Young Innocents

March 14, 2007

It was May of 2004 when the New York Times Magazine put “Friends, Friends with Benefits, and the Benefits of the Local Mall” on the cover, and the sexual habits of teenagers became the nation’s latest preoccupation. The writer, Benoit Denizet-Lewis, showed up on Good Morning America to help us understand “whatever happened to teen romance?” and adults across the country added the phrase “hooking up” to their vocab lists.

At least, it was after that particular article that I started paying attention. So as “The Cuddle Puddle”Unhooked, and we find ourselves asking questions like, “Is there a sex crisis on college campuses?”–it’s become pretty clear that this is a trend. But let’s be sure to identify two separate trends here: one, the (possibly) evolving sexual culture in high schools and, separately, colleges; and two, the frenzied manner in which the media and the adult world have investigated these patterns. followed, and, more recently,

Of course, it’s not actually the first time young people’s sex lives have come under scrutiny. Really, when have adults not been obsessed with kids’ sexuality? Sex education is a long-contested issue, and wherever they live young people’s sexual activity is regulated. Teenage sexuality scares and titillates grown-ups; it scares them because it titillates them, and vice versa. But in recent years, the claim on the part of journalists and terrified parents seems to be that something has changed. Sure, teenagers got busy twenty, thirty, and forty years ago, but it was apparently different then–less casual, perhaps, or less commodified.

Often the concern is directed towards youth, in general; “Friends, Friends with Benefits…” features interviews with teenagers of both sexes from across the country. Hooking up is suspect because it appears to belong to the adult world, with its nonchalance, its strict separation of bodily pleasure from emotional attachment. But if hooking up is so shocking now, it’s not because teenagers can do it–it’s because girls can. The increased attention to girls is always present, from the second paragraph of Denizet-Lewis’s article, when we meet Caity: “Caity, a thin, 14-year-old freshman with long blond hair and braces, who says that she is a virgin but that she occasionally ‘hooks up’ with guys. Caity doesn’t make clear what she means by ‘hooking up.'”

The underlying fear is that hooking up is actually something guys always want, have always wanted, and that girls can play the game too but they’re going to end up hurt. They can’t have sex like men, or even like boys, do. They always want more. Or they want to feel attractive or popular. Hooking up is predicated on a power structure that makes guys feel entitled and girls feel vulnerable, under the guise of freedom for all. We know, of course, that teenage girls are used to all kinds of pressures and self-destructive behavior comes easily to them. But we also need to remember the point that is often lost in these debates–that women, and girls, experience sexual pleasure; they want sex too. When female desire gets talked about, it always seems to be in the same breath as Samantha Jones–as oversexed. Surely there’s something before Samantha, some healthy sexual desire that girls could express without getting their hearts entangled.

But I can’t deny that Dewitt-Lewis’s article was scary. I scorned the panicked parents who wrote in, but I also shared some of their fears. Not because girls shouldn’t be hooking up at all, but perhaps because when anyone hooks up, there’s something exploitative going on. As one interviewee, Melissa, put it: “Everyone is using each other. That’s fair.”


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