The Myth About Girls Going Wild

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The arrival of Spring Break season causes such pursed lips among social commentators that it's a wonder they can get the words out. While college-age women "will be tempted to lay caution and responsibility aside," warned an expert, "I challenge them to enjoy a delightful, 'fun in the sun' break from school." Many women appear to be gleefully accepting that challenge, according to an American Medical Association study now making the rounds among anxious parents checking in on the Katie-and-Matt time slot. Of the female spring breakers surveyed, 30% said that sun and alcohol were an "essential part of life," 74% said that spring break meant increased sexual activity, 40% said that they passed out, and 13% reported having sex with more than one partner. Experts attributed this unruly behavior to its celebration in the Girls Gone Wild video series and, less overtly, in similarly lascivious TV shows like MTV's Spring Break and The O.C. Bacchanalian b-roll from these shows spooled out a tape loop of teen debauchery as morning-show guests fretted over its impact. I didn’t know whether to wring my hands or cover my eyes.

The Concerned Women for America, a family-values group, took it upon themselves to warn the women who fall into Jell-O-shot-induced exhibitionism and public sexuality that they'll regret it later. And it’s true: cellphone cameras and sites like drunkuniversity.com (exactly what it sounds like) mean that candid sex tapes aren't just for celebrities any more. The new scarlet letter is a URL.

The narrative of some clean-cut co-ed undone by an intoxicating combination of Long Island ice teas and male encouragement is an appealing one; after all, both Katie Couric's furrowed brow and the appeal of Girls Gone Wild depend on believing these young women weren't feral to begin with. True, they may not be in a state of permanent wildness, but they weren't exactly tame either. A less widely cited statistic among the AMA's shockers was that women on Spring Break "use alcohol as an excuse to engage in outrageous behavior," which implies that the problem with engaging in public sex on vacation is that they’d be getting more of it at home if only they were brave enough.

The truth is we all do stupid things when we're drunk — but we all want to do stupid things. Boys get into bar fights, girls mud wrestle. And of course, aggressive sexuality is a form of aggression. In See Jane Hit, a new book about girls and violence, psychologist James Garbarino links unprecedented violence among girls — the rate of aggravated assault among girls younger than 18 increased 57% between 1990 and 1998 — directly to equally unprecedented hypersexuality. He sees such trends as the less savory outcome of freeing girls to excel beyond gender stereotypes.

For Gabarino, the same cultural shifts that have allowed young women to play sports, become mathematicians and enter into politics now come with an increase in "social toxicity," which he defines as "spirit-deadening superficial materialism, reduced benevolent adult authority and supervision, civic cynicism, and fragmentation of community." Young women today are like superheroes in the first pages of the comic book, blessed with incredible powers and not yet aware of the responsibilities that come with them.

Garbarino is no reactionary preaching from the same book as the Concerned Women for America, and his prescription for this cultural conundrum is not the kryptonite of post-feminist retreat to the cotillion — and then the kitchen. Anti-feminists were wrong, anyway. Freeing girls from stereotypes hasn't made them more masculine, it's made them more more. Unbound from cultural constraints, they don't flip to the male side of the spectrum. They just flip out. Maybe it would be progress if we had a definition of femininity expansive enough to include shaking one's thing without raising one's top — so that girls could go a little wild without having to rely on what we used to refer to as the "sorority girl's mating call": "I am soooo drunk."