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by Nancy Jo Sales
Knopf, 2016
Review by Christian Perring on Mar 15th 2016

American Girls

Nancy Jo Sales's article "Friends Without Benefits," appeared in Vanity Fair'sSeptember 2013 issue. It was about how teen dating and sexual lives are changing, with the effects of the internet and apps. She presented an alarming picture of peer pressure causing young people to take risks, engage in meaningless sex which they didn't even enjoy, and live lives of increasingly alienation. She interviewed middle school, high school and college students, as well as parents and experts. She also referenced other pundits in the media who have also reflected on these trends. While hardly scientific, it did raise an alarm about how bad things might be. Of course, we are now very used to alarms about the ways in which young people engage in sex and drugs, and bully each other via the latest forms of technology, and the world continues to turn. While there is plenty of bad behavior out there, many suspect that for most teens, it is not as bad as the alarmists say.

One would have hoped that Sales's new book, American Girls, on the same topic, would have done more to support her suggestions that the United States is in sexual crisis. But instead it just repeats the approach of her original article, over and over again. The main text of the book is 377 pages, and we just get story upon story about the terrible things that have happened to unfortunate or mean young women. There are seven chapters, titled "Chapter One," "Chapter Two," and so on, because they are all basically the same in content. Reading one chapter is quite enough; reading them all is a challenge to the most patient reader. Getting transcripts of text or app conversations between young people, or between parents and children, is not very interesting. Reading about the way that young people follow the goings on of the Kardashian family is tedious. Reading transcripts of conversations about selfies makes you wonder what the book's editor was thinking.

Of course, the topic of the effect of modern apps and modern culture on the social life of young people is an important one, and American Girls highlights many possible concerns through its stories. There's no doubt that Sales tells a good story, and she also brings in expert views in a palatable way. She brings her characters alive and she has a poignant turn of phrase. The book is provocative and it could spur future discussion. But readers looking for a deeper understanding would do better to read calmer, less alarmist discussions, such as Peggy Orenstein's new book Girls & Sex.

 

© 2016 Christian Perring

 

Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York