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."
Sexual rationalists par excellence, these well-scrubbed girls, female Hugh Hefners, kept Eros securely in its place: out of the way where it couldn't interfere with the really important business of life, like consuming all you want. If the goal of sex is power, then the rules becomes simple: the one who loves the least, wins.
"These narrators didn't talk about love but about pleasure and experience, and they ranked contraception just below desire . . . as a coital precondition. "Because they didn't love, they had power in sexual relationships: the power to leave. The lesson these girls learned is not to love too deeply, nor trust the beloved too much.
Ms. Thompson is aware teen sex isn't always wholesome. One study she cites found that a majority of 14- and 15-year-old girls who have had sex did so involuntarily, as do one-third of 16-year-olds. And according to a just-released survey of 10,000 mothers by the Alan Gutt-macher Institute, at least half of the babies born to teen-age girls are fathered by adult men. The younger the mother, the greater the age gap between her and the baby's father.
A 1993 California survey of 47,000 births found that among very young mothers, age 11 to 15, more than 50 percent were impregnated by adults.
But with one passing reference, the matter of the wholesale rape of young girls by older men is allowed to drop. Man-girl love she is interested in - she devotes an entire chapter to underage girls who have sex with older men - but mostly to laud them as healthy growing experiences.
Not hormones but heartbreak
No, the real disaster to teens she seeks to avert is not sex or even rape but love, not hormones but heartbreak. It's not that Ms. Thompson doesn't believe in love at all. "Great love and passion," she notes . . . are common vivifying pleasures, high, I'd guess, on most people's lists of what makes life worth living."
But she does not seem to realize the Epicurean approach, viewing love as a "vivifying pleasure" is one sure way to make sure you never actually experience it. The culture of courtship she lauds is fundamentally hostile to the great human endeavor of transforming passion into reliable love.
Demoting love into an entertainment, and the beloved into a means for the development of the self, certainly limits the damage love can cause, but at what price? The feckless resistance of most teen girls to the new social contract suggest the cost of not loving may be more than the human heart can bear.
Maggie Gallagher's books include "Enemies of Eros: How the Sexual Revolution is Killing Family, Marriage, Sex and What We Can Do About It" (1990) and "The Abolition of Marriage" due for publication in the Fall by Regnery Gateway publishers. She writes a nationally syndicated column for Universal Press.