Friday, July 20, 2007

Mark Oppenheimer

Last year Shmuel Rosner interviewed Mark Oppenheimer for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

One exchange from the interview:

Dear Mark,

Now here's a tricky question: you must have heard of the Bar-Mitzvah oral sex legend, recently mentioned in an
Atlantic Monthly story by Caitlin Flanagan. "The story [a mother] told me about a Bar Mitzvah dinner dance on the North Shore of Chicago where the girls serviced all the boys on the chartered bus from the temple to the reception hall was so preposterous that I burst out laughing,|" wrote Flanagan. But maybe this was something to be taken more seriously. The mother who told Flanagan the story definitely thought so and started crying. "It was as though I had taken lightly the news that a pedophile had moved into my friend's neighborhood," Flanagan wrote. "It was as though I had laughed about a leukemia cluster or a lethal stretch of freeway. I apologized profusely; I told her I hadn't known." And there are more signs that this is becoming a serious problem. The leader of the Reform movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffee, included the subject of teenage oral sex as one of the main themes of his biennial speech. People are talking about this story as if it is a real, yet in your book you merely discard it as an urban legend. Did this really happen? And if so, how did it come about? Best, Rosner

Dear Shmuel,

Well, now you're getting into a minor obsession of mine, which is urban legends. In general, when a story has no evidence to back it up - when it's always "a friend of a friend told me" - it's best to discount it as false. Some urban legends are true; for example, it is true that there was a Bar Mitzvah boy whose party featured a bust of his head made out of chopped liver. His name was Mark Moskowitz, he was from suburban Philadelphia, and the story was reported in an article in Philadelphia Magazine in the 1970s (I tracked it down for my book, and I was totally surprised to find out it was true). But a bunch of 12-year-old girls servicing boys in the bathroom at a bar mitzvah? This just defies common sense.

Now, that's not to say that children aren't having oral sex at young ages. There's good sociological evidence that they are. But I think they're less likely to do that at a bar or bat mitzvah (think of all the parents walking around), and I think they're very unlikely to do it en masse.

But above all, I discount the story simply because there's no good evidence that it's true. Urban legends can be so widely repeated that they take on the statusof fact, but that doesn't make them so. There's a Hollywood actress who's widely rumored to be a hermaphrodite - biologically male or intersexed. I have known doctors who believe this story and even use it in their lectures. Yet there is not one shred of evidence that it is true - no reputable article in the popular or scholarly press, no admission from the actress herself or any of her doctors (it would be highly unethical to come from her doctors, of course). The only evidence people will point to is that her children are adopted, as if that's conclusive. Yet I have known dozens of people who believe it is unquestionably true. Human nature is very odd...

So am I concerned about youngsters have oral sex at too young an age? Of course. But do I think it's a feature of the modern bar or bat mitzvah? There's no good evidence that it is. However, I do think the persistence of the urban legend points to an anxiety that's very real, and that should be listened to. Parents rightly sense that these parties are sexualizing their children too soon. There's too much suggestive dancing, too many girls in too much makeup and too many slinky dresses, too many boys who believe their manhood depends on making out with a girl, whether or not they are emotionally ready for that kind of intimacy. I think some parents may sublimate their very real worries into these oral sex horror stories - somehow that may be easier for them than to deal with the more subtle ways that they are letting their children grow up too soon.

Yours, as ever,

Read the entire interview.

Mark Oppenheimer is the coordinator of the Yale Journalism Initiative, and the author of two books: Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture and Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America.

--Marshal Zeringue