When I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, sexism came in the guise of construction workers who whistled at me when I walked by on a summer afternoon. It was boyfriends who issued instructions about when I should wear a bikini and how much I should weigh. Sexism was my older aunt who asked, “What was she wearing?” when a college friend was raped in an alley after a concert one night.
Let’s just say, the world has gotten more complicated for girls growing up today.
Witness Nancy Jo Sales’ disturbing “Friends Without Benefit” in September’s Vanity Fair. The article examines today’s sexting, Internet chat rooms and online hook-up sites for teenagers, “a world where boys are taught they have the right to expect everything from social submission to outright sex from their female peers.”
This is actually quite a polite way to describe the world our sons and daughters live in today. Vanity Fair interviews girls who describe masturbating for boys via Skype, one who makes a homemade porn video that ends up circulating via smartphones at her school, pick ups via SnapChat and Tindr, and the quaint cell phone text from a girl to the boy sitting next to her offering to give him a blow job after class.
It all starts with a virtual world, made all too vivid and interactive by today’s technologies. And my bad that I wrote that the world has gotten more complicated for girls. Boys are just as warped by today’s teen porn gone mainstream. Rampant tech sex, ironically, hurts everyone’s sexuality.
“If you’re between 8 and 18, you spend more than 11 hours a day plugged into an electronic device,” Sales explains. “The average American teen now spends nearly every waking moment on a smart phone or computer or watching TV. This seismic shift in how kids spend their time is having a profound effect on the way they make friends, the way they date, and their introduction to the world of sex.”
It’s the simultaneous intersection of the three most baffling, frightening, spit-out-your-coffee topics for most parents: teenagers, sex and technology. Together.
The facts are grim. Ninety-three percent of boys and 62 percent of girls have seen Internet porn before they turn 18, according to a 2008 study in CyberPsychology & Behavior. Eighty-three percent of boys and 57 percent of girls have seen group sex online. A “liberated” girl who imitates porn stars (think grinding and pole-dancing) is seen as the gold standard among certain groups of teenagers. But rather than finding sexual freedom and confidence in one’s attractiveness, this focus on near-anonymous, zero-intimacy sex exploits girls’ and boys’ sexuality and self esteem.
The question is: who is the mastermind behind today’s culture of everyday teen porn? Teenage boys? As I recall, teenage boys were not, collectively or individually, capable of mass domination of teenaged girls. They were barely in charge of their own erections. And, I as I pointed out, boys are corrupted here too.
So who is really to blame?
In Sales’ article, it’s the usual suspects. Shallow, materialistic, amoral celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton and Miley Cyrus. A culture that deifies blatant sexuality in women and girls as young as 11 or 12. Rampant, uncensored technology. Parents who aren’t being parents.
I wish I could offer a wise and effective solution. A nice pep talk you could deliver to your 13-year-old. A feel-good program we could implement in our schools.
Nothing so simple exists. No one — and everyone– is to blame. We are all at fault, every time we pick up a cell phone or check our FaceBook page.
The only way out, paradoxically, is a deep dive into our kids’ world. Horrifying, I know.
You’re going to need a tour guide, and only a teenager will do. It must be your own teenager. Doing this together, although excruciating for everyone, is the point.
Fess up and admit your ignorance. Profess curiosity. Explain how the world has changed since the olden days when we were teens and a sleepover dare was prank-calling the cute boy from history class.
Visit Tindr together. Ask your son or daughter, alone or along with their friends, to walk you through Facebook conversations and to show you a few provocative SnapChat photos. Discuss the pros and cons of sharing bodily fluids with some you met via a raunchy post online. Expect your face to turn bright red.
Talk, talk, talk. It’s not going to change anything. Your kids still have to navigate an Internet world that is disgusting, alien and anathema to many of us (and, fingers crossed, maybe it will be to them one day too). But perhaps we can make a few points that sink in about the folly of seeking lasting pleasure based on a naked selfie.
Parenting teenagers is equal parts giving them guidance and letting them go. The only part parents have any control over – and this has not changed in 30 years – is how we talk to our kids about sex, relationships, love and happiness, and how we model the same in our own live. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, even when it comes to teenagers, technology, and online porn disguised as the new sexuality.