Lucinda Franks discusses the activities of contemporary youngsters.
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GUEST: Lucinda Franks
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I don’t quite know whether to think of today’s guest mostly in terms of her wonderfully readable, gently and warmly evocative romantic novel “Wild Apples”, which we discussed here. Or in terms of the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting she had won many years before at The New York Times, which was also grist for our mill. And then, of course, there’s the Open Mind Lucinda Franks did when the way the press reacted to her ground-breaking article on Hillary Clinton led her to say “there seems to be no end to the way the press misinterprets, manipulates and quotes out of context in order to create a story”.
Well, now my guest has broken ground again with what is to me, at least her quite startling February 2000 Talk magazine article entitled “The Sex Lives of Your Children”. At least startling enough for The New York Times in turn to follow up with a quite similar piece in April 2000 headlined “The Face of Teenage Sex Grows Younger”.
Well both the original Lucinda Franks article and the later New York Times piece derive from accounts of contemporary youngster’s activities that my guest writes about as “emblematic of a new generation that uses sex as play, free from the burdens of intimacy or even warmth”.
And I realize, too, that going back even further along parallel lines, it was in the October 10th, 1993 New York Times, Sunday Magazine that my guest first wrote her major article headlines, “Little Big People: They’re Precocious, Even Out of Control and They’re Affluent Parents Have Only Themselves To Blame”.
So that I really must begin today by asking Lucinda Franks if this isn’t all the same ball of wax. Isn’t it, are we talking about the same thing?
FRANKS: From third grade to sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth grade … yes. Absolutely. And I … in fact many of the children that I interviewed were the same kids that I had interviewed back in … when they were in third grade. And at that time the story I wrote for The New York Times was centered around the fact that the adults in their lives, the schools, but most particularly the parents were forcing them into a preciosity, particularly a sexual preciosity in giving them disco parties for their birthday. Letting them, encouraging them to wear halters and bicycle shorts. You know to do make-up and lots of different hair styles, wild hair styles because they wanted them to be popular. It was as though these parents, and I include myself among them, because once you’re part of a culture, you are part of, of the thinking of that culture, you wanted your child to be popular in the same way that, that you wanted to be popular as a kid. And I think that’s where a lot of this lies. This root.
HEFFNER: Lucinda, do you think the parents you’re talking about have any understanding at all of the consequences of all of this?
FRANKS: I think so. I think they’re beginning to because what is happening to our kids is mind-boggling. It is … I’ve seldom written a story in which, you know, when you write a story you usually think, or you fear that perhaps you’ve exaggerated, perhaps you’ve taken a few people and made a global statement out of it. But I have found since I wrote this article, unequivocally that it is even more true than what I wrote. That it’s the tip of the iceberg, and I’ve heard this from kids who say the, the increasing randomness and impersonality of sexual contact beginning fifth, sixth, seventh grade is, is growing more intense. Even to the point of if their parents knew, if their parents really realized they would be very, very alarmed.
HEFFNER: And you’re sort of saying, too, that this isn’t just New York, “our town”.
FRANKS: No. No. In fact I think New York in comparison to places on the West Coast might be considered quite tame and even in some of the places in the Heartland, there was an outbreak of syphilis in a little town outside of Atlanta that the Frontline documentary was based on in which, you know, the kids were having group sex, they were having sandwiches. You know, oral sex, anal sex, any kind of sex and it … and there’s so many germs were spread from this kind of activity that all sorts of sexually transmitted diseases happened including syphilis.
HEFFNER: What’s happening? I mean what in the world is happening?
FRANKS: You know, it’s very hard to pinpoint why. I think that we have to look right inside our homes. We, we can’t blame television, we can’t blame a sexualized society, we can’t blame the outbreak of AIDS or the abstinence movement, all of which play into, you know, excuses for the pressures on these kids. But I really think it is a kind of an abrogation of responsibility of parenting that somehow grew out of my generation, of which I was very much a part … you know, with great gusto … free love, you know, anything goes, you know, “be yourself”, the sixties’ looseness seems to have become perverted in the eighties and nineties “Me” generations.
HEFFNER: Why do you say “perverted”. Do you mean extended …
FRANKS: No, I don’t mean extended, I mean perverted. I think that there is a great deal of idealism contained in the free love movement, you know, the Peace Movement, the anti-war movement, the … you know, the revolutionary … revolution within the human soul, all of which came out of the sixties. I think there was … in, in practice, I think there was a lot of wild sex … yes. But it was sex in college, it was sex in … you know, or even, you know … certainly not lower than high school. But here we have sex for sex’s sake, as play, devoid of intimacy. It’s not even called sex by these kids, it’s called “hooking up”. And you hook up with strangers, or with people you’ve met once, you hook up with somebody on a Friday, a different person on a Saturday, a different person on Sunday, and that’s all right.
FRANKS: Kids. But children, really children. I mean pre-teens, sixth graders.
HEFFNER: You know I’m … I’m … though I read the piece and then I later read the version of it that appeared in The New York Times … ah … I’m dumbfounded.
FRANKS: It’s very hard to wrap your mind around it. And I have to tell you that I have been researching this for about two years now, because I live in a district that has a lot of schools and I’ve overhead conversations that sounded like they were out of Mickey Spillane. I thought that they … it was just talk … and when I found out it wasn’t, it, it took me so long to understand it. And then, I have to tell you I wept my way through writing this article in the two or three months it took me to write it. And so I understand this shock and a lot of sense of being threatened and of denial of parents because they don’t want to think that their kids are doing this. And, then if they … even if they justify their kids behavior by saying “well, everybody’s doing it” they will not and do not want to look at the consequences of this, which is psychological as well as physical.
HEFFNER: Well, you remember Midge Decter’s book some years back, “Liberal Parents, Radical Children” …
FRANKS: … MmmHmmm.
HEFFNER: Are we talking about a, a new generation that goes further and a new generation that goes still further. Is that it?
FRANKS: You know I am not so sure that this generation has any sense of idealism …
HEFFNER: Again you make that point that this is not related to the Free Love Movement, it’s free sex.
FRANKS: No, it’s … it’s not a radical politics that is, is based in humanism because the, you know, child after child told me ‘well, you know everything else has been knocked down. I mean why should, you know, sex be still a romantic ideal. Everything else we once held sacred is no longer sacred. Anything goes.” You know the families have broken up and you know, the President is, you know, behaving this way and our Congressmen are behaving that way, there’s very little faith in role models. And so they’ve had to create their own.
HEFFNER: Any … any … again, I don’t think I’ve ever said this in 44 years of doing The Open Mind that I’m dumbstruck, dumbfounded, don’t even know what to say about it, but I ask the question innocently … do you see any reversal occurring. How could there be a reversal.
FRANKS: Well, I actually do because I think there are … the message is getting through to some parents, and you saw the New York Times article that came after my article … was heavily made up of psychologists saying that these kids are having oral sex at 10, 11, 12, 13 years old, it’s damaging, it’s psychologically damaging … it’s … the sexually transmitted diseases are proliferating so that it is a gateway to AIDS which I pointed out in my article. And I think, I think things are happening and it’s filtering into the schools because I’ve been contacted by a lot of young people who say, “Miss Franks you may not know me, but I read your article and I go to X school up the road and you know, do you want to know what’s really happening”. And they’ll tell me something that shocks me even more. And then they will say, “I really don’t want to be in this behavior. I don’t want to participate in this behavior, but I don’t want to be unpopular. You know, what can we do?”. A group of them came to me recently and so I found myself going around to different schools as well as informally meeting with kids. And I think there is a backlash against this because these kids don’t, you know, want to get sexually transmitted diseases, they don’t want to get AIDS, they, they are … boys as well as girls … they’re sickened by the time they’re in ninth, tenth grade at … as for girls at what they’ve done. And as for boys at what they’ve participated in and instigated.
HEFFNER: You know you write in your article … you writing about these kids and the absence of solid guidance …
HEFFNER: … and there you’re talking about the parents …
HEFFNER: … who are not guiding them. Kids get a dangerously mixed message, bombarded by warnings against AIDS and unrealistic campaigns for total abstinence from sex, they also confront the ever intensifying sexualization of American culture …
HEFFNER: … unbuttoned jeans and skimpy panties are the images imprinted on their brains as they run the buses to and from school. At home a click of the remote offers soft porn on MTV and a click of the mouse yields harder stuff and safely anonymous chat rooms on the Internet”. Now how can there be a reversal when they’re surrounded as they are, as you describe by a society that makes sex quite so important.
FRANKS: Right. Right. Well, you’re absolutely right and I think that, you know, it’s going to take a lot of legal intervention in some of the things … that the soft porn that’s, you know, sold to kids. The hard porn that’s sold to kids. The illegalities, you know, sucking our kids into this world of, of sexuality on the Internet, and if then they go out and they, you know, participate in the same illegalities. They push the envelope harder and farther …
HEFFNER: But, Lucinda, you used the world “illegalities”, and in fact most of what you describe here is not in the world of the illegal, it’s in the world …
HEFFNER: … of the very, very, very legal.
FRANKS: Well, that was … that was before … that was before I wrote the article. Since I’ve written the article I found out some really disturbing things. Ah, and I don’t know how widespread it is, but I’ve heard that ninth grade girls are charging $100 to give oral sex to some boys who are either too short or too unpopular to receive it any other way. Some kids are disgusted by this. That goes into the realm of illegalities. The illegalities that I didn’t mention in the article were, of course, the, the propositions that are made in a … on the Internet, in a chat room. The, you know, that gray line between what is legal and what is illegal that, you know, the Internet is a kind of a free highway of, you know, anything can happen on it.
HEFFNER: And what are our teachers doing? What are our schools doing?
FRANKS: Well, it’s very interesting. I think the teachers that I have interviewed are very aware of what’s happening, because they teach the kids. Some of the kids come to them, the girls that have performed oral sex when they were in sixth grade in order to be the first one in their class to do it, to become the Shaman, the guru, whoever … all the younger kids come to, and then, you know, when they get to be in eighth or ninth grade they feel used, they … they are treated like and called “sluts”. They don’t get the popularity or the respect that they thought they had gotten. They … some of these kids confide in the teachers. After my article appeared, two or three teachers have told me that they suddenly began to look at kids that were in the lounge in various piled up positions and they suddenly realized that, you know, sex was taking place, you know, when they thought they were just hacking around. So, this pushing the envelope is, is going on all the time. The thrill now is to, is to perform, you know, sexual favors right under the nose of an adult and have the adult not know about it. That is the … the amount of contempt that some kids have for the adult world and their blindness to what’s going on.
HEFFNER: You know I’m going to ask a peculiar question. But I have to. Is this a repetition of what our parents, my parents, let’s say because we’re a different … of different generations … is it a repetition of change, a repetition of ending of Victorianism. Is it just a little more, but very much like what my parents and grandparents must have felt when they looked at what was happening with my generation? is this just a continuation, some lowering of standards …
FRANKS: You mean each successive generation lowers the standard?
HEFFNER: Or, rather each generation looks at what the younger generation is doing and says “ay de me”, “my goodness, they’re going to hell”.
HEFFNER: Do you think there’s any of that in this?
FRANKS: That’s the … that is the temptation and when I first began hearing the talk and I thought, “oh, this is talk”. Or, even when I heard that … the parties, you know, that had the drugs and the ecstasy and the ‘shrooms and all the stuff, it sounded like the sixties. It sounded like, you know, the girl stripping and dancing and whipped cream being put all over her and licked off of her. It sounded like some, you know, wild party of the sixties. But then I began to hear more and more not that kind of thing, but the kind of thing that you would find in a trash novel, it was devoid of any kind of love or intimacy or commitment. And I don’t remember at least in the last hundred years reading about any age that had such a lack in which children and teenagers, adolescents had such a lack of respect for intimacy, for each other. And had a kind of a contempt, really, it’s built into a contempt for each other. There are no boyfriend-girlfriends. There are no, you know, there’s no dating or “pining” or passing of rings, there’s just continual revolving doors of sex and then you get sick of sex and then it begin all over again.
HEFFNER: Well, it is that de-personalization that stands out so in this article. And it is what leads me, once I’ve asked that question and gotten your answer to go back to the schools …
HEFFNER: … because they have to play a role here.
HEFFNER: And I don’t mean that the parents don’t have to first and foremost. But you’re essentially writing a piece here that indicates that the parents are not …
HEFFNER: … doing what they must do.
HEFFNER: Are schools then?
FRANKS: I think it’s a vicious cycle. The schools say it’s the parents responsibility. The parents say, “Well, you know, you’ve taken our kids at middle school and shut the door (and most middle schools, you know, do not want parents involved) …
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
FRANKS: … when, when the child gets into … some middle schools, you know, start at fifth grade. Some middle schools start, you know in seventh grade. But there’s a cut-off when suddenly the parents aren’t welcome inside the classroom, inside the school any more. The school says, “We will take over”. This kind of exits, particularly in the private school system.
HEFFNER: I was wondering whether you were talking essentially of private schools.
FRANKS: I believe so. I don’t know enough about the public school system, although I imagine that it is similar there. And, so in a way parents don’t have any access to what’s being said in the halls, or the classrooms. There is very little parent-student-teacher discussion groups. There is not a community that would be able to network with each other and to be able to be in touch with what’s happening. So, the schools have pushed the parents out, the parents feel, so they think it’s the school’s responsibility to educate the kids. The, these schools says “Well, we can’t teach them … well, we can’t have discussion groups about oral sex and what’s really happening. We can’t give out condoms because the parents would go nuts”. So, it’s kind of a mutual suspicion, a lack of communication, a lack of community. And the Administrators, I have found, of various schools, are consonant with the parents, many of the parents I’ve talked to, in kind of being in denial about, you know, the depth and the breadth of this problem.
HEFFNER: You say, “the Administrators” …
FRANKS: The Administrators …
HEFFNER: Not the teachers.
FRANKS: Not the teachers. The teachers know because they see it, they’re right there, they’re right in, in the fray.
HEFFNER: You had to make a bet … now I know you have some feeling about this being self-limiting in terms of the disgust and the concerns felt by some of the kids …
HEFFNER: … but if you really had to make a, a bet … a look ahead … a decade from now. What do you think you’ll see?
FRANKS: Unless there is absolute facing up to what’s happening before widespread dysfunction and disease starts, you know, creeping into our schools and colleges, I think in ten years were going to have not a third of all college kids having had an STD (a sexually transmitted disease), but practically all of them … we’re going to see a great rise in the AIDS rate, which is already creeping up among 16 to 24 year olds. The fastest growing age group in sexually transmitted diseases like chlamydia, which causes infertility, and the human paplomavirus, is the teenage group. We’re already slowly starting to see a connection between the behavior and the consequences … psychiatrists are all saying that the college kids that come in always, if they’ve been very promiscuous during high school … they have dysfunctional sexual lives, dysfunction in relationship … the problem is, again, that the schools do … will not let in the sex researchers in order to document this. When I wrote this article it … there was an astounding lack of research on the sexualities, the sexual mores of this age group because the schools, the researcher said, would not let them give questionnaires. In the same way that they wouldn’t let them give out condoms.
HEFFNER: Well, of course, your article in Talk is called, “The Sex Lives of Your Children” meaning that your audience doesn’t know what you’re writing about. You’re trying to tell them something now …
HEFFNER: … that they’re not familiar with. What about us as a people, what is it, what is it mean about what we have become … beginning a new millennium, who we are, what we are, that there is this de-personalization of sex. That there is this carelessness. That parents aren’t exercising their responsibilities.
HEFFNER: The schools aren’t recognizing what is going on?
HEFFNER: What does it say about us as a people.
FRANKS: Well, I think that, that somehow the infrastructure that held us together and God knows I was one of ones marching to tear down the infrastructure in the Sixties. We have not replaced it with anything any better. And so there is no infrastructure, there is no parent to say, “You are … yes, you are sixteen years old, or fifteen years old, but I want to know where you’re going, what house, call me when you get there, call me when you leave. I want to know who you’re going with. You have to be in at a certain time.” You know, there’s not a parent who at some point during the day checks in with a child and get the kind of information and provides the kind of guidance and lends the kind of ear that our parent did. So, I think until, until the schools start instituting and opening up and starting … stopping the denial that this behavior is happening, then we’re going to continue on as we are … we have to re-build some kind of infrastructure.
HEFFNER : You put a lot of emphasis upon the denial …
HEFFNER: … in the schools …
HEFFNER: … you mean to do that?
FRANKS: Yes. Definitely. Definitely. I think … I have been asked to speak at many different schools and by the guidance counselors. Some of those invitations were rescinded by … when they, when the heads of the schools found out about it because it was too explosive an issue. And instead, you know, there are certainly a minority of very concerned parents that have called upon me to speak you know, to small groups. But I think this is a very threatening article for a lot of Administrators and parents
HEFFNER: Lucinda Franks, thank you for joining me today. Though you haven’t made me feel very good.
FRANKS: I’m sorry.
HEFFNER: But thanks for joining me on The Open Mind. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time.
If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.