Perhaps the most dramatic cases of the cocooning trend of the past 20 years involve the growing separation between males and females. It's not too unusual for two ethnic groups to move apart, given our propensity to stick with our own kind. But you might think that the basic dependence of one sex on the other would keep boy-girl interactions safe from the broader social deterioration.
As part of my periodic documentation of these trends, I've got four brief new case studies that don't seem to merit posts of their own. Below are the first two, and the second two will go up next.
1. The decline of cultural items referring to children playing doctor, etc.
A girl first invited me under a table to play "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" at our daycare center in broad daylight -- actually, the lights had just gone off for nap-time, but you know what I mean. We must have been 3 or 4, circa 1984. I don't doubt that we picked up on environmental cues from teenagers and older grown-ups about how sexually charged the atmosphere was in 1984, and that we unconsciously figured we'd better start preparing for that world, just like learning a language.
I've never taught at a daycare or elementary school where stuff like that would be going on these days, if it's still going on. However, we can look at culture made by adults to see if any of it refers to children's early exploring. Folklorist Alan Dundes and collaborator Carl Pagter released a wonderful series of books over several decades about "photocopylore" -- the kind of media that employees put up around the office, send through email, and so on.
In the edition called Never Try to Teach a Pig to Sing, they show numerous examples of cartoons that show small kids inspecting each other, as the basis for some joke. They are not pornographic. Here is one where a little boy is standing on a little girl's head, and both are naked. The boy says, "Okay, we took off our clothes, I got on top of you... How long 'til it starts feeling good?" The girl answers, "I don't know, but I've got a headache already." A feminist cartoon shows two toddlers looking down at their open underwear and saying, "oh, that explains the difference in our salaries!" Another shows a little boy and girl undressed before a bathtub, with the boy saying, "No you can't touch it, you've broken yours off already." Then there's one with a girl reaching down a boy's pants and exclaiming, "So that's why little boys can run faster than little girls -- Ball bearings, and a stick shift too!" Finally, one where the girl holds up her skirt, and the skeptical boy responds, "If it really is one, let's hear it meow!"
The different variants of these cartoons were made almost entirely during the mid-1970s to the late '80s. The book series collects examples from the 1930s through the late '90s, and the authors do mention that some examples of such cartoons can be found as far back as WWII. So it's not as though no one thought to refer to the practice during the mid-century. It just didn't get much attention until a later time. The lack of examples from the '90s-era books suggests it's not as common as it used to be.
True, it could be still as common, and the only thing that's changed is the willingness to comment about it among adults, but the simpler explanation is that adults refer to it less because boys and girls don't explore that way anymore. It would fit with their being locked indoors all day long, and their helicopter parents requiring them to schedule "play dates" with their friends. Ditto the relative lack of attention during the cocooning mid-century -- it probably was not as common in the first place, in the world shown in A Christmas Story.
Still, it's not just the parents who are responsible, as the kids could play these games at school or daycare if they felt like it. So even from a very young age, the sexes have started segregating again. It's so weird how long girls get stuck in the "ewww, yucky boys are so bothersome" phase, when even toddler-aged girls used to be eager to play with and talk to boys when I was little. Playing games like doctor is harmless, and it begins their maturity before it's too late. Just look at the Millennial generation to see what happens when youngsters take too long to begin the slow, gradual process of boys and girls connecting with each other.
2. The decline of songs about masturbation
This is certainly the most counter-intuitive case. Shouldn't the popularity of songs about self-love be a sign of cocooning? Guess not. Here is a good list from AskMen, and as you can see just about all are from rising-crime times, i.e. when people are more outgoing and sexually active. They're not about using it as a substitute for approaching and getting it on with others, but about having a high sex drive, one aspect of which means doing it yourself if need be.
With falling sex drives, there is simply a lot less motivation for boys and girls to approach and interact with each other. Obviously only some of those approaches result in sex, the rest resulting in friends, acquaintances, and hang-out companions. Lower sex drives then lead indirectly to having fewer people in your social network. (East Asia seems to be the prime example of this pattern.)
Even the handful of songs from the last 20 years aren't so exceptional when you read the message. For example, Pink's song "Fingers" talks about a useless boyfriend who's right there in bed with her, asleep, so that she turns to herself and videotapes it for later viewing. You don't get much more skankily narcissistic and anti-social than that. Compare that to the lyrics of the infectiously groovy Divinyls song "I Touch Myself". She only resorts to it because she wants the real thing, but he hasn't noticed, and she just can't help how hard in love she feels for him.
The next post will cover the "non-boyfriend" and cuddle parties.