When I heard the other day that two students at Calvin Coolidge High in Washington, my alma mater, had been threatened with a trip to the principal's office if they didn't behave themselves, I was perplexed. What was left to offend?
It couldn't have been a violation of a dress code. A transparent blouse, ripped jeans, a pierced and exposed belly button - all reflect the height of teenage fashion. Profanity is so common among high school students - listen to the music of teenage romance - that no principal's office is large enough to contain the expletives in a conversation between any kids who have made it past the fifth grade. We're all shockproof in self-defense.
My eyes popped out of my head when I read what had angered a teacher enough to threaten discipline: He was fed up watching two girls necking with each other in his classroom.
Teenage lesbian exhibitionism is the latest fad behavior to come out of the closet. (Is there anyone left in the closet?) Some of it may be naive imitation of the famous kiss between Madonna and Britney (before she became an old married lady) on national television, but one researcher who studies lesbian behavior in young women ages 16 to 23 gives it a brand new label. Lisa Diamond, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah, calls these girls "heteroflexible." They mix and match their sexuality like color-coordinated clothes. Hormones, like scarves and shoes, are interchangeable.
"They've gone from unlabeled to bisexual, lesbian to bisexual, lesbian to heterosexual and (may get) married, but may be attracted to women in the future," Diamond told The Washington Post. Older lesbians resent these youthful parodies; the girls protesteth too much.
Rebels with and without a cause have come on hard times. Public permissiveness has become pervasive. The pop culture, delivered 24/7 by television, gives fantasy a literal reality right in the living room. Instead of devouring romantic novels as their mothers did, letting imaginations play out different psychological personalities, teenage girls today are shaped by what they watch. The medium is both message and massage, literally. Images recharge the physical circuits connecting the senses and speed up libido-driven experimentation. Instead of a "breakdown" of the family, we've got families without brakes. The stop signs have been removed at that famous intersection of family and culture.
Well-meaning parents depend on computer chips to limit their children's television and Internet exposure to sexual explicitness and pornography, but there's always another child in another house who can break through the limitations. Teenagers are constantly challenged to test taboos before they understand what the taboos are all about.
There's renewed debate among young mothers over whether they ought to stay home with their young children. But there's not much debate about the value of mothers at home for teenagers. Such mothers are an endangered species even as the adolescent in our society becomes increasingly vulnerable. By "defining deviancy down," in the inspired words of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, we've diluted the absolutes that young men and women need to measure themselves against.
On a recent "Diversity Day" at a liberal, expensive, high-status private school in Washington, teachers and students of both sexes were encouraged to join hands in a circle if they were bisexual. Many did. One teacher, in the cause of openness and, one presumes, clarity in drawing distinctions, drew attention to herself as the sole lesbian in the group.
Neither Jonathan Swift nor Evelyn Waugh could write satire today. "Saturday Night Live" has become a reality show. Not so long ago, men and women who lived unconventional lives lived in dread of being "outed" by rivals and enemies. Exposure was equated with shame. Now, young people are pressured to "out" themselves, holding up their innermost private emotions for public inspection and approbation. Public identity is all, and it's all so sad.
Adolescent girls, who spend lavishly on cosmetics, make up their outer selves without having a clue to their inner worth. They're encouraged to cultivate lip-gloss morality. At a time in their lives when they should be testing themselves against the emotions that shape character, guided by the limits imposed by morality, they're pressured to conform to fads. Freud's "Civilization and its Discontents" wouldn't be about repression today because he couldn't find any. Self-expression has replaced self-restraint. In a civilization that abhors limits on all anti-social urges, the principal's office is just another stage.