Is Love the Enemy of Sexuality? TEENAGE PASSION


September 03, 1995|By Maggie Gallagher | Maggie Gallagher,Special to The Sun

From late'60s to the early '80s, in the time between the sexual revolution and the Reagan one, the number of minor teen-age girls who have had sex has doubled, rising from just over a quarter to about 50 percent.

So what's wrong with all this adolescent sex? In "Going All The Way: Teenage Girls' Tales of Sex, Romance and Pregnancy" (Hill and Wang. 340 pages. $24), author Sharon Thompson interviewed 400 teen girls to come up with this improbable answer: Too many of today's young girls still try to connect sex and love.

Sex doesn't ruin love, she argues, but love sure can mess up your sex life: "In general, the more a teenage girl viewed the elements of sex, reproduction, and love as fused . . . the greater the likelihood of . . . a loss of strength, possibility, and confidence."

Discovering why teen girls have sex is more complicated than you might think. One review of the burgeoning contradictory literature on teen pregnancy (which "weighs a ton" as Ms. Thompson puts it) concluded "for the most part we have not been very successful in explaining the various aspects of behavior we have subjected to analysis."

The most obvious reason, sexual pleasure, is one almost none of the girls Ms. Thompson interviewed proffered. Instead sexually active teens divide into two basic camps: girls who have sex to get love and girls who have sex to get power, knowledge or experience. Of the two, Ms. Thompson vastly prefers the latter.

The antiheroine of Ms. Thompson's narrative is Tracy, one of those girls who "strove desperately to fuse sex and love at the moment when it was almost impossible to do so." Tracy took pride in having reached the advanced age of 16 as a virgin. She thought a lot about the boy to whom she would surrender this valuable achievement. Tracy's ambitions in this regard were actually quite modest. She certainly didn't insist on marriage: "What do you want? A lifetime guarantee?" her frustrated boyfriend asked. She responded "I just want the person to care enough and not to . . . just run out on me, because that would hurt me a lot."

But modest as they are, Tracy's dreams are apparently unrealistic and therefore self-destructive: "By the time Tracy tried to bargain sex for love . . . sex was framed as pleasurable and normal for both genders; pregnancy could be averted; girls who would have sex were becoming the majority . . . As a result girls who set their hearts on being able to make the sex-for-love trade . . . found themselves stalemated. "

The problem with love, as men as diverse as Mao Tse Tung and Hugh Hefner have long suspected, is that it diverts us from single-mindedly pursuing power. That happens either politically and collectively, as communists dreamt, or with that peculiar focus on aggrandizing the self that travels in capitalist, individualist America, under various names: self-development, careerism, upward mobility.

Love and loss

To all human beings, but most intolerably to those who covet power, love means an irretrievable loss, not of innocence but of invulnerability: To love is to give at least one hostage to fortune. Worse, it is to recognize schizophrenically that in love the great threat, the one who holds a gun to our heads, is none other than the beloved herself.

Or himself. As many of today's young girls are discovering, the simplest answer to containing the disruptive power of love is to multiply its objects: Playing the field makes any one lover replaceable.

Ms. Thompson's heroines are girls like Stacey and Anja who treat love as a game at which they plan to beat the boys. This, according to Ms. Thompson is the new romantic ideal: "Equality stories, by contrast, were on the cool and wild side of romance. Their narrators were strategists. They planned for their pleasures, and they took romantic payback as a rule. (If one guy hurt a narrator in this group, the next few guys she met had better watch out.)" Only 12 of 400 girls managed this much detachment but "their stories have a great deal to offer all kinds of girls who want to find romance without becoming love's victims."

Having sex with men you don't care about also works. Stacey for example, "resolved to keep her virginity a secret until school ended, then have sex with her summertime boyfriend . . ." She chose him because "he couldn't hurt her emotionally because she had already 'gotten tired of him.'"

Anja's self-possession, her adolescent cruelty, her invulnerability are all pointed to with pride. Anja we are told, is a girl who really knows how to put a boy in his place:

When, for example, another boy referred to what happened "last night," she pretended she didn't know what happened. He said, "We had incredible sex." "Oh really?" she responded. "I remember sex, now that you mention it. I don't remember anything incredible."

Anja, Ms. Thompson notes approvingly, in what might be the mantra of feminism, "gave as good as she got."

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