Real teenagers, once the social stigmas and parental disapproval around premarital sex dropped away, weren’t as patient and cautious and committed as [Judy] Blume’s creations — or as careful about birth control. [....] Many of the trends that Flanagan laments [...] emerged in part as paths to safety — as ways to navigate the post-sexual revolution landscape without experiencing as many dangers, physical and emotional, as the young people of the 1970s faced.
When it comes to public policy, health and safety are increasingly the only shared morality we have left. “Safe sex” is the only sexual ethic we acknowledge in common, and we are becoming increasingly puritanical, prohibitionist, and paranoid when it comes to diet, exercise, second-hand smoke, and trans-fatty Oreo cookies. At the same time, we are becoming ever more indifferent to moral objections to the “free market,” and the language of contract and consent—the language of the autonomous individual—is increasingly shaping every feature of our lives. As long as it is safe and consensual, we are inclined to let people do pretty much whatever they want.
Which is precisely the ’70s environment today’s saddened women are longing to return. Ross accuses Flanagan of “pretending that there was a moment, somewhere in the age of leisure suits and Judy Blume, when a certain amount of teenage sexual license coexisted easily with modesty and idealism, responsibility and romance.”
But I don’t think it’s really a milieu or a moment that our ’70s sex nostalgists are pining for. I think it’s something they would describe, if pressed, as a virtue: the virtue of moderate innocence, and of judicious moderation in passing from the extreme innocence of childhood to the extreme knowingness of adulthood. It’s not the modus vivendi of ’70s sexuality that’s worth praising, as the delicate, transient accomplishment of a decentered culture. It’s the idea that a newly centered culture can manage to anchor itself outside an unreasonably artificial innocence on the one hand and outside an unreasonably artificial profanity on the other.
Within that idea, as well, is a hope grounded what I would call a sort of postmodern realism: a recognition that human maturity, including sexual maturity, is a natural process that can’t be mastered by science (“continuous birth control”) or by law (bright-line rulings establishing the magic moment when one goes from a juvenile to an adult). The prospect of locking up one’s children until they must be thrown to the wolves is grim, and the prospects of fully immersing them in the world from the get go, or fully withdrawing them from the world, are worse. The moderate innocence of the ’70s may ultimately be less instructive to us than the conditions that became mainstream in the ’80s which made it so difficult. I’m not convinced that those conditions were the consequence of moderate innocence at all.