don't have a solution for society. Maybe all any of us can do is care for the society under our own rooftops.

Jason said...

Steve: I came to this blog because I subscribe to the Skeptic newsletter, and I thought your article in Skeptic was very good.

But when I came here and saw this story I thought to myself: Is this the same guy who just spent 5000 words talking about how Big Media sucks? And now he's made not one, but two blog posts about this Natalee woman? Doesn't that make him part of the problem? I had never heard of Natalee before coming to this blog (I get my news from NPR, not Al Jazeera, thanks.) It's a classic hysterical non-story.

Isn't it obvious that if the news is of terrible quality, you shouldn't consume it? And certainly, you shouldn't perpetuate it!

I'm disappointed that you pay any attention to stories like this. As long as people keep consuming this kind of news (even as they rail against it,) the big news outlets have no incentive to stop producing it.

Akhetnu said...


I meant to comment here but I accidentally put it in the "Tolle calls part 2" post...can you copy it here or post it so I can copy it? :P


Steve Salerno said...

Jason, look, it's a quandary; it truly is. Anytime that you're critiquing something from the inside--while you're still a part of the institution that you're critiquing--you're setting yourself up for charges of hypocrisy.

I do try to take a big-picture approach to the topics I cover (and I think my regulars would back me up on that). This post isn't so much about Natalee, per se--because you're right, that would be the kind of anecdotal minutiae I rail against in Skeptic--but it's more about what (if anything) Natalee says about us as a culture.

Not that I'm comparing myself to the likes of O'Reilly (and not that I'm setting O'Reilly up as the be-all-and-end-all of media), but he has recently confessed his own turmoil in the same area: You don't want to become just another media lapdog following Britney Spears around, but by the same token, when a Britney Spears becomes such an all-consuming cultural phenomenon, I think it then becomes valid to talk about why.

Then again, maybe I'm just rationalizing. We all do the best we can. However, please bear one thing in mind: At the end of the day, this is a blog. And it is a blog with a strong founding point of view on certain themes. I am NOT the 6 o'clock news--and I think that's an important difference.

Akhetnu said...


I actually have no problem with pre-marital sex at all. My concern has always been whether the two participants are doing it responsibly and actually have feelings for each other, versus simply out for cheap, meaningless promiscuity. The latter is, I think, more indicative of personal issues that the person is trying to solve, using sex an an outlet.

Still, I think this has always been going on in some form, for some segment of the younger population. Rebels without a cause, the sexual revolution etc. Before then, people were more or less considered adults anyway by high school age. In fact, I treat any high schooler as capable of being an adult. I suppose the Eagle Scout in me keeps insisting that virtue and responsibility can be acquired at that age, but that we have simply stopped expecting it until after college, at the peril of all.

So I think our solution is for parents and educators to have frank discussions with their children about sex, relationships and responsibility. Teach virtue and knowledge, and expect it to be shown for once. That's not 'taking away their innocence'...that's preventing them from being ignorant; after all when puberty hits, any 'innocence' parents are trying to preserve has been lost.

The Crack Emcee said...

Sassy Sasha,

First, if you think Steve sounds anti-girl, you should pay a visit to my blog for a serious wake-up call. Neither of us is anti-girl, just anti-stupid, and what happened before we walked the planet isn't our responsibility or something to blame us for.

And people were saying the world was going to hell before - many were called feminists - and the world changed mightily because of them. Now it's obvious the pendulum has swung too far, and any reasonable person should be able to see that, without accusing anybody of hating women for doing so.


It's time to crack heads, dude:

When my nephew stayed with me, he lived by my rules - enforced by force. He went from an 'F' to a 'B' in school, learned to read for pleasure, and he still loves me more than anyone else he knows. Then he went back home to his parents (who have an Oprah-inspired outlook) immediately got in trouble, and is currently finishing up 12 years in prison because of it.

It seems pretty obvious to me.


It's not exactly my topic either, and I'm not going to speak for Steve, but there's more history here than you know. Plus, bad news quality doesn't refer to a particular topic but how it's covered, and Steve - in two posts - has already gone deeper into the implications of this story than almost all the other coverage I've seen combined.

And, to me, NPR is Al Jazeera,...but with pastels.

acd said...

First of all, I've got to address Bogle's ridiculous claim that young adults don't date because they're too busy. Just give me a second to stop laughing first... Oh, but maybe she's right. It does take up an awful lot of time and energy to blow off class, binge drink, party, and hook up; how do they even manage that much? They just have so many responsibilities that cannot be put aside for dating.

As for the phenomenon itself, there are many factors that feed into it, and right now it seems impossible to reverse the process. Since men are just oh so powerless against their instincts (often by their own admission), women are the only ones who could decide if and when sex should take place. Now that many women are no better than men, men don't have to work to get what they want.

The cycle continues because those few young women who believe sexuality to be something magical and wondrous--to be experienced only between two people who love each other--enter the dating scene and don't have a chance. No college guy is ever going to give such a girl a second look because he knows there are dozens of other girls willing to indulge him whenever he wants; even if it takes a few shots of vodka first, it's a small price to pay. So since few girls want to go through college (or any time in their life) without male attention, they will forget their standards and start to dress and act like guys want them to (cheap and easy).

I suppose to get the pendulum to swing back, we could encourage young women to hold on to their standards, but the first few generations to do so will be very lonely, until enough women jump on the bandwagon to force men to change their attitudes.

Finally, regarding Gardasil, I definitely support giving the vaccine to young girls (and boys, when a vaccine is approved for them, too). It is utterly ignorant and naive to think that Gardasil would do more harm than good. If you have to worry that a vaccine is going to encourage your nine year old daughter to have sex, then you have bigger problems on your hands--namely, your parenting skills. We can't be a Pollyanna about this and say, "Oh, our kids don't need that. We're going to teach them to be abstinent!" Yeah, good luck with that.

I'm not saying that we're never going to improve the way young adults behave (though, personally, I'd say the odds are against us). But that's irrelevant because of the way things are now. Fine, try to change the world, but don't forget to plan for today in the meantime.

Anonymous said...

Gardasil is a health issue and should not be dragged into the "morals" column.

Otherwise you're as bad as these eejits.

Hey, why not get rid of the cause of immorality altogether? All human beings.

Steve Salerno said...

"Gardasil is a health issue and should not be dragged into the 'morals' column"?

You're kidding, right, Mike? (Excuse my tone, but it's been that kind of day.) Have we never heard of the Law of Unintended Consequences? That's like saying that the birth-control pill is "a health issue" and should not be dragged into the morals column. Most social observers cite the introduction of the birth-control pill as arguably the most important sociological development and "culture-shaping event" of the past 40 years. There is no question that the birth-control pill made women far more comfortable with their sexuality, and was a key catalyst in women's sexual liberation. Were it not for the pill, women--still today--would be having far less sex (and far less enjoyable sex). So to say that Gardasil--which also has the inarguable side effect of making women feel "freer" about their sex life--is strictly a health issue is the same, to my mind, as saying that the Pill is strictly a health issue.

Let me ask you this: If there were a shot that made people die--on the spot--the next time they had sex, would you say that that shot was "just a health issue"? So why should the opposite--something that clearly would seem to encourage more sex--be dismissed in the same terminology?

Anonymous said...

Don't worry about your tone, Steve. You already scragged me once in email and that didn't stop me, eh?

Gardasil prevents a disease. That a possible "side-effect" of that in *some* minds might be that women might feel sexually "freer" is beside the bloody point! It honestly is. I don't want to sink to a "Do you have daughters" argument here because that's beside the point too.

Has the *lack* of Gardasil made women feel sexually inhibited? Given the prevalence of STDs, I'd say no.

The issue here is disease. If you are going to withhold a cure from someone based on how they "might" then behave after gaining immunity, then you might as well start basing *all* medical care on moral grounds too. Let's stop treating *all* STDs first of all. Why not? Don't they "deserve" that? Didn't they "ask" for that?

Hey, why did we bother vaccinating kids against polio? Look at what freeing them from the terror of lifetime hobbling has meant -- sex sex sex!

Please, Steve. I know you are better than that.

Steve Salerno said...

Mike, all I'm saying is, it isn't a simple dichotomy, as you presented it in your earlier comment: "It's a health issue, period." I dispute that. There are butterfly-effect aspects to all of these things, and they need to be considered.

Also, I don't see why we need to be patronizing. I was wrong to say "You're kidding, right?", and you were wrong to say that I'm "better than that." Let's leave the condescension to others, and stick to the issues at hand.

Anonymous said...

Now wait one minute there. I wasn't being condescending at all! I was seriously mystified about how you would take a health issue and make it into one of morality.

If you bring morality into health, like I said, then you lead to ideas being floated in the UK about how the overweight should not have health care until they've become a government-mandated weight. Couldn't the obese be considered immoral? Can't they be tagged with the Seven Deadly Sin of gluttony?

Trust me, if I sneer at you, you'll know it! I'm not subtle!